Meet The Fellows...
Sarah Taylor Ellis
New York NY
"I've never been interested in top-down teaching," says Sarah. "It's much more interesting for everyone when we're all creating together, as colleagues." A gifted composer, Sarah works with K-12 students, but "the core of my teaching is with grades 5–10. I especially value teaching middle school groups, and have a passion for girls' education."
While pursuing her Ph.D, Sarah composed and music directed the family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker. "I reveled in the true community of community theater while collaborating with our cast of 15, who ranged in age from 7 to 70. The intergenerational bonds developed while working on the show reminded me of how I first found a home in the arts. So when I graduated, I became a full-time teaching artist."
Her career as a teacher, composer, and academic has centered on music and theater as rehearsals for a more open, accepting, and collaborative world. "I believe that the ensemble cultivated in the arts can model better social relations, and actively improve the challenging childhood and teenage years. Music composition gives children a visceral experience of the joys and challenges of collaboration; the arts can teach students the lifelong skill of working in sync with one another."
Sarah's music composition classes are student-driven, and the curriculum is continually shaped by the children's creativity. "Young students can easily grasp the concept of ‘hooks,' write catchy lyrics, and follow the natural rise and fall of their voices to develop ‘melody mountains.' Inventing gestures as they compose engages the students in full-body writing, which reinforces their memorization of the songs they write. This process of creating together and negotiating differences is far more important than the final product."
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
"By creating student-driven projects. Students guide the process, so they're immediately invested and passionate about the work.
"I recently mentored seventh graders in the composition of a song cycle. We collaborated with the English department on a piece inspired by themes in The Outsiders, The House on Mango Street, and A Raisin in the Sun. We wrote an opening and closing number as a class, then split into small groups to collaborate on individual songs in the cycle. During the final presentation for peers and parents, we not only performed the song cycle, but also shared our process with the audience.
"When songwriting with second graders, they need a little guidance and mentorship, but they already have the tools – and the confidence – to write their own songs. In middle school and the start of high school, kids start to get self-conscious and begin to believe they're not capable of composing. But if you can get them to tap into their creativity early on, they don't have to lose their artistic side."
How do you foster youth leadership?
"By pushing students to take ownership of the creative process. Student–led learning is often the most fulfilling and lasting kind of learning. When I music direct school musicals, for instance, I always have a student assistant music director who is a year or two older than the cast. Sometimes the assistant ends up conducting while I play piano, or vice versa."
How have you evolved as a teacher?
"I am hyper-organized, but I am learning to trust the creative chaos of the process. I leave a lot more flexibility now in my lesson plans. I still keep the big picture on track, but I allow for more student-driven learning. Students can take you in different, but more truthful and exciting directions. I've had entire classes veer into unknown territory, and ultimately that's much more satisfying.
"For example, I was working at an elementary school a few years ago, building a 5th grade choir, and one student asked what I was doing with my hands – I was conducting. He'd never seen that before, so I turned the lesson into an impromptu conducting workshop. Each kid had a chance to learn the basic patterns, and conduct her peers. They loved it! So now I regularly include conducting in my curriculum."
What is an example of a good day teaching kids?
"The best days are when we're in the middle of the process, creating a project with a group of self-driven kids. The great thing about the arts is that there are so many different pathways to solving problems. I like those lightbulb moments: ‘now I know how the next section should go,' or ‘that's the rhythm we need right here!' I like hearing students figure out solutions for themselves.
"I love teaching. I get to be creative with students, and it never really feels like work."