Learning in Common: Creating a School-Wide Collaborative Learning Space

By: Michael Hyde, Molly Sloan, Matthew Rosenberg
from Portland Jewish Academy

Learning Environment

Subject(s) of entry:
Computer Science, English/ Writing/ Language Arts, Literature, Mishnah, Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa, Social and Emotional Learning, Social Studies, Technology, Tefila

Constructivist, Hevruta Learning, IBL - inquiry based learning, PBL - project based learning, Social and Emotional Learning, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, Elementary school, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, Elementary school, Middle school

The Information and Technology team of Portland Jewish Academy recognized the need for a more collaborative, connective, and centralized learning space for our school. We created a place that is a living expression of our core values of limmud (study), kehillah (community), and zehut (Jewish identity).

Entry Narrative

A school is, at its very core, a place for gathering and learning together.  As a Jewish Day School we come together to grow intellectually, academically, and spiritually, and to develop Jewish Identity.  While individual growth is important,  we also strive to grow together as a community. Portland Jewish Academy takes this mission of individual and community growth to heart.  We have aligned our school’s mission around our six middot: Limmud (study), Kavod (respect), Zehud (Jewish identity) Akhrayut (responsibility), Kehillah (community) and Hodayah (Appreciation).  These core values guide our decision making at all levels–from daily instruction in our classrooms to large, campus wide initiatives.

As we began to integrate our school mission and values with innovative 21st century learning practices, it became clear that our physical space was no longer meeting the demands of our teaching and learning. Innovative, collaborative learning was happening in pockets all over the school, but when you walked our halls, all that exciting learning was sequestered into closed classrooms.  Sometimes students spilled out onto the floors of our hallways, but the hard floor was neither comfortable nor conducive to rich collaboration. As our Executive Director, Steve Albert often said, “It felt like the space of the school was working against teachers and students”.  

The three of us have always viewed our subject areas as integrally connected.  Information literacy, technology and innovation are all interwoven threads of the tapestry of modern learning.  We began to raise the subject of renovating our library and technology department to more closely align with our teaching and learning mission and values.  Together we began to craft a vision of what a truly collaborative environment could do for learning across our school community. Our supportive and engaged administrative team embraced our ideas and elevated that vision into a school-wide initiative. With support from the school board to parent volunteers to major fundraising strategies, we were able to launch the several-year project of renovating our library and technology space into a shared Learning Commons. 

Here is a video we made before undertaking the Learning Commons renovation. It explains why revisioning the space is important to our larger school community. 

Working with a team of teachers, administrators and architects, we honed our vision for the Learning Commons.  Here are some of the objectives we drafted. We wanted the redesigned space to:

  • Be sacred space that reflects the Jewish identity of this school
  • Serve as a library with organization and shelving that works
  • Provide places to display student work.
  • Offer space for recording (sound and or video) projects
  • Provide small spaces for tutoring or conferencing
  • Give space for individual work (quiet).
  • Provide space for collaboration between students, teachers, community members (not usually quiet).
  • Be a classroom space that would accommodate whole class instruction.
  • Be a space that felt comfortable for all ages (toddlers-adults)
  • Offer space for age appropriate storytime (toddlers through early elementary ages)
  • Provide high quality, reliable technology and wi-fi infrastructure
  • Be a place for people to seek help on their technology challenges
  • Provide a place for public performances
  • Offer gathering space for a larger group (author visits, guest speakers etc).

With all of these ideas in mind, we crafted this vision statement for the space:

As Portland Jewish Academy’s  dynamic nexus of scholarship, the Learning Commons provides a flexible and inviting, student-centered space which fosters collaboration, invites curiosity and promotes inquiry.  The Learning Commons supports and illuminates PJA’s unique teaching and learning culture.

As big as the effort had to became in order to turn into a new, shared reality –  it also always came back to our initial passion, need, and vision.  When the project came in over-budget from the contractors,  we took it upon ourselves to look for ways to make it happen. For example,  to save several thousand dollars and still meet our space needs, Matt found used bookshelves on Craigslist and drove several hours away with a rented U-Haul, loaded them up, and drove them back.  The three of us and one facilities staff member hauled the heavy metal shelves ourselves from the truck into a storage facility, and then back again when it was time to put the shelves in. We measured the space  (many times!), found someone to cut the shelves, and our own staff installed them. We love that we were able to stay so “hands-on” and involved with the project even as it took so many hands and hearts to complete. Today we are pleased to say that we have realized the vision we dreamed of and created together.

 We learned that one of the most powerful ways to interrupt old patterns and inspire new ones is by changing space and proximity. By creating a Learning Commons that is now the lively hub of our school,  we interrupted the pattern of siloed classrooms, closed doors, and a complex schedule by creating opportunity for synchronicity, serendipity, and new proximity. Now, both teachers and students move in new patterns, cross paths, share ideas, and make their learning more visible in both formal and informal ways. Learners of all ages come and go because the space is flexible enough to become what they need in the moment. Here is a video we made of the transformed space as it exists today.  Toddlers sing and enjoy storytime while sixth graders work in groups to design a waterpark for their Engineering and Design project.  Our sixth grade humanities teacher confers with Molly about an upcoming research project while Matt helps a third grader get logged-in on a device at the “Genius Bar.”  Middle school Jewish Studies students engage in Havruta while a teacher listens to a first grader read. Students are finding books, accessing online resources, creating their own content and responding to each other in dynamic, fluid ways. The space is no longer working against learners at PJA, it works with them and for them. The open, welcoming environment of our Learning Commons inspires creativity and connectivity. People collaborate because they have the space, inspiration, and opportunity to do so. The Learning Commons brings out our best simply because it gives us a space to be our best together.

Entrant Bio(s)

Molly Sloan is a passionate teacher librarian who has served the Portland Jewish Academy community for seven years. She teaches students from Pre-k through 8th grade and even does an outreach bookmobile wagon to the infants and toddlers in our early childhood programs. In addition to her regular classes Molly leads a variety of programs in our library such as a Caldecott Club, a Newbery Club, and a PJ Our Way Book Club. Molly orchestrates author visits and other special events. Collaboration with colleagues to provide more meaningful library learning for students is Molly’s ideal and she is is always striving to build a more engaging and robust library program for our community.

Matt Rosenberg serves as the Technology Integration Specialist, Middle School Team Leader, and Athletic Director with the Portland Jewish Academy. He fulfills a number of roles within the school, including classroom instruction, student support, teacher professional development, curriculum development, administering the athletic program, and overseeing the technology program for the school. Matt was a high school history teacher and coach with La Jolla High School in San Diego prior to moving up to Portland in 2013. He is married and has a nine-year-old daughter, who loves attending PJA.

Michael Hyde is the STEAM and Maker Integrator and Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Innovation Coordinator at Portland Jewish Academy. He designs and teaches integrated STEAM curriculum using a Project Based Learning and Inquiry framework in the school’s makerspace, which he founded four years ago and serves K-8th grade primarily. Michael’s role also includes team-teaching, coaching, and leading the school’s vision and strategy for PBL implementation. Michael has advised several Portland area schools on makerspace implementation and integration, and facilitates workshops open to any teacher about makerspace teaching. He and his colleagues Matt Rosenberg and Molly Sloan have welcomed dozens of Oregon and Washington area educators into the Portland Jewish Academy Makerspace and Learning Commons to observe the teaching and learning that occurs there. He believes the best way to understand the power of this work is to see it in person and talk with students whose experience of school and learning has been transformed by hands-on learning and collaborative, flexible spaces.