The “Heart” of Hillel Day School

As I write this blog, a 5th grade Tormercazah class is sitting in the “cove,” talking and reading together in front of a huge picture window looking out on a beautiful late summer’s day.  The teacher is intentionally speaking of the timelessness of Torah while comfortably sitting in a contemporary setting that is wonderfully conducive to learning.

On the other side of the fireplace and all around the stage area is a second grade class learning math and spreading out in small groups playing math games. They are actively engaged, working together and helping each other out.  At the far side of the “heart,” on the cushy riser seating, is a third grade class, relaxed, listening to a pre-Shabbat story. And intermixed are small groups of teachers meeting and planning together. It is an active space where at any time many different activities are taking place. There is a constant buzz in the “heart” before, during and after school. And if you ever want a glimpse of what students are doing, thinking or playing, just look at the massive graffiti wall at the end of the day for hints.

I like sitting on the “front porch” outside of the office, where I can work, observe, and, most of all, interact with students, teachers and parents more frequently and informally. What could be better?

If you have not seen the new “heart”, or as we call it, the mercaz, in our Audrey and William Farber Family IDEA Collaborative, it is a new, large open space in the center of the school that enables group learning, large group gatherings, quiet spaces for reading and studying, and a warm and inviting place for students, teachers and parents to congregate, collaborate, socialize, and learn.  There is a platform stage for classroom presentations and a glass enclosed global classroom for congregating in a quiet space with Web capabilities.  There is a very large graffiti wall for brainstorming, collaboration, or just letting the imagination soar!  Beautiful new skylights and large glass windows allow natural light to flood in.

The mercaz creates an open culture where students feel welcomed to contribute, share ideas and get involved in hands-on activities in flexible spaces, while also offering areas for quiet work and reflection.

The space has been overwhelmingly well-received by both students and teachers.  They like the comfortable environment, the flexibility of the space and that fact the other people are in the same space at the same time.  Last year, as we prepared for this transition, a concern of  some of the teachers was that an open space would be distracting.  However, our architects and research both argued otherwise. Our teachers are now discovering that the students are very able to stay focused on their work and conversations even while other classes and people are in the mercaz as well.

It should not come as a surprise that everyone would love the mercaz. Creating these spaces in grade school is relatively new (again), but not so in colleges and universities and companies like Google.  Creating these public spaces first began in cities and towns after the original modern designs of cities became isolating. City planners realized that people wanted common areas to come together as a community. In newer city designs there are common market places, town centers, and community parks – all for gatherings. And why not? Public spaces recognize the social aspect of people and that we are generally happier and more engaging when around other people. This concept has been transferred to the workplace and now to some schools.

Much of a traditional school’s space is taken up by dark, long, empty corridors. Open up the space, create nooks and crannies and places to gather, and it becomes a welcoming area to inspire.

Where there were cinder block and brick walls there is now drywall, painted in soft colors.  The furniture in the mercaz  is comfortable, movable and beautiful.  Everything about the environment is welcoming and communicates respect for those who use it.  There are studies about school environments that include perspectives from students. When asked what type of environment they would prefer to learn in, they describe environments now found at Hillel. As adults, we prefer comfortable seating, natural lighting and inviting spaces, and so do the kids! Take a moment to ask your children if they like the mercaz  and then ask them why and to also describe what they have done in this new space.

If the mercaz was the totality of our renovations we could celebrate and say dayeinu. The excitement will increase when we unveil the next portion of the Audrey and William Farber Family IDEA Collaborative, the new  and elaborate innovation hub. (The greenhouse and outdoor learning areas will be completed by the end of October.)  The students have no idea what wonderful opportunities await them!

In my blog post next week, I will describe the new innovation hub and the impact it will most certainly have on our children’s learning.

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