Welcome to this interview with Joan Freedman, Director of Curriculum at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.  Joan has worked as a Jewish educator since 1981, serving  various roles in day schools, synagogues, and the Jewish community institutions. Her guiding belief is that everyone has gifts, and it is the job of the educator to unlock those gifts. 

Hillel Day School is an Early Childhood-8th grade community school of approximately 570 students.

How do you define innovation?
At Hillel, we have a problem with that word! It’s so overused and means different things to different people. For us, it means doing something that hasn’t been done before or doing something in a new way. 

Describe what you’re doing at your school that is innovative.
We’ve been on this journey for 8-10 years, thinking about how can we give students what we know they need and make changes in the world of education. Being a Jewish day school brings additional challenges like scheduling and dual curriculum.

We started by thinking about what a school could look like, sound like, feel like and we imagined what the space would be like in our ideal school. We envisioned an atmosphere that is collaborative, offers freedom of movement, and allows for kids to learn in their own ways. With a generous donation, we went about creating our ideal space with the help of an architect who specializes in educational environments. Their team interviewed our faculty and students and created a blueprint for learning communities.

Phase 1 started with design, engineering and the arts. With no new additions, we used the existing space and made an art studio, greenhouse, and a large Maker space equipped with a spray-painting booth, sewing machines, power tools, hand tools, 3d printers, and much more. We have a deconstruction room where kids can take things apart. We have a green screen, a design studio, and our faculty lounge has been transformed into an educator studio where teachers can work collaboratively in a beautiful open space. The mercaz (the heart) is an area with flexible seating, interactive boards. We also have a music auditorium and our miznon (cafe) has booth style seating and is used for a variety of purposes. We also redesigned faculty roles, adding jobs such as innovation hub coordinator, coordinator for technological adventures, and Maker space educators,

In later phases, we have worked on turning classrooms into learning communities.The learning community spaces are bright, open and inviting. 

How did redesigning the space impact the school culture and learning?
The space helped us realize our vision of integrated learning, flexible grouping and more personalized education. Teachers all share their working/planning space. There are no desks so they have to sit together and talk together. 

What is most exciting for you about your school’s innovative work?
We’re seeing better engagement with students as we’ve shifted to more project-based learning and a more meaningful and relevant curriculum. As we use the greenhouse, Makerspace, etc. to explore and make connections, we see abstract ideas come to life. Our Jewish and general studies are more integrated. Learning looks different. We are slowly getting rid of grades and are using rubrics and self-reflection as opposed to tests. We’re trying to make school a place to focus on learning not teaching. 

Hillel 8th graders construct a Rube Goldberg machine that connects to all the others to make a giant contraption of a complex machine that conducts a simple task, as part of a Technion competition

Origami pyramids make up a larger pyramid at our pre-Pesach “Exodus to Freedom” Maker Event

What is challenging for you?
Time! Time is our biggest challenge. Time for teachers to meet….we use a PLC model and our teachers have planning time, but there is never enough. Time to truly meet the individual needs of students. Time to get everyone on board with changes. Each year we reimagine what the schedule should look like. We’ve come up with what we call WIN time. WIN stands for “What I Need.” Every student has choices for how they use their WIN time. 

What do you need to be successful as an innovator?
Excellence requires taking risks. We try things. What’s the worst that can happen? We work to focus more on learning than teaching and on really trying to see ourselves as facilitators of learning. It’s about helping students find their world of possibilities.

How do you continue learning?
I read constantly. I read books by some of the great thought leaders in education like Sir Ken Robinson and Tony Wagner. I follow organizations like the Buck Institute. I attend seminars and workshops. I am a member of the professional organizations in science, math, social studies and literacy as well as NAIS, and look to those organizations to learn about best practices in education. We have lots of professional learning at our school. Most of our PD money is going to have teachers visit schools around the country to look for progressive ideas- schedules, brain-based learning, progressive education, mixed age groupings, assessments, integration.They come back and share what they learned. This year’s team went to New York and visited Bank Street, Avenues, Fieldston, and Heschel

How and where do you reflect and share your learning process?
Our servant leadership team meets every week to discuss education. A few times a year we have a retreat where we set an agenda for how to accomplish our vision. I meet with my STEAM team regularly and with the innovation hub coordinators and curriculum coordinators. We discuss expectations….what “should” kids know? How do we balance the expectations of teachers with the needs of students? We discuss how we use assessments and how we use time. 

What inspires you in your work? My own teaching experience…I’ve been teaching in Jewish day schools since 1981. I’m so excited that we’re finally discovering the keys to unlock learning. 

What book has inspired you? Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

What inspiration can you share with other innovators?
Patience is a virtue! With the caveat that we can’t be overly patient cause times are changing. For the sake of our kids, we have to make changes now. Look to thought leaders in your own schools and put the right leaders in place, and you can make a huge difference.