Les Fichiers de Transparence

Yes, you read that correctly…even if I needed help to write it!

🙂

This will be a short (if and only if, you skip the entire middle section which is all background information!), but sweet announcement that we imagine will put smiles on the faces of all those who have advocated for greater contact time with French language at OJCS.

First – thank you to everyone who took the time to fill out an Annual Parent Survey this year!  My sharing and analysis will, hopefully, be the subject of next week’s “Transparency Files” blog post.

Second – let me walk you oh so “briefly” through the conversation and work we have put into amplifying, expanding and improving French language outcomes at OJCS over these last few years.

In November of 2017, we laid out the big questions we had about French outcomes at OJCS and what our plans were for beginning to answer them.

In February of 2018, we shared back (in person by way of a “Town Hall” and through a blog post) the first set of answers to those big questions and made our first set of commitments in response.  That included:

  1. Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time need to begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  2. The selection process in Grade 3 will be more rigorous, begin earlier, come with more parental engagement, etc., so that students who do continue into “Extended” for Grades 4 and higher are even better prepared for Grade 9.
  3. We will increase the rigour and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.
  4. We will provide additional extracurricular contact time with French through clubs, lunch, etc.
  5. We believe we will be able to adjust our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Stay tuned!

In April of 2019, we announced a $50,000 donation to strengthen French language learning at OJCS, and shared the following set of updates to our families and community:

  • We adjusted our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Students in OJCS have more contact time with French in each grade (except K which was already frontloaded).
  • At OJCS, the FSL (French as a Second Language) faculty has made a commitment to speak French with their students everywhere in the school, so if you were to walk through our hallways, you would hear us speaking French to our students, increasing the interaction and contact time with our students.
  • Our enhanced FSL program with its consolidated class time (blocks of periods), all within a trilingual school where the francophone culture is alive and regularly celebrated, produces students capable of successfully communicating and learning in French.
  • Students practice their language skills in various environments, such as on the playground, and during coaching on our various OJCS sports teams.
  • Our FSL faculty is committed to offering authentic OJCS learning experiences.

In May of 2019, we announced that the Ottawa Jewish Community School would be the first private school in Ontario to partner with the Centre Franco-Ontarien de Ressources Pédagogiques (Franco-Ontarian Centre for Educational Resources) or CFORP to implement the TACLEF program.  (Please know that our work with TACLEF was generously supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.)

Over a two-year period (give or take due to many COVID “pivots”) CFORP introduced TACLEF, La Trousse D’acquisition de Compétences Langagières en Français (loosely translated as a “French language acquisition ‘kit'”) to the French teaching staff at the Ottawa Jewish Community School and offered individual mentoring in its use.  This approach strengthened team building and permitted a better understanding of a skills-based teaching/learning approach as it develops language proficiency in French language learners.

In January of 2020, I provided the community with an update on the consultancy, including…

…the greatest impact is ensuring that all three strands (reading, writing and oral communication) are built into almost every activity and evaluation.  It has also given us new resources and strategies for delivery of instruction, classwork, and homework (in addition to evaluation).

…by providing us with a detailed roadmap, we can prepare all our students – particularly the ones who land in Extended French – as if they were going into French immersion.  It is too soon to be more specific, but over the remaining months of the consultancy we will have greater clarity about how to adapt our program (with what supporting curricular materials we will need) to prioritize that outcome.

There is no doubt that COVID has impacted our ability to fully implement all of the above, but progress continues to be made each year.  This year’s highlights include a significant investment in French curriculum with a focus on leveled readers in support of reading comprehension.

And now you are fully caught up!

Third – here is a little context to better understand the announcement.

When trying to make comparisons between our French program and that of the public board, let’s look at an “apples to apples” comparison.  It is our understanding that students in French immersion at Sir Robert Borden High School (public) in Grades 7 and up have 740 weekly minutes in French allocated as follows:

  • French 200 min
  • Physical Education / Dance 200
  • Health 40
  • Science 150
  • History / Geography 150

In comparison, currently students in “Extended French” at OJCS in Grades 7 and up have 400 minutes in French allocated as follows:

  • French 240 min
  • History / Geography 160

Clearly, 740 is more than 400, and no one is making an educational argument that when it comes to language acquisition that more isn’t better.   And we have stated in the past that adding more contact time in Science is complicated (both because we appear to offer more contact time in Science education than SRB in general and because it would require additional staffing/tracking), but knowing that it is essentially science vocabulary that our students are lacking to bridge the gap opens up solutions that don’t automatically require us to reinvent the school.

But there is something we can do – and are announcing that we will do – as soon as the 2022-2023 school year.  We are thrilled to share with you that beginning next year the OJCS will begin the process of transitioning our PE program to a French-language PE program!

We are not yet prepared to tell you the “who” – other than it will be legitimate French teachers (not simply PE teachers who may speak French) with background and experience (not simply French teachers who may know how to shoot a basketball) – and we are not yet prepared to tell you the full “what”.  There is a curriculum that needs to be adapted and/or created; a curriculum that adds value, not just time, to the current French program.  But we do believe that adding an additional 120-200 minutes per week in French language exposure/education/contact time in another subject found in French immersion is a really big deal that is going to make a really big difference in French outcomes at OJCS.  (And, yes, we will be fully prepared to support those students for whom French is a challenge to ensure their legitimate PE needs continue to be met.)

We have come a long way towards closing the gaps between “Extended French” and “French Immersion” over the last five years – we see it in our outcomes and in our graduates.  But whereas those gaps have begun to close in terms of content and quality, this gap really does start to close the gap in terms of time.

This is a big deal and a big step forward for French at OJCS.

And we aren’t done yet…not even close.

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

With all the unpredictability of yet another pandemic year, the one thing that you can be sure of as the calendar turns to May and June, is that I will deliver you a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts!  OJCS Parents have recently received their link to our Annual Parent Survey, and so I will again begin with a self-evaluation and will continue with the sharing of results of that survey, the results from our Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them) and will conclude with a discussion of next year and an introduction of the 2022-2023 OJCS Faculty.  [If this year is more like last year, these posts will not follow week-by-week.]

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility of performing an evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Our Annual Parent Survey presents current parents with an opportunity to do the same (as part of a much larger survey of school satisfaction).  Please know that the full unedited results of both are sent onto the OJCS Board of Trustees Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for the execution of my annual performance review.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s.  Unlike in prior years, I am going to skip the cutting-and-pasting from my goal-setting document and simply present to you a few big ideas that come from my “principal’s” bucket, and not as much from my “head of school’s” bucket (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.).

…one of the big highlights of the year has been the successful (re)launch of Junior Kindergarten at OJCS!  I wrote a long post in December that I encourage you check out if you want to know what makes JK at OJCS so unique and special.  A year ago we had no teacher, no students and a program on paper – we now have a master teacher, a thriving class and a program that is we know is setting up our students for success in SK.  We appreciate and respect that Jewish parents in Ottawa have choices, and our focus will be ensuring that we continue to offer a program that is unlike the others, aligned with our OJCS North Stars and best prepares students for elementary school.  Want to know more or to secure your spot for 2022-2023?  Please contact Jenn Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojca.ca) for a tour or registration materials.

…one of the biggest initiatives that we were able to “unpause” from COVID was the [soft] launch of our “Mitzvah Trips” for Middle School.  Please follow this link for the details of this initiative.  For this year, our students have collaborated on projects with Tamir and JFS and will be engaging with Hillel Lodge in the weeks to come.  More important than what I believe about this work, here is what our students believe about this work:

“It feels good to help those in need.”

“We want to continue to make others feel happy.”

“It’s nice to know that we are actually using what we learn in Jewish Studies.”

Yes, it is.  This is poised to be a game-changer for Middle School at OJCS.

…speaking of big initiatives that got “un-paused” this year?  We finally were able to move forward with the (re)launch of our OJCS Makerspace [built with a gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund]. Thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS worked with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.   I shared the result of this work and its next steps in a blog post.  The relaunch of the OJCS Makerspace will help move our school that much closer to our North Stars and make learning that much more motivating and engaging for our students.  We can’t wait to see what our students invent and create!

we held our CAIS (Canadian Association of Independent Schools) Accreditation Site Visit on May 11th!  This was the first exciting step (although I guess doing all the preliminary paperwork was pretty “exciting”!) on our journey towards accreditation – both satisfying a longstanding strategic goal and, hopefully, helping parents in our community better understand how we fit into the private school landscape, as OJCS will – eventually – join Ashbury and Elmwood as the only CAIS Accredited schools in Ottawa.  The accreditation team consisted of the Head of School and CFO from Ashbury and the Head of School of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Montreal.  We held a full schedule of activities and look forward to their feedback.

What did not get done or what still needs work?

A lot!

First order of business will be carving out a new normal that prioritizes health and safety, resuming paused activities and deciding what from COVID-functioning (like continuing to make virtual options for Parent-Teacher Conferences or Generations Day available) should carry forward.  We have learned so much as a school during these last three years and we are determined to come out stronger, wiser and better on the other side.

Second order of business will be reconnecting with our families and our community.  We aspire to be more than a school, but we have had to restrict our access and our bandwidth during these years of scarcity due to COVID.  What can we do differently next year?  What should we do differently next year?  What should PTA be and look like?  What kinds of friend-raising activities could we or should we be facilitating or encouraging for OJCS parents?  What kinds of Jewish experiences could we be promoting or providing for OJCS families?

Third order of business will be moving forward on our amazing $1.5 million reimagination of classrooms at OJCS thanks to an anonymous gift we received this year!  We are pleased to share that we have now selected an architect firm –  Figurr – and look forward to the exciting work ahead.  The future of education in Ottawa really will be built right here at OJCS!

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  [Remember the deadline for your feedback to be included in reporting is May 13th.]  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether shared publicly, privately through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

Please stay tuned for a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT that will surely warm the hearts of those who place high value on French language and a MAJOR UPDATE on the future of Jewish Studies.  There is A LOT to be excited about as we prepare to take the next big steps forward at OJCS!

Teacher Appreciation Week 2022: There Has Never Been a More Important Time to Support Teachers

“Teacher Appreciation Week” – like so much of our calendar – is a reminder of something that ought not be restricted to a week or a day.  Teacher Appreciation Week during a third consecutive COVID school year?  That should be a reminder that we owe our teachers and those who care for our children much more than “appreciation”…

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  Stress, fatigue, under-appreciation, burnout – these factors have (sadly) always been present (as they have been in almost all forms of education, service work and nonprofits).  The days of the 30-year teacher and/or administrator have been ending in slow motion for years and decades, but the exodus we are experiencing since COVID is unprecedented and potentially cataclysmic.

As Danna Thomas put it earlier this year:

We are accustomed to feelings of uncertainty while simultaneously putting on a brave face as we continue to show up day in and day out. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers were tasked with supporting students in the midst of the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an educator burnout pandemic.

We know that stress and burnout are not new phenomena to educators, but unfortunately they’re getting worse.  When teacher burnout increases, teaching quality decreases, which results in less effective classroom management and reduced student engagement. When teacher stress increases, it contributes to student stress, which has been linked to learning and mental health problems.

We have been both lucky and blessed at OJCS, pre-pandemic and during COVID, with a significant number of veteran teachers and administrators who continue to make OJCS their address for their love of children and their passion for teaching, year after year.  But that doesn’t mean that the last few years have not taken their toll.  They have.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should take their commitment and dedication for granted.  We shouldn’t.  What it means – to me – is that the small things that truly demonstrate “appreciation” matter now, more than ever.

With Teacher Appreciation Week launching next week, during which our Admin, PTA and Board eagerly look forward to celebrating and spoiling our teachers, you can make a huge difference to the overall wellbeing of our school by simply picking an item from below (aggregated from lots of blog posts) and making a teacher’s day:

  • A personalized note or email
  • A homemade craft
  • Caffeine
  • A hot meal
  • Gift cards
  • Plants
  • A personalized thank-you sign
  • Small treasures
  • Something special that reminds a teacher of his/her student(s)
  • Alcohol (but check first!)
  • Show up for school!
  • Spa treatment
  • Experiential gifts (like a remote yoga or dance class)
  • Donations to a dream project
  • Year-Round Advocacy

My personal suggestion?  Absolutely send gift cards and post creatively on social media.  Buy ads in yearbooks, post lawns signs and lead parades.  Do any and all of the above list.  Express your appreciation for all the things your child(ren)’s teacher(s) have done to make in-person, hyflex and distance learning as successful as it has been.  Please.

But if you want to go the extra mile this year?  Let’s also try assuming the best of our teachers – even when they have difficult truths to share.  Give them the benefit of the doubt – even when they don’t communicate as well as they could.  Treat them as partners – even when they make mistakes.  Let’s not simply tell our teachers that we appreciate them; let’s actually appreciate them.

Please be on the lookout for this year’s Annual Parent Survey, which will be emailed to you no later than Monday and due back no later than May 13th!

Tips for Planning Your Endemic Seder 1.0 Too Good to Passover

After two years of making gallow humour jokes at the end of Passover seders by wondering if L’shanah ha’bah-ah will continue to end with b’Zoom, this may be the year that you and yours are preparing to actually be back around a seder table with friends and family.  Perhaps you will have a limited attendance, perhaps you are going all the way back in…or perhaps you are still keeping things small and/or carrying forward a hybrid seder with remote participants.  Whatever you are doing, here’s hoping it feels one step closer to normal…

Each year, I issue a blog post in service of helping people take the process of planning for seder more seriously.  Why?  Because I believe (know) that like anything else, good planning leads to good outcomes.  As I noted two years ago,

During this year’s Pandemic Passover, when each family is likely looking at an intimate family experience, whatever kind of seder is going to happen, is going to happen because of you.

Now even if you are not the host, it still may be likely that the seder is falling to someone who may not (yet!) have a ton of experience filling this role and you may be called upon to help.  No pressure!  I got you.

This year I tried to remember that if anyone were to be truly be inspired and wish to adequately prepare, that it would be helpful to give them enough time to actually do it!  I typically post too close to Passover itself to allow anyone to put any of these ideas into practice.  So, this year,  I am going to push it out with a little more lead time.

So if this is your year to lead or co-lead – whether it is something you do annually, or if you are being pressed into service for the first or second time – let’s see what we can do.  And even if you still have a Zoom guestlist, the seder is still a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they still might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The seder was originally designed to be an interactive, thought-provoking, and enjoyable talk-feast of an experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even during Endemic Passover 1.0.

Revised top ten suggestions on how to make this year’s seder a more positive and meaningful experience:

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

The core mitzvah of Passover is telling the story.  Until the 9th century, there was no clear way of telling the story.  In fact, there was tremendous fluidity in how the story was told.  The printing press temporarily put an end to all creativity of how the story was told.  But we need not limit ourselves to the words printed in the Haggadah.  [This may be especially true if you have not been hosting Passover and don’t actually have haggadot.  During the last two years, mine were with my Mom – so, we dusted off some vintage ones.  If you Google “online haggadot” you will find lots of options.]  This could be done by means of a skit, game, or informally going around the table and sharing each person’s version of the story.

If there are older members at the table, this might be a good time to hear their “story,” and perhaps their “exodus” from whichever land they may have come.  If your older members are not able to be with you this year, you might wish to consider asking them to write or record their stories, which you could incorporate into your seder (depending on your level of observance).  There may still be lots of families who will be using technology to expand their seder tables to include virtual friends and families – however, this year’s timing with Shabbat makes it harder for those who might normally try to sneak some of this in before candle-lighting.

2.  Sing Songs

If your family enjoys singing, the seder is a fantastic time to break out those vocal cords!  In addition to the traditional array of Haggadah melodies, new English songs are written each year, often to the tunes of familiar melodies.  Or just spend some time on YouTube!  Alternatively, for the creative and adventurous souls, consider writing your own!

3.  Multiple Haggadot

For most families, I would recommend choosing one haggadah to use at the table.  This is helpful in maintaining consistency and ensuring that everyone is “on the same page.”  Nevertheless, it is also nice to have extra haggadot available for different commentaries and fresh interpretations.  Of course, this year, you may again be getting by with whatever you can find around the house, or what you can get from Amazon Prime!  But don’t let that inhibit you from moving forward – the core elements are essentially the same from one to the other.  Let the differences be opportunities for insight not frustration.

4.  Karpas of Substance

One solution to the “when are we going to eat” dilemma, is to have a “karpas of substance.”  The karpas (green vegetable) is served towards the beginning of the seder, and in most homes is found in the form of celery or parsley.  In truth, karpas can be eaten over any vegetable over which we say the blessing, “borei pri ha’adamah,” which praises God for “creating the fruit from the ground.”  Therefore, it is often helpful to serve something more substantial to hold your guests over until the meal begins.  Some suggestions for this are: potatoes, salad, and artichokes.

In a year when Passover comes right out of Shabbat and candle-lighting times are late or children’s patience runs short or you are trying to accommodate varying time zones, you should try to eat your gefilte fish before the seder.

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your partner, children and guests a little homework.  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  This could be the year you go all in and come in costume – dress like an ancient Israelite or your favorite plague – don’t succumb to “Pediatric Judaism”, you are allowed to be silly and fun at all ages and stages.

6.  Know Your Audience

This may seem obvious, but the success of your seder will largely depend on your careful attention to the needs of the seder guests.  If you expect many young children at the seder, you ought to tailor the seder accordingly.  If you have people who have never been to a seder before, be prepared for lots of basic questions and explanations.  Do not underestimate your guests; if you take the seder seriously, they will likely respond positively.

7.  Fun Activities

Everyone wants to have a good time at the seder.  Each year, try something a little different to add some spice to the evening.  Consider creating a Passover game such Pesach Family Feud, Jewpardy, or Who Wants to be an Egyptian Millionaire?!  (Again, depending on your observance level, you could also incorporate apps like Kahoot into your experience.)  Go around the table and ask fun questions with serious or silly answers.

8.  Questions for Discussion

Depending on the ages of your children, this one may be hard to calibrate, but because so often we are catering to the youngest at the table, it is easy to forget that an adult seder ought to raise questions that are pertinent to the themes found in the haggadah.  For example, when we read “ha lachma anya—this is the bread of affliction,” why do we say that “now we are slaves?”  To what aspects of our current lives are we enslaved?  How can we become free?  What does it mean/what are the implications of being enslaved in today’s society?  How has the experience of being “locked down” during COVID and/or our impending “freedom” from COVID impacted our sense of things?  How might what is happening in the Ukraine colour our experience of Passover?

We read in the haggadah, “in each generation, one is required to see to oneself as if s/he was personally redeemed from Egypt.”  Why should this be the case?  How do we go about doing that?  If we really had such an experience, how would that affect our relationship with God?

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5782

Head of the Ottawa Jewish Day School: Why is this conversation about OJCS different than all other ones?

Jewish Day School Practitioner: How will I take the things that were positive, successful, innovative, relationship-building, personalizing, differentiated, globally-connected, quiet/introvert-amplifying and meaningful about working in a hyflex learning program and incorporate them into schooling when we fully return to in-person learning?

Israel Advocate: How can I be inspired by the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” to inspire engagement with Israel as we hopefully prepare for things to start to open up a bit?

American Expatriate in Canada: What can I learn from how my current home is approaching COVID-19 that would be of value to colleagues, family and friends in the States?  What can I learn from how my former home is approaching COVID-19 that would be of value to colleagues, family and friends in Canada?

Parent: How will my parenting be informed with what I have learned during all these months of intense family time?  What new routines will I try to incorporate into my parenting when things go back to normal?

What are some of your “Fifth Questions” this year?

9.  Share Family Traditions

Part of the beauty of Passover, is the number of fascinating traditions from around the world.  This year, in particular, is a great opportunity to begin a new tradition for your family.  One family I know likes to go around the table and ask everyone to participate in filling the cup of Elijah.  As each person pours from his/her cup into Elijah’s, s/he offers a wish/prayer for the upcoming year.  What are you going try this year?

10.  Preparation

The more thought and preparation given to the seder, the more successful the seder will be.  That may feel challenging or overwhelming this year, but however much time and attention you can put into your planning, you won’t regret it.  If you are an OJCS (or Jewish day school family), lean on your children – you paid all this money for a high-quality Jewish education, put them to work!  Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

Wishing you and your family an early chag kasher v’sameach

And for OJCS Parents…we hope you are looking forward to next week’s Model Seders and other Passover Activities!

Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

Admissions seasons tend to bring up big-picture questions and spark big-picture conversations.  Which makes sense as parents – both new and returning – are making critical decisions about where, why and how they want their children to be educated.  Today, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on a question that bubbles up from time to time that I struggle to provide a clear answer to.  It gets asked in lots of different ways, but essentially boils down to the same idea: Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

Typically the question is specific to an incident of negative behavior, although it is just as fair to ask about positive behavior as well, and I intend to address both.

Jewish day schools are in the character-building business.  It is a significant motivation for parents to enroll their children in our schools.  We care at least as much about who our students are as we care about what they can accomplish.  We utilize Jewish value language across the curriculum to reinforce the idea that being a mensch is not something one does only in certain classes, but something one is all day long.  Our teachers work hard all day to ensure that our school lives up to the ideal of being a community of kindness.  And even during school we struggle to achieve our goal.  That’s precisely why we launched our new behavior management program anchored in the “7 Habits” in the first place.  [Click here for a recap.]  We recognized that in order to become that community it required all of us working together to build the safe, loving environment our children deserve. But even these new approaches emphasizes what happens under our watchful eye.

What about the text sent out at 9:00 PM?

What about the play-date on Sunday?  Or the ones some children are not invited to?

What about the hallways during Bar Mitzvah services?

Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.  If I witness or discover noteworthy behavior of my students when we are not technically in school, what exactly are my responsibilities to respond or react?  Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

The simple answer is “yes”.  I care deeply about who our students are when they are not in school because how they behave when no one is watching matters a whole lot more than how they behave under close supervision.  That’s the true measure of character. That’s derekh eretz.

OK, that part is simple.  I am proud when students behave well outside of school and disappointed when they don’t.  But do I share those feelings with them?  Do I share those feelings with their parents?  Is it my place to hold them accountable for those behaviors?  Those are the vexing questions I struggle to answer effectively – especially when the behaviors are grey.

The black-and-white ones are easy; they always are when the level of behavior is so significant it cannot be ignored.  We already engage parents when we discover social events where students are excluded. We already employ effective discipline when students bully outside school walls and times.  And on the positive end of the spectrum, we already celebrate students who are honored elsewhere.  We already praise students for their outside academic, artistic and athletic achievements.  We already highlight students who perform significant acts of lovingkindness outside of school.

The grey ones are more complicated; they always are when the level of behavior is insignificant enough that it can be, and often is, ignored. We don’t always engage parents to ensure all our students have access to frequent play-dates and smaller social opportunities.  We don’t always praise students for their random acts of lovingkindness outside of school. We often ignore disruptive behavior at Bar Mitzvahs and Jewish holidays because we are ostensibly “off-duty” and we rarely call those students to account for those behaviors when next back in school.

I am not comfortable simply standing on the sidelines.

With regard to being a “community of kindness” we say that we will know if the work we have done is taking hold if students on their own are willing to address their own behavior or that of their friends.  That children will be willing to say to themselves and to each other that “we do not behave like that here”.  To me this is no different.  We need to do a better job instilling pride of school and pride of self in our students so that they feel the responsibility of representation outside our direct reach.  An OJCS student simply does not behave like that.  An OJCS student behaves with derekh eretz whether they are in school, synagogue, the hockey rink, or the mall.

I have a role to play and I am working up the courage to empower myself to do it.  If I am made aware of discouraging behavior, I will share my disappointment regardless of when or where it took place.  If I am made aware of positive behavior, I will share my pride regardless of when or where it took place.  They will know that I have high expectations.   The older ones will know that I don’t issue a character reference or a principal recommendation lightly.  If you want me to recommend you to a high school, an honors society, or even to babysit, you will earn that recommendation by making for yourself a good name.

My students will know that I care who they are and that who they are matters.

Why Governance Matters

The 2021-2022 school year is shaping up to be a year where we have a rare opportunity to shine a light on one of the most important determinants of a successful Jewish day school…governance.

You may recall (and you may have even attended) the “Governance Town Hall” we held back in November.  That was an opportunity for parents in our school to better understand what governance at OJCS presently looks like, to be introduced/reminded of who our lay leaders are, and to ask questions.  I find it critical that parents and members of the community understand how private schools are best run and to provide regular opportunities to share how we are measuring up.  It was wonderful to share those thoughts with parents and to receive critical feedback.  It is something we plan to do on a regular basis.

This week, I had another opportunity to be reminded of the impact governance has on schools when I helped facilitate the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) “Governance Retreat” in Los Angeles.  [Yes, the timing with the first days of our school’s pivot to optional masking were way less than ideal.]  You may recall that I posted last July about my participation on the faculty of DSLTI and what I hoped it would contribute to my work here at OJCS.  I won’t repeat those ideas here, but needless to say, I returned to OJCS with both new ideas and a newfound appreciation for what our board and lay leaders have accomplished over the last four and a half years.

I know we tend to focus our energy on the most obvious stakeholders of schooling – students, parents and teachers.  When I describe the school’s stakeholders, I try to widen that circle to include volunteers, community and donors.  And technically the board checks many of those boxes – our board are, of course, all volunteers and all contribute materially to the school.  Many are or have been parents and many are or have been leaders in other Jewish community organizations, not to mention the wider Ottawa community.  But being on the board of a Jewish day school is quite the unique experience.  (I also think that because there is sometimes a little confusion and/or unnecessary mystery about how people find their way onto the school’s board that there is a bit of discomfort which renders the topic a bit of a “non-discussible”.)  What I can tell you from three headships, three years of working with over 50 Jewish day schools during my time heading up Schechter and working at Prizmah, and my current work with DSLTI, is that healthy governance matters and it matters now more than ever.

When I was hired at OJCS just about five years ago, I knew who my first two board chairs were going to be and had a strong sense of who the third was going to be – which in my experience was highly unusual and welcome first foreshadowings of stability.  These three extraordinary leaders – Michael Polowin, Leila Ages and Lorne Segal – have been my partners on each and every step we have taken together to move our school from fragility to stability.  Being a head of school is a lonely occupation (partially why programs like DSLTI exist) and the relationship between head and chair is arguably the single most important one in the entire school ecosystem.  The chair is there to support, to advise, to thought-partner, to hold accountable, to supervise and so much more.  Whether I need a hug or a kick in the pants, my board chair is there.  They spend untold hours on their board responsibilities, frequently on top of full days of work and other volunteerism.  However often I thank them, it is surely not enough.

Chairs and boards are the third leg of a stool without which a school would collapse.  The board shapes mission, provides resources, performs fiscal oversight and supervises the head of school.  There is no school administration, no teachers, no curriculum, no program – there is no what to do, and no one to teach our students without the work of the board.  To put it most simply, the school concerns itself with today and the board ensures that there will be a tomorrow.  There has never been a more important and challenging time to serve on the board of a Jewish school.  I am grateful to our current board for all they have done and all they will do to secure the future of OJCS and, through it, contribute to securing the future of Jewish Ottawa.

Serving on a board is a kind of calling…if you hear that call and feel moved to respond, I hope you let us know.  Our children can never have too much support.

La fête de la Francophonie

For those of you whose historical memory of OJCS goes back 5 years or more, you may recall that for a number of years we invested lots of time, love and resources in all of our grades putting on French plays – or vignettes – each Spring as a way of both celebrating French and making clear how important French and French language are at OJCS.  I had one opportunity, during my first year, to watch those delightful plays and since they were retired – as happens in schools, programs cycle in and out – we have been patiently waiting to replace those plays with an updated program that serves the same purpose.

Well…that time has come!

We are so pleased to let you know that this Monday-Wednesday (March 21-23) will be our inaugural “La fête de la Francophonie” at OJCS!  The goals are simple – to spend three days marinating in French, celebrating the work of our students and teachers, highlighting the strides our French program has taken in the last few years, and elevating French beyond the boundaries of French class, into the broader OJCS culture.  Like any firsts, we expect things will go well, with some minor hiccups, but are eager to see this program develop into a significant milestone in our school’s annual journey.

So…what to expect at “la fête”?

To set the ambience, we will have a customized French music playlist to greet our students each day upon entry…

Different grades/cohorts will be assigned a different French-speaking region/country to learn more about including…

  • Franco-Ontario
  • La France
  • Acadie
  • Madagascar
  • Québec
  • La Suisse
  • Les Seychelles
  •  L’Égypte
  • La Belgique

…students will learn about their region/country, not just during French, but across their day, and will take what they learn to compete in a door-decorating contest.  The winners will receive a ‘dégustation de crêpes’.

Each French class will work on a presentation that will be presented in the grand finale of “La fête de la Francophonie” at an all-school assembly Wednesday afternoon.

And many more surprises…

So there you go…voilà!

Parents at OJCS will hopefully look forward to lots of opportunities to peek in and/or to see pictures and videos during this year’s celebration.  We’ll look forward to building on this in future years as we continue to emphasize French in our trilingual school.  Stay tuned for more updates about the future of French at OJCS in the weeks and months ahead!

(Re)Launching the OJCS Makerspace

As our school and community begin to gently ease itself slowly back to that elusive thing we once knew as “normal”, I am very pleased to share that we have completed the “Makerspace Consultancy” that I had announced earlier in the year, and that we are gearing up to finally establish the Makerspace (built with a gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund) as the hub of innovation for OJCS that it was designed to be.

To refresh…

Thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS worked with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.  The OJCS Makerspace Design Team included Josh Ray, our Middle School Science Teacher, Faye Mellenthin, our Grade 4 General Studies Teacher, Mike Washerstein, a Middle School Jewish Studies and Grade 6 Language Arts Teacher, and was headed up by Melissa Thompson, our Teaching & Learning Coordinator (and Grades 7 & 8 LA Teacher).  This was to ensure that the principles, the units, the standalone lessons, etc., cut across grades and languages and will allow us to not only build content that we can use right away, but to build capacity that we can use to develop curriculum and programming into the future.

We had our final meeting last week and received one of our deliverables – a slide deck that I am going to cherry-pick from below.  In a truly post-COVID world, we would have scheduled one of our World Famous OJCS Town Halls and presented there.  And we still may in the future, but for now, let my blog be the platform for sharing out the amazing work our team of teachers did in collaboration with our wonderful partners at Future Design School.

What were the goals?

What wound up being our “guiding principles”?

How do we get there?

How will we try to do this?

How about our students?

How will we do this?

When will all of this begin?

SOON!

The Makerspace Design Team – who I cannot thank enough for their time, commitment and passion – and I will be meeting during the Spring so that we bring all this excitement, creativity and innovation to life next school year, if not sooner.

As enrollment continues to come in – and thank you to the many, many parents who re-enrolled on time, and welcome to the many new families joining our OJCS Family for 2022-2023 – the relaunch of the OJCS Makerspace will help move our school that much closer to our North Stars and make learning that much more motivating and engaging for our students.  We can’t wait to see what our students invent and create!  And, yes, say it with me, this too is very much #TheOJCSDifference.

Do you want your child to benefit from all that an OJCS education provides?  It isn’t too late!  Please contact our Admissions Director, Jennifer Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca) to set up a tour today!

The Text is Timeless; I am Not: Re-re-reading “The Sabbath”

Or “How I Spent My February Break”.

This past week marked my third required reading of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath as part of my third seminary experience.  As much of a north star as this book has been for my twinned personal and professional Jewish journeys, I am struck by how different and how similar my responses have been from those different waypoints.  My first reading – as a single person studying for his first set of graduate degrees at the University of Judaism – along with other books, helped inspire me to take on a maximal Shabbat observance as it provided me, at that time, with what felt like a rational and modern justification for an otherwise irrational set of behaviors.  My second reading – as a married man with a pregnant wife studying for his doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary – provided us with inspiration and courage for making Shabbat the center of our not-yet-family with hope for what it would mean for us and our not-yet-children.  This third reading – as a nearly half-century-old man with teenage daughters studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion – reaches me at a point in my life where the trickle of sand through the hourglass feels more like an avalanche and the desire to experience time as infinite is palpably more painful.  Shabbat as a “palace in time” in my twenties was a brilliant metaphor; in my thirties and forties it has been a family fortress; as I prepare to enter my fifties, I yearn to make it real.

Heschel’s “Shabbat” is decidedly non-Kabbalistic, but that doesn’t make it rational, however I may have read it in my twenties.  What jumped out at me during this reading of The Sabbath is that I would describe his view of Shabbat as “mythical” – his “palace in time” is not a metaphor advocating better work-life balance (to use a more modern valance), but an actual experience of transcendence.  For Heschel, the value of Shabbat is that it is not the other six days of the week – the goal is not to extend Shabbat’s transcendence into the week or even to devalue the this-worldly occupation of the work week.  Shabbat provides us with a taste of the “World to Come”  so that this life has added meaning.  Eastern philosophy wants us to use the tool of mindfulness to transcend the world through detachment; Judaism wants us to use the tool of Shabbat to experience God in this world through attachment – that’s where the imagery of weddings and couples bleed into reality and fuel transcendence.

In my first two readings of The Sabbath, I was more interested in what Shabbat wasn’t than what it was.  The “palace in time” was more about what I was keeping outside than what I could be experiencing inside.  Shabbat was an oasis of rest, of joy, and of family, precisely because that is not how the rest of the week was experienced.  This reading, perhaps influenced by my other rabbinic studies or by my own midlife ruminations, leaves me more interested in living beyond time than within it.  My understanding of the metaphor is such that it is halakhah which provides the frame and the construction – one can only build a palace in time through normative Jewish behaviors – and as I was coming to these behaviors in adulthood, I was much more interested in building the palace than dwelling in it.  As my children were born and have since transitioned into adolescence, my emphasis has shifted to dwelling in it, but more like a cottage or vacation home than a vehicle for God’s holiness (although there has always been a holiness in sacred family time), in that the reason for weekly visitation is at least as much, if not more, the opportunity it presents for togetherness, rather than transcendence.  Now, as the waystation of empty-nested-ness is within reach, I am forced to wonder who will dwell in this palace in the end?

On Friday evenings, sits a palace in time.  The famous piyut (poem) Lekhah Dodi is the midpoint of that palace’s drawbridge between Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat Maariv – coming literally after six psalms representing the six days who are not Shabbat and (just about) the beginning of the evening service.  It is the liminal moment when Shabbat transcendence becomes available – if the palace had a registration desk and a check-in time, they would both be Lekhah Dodi.  My hope is that the straight line of my temporal life continues to intersect with the sacred circle of weekly time each and every Shabbat, and that Lekhah Dodi serves as both entrance and exit.  And that if I am lucky, in addition to family and friends, meaning and mindfulness, peacefulness and rest; that my palace in time not only be visited by divinity, but that I be capable of recognizing and experiencing it – in my time, in this world.

Ken y’hi ratzon.  Let it be so…

Please know that as the situation continues to unfold in the Ukraine that we are, in grade-appropriate ways, providing our students with both information and opportunities for thinking about how we can respond.  Teachers have been provided with resources, including Jewish prayers for peace, and we are having conversations about a larger school response.

This feels like one of those moments that is bigger than the curriculum…we are a school that values student voice, leadership, global connectedness, social justice, mutual human and Jewish responsibility, etc.   We want to provide our students with all the information and support they need to be educated and active citizens in the world.  If you are looking for family resources, I recommend you start with this blog post from our amazing librarian, Brigitte Ruel.

A quick thought about teachers as we head into February Break…

One of my favorite books is Teaching & Religious Imagination by Maria Harris.  It is a wonderful book and I am grateful to my doctoral comps all those years ago for allowing me to become familiar with it.  What I love about it, is how it describes secular teaching in religious language. The very act of teaching – regardless of subject or location – is a religious act.  This is not just beautiful imagery, which it is, but an important truth to acknowledge as we head into another transition – this time from hyflex, back to in-person learning.

Those of us who have been charged with the sacred task of providing a child with an education recognize and are humbled by that holy responsibility.  It matters not in a school whether we are the teacher of prayer or the teacher of math or the teacher of French or the teacher of badminton.  Education is interactional and God can be found in the quality of our relationships.  How we treat our students and each other matters.

Teachers, like families, are looking forward to a much-needed break from the challenges and burdens of having pivoted from in-person learning to Winter Break to distance learning to hyflex learning to February Break; with a final two-week phasing out of hyflex as the circle rounds back to in-person.  Please know that just as it is vitally important that we find the opportunity to share the good with parents about their children, I cannot tell you how impactful it is when a parent shares something nice about or directly to a teacher.  These acts of lovingkindness are what sustains even the most dedicated of teachers during inevitable times of stress.  Thank you to all who do take the time…your kindness matters.

We are long past the point of predictions when the truest thing is our inability to know what is to come.  We know that when we return from break that the sun will rise on each new day.  We are hopeful for better/easier days, but prepared for all possibilities.  I am as anxious and excited as anyone to see what is to come.  If the saying, “Man plans; God laughs,” is true, I guess we’ll see who is laughing in the weeks to come.

In the meanwhile, we wish all our OJCS Families a safe, restful, joyous and meaningful February Break.

#ShortestBlogEver #You’reWelcome