Innovation Is…
a new blog series whose mission is to shine the spotlight on the inspiring, innovative work happening at Jewish day schools.

An enormous “thank you” to Michael Hyde, for being our first featured innovator. Michael is the STEAM and Maker Integrator at Portland Jewish Academy, where he works with teachers and students to bring hands-on teaching and learning, technology, and STEAM inquiry into the curriculum. Portland Jewish Academy is a PK-8 community day school with a student population of just under 200 students in grades K-8. 

Michael Hyde

What is innovation?
Innovation is having the optimism, drive and initiative to see that things can be done even better and the belief that they should be done better. Whether it’s your personal teaching style, school mission, or whatever – you look critically at what you’re doing and believe there’s always a better way.

Describe the innovative work you’re doing at your school.
Three years ago, I started a Makerspace in our school. We had a vision of an open, collaborative space where students could explore tools, materials, and wild ideas.

What is unique about our space is that it totally suits the needs of our students and teachers and grows along with their input. I don’t post rules. I don’t over-manage what happens. Most everything we do is design-challenge based and super open-ended. We team-teach in the space and design all our own curriculum. Students have a lot of input. Kids feel creative and free; they can be themselves. I am lucky to have the freedom here to let the kids’ needs dictate what we do.

This year I work with most grades once a week, some every other week and on long-term projects based on curriculum and teacher needs or high demand. I would love to move to an open-studio model with mixed grades and classes. This happens spontaneously sometimes during lunch and recess, and the kids teach each other. That’s the dream –  a collaborative, multi-grades, open space. There’s great energy when that happens.

What is most exciting for you about your school’s innovative work?
I like the fact that it’s always different. I’m excited when anyone has a transformational teaching experience. I enjoy watching kids work and seeing the problems they naturally encounter. You start to see how much you can really let go of, and I think that’s super important, to put trust in students. You don’t have to manage every aspect of learning.

What is challenging about being an innovator?
You need to be really comfortable with being uncomfortable, and I don’t think most people are. The value of the space and its goals are revealed over time. It can be hard to see fully at first or to understand the learning right away. My background is in art, and I run the space from that perspective. Because of that, I try to limit my expected outcomes. I’m a champion of authentic student work….it might look like a messy pile of cardboard, but there is a whole story the student can tell.  I think that’s super powerful, but it’s not readily apparent.

What do you need to be successful as an innovator?
Unflinching optimism. Thick skin. A high level of both confidence and humility. Willingness to take risks. You must be spontaneous and flexible. I’m inclined to do something even if I’m not ready. You have to be able to understand people. Change is hard for people, new things can be scary, and when you represent the beat of a different drum you have to show patience for people who aren’t quite ready to hear it.  A school full of innovators would be difficult to manage. An innovator has to recognize that it takes all types of students and teachers. A school is an ecosystem, and all parts are important.

How do you deal with the issue of “pushback?”
I’m very lucky in that Merrill (head of school), our General Studies Director Betsy, and our whole administration team really believes in what we’re doing. There are also many teachers who are very supportive and invested in the Makerspace. I once had a yoga teacher say during class, “Lean where you are supported,” and I’ve never forgotten that. So that’s where I try to focus my attention.

I am willing to stand in front of a room full of educators and share my experiences, and they can take it or leave it. I don’t think change happens forcefully. You have to understand that not everyone is at the same place. I invite people to come in, literally for coffee and fruit, and figuratively the door is open.

How do you continue learning?
The library in my classroom is insane…my house, too. I love to read. I’m really interested in systems innovation and read lots of weird stuff about that. I tend to look at interactive art and artists. I love to try things that I’m not good at and to be a beginner and discover new things. I tend to collect hobbies as a hobby. Anything is a source of learning – talking to people, digging in. The world is amazing.

Where do you reflect on and share your learning process?
I’ve tried to blog, but I haven’t yet found a way to make it work for me. My values remain steady, but my beliefs change a lot as I learn, so I have a hard time committing in writing to a belief system. I do reflect after a lesson or project using Evernote. It’s my second brain, and I put tons of notes into it. I also use the Day One app for personal reflection and journaling. I take a photo a day, and write a few sentences about what happened that day, and what I learned. Nothing huge – just a record. I have a circle of friends and teachers who are thought-partners, and I share and reflect with them. I ask students for feedback, too.

I also wrote this little zine after our first year of the Makerspace – I guess this is another way I reflect! I give it to people when they come to the space to visit, and when I do maker teacher trainings, or at conferences. It’s meant to be accessible and fun – could use a volume 2. It was designed for print, but here’s the online version.

What inspires you in your work?
Things that I’m not familiar with or comfortable with… artists, business…I love education books from the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve found incredible old books about looking closely at things and the roots of constructivism. A lot of the stuff we’re doing now has already been done before with different names and labels, so I try to dig into that. I’m also inspired by the lives of teachers and students.
Corita Kent is a huge influence; her rules are the only rules posted in our Makerspace. Anton Ego’s speech from Ratatouille is also on my wall:

“The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

I’m also inspired by yoga, brain science, neurodiversity, and just doing my part to make the world a bit more expansive for everyone. Also, I find Youtube videos like “Don’t Celebrate Too Early” oddly inspiring…or something!

What book has inspired you?
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

What inspiration can you share with other innovators?
Look for things beyond your expected areas of interest. For example, I try not to look at too much Maker or PBL stuff….I try to find inspiration in other disciplines. Be open. Be playful. Find the connections.