Middle School Head Eleni Siderias discusses her passion for education
Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of “Apple Tree Magazine”
In July 2021, we welcomed our new Middle School Head Eleni Siderias, who is also an EMS parent, to our community. She was drawn to our school because of its core values and commitment to the 4 C’s, as well as its reputation for fostering a sense of community and belonging that align with her deepest beliefs about education.
What drew you to The Elisabeth Morrow School?
Without hesitation: the mission. EMS is unique in its promise to develop academics and character, and there are very few schools that commit to diversity, inclusion, and child-centeredness so resolutely. This school has a longstanding reputation for educating human beings who have all the academic prowess you would expect from a top-tier institution, as well as the values and skills that are on the better side of humanity. This is reflected in the alumni I have met over the years. I always noted the genuine gratitude and love that they, and their families, emitted when talking about EMS. Jean Lave, a social anthropologist who has written extensively about learning, makes the distinction that, while schools are places intended for learning and teaching involves practices intended for learning, communities of learning are characterized not just by place or practice but by relationships. These relationships are an ethical process of being with others made possible by genuinely safe spaces for students to explore who they are as learners, individuals, and members of a community. This approach to teaching and relationships is reflected in the EMS mission, and it is made possible by this incredible community of faculty, staff, and families — all of whom are drawn to this approach to teaching and learning.
What are some essential components of an exceptional middle school education? How do you cultivate these in Morrow House?
The middle years, in particular, are a time of extraordinary growth and identity development. An exceptional middle school program is made of meaningful academic experiences in nurturing, connected classrooms that provide for the acquisition of knowledge and skills as well as the development of a sense of self, a concept of citizenship and values, and the ability to ask and answer questions independently. Even while adolescents are hard-wired to individuate, middle schools should be structured for community and connection, and provide a soft landing so that students see mistakes for what they are: learning opportunities.
A top-notch middle school should not feel like it’s in the middle of anything. Students are not just passing through between elementary and high school; the middle years are a distinct time of extraordinary growth and development, which necessitates special approaches and programming. This is the case for maintaining a model that ends in eighth grade. Then, middle school is really about the journey from childhood to adolescence, not just socially and emotionally, but also in terms of what students are capable of intellectually and with regard to personal responsibility, leadership, and global awareness.
Morrow House cultivates a well-rounded middle-years education by exposing students to a diverse range of ideas, peers and faculty, forms of expression, and explorations of interests and talents. Our robust curriculum is not just about content but is designed to develop the habits of mind and higher-order thinking skills necessary for success in school and in life. Expert faculty guide students through project-based inquiry in courses that build students’ capacities to independently ask and answer questions while developing their reading, writing, listening, speaking, and organizational skills. Interdisciplinary experiences and enhanced programming in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics), such as project-based learning in humanities courses and NuVuX design studios, provide opportunities to generalize those skills while broadening students’ horizons and adding depth to their course of study. Morrow House students have the capacity to make the most of these opportunities thanks to a rich character development component to our programming. Programs focused on social-emotional learning and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging teach explicit content and skills necessary for understanding oneself and collaborating and connecting in a diverse world. Advisory (where all students start their day in small groups to further bond and develop organizational and self-advocacy skills) creates a space for faculty and students to meaningfully connect and reflect. And Assembly, led by eighth-graders, (where Morrow House students and teachers gather together for student performances, a presentation of curriculum, or a celebration of student success) encourages us to come together as one. Throughout the Morrow House years, students are celebrated for their individuality, encouraged to see and make connections between ideas and people, and prepared for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
What was the thought process beginning our partnership with NuVuX and how does it align with our strategic plan?
One of the things that I love about EMS is that from the 2s program in Chilton House all the way through Morrow House, students are respected as whole people with important ideas and the capacity to iterate and problem-solve. The NuVuX partnership magnifies this in middle school, at a time when students are developmentally ready to think more abstractly and a little further beyond themselves. The studio learning experience blends all the best pedagogical approaches to developing critical thinking and design skills and applies them to real-world challenges worthy of our students’ talents and time. This made it the best choice for a partnership that would deliver on the strategic plan to expand the problem-solving and design thinking focus in Morrow House. Moreover, I believe that the key to nurturing a love of learning and individual passions and interests during the middle years is through pre-professional experiences, access to mentors and role models, and authentic audiences for ideas and work. Through our partnership with NuVuX we will continue to enhance our curriculum in interdisciplinary studio experiences that challenge our students to engage with present or near-future issues and topics — globally and ethically — and collaborate to research and design at a level rarely afforded to students at this age.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from St. John’s University and my Master of Arts in Gifted Education and Master of Education in Leadership in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to becoming the head of middle school at EMS, I was the associate head of school at The Gateway School in New York City, where I worked for 12 years. I am a certified provider in a research-based approach to solving problems collaboratively with youth. I believe that all children (and adults!) want to do well and that educators are responsible for helping children find their way to success. When children are not doing well, when we see challenges with learning or behavior, that is a symptom of a problem that needs to be solved. The best way to solve a problem is to do what with children. I have also done a fair amount of research and writing on historical and contemporary curriculum, instruction, and teacher education, as well as advisory programs, authenticity in teaching, and classroom learning communities. Currently, I serve on the Friends Committee of a very small Quaker preschool and as a Girl Scout leader.
I grew up in Warren, Ohio, with my parents and two older brothers. While my mother is also from Ohio and has strong roots in the area, my father was born and raised on a Greek island. So, my siblings and I had very unique experiences as first-generation Americans growing up in a rural-suburban area similar to New Jersey. I was fortunate to be able to visit Greece with my family as a child, and those are some of my fondest memories. In fact, I first met my husband, Nick, who grew up in Glen Rock, N.J., during one of those visits to Greece! Many years later we reunited, eventually got married, and started our own family. We are parents to two amazing kids, Amalia (age 7) and Mihali (age 4). The four of us are quite enamored with our pup, Pita, and on most weekends you will find us spending time together outdoors. While I am definitely not an expert, I am a naturalist at heart and am captivated by all things to do with the natural world. Art is also a big part of my life, and I am certain that my arts education was integral in the development of all my academic abilities, and it also made me a much better teacher. I am pretty inquisitive, perhaps exhaustingly so, and I love to read, but there were definitely periods of time when I wasn’t as scholastically inspired. I like to share with families, especially parents and caregivers of middle schoolers, that it is important to remember that, usually, the path to success is not straight. We have to deviate and iterate to find our own way.
How did you decide to become an educator?
My passion for education developed quite holistically. As a child and adolescent, I really enjoyed learning and had a handful of exceptional teachers and opportunities in school. I remember then recognizing what a big, life-changing impact individual educators can have. Still, I never thought I would be an educator until, as an undergrad, I quite serendipitously found myself working in a preschool. I was immediately in awe of the great responsibility educators bear and intrigued by the intellectual challenge teaching offers. Standing in a room with 20 souls in your care, the development of their potential resting on our shoulders is both humbling and inspiring. I knew then that teaching would be one of the most challenging and rewarding professions one could have, and I switched my major. Once I began studying educational philosophy and theory, I really fell in love with the complexity of it all. While EMS faculty make it look easy, teaching well is a very complicated endeavor, requiring a broad knowledge base, a diverse set of skills, and an enduring commitment to self-reflection and personal growth. Every single day is new, the challenges and opportunities are always evolving, and while there is so much careful planning involved, the unpredictability of it keeps you on your toes in the best of ways. There is also a great social responsibility involved, as you are touching the lives of individual humans and contributing to the development of future citizens. The more I teach and study teaching, the more enamored with the profession I become.
What other enhancements have you implemented since arriving?
I have been a fan of EMS for a long time, and I like to think that I bring a fresh and curious perspective to an already exceptional program. As a new division head, my priority has been to get to know the community and ask a lot of questions, but there are a few things we’ve enhanced over the past several months.
One thing we’ve worked on is to clarify the vision for the Advisory program. Relying on the research about the purpose and effectiveness of these programs in middle schools, we committed to a model that blends the key components of effective advisories. The programming offers consistent opportunities to connect with peers and teachers, provides a structured and successful start to each school day, provides a dedicated point person for every student and their family, allows for explicit instruction on study and organization skills, and supports students’ social and emotional well-being learning.
Another area that earned some extra attention is the portion of the schedule formerly known as extra help or study hall. Morrow House, like most middle schools, has had this type of class for a very long time, and no one would dispute the value of opportunities to meet with teachers. However, when building the schedule this summer, after lots of conversations with our faculty, our Dean of Students, Gerard Allen, and the former middle school head, Phil Cox, it seemed clear that Morrow House was ready for a more robust flex period. The result is Personalized Learning Time. PLT encourages students to accelerate their learning through passion projects, independent inquiry, and time to connect with faculty. Students are able to seek clarity on concepts or work on assignments, but they are also encouraged to create work for themselves by initiating an experience that they find personally fulfilling, blurring the line between learning and play. Creating time for and supporting this in school, with the guidance of our brilliant faculty, provides choice and an increased level of independence while encouraging students to develop their passions and skills.
Along these lines, we’ve also introduced extra time for students to work on writing and math skills, with Math and Writing Labs available during PLT, as well as most mornings before school. Led by our expert faculty and specialists, our labs provide clarity on concepts, develop fluency, and enhance skills. Building in morning labs before school has turned what is often an idle time for students who arrive early into an opportunity for students to launch the day with clarity and productivity.
Another initiative we’ve started working on is to more fully integrate the Hochman Method for expository writing. Also known as The Writing Revolution, this approach is a research-based program that develops advanced thinking through writing. Through a sequential, time-tested approach, students learn the skills to be exceptional writers and, as a result, develop the capacity to read, communicate, and think more effectively. Writing is the highest form of language use and using an effective methodology across contexts provides more practice and exposure for students, thus accelerating their growth and ensuring the generalization of learning. English and history faculty, as well as learning specialists in Morrow House, have already begun training with The Writing Revolution and we look forward to increased integration of this approach to come.
What do you think a middle-school education at EMS will look like FIVE years from now?
Over the next five years, I expect that Morrow House will have a more interdisciplinary academic program that continues to blur the lines between subjects, so that students are able to make connections between contexts and generalize skills, and provides for even more leadership and pre-professional opportunities. I anticipate field learning will expand to be more frequent and include immersive travel experiences for our oldest students. I would like to see a formalized mentorship program where students have access to the professional worlds they dream of through regular interactions with institutions, opportunities to apprentice with experts, and authentic audiences for their work. While students certainly shouldn’t feel pressured to choose a career or specific academic track in middle school, this is the time when students are fueled by curiosity to develop passions. We want to encourage that through exceptionally motivating opportunities and access to expert guidance. That is what we are building now with the STEAM studios, service-learning opportunities, and humanities projects already in motion, and I know there will be more to come. As a result, students will graduate with portfolios of work from across disciplines that reflect their capacity to lead, collaborate, iterate, solve problems, create and design.
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