HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A Curricular Audit: The Bridge Between Challenge and Innovation

by Amira Soleimani Issue: Educational Innovation Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit

At the inauguration of its 60th anniversary, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit conducted a comprehensive curriculum audit of its Judaic studies program. At Hillel, the audit marked the necessary bridge between the school’s existing curricular challenges and our next chapter of innovation. It fueled the flames of innovation, linking that which exists with the aspirations of what could be.

This audit began as an outgrowth of a conversation among our former head of school, Steve Freedman; the Jewish educational leadership team; and an outside consultant. Hillel’s goals derive from two documents: our mission statement and a visionary portrait of a Hillel graduate, recently revised. These two texts in combination are the inner compass of our school.

As we sat together with the freshly approved portrait of a graduate in our hands, we understood that there was a renewed need for self-assessment. We needed to ask ourselves if we were fully actualizing our goals. Did our eighth graders walk out the doors of Hillel as the young leaders and thinkers that our portrait envisioned? We knew that the only way to answer these questions would be to hold up a mirror to our school and honestly assess our performance. A comprehensive audit was the necessary starting point on our journey to innovation.

My goals as the auditor were seemingly simple: I intended to collect and document all of the written Judaic studies curriculum at Hillel and evaluate the documented curriculum through the lens of our portrait of a graduate and our seven core Jewish values. I wanted to systematically identify our areas of strength, as well as pinpoint areas for improvement. After several months of work and several hundred pages of study, the audit was complete. Hillel’s audit was organized into four chapters (Tanakh, Rabbinics, Chaggim and Tefillah), with each chapter containing subsections, such as data documentation and data analysis. Most importantly, the audit included recommendations and specific goals for each particular area of study.

The findings of the audit were numerous and touched on nearly every aspect of a student’s Judaic studies experience. Below I will focus on our three principal findings.

Tefillah: Programmatic Weaknesses

Upon entering Hillel Day School, a visitor is greeted with the school’s mission. It reads: At Hillel, we inspire a passion for learning, responsibility to self and community, and devotion to Jewish living in a warm, innovative, and engaging environment.

At Hillel, to inspire a passion for learning means offering students a deep and integrated curriculum through which they can explore the world. In a building where bells rarely chime and walls are movable, the physical environment supports the school’s philosophy that no subject stands on an island. Keeping this in mind, I began collecting data about tefillah. Early in the process, I became curious to see how often we engaged our students’ higher-level thinking skills, and I decided to evaluate every Judaic studies benchmark (“I Can” statement) alongside Bloom’s Taxonomy.

This process led to my first two-part epiphany as auditor: The majority of our tefillah benchmarks fell into the lower end of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Moreover, while tefillah filled the most weekly minutes of a student’s Judaic schedule, it had the least integration of any subject matter across Judaic studies and other subjects. Our approach to tefillah felt out of sync with Hillel’s educational vision and, as Jewish educators, we were missing a critical opportunity to engage our students’ souls.

In response to this challenge, Rabbi David Fain, our rav beit sefer and dean of Judaic studies, and I created a new middle school tefillah curriculum in which fifth and sixth graders rotated through eight mini-courses. We collaborated with teachers to create relevant and integrated topics that offer a balanced exploration of keva and kavanah, the fixed words of the prayers and meaning-making in tefillah. In a mini-course titled “Growing in Tefillah,” for example, students toil in our greenhouse exploring the ways plants help us appreciate God in our everyday lives. Students study tefillot like Yotzer Or and Or Chadash while learning about photosynthesis with our science teacher. In another mini-course, the Attitude of Gratitude, students learn about the ways that gratitude can improve our tefillah experiences as well as our lives. Students engage with mindfulness strategies to better understand the theme of gratitude in the prayers Modeh Ani and Modim. In the coming years, we hope to expand this type of integrated and interesting tefillah programming to all grade levels.

Tanakh: Alignment Challenges

The beauty of the Tanakh text is timeless, and walking through the hallways of Hillel it is evident that the Torah is passionately transmitted to our students by means of engaging learning, ranging from plays about the Creation story to impactful Project Based Learning initiatives focusing on the biblical census. As both a teacher and a former student of Hillel’s Tanakh Program, I sifted through the data fully anticipating near-perfect scope and sequence. And yet, when examining our Tanakh program alongside our portrait of a graduate, I observed that our Tanach benchmarks did not adequately support our aspiration that graduates “[a]ttain a level of Hebrew fluency and Jewish literacy to participate actively in Jewish life.”

At school, I began pulling students from each of our homogenous Tanakh sections, asking them to read aloud and navigate me through a pasuk. After numerous conversations, I understood that our Tanakh program was suffering from a lack of vertical alignment. The confidence I felt at the onset of the Tanakh audit eventually turned into uncertainty.

After many long conversations within Judaic studies, our great moment of innovation came when we partnered with our general studies leaders, Melissa Michaelson, principal, and Barbara Applebaum, assistant principal. Both shared the cognitive and social-emotional successes they attained with Lucy Calkins’ Readers’ Workshop. Taking a deep breath, we decided that in order to overcome our Tanakh challenges and realign our curriculum both internally and with our portrait of a graduate, Hillel would create and pilot a new Tanakh curriculum called the Tanakh Sadna (workshop) in the 2019-2020 academic year. The Tanakh Sadna is a differentiated Torah curriculum that aims to teach literary-based biblical Hebrew skills even as it promotes a deep love of Torah. Last year, when I visited the classrooms of Hillel’s veteran Readers’ Workshop teachers, my eyes were opened to the fact that our Tanakh methodology was out of alignment with the way students approach the process of reading in other disciplines. When students curl up on our bean bags to read a book for Language Arts, they may use a pen to annotate, but they seldom pause their reading to answer textbook-like questions. This observation helped us realize that our former Tanakh approaches were actually creating roadblocks for students’ reading fluency and comprehension. Thinking back to Hillel’s mission, the audit helped us realize that if we want students to become passionate Jews, we need to equip them with the tools to be excited Jewish learners.

Core Jewish Values: Oversight

Toward the end of my work on the audit, I decided to look for large-scale trends across the four Judaic chapters. Were there any topics that we consistently overlooked as a community? I discovered that scant time and attention were paid to understanding the religious and philosophical underpinnings of one of our core Jewish values: tikkun olam. Despite the many chesed drives throughout the year (coat drives, food drives and acts of service), tikkun olam was barely present in our classroom and tefillah curriculum. It seemed so counterintuitive because at Hillel, community is everything, and we aim to teach students about our responsibility for others. After further exploration, I understood the root of the problem: Many of our tikkun olam initiatives were based outside a student’s in-school daily experience and outside our written Judaics curriculum. While values should be represented and modeled in the school’s larger community, as Jewish educators, our values must be an explicit and learned outgrowth from our units of study.

Once again, in collaboration with Rabbi David Fain and our Jewish educational leadership team, we decided to rekindle our community’s dedication to tikkun olam through the lens of our chaggim program. As the heart of Jewish life, chaggim represent the natural home for tikkun olam, with each holiday containing mitzvot that focus on caring for the other. Our goal is to help students see that to be Jewish is to be present and ready for those in need.

As a final outgrowth of the audit, Hillel’s Jewish educational leadership team created a Judaic studies strategic plan. This document has helped us prioritize our audit takeaways, clarify our goals and hold ourselves accountable as we continue executing these newly developed curricular ideas. In short, at Hillel we believe an audit is a necessary tool for any school hoping to make philosophically aligned, long-term innovative changes.

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