Partnerships at Hillel

Hillel Academy fifth grader Sammy Caruso and his puppet during the Jewish day school’s project with the Zoot Theatre Company. Contributed Photo/Dan Mecoli, Hillel Academy.

By Martha Moody Jacobs, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Anyone who’s seen a child learn something new knows the thrill of an “aha” moment. And such moments need not take place in a classroom.

Since taking over as co-administrators of Hillel Academy Jewish day school in summer 2011, longtime educators Dr. Kathy and Dan Mecoli have been trying to “knit real-world experiences to school work.”

This year, Hillel students have participated in three cooperative projects: with Aullwood Audubon Center; with the Zoot Theatre Company, a puppet-and-mask troupe in residence at the Dayton Art Institute; and with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Hillel, based on the third floor of Beth Abraham Synagogue in Oakwood, has 28 students in grades kindergarten through five. There are three full-time academic teachers, four part-time Hebrew/Judaic teachers and three part-time teachers for art, music, and gym. The grade groupings are K and one, two and three, and four and five, although children move between levels in math, reading, and Hebrew.

Exploring the Stillwater with Aullwood’s Chris Rowlands (L to R): Devorah Schwartz, Becca Friedman, Ellie Bloom, Rikki Mangel, Nina Jacobs, and Lily Fullenhull. Contributed Photo/Hillel Academy.

The Aullwood rivers project was Hillel’s first cooperative program this school year. Fourth and fifth graders spent five half-days with Aullwood naturalist Tom Hissong, learning about river life and making themselves “walls of moving feet” to drive water creatures into nets: an activity known as seining.

“When Tom pushed the hogsucker’s (fish) nose down it turned blue, which was awesome,” said fourth grader Nina Jacobs about her experience at the Stillwater River.

The students then put together an exuberant video that opens with images of them holding fish, diagrams of fish anatomy, and a song sung to the tune of We Didn’t Start the Fire:

We held slimy fish! We thought they were boring, But now we’re adoring them.

The song even incorporates a quote from Chabad’s Rabbi Nochum Mangel: “Fishes’ eyes are always open because they’re studying Torah.”

The video then shows the aforementioned seining, more scenes and songs, and gives a nod to the Jewish value of tikun olam (healing the world), with Tom talking about manure run-off into rivers leading to excessive algae growth, leading to loss of oxygen and fish death.

Fifth grader Sammy Caruso edited the video for DVD.

“I can only tell you it’s been a phenomenal experience for my boys,” Sammy’s mother, Patty, said. “It’s been a wonderful learning experience for them. It’s education beyond education.”

The Mecolis approached Zoot Theatre about a residency at Hillel when parent Dr. Miriamne Krummel mentioned Zoot’s work. The troupe had never before worked with a school.

Artists from Zoot worked with children grouped in three levels to write a story, make puppets, and put on a performance at the Dayton Art Institute’s Gothic Cloister.

Each child designed, built, and performed with his or her own puppet.

“I never expected that,” said Rebecca Feigenblatt, the mother of first grader Joey, who constructed his “Giant Mini Judge” stick puppet out of tape, newspaper, fabric, foam and paint. “I thought maybe they’d make puppets out of paper bags.”

“(My daughter’s) a shy, timid child. But that night she was just running around being a ghost girl,” Miriamne said of her daughter Yetta, a second-grader, about the Zoot evening of puppetry. “I started to cry. I saw her knowing that she was a mensch in the world.”

Kathy recalled the Zoot project drew out some children who hadn’t interacted in group settings before. Having children plan and implement all phases of this project, she said, was a huge amount of work.

Parent Pamela Schwartz approached DCDC about entering into a project with Hillel this year. With the DCDC resident dancers, the students learned during four sessions to “close their mouths and talk with their bodies,” in the words of dancer and instructor Nabachwa Ssensalo.

DCDC’s residency with Hillel Academy is among several newly-formed partnerships among the Jewish day school and Dayton-area cultural institutions. Contributed Photo/Matt Adkins.

Through exercises, the students experienced the five levels of dance (lying on the floor, sitting on the floor, on knees, standing, above the floor) and learned about literal and figurative interpretation.

With DCDC dancers, the students developed dances for a show with two pieces performed by DCDC professionals. The two boys’ troupes performed dances based on dinosaurs and the girls’ troupe dramatized the story of a young aspiring dancer.

While the parents and other guests were delighted with the children’s enthusiasm, moves, and stage presence, the Mecolis were especially pleased with their students’ burgeoning connoisseurship. Watching the professionals perform, Kathy said, “even the youngest child didn’t take their eyes off the dancers.”

“I noticed how excited (the students) were when they saw the male dancers leaping,” Dan said of his students’ work with DCDC. “They might expect that for the women, but for the men…!”

The Mecolis and Hillel’s teachers have started work on a stories project for this spring. Students are asking their parents and grandparents for family stories to build into a collaborative presentation piece in which students can again display the creativity, cooperation, and techniques they’ve learned this year.

In the meantime, everyone at the school seems to be eagerly watching for that next “aha” moment: the instant when, in the words of naturalist Tom at the seining net, “We have a new fish. We have not seen this fish before!”


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