Integrating arts, science, & Judaics at Hillel — naturally

Hillel Academy students, teachers and administrators sing The Beaver Song, written and performed by Chris Rowlands (at microphone) of Aullwood Audubon Center, who also serves as Hillel’s artist/naturalist in residence

By Marshall Weiss, The Observer

“Hashem makes everything we see and so we pray to Him, Hashem makes our hearts sing, And so we’ll dance and sing for Him.”

Hillel Academy Jewish day school’s six kindergartners sang out these words, part of a song they wrote called Caterpillars, Birds & Honeybees, which they performed on Nov. 2 for their parents and families.

This was one of four songs the students — in grades K through four — wrote and sang at Sharing Our Learning: It’s Natural, billed as an evening of music, dance, science, and discovery inspired by student nature studies and investigations.

“This is just a snapshot of the work we’ve been doing since the first day of school,” Kathy Mecoli, Hillel’s co-administrator, explained to parents. “We’re really thinking about it as sharing, to see how the children are taking responsibility, doing their part, and proudly sharing their very best work.”

She added that nearly everything the children would recite or sing that night, they had written themselves.

The star of the evening, along with the children, was Chris Rowlands, a naturalist and folk singer/songwriter with Aullwood Audubon Center.

“Kathy and I worked out a partnership agreement with Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm wherein we would work with Chris as our musician/naturalist-in-residence for the 2011-12 school year,” said Dan Mecoli, Kathy’s husband, who serves as Hillel’s other co-administrator.

The Mecolis, in their first year at Hillel Academy, have hired all new secular teachers for the school. Hebrew and Judaics continue to be taught by Director of Judaic Studies Rabbi Levi Simon and Sandy Sloane, with the addition of Rina Thau.

Dan was Chris’ high school art teacher at Meadowdale High School.

“Using nature and hands-on discovery as the core theme, we planned early field trips to Aullwood for our students,” Dan said. “Immediately following those field experiences, Chris worked intensively in a one-week residency format, helping the children write original lyrics and develop new music based on the content learned from those trips.”

First and second graders wrote and performed the song Aullwood Trails, and third and fourth graders sang their composition, Food Chain Goes ‘Round.

The students also expressed their nature learning through dance. Volunteer Christie Bealer, a former professional dancer, taught the children traditional Israeli dances and dances that supported the nature theme.

Dan said Hillel’s non-traditional setting provides flexibility for the school to take on such “hands-on explorations.”

“Students learned that writing lyrics is fun, and very hard work,” Dan said.

“They began to open up new ways of thinking, new ways of expressing what they’d learned and experienced.”

This is just the first step toward greater explorations, with Chris’ talents and Aullwood as Hillel’s laboratory, Dan added.

‘The students now have a better sense of working together as a team, paying attention to details and how to follow up on inquiries and questions they have about the world around them,” he said.

After the formal presentation, the students begged Chris to play a song of his own, The Beaver Song. All the students, faculty, and staff joined in with the appropriate beaver hand gestures while Chris strummed along on guitar. They followed this up with an encore, I’m A Polar Bear, another of Chris’ songs.

“They wrote a school song, which we’ll end with,” Chris said of the students after they calmed down. “The third and fourth graders did have a large hand in this. Our first graders, kindergartners, second graders did help.”

One verse has the following lyrics:

“Focusing, staying on topic, Take your time, do your best and believe, Remember yogati u’motzati, Means if you work hard you’ll succeed.”

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