The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results Part 1 (of 3)

As committed to “transparency” as I am, I find myself growing more and more ambivalent each year about how to best facilitate an appropriate conversation about why our school engages in standardized testing (which for us, like many independent schools in Canada, is the CAT4), what the results mean (and what they don’t mean), how it impacts the way in which we think about “curriculum” and, ultimately, what the connection is between a student’s individual results and our school’s personalized learning plan for that student.  It is not news that education is a field in which pendulums tend to wildly swing back and forth as new research is brought to light.  We are always living in that moment and it has always been my preference to aim towards pragmatism.  Everything new isn’t always better and, yet, sometimes it is.  Sometimes you know right away and sometimes it takes years.

I have already taken a blog post that I used to push out in one giant sea of words, and over time broke it into two ,and now three parts, because even I don’t want to read a 3,000 word post.  But, truthfully, it still doesn’t seem enough.  I continue to worry that I have not done a thorough enough job providing background, research and context to justify a public-facing sharing of standardized test scores.  Probably because I haven’t.  [And that’s without factoring in all the COVID gaps that come along with it.]

And yet.

With the forthcoming launch of Annual Grades 9 & 12 Alumni Surveys and the opening of the admissions season for the 2023-2024 school year, it feels fair and appropriate to be as transparent as we can about how well we are (or aren’t) succeeding academically against an external set of benchmarks, even as we are still just freshly coming out facing extraordinary circumstances.  That’s what “transparency” as a value and a verb looks like.  We commit to sharing the data and our analysis regardless of outcome.  We also do it because we know that for the overwhelming majority of our parents, excellence in secular academics is a non-negotiable, and that in a competitive marketplace with both well-regarded public schools and secular private schools, our parents deserve to see the school’s value proposition validated beyond anecdotes.

Now for the annual litany of caveats and preemptive statements…

We have not yet shared out individual reports to our parents.  First our teachers have to have a chance to review the data to identify which test results fully resemble their children well enough to simply pass on, and which results require contextualization in private conversation.  Those contextualizing conversations will take place in the next few weeks and, thereafter, we should be able to return all results.

There are a few things worth pointing out:

  • Because of COVID, this is now only our fourth year taking this assessment at this time of year.  We were in the process of expanding the range from Grades 3-8 in 2019, but we paused in 2020 and restricted last year’s testing to Grades 5-8.  This means that we can only compare at the grade level from 2019’s Grades 5-8 to 2021’s Grades 5-8 to 2022’s Grades 5-8.
  • And we can only compare at the cohort level from 2019’s Grades 3-5 to 2021’s Grades 5-7 to 2022’s Grades 6-8.
  • This is the first year we have tested Grades 3 & 4 on this exam at this time of year.
  • From this point further, assuming we continue to test in (at least) Grades 3-8 annually, we will soon have tracking data across all grades which will allow us to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same cohort grows at least a year’s worth of growth.
  • The last issue is in the proper understanding of what a “grade equivalent score” really is.

Grade-equivalent scores attempt to show at what grade level and month your child is functioning.  However, grade-equivalent scores are not able to show this.  Let me use an example to illustrate this.  In reading comprehension, your son in Grade 5 scored a 7.3 grade equivalent on his Grade 5 test. The 7 represents the grade level while the 3 represents the month. 7.3 would represent the seventh grade, third month, which is December.  The reason it is the third month is because September is zero, October is one, etc.  It is not true though that your son is functioning at the seventh grade level since he was never tested on seventh grade material.  He was only tested on fifth grade material.  He performed like a seventh grader on fifth grade material.  That’s why the grade-equivalent scores should not be used to decide at what grade level a student is functioning.

Let me finish this section by being very clear: We do not believe that standardized test scores represent the only, nor surely the best, evidence for academic success.  Our goal continues to be providing each student with a “floor, but no ceiling” representing each student’s maximum success.  Our best outcome is still producing students who become lifelong learners.

But I also don’t want to undersell the objective evidence that shows that the work we are doing here does in fact lead to tangible success.  That’s the headline, but let’s look more closely at the story.  (You may wish to zoom in a bit on whatever device you are reading this on…)

A few tips on how to read this:

  • We take this exam in the “.2” of each grade-level year.  That means that “at grade level” [again, please refer above to a more precise definition of “grade equivalent scores”] for any grade we are looking at would be 5.2, 6.2, 7.2, etc.  For example, if you are looking at Grade 6, anything below 6.2 would constitute “below grade level” and anything above 6.2 would constitute “above grade level.”
  • The maximum score for any grade is “.9” of the next year’s grade.  If, for example, you are looking at Grade 8 and see a score of 9.9, on our forms it actually reads “9.9+” – the maximum score that can be recorded.
  • Because of when we take this test – approximately two months into the school year – it is reasonable to assume a significant responsibility for results is attributable to the prior year’s teachers and experiences.  But, of course, it is very hard to tease it out exactly, of course.

What are the key takeaways from these snapshots of the entire school?

  • Looking at six different grades through six different dimensions there are only five instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level: Grade 3 (Vocabulary 2.2, Writing Conventions 2.5, and Spelling 2.6), Grade 5 (Computation Estimation 4.6), and Grade 6 (Computation Estimation barely falling short at 6.0).
  • I’m not quite sure what to make of Grade 3’s Language Arts scores altogether.  Reading and Writing has been the most notable lagging skill for the Grade 3 cohort since their entry into Grade 2.  This is in part due to disruptions to their learning through their foundation-building years in Kindergarten and Grade 1. In Grade 2, this cohort’s remediation was heavily focused on closing the gaps in reading and comprehension abilities, as developmentally this is what comes first.  The remediation focus has shifted to writing at the start of Grade 3, as this is a lagging skill that was already identified prior to the CAT-4 testing.  Supports and interventions have already been put in place to address this lagging skill and we have seen academic growth in these areas.  To put it more simply: These are our youngest students whose early learning was the most disrupted by COVID and they have never taken a standardized test before in their lives.  It will become a baseline that I imagine us jumping over quickly in the years to come – I’m inclined to toss them out as an anomaly.
  • Importantly, tracing the trajectory from our 2019 results to our 2021 results to 2022’s, we can now more conclusively state that Spelling and Computation & Estimation are no longer globally lower as a school relative to the other dimensions.  I will have more to say about why we believe this to be true in Parts II & III.

What stands out the most is how exceedingly well each and every grade has done in just about each and every section.  In almost all cases, each and every grade is performing significantly above grade-level.  This is a very encouraging set of data points.

Stay tuned next week when we begin to dive into the comparative data.  “Part II” will look at the same grade over time.  “Part III” will look at the same cohort (the same group of students) over time and conclude this series of posts with some additional summarizing thoughts.

A Chanukah BONUS Trip Around the OJCS Blogosphere

Chag urim sameach!  Happy Chanukah!

It was so wonderful to see so many of you at our Annual Chanukah Family Program last night!  I’ve never seen our Gym so full!  That is what it looks like with a school of nearly 200 students and their families…who knew?!  The kids were amazing and it was so nice to see so many people from our OJCS Family come together to celebrate.  (Check out our social and “The Hadashot” for pictures and videos from this special evening!)

I hadn’t prepared to blog an additional time prior to Winter Break, but as I’ve been poking around the OJCS Blogosphere, I saw so much Chanukah ruach that I thought I might as well take advantage of the opportunity and provide a second “Trip Around” post.  [Click here if you want to revisit the trip we took earlier in the year.]

From the OJCS JK / Gan Katan Blog (click here for the full blog)

Happy Chanukah! – Posted on December 19

Today we made some beautiful unique marbelized invitations for our Chanukah show tomorrow evening! If you’re interested in the process and the science, please click here. We learned about the miracle of the ‘shemen’ (oil) on Chanukah, why shemen (oil) does not mix with mayim (water), and experimented with different kinds of paper that we called ‘thirsty’ (watercolour paper) and ‘not thirsty’ (cardstock). We also celebrated the first day of Chanukah with some singing, candle lighting, and window decorating. A very big TODAH RABAH! to Ivri’s family for bringing us a beautiful chanukiyah and some lovely candles!

Happy Chanukah!

From the OJCS Grade 1A / Kitah Alef-A Blog (click here for the full blog)

From Friday Features – Posted on December 16

Chanukah is almost here!! We can feel it in the air!

Here are some things we have been doing !

In math we have been working on different graphing activities for our math Unit on Data Management. We conducted a survey for our favourite Chanukah Treats. We are working on a booklet using 3 different types of graphs. Bar Graphs, Pictographs, and Tallie marks. We are looking forward to seeing how your family likes their Latkes, when our homework is returned on  Tuesday.

From the OJCS Grade 3/ Kitah Gimmel-A Blog (click here for the full blog)

Oh Chanukah, Math-manukah – Posted on December 14

This week we took our problem solving skills and applied them to a series of Chanukah themed Math problems!

We worked on 4 different problems;

Morah Lianna made latkes for her friends and family. She fried up 72 latkes for her 18 students in 3A and all of the 35 teachers at OJCS. How many did she have left after 3A and all the teachers ate their latkes?

Morah Lianna was collecting gelt to play dreidels with. She collected 80 chocolate coins, but while she was on recess duty, Mrs. Cleveland ate 17 of them and Ms. Beswick came to take 25 of them. How many chocolate coins did Morah Lianna have left?

Morah Lianna and Cooper were getting ready to light the Chanukiah. She had 28 candles ready for the holiday, but Cooper accidentally ate 6 candles and broke 4 more. How many candles did Morah Lianna have left?

Morah Lianna was making Chanukah gift bags. She made 8 bags in total. Each bag will have 2 dreidels, 2 sufganiyot, and 5 chocolate coins. How many dreidels does Morah Lianna need to buy? How many sufganiyot does Morah Lianna need to buy? How many chocolate coins does she need to buy? What if she wanted to make 10 gift bags in total, instead of 8?

The students worked in small groups to answer their problem.

   

Then they all shared their thinking and reasoning in order to learn from each other! We even worked as a class to correct some of the errors we made with our Math operations (#NorthStarAlert! We Learn Better Together)

Stay tuned for next week’s Chanukah related Math problem!

Hope you enjoyed the brief tour and, I bet, if you take a peek after reading this post, you’ll see even more Chanukah joy reflected.  Enjoy the last few nights of Chanukah!

BTW – if you like a playlist and a signature cocktail for your celebrations [I see you Nancy!], why don’t you go ahead and make yourself a Chanukah Gelt Martini and vibe to this playlist:

Eight Joyous Nights to Celebrate Eight Inspirational Lights

It is sometimes difficult to find new ground to tread – especially when it comes to the Jewish Holidays.  There are some holidays (like Sukkot and Passover) where I kinda recycle/upgrade the same basic idea each year.  [Like this and this.]  There are some holidays (like Yom Kippur) where I take a basic premise or prompt and respond differently each year.  [Like this.]  And then there are those holidays, like Chanukah, where I kinda do a bit both, and perhaps not so artfully.  Like this.

This year, I want to do something different.  It will be something borrowed and something new.  To the degree that Chanukah is a re(dedication); to the degree that the lights of the chanukiah are intended to serve as a public statement and an inspiration; and because the season tends to encourage a sense of gratitude, I am going to dedicate my annual Chanukah Blog Post to eight lights – either people, places or ideas – that have inspired me as a person and as a professional.  By doing so, I hope to shine a light of thankfulness upon them and to light a light under me to try harder and be better.  If the idea speaks to you, pick a night (or pick all eight) and identify those lights who have lit your path, and figure out a way that makes sense to you, to honor and celebrate those people and ideas who inspire you.

Night #1

I dedicate the first night to my father of blessed memory, Michael Mitzmacher.  It will be ten years this summer since he has passed and it only gets better and worse each year.  To learn more about my father and how his legacy has shaped and continues to shape me, please check out this blog post that I published in September of 2015 where I reflect with a little distance on his passing: Remembering My Dad.

Night #2

I dedicate the second night to my first professional mentor and role model in the field of Jewish Education, Dr. David Ackerman.  We have not been in touch for quite a while, but it doesn’t diminish the impact he made on my life and my career.  I don’t wear a bow-tie, but I do go by “Doc”.  To learn more about the original Doc, perhaps more than you (or he!) would want to know, you can revisit this blog post from April 2011: Mentor in a Speedo.

Night #3

This night I seek to remember the life and legacy of Esther Ohayon Z”l and to revel in the strength and courage of her daughter, Orly, who survived the car crash that claimed her mother.  Esther was Maytal’s teacher in Preschool and Orly is a graduate of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS) where I served as Head from 2010-2014.  This was one of the hardest things to write about and one of the most meaningful.  I think about Orly often (not that I have told her) when I think about what it means to not only survive a tragedy, but to find a way to thrive in its aftermath.  I published A Sukkah for Orly in September 2013.

Night #4

I dedicate this night to the selfless and humble example of Samuel and Esther Galinsky, names you will not recognize unless you live in Jacksonville, Florida, but a story that I hope will stick.  Here is a brief snippet about them from a larger speech I gave at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of MJGDS:

“Samuel and Esther Galinsky were, by all accounts, modest and unassuming members of our synagogue.  They participated in synagogue life and were respected members of the congregation.  They cared about Jewish education, but had no children of their own.  They were, in many ways, like any other couple.  When they died, their friends mourned their passing.  And that should be the end of the story.  But it isn’t.  Because this ordinary couple did something extraordinary.  With no fanfare and no notice, Samuel and Esther Galinsky left the Jacksonville Jewish Center amongst the most significant gifts it has ever received – $3 million.  And it was given for one purpose – this childless couple gave their fortune to ensure that Jewish children would be able to have a Jewish education.  Has there ever been a more selfless gift?  Have any people ever more embodied the idea of L’dor V’dor?”

Let their memory serve as an example to us all…

Night #5

This is a night to celebrate the light that lights all our schools…our teachers.  A school is only as good as its teachers and good teachers feeling good about teaching is the best recipe.  I think for many parents, schooling during COVID opened up a lot of eyes to how amazing our teachers are and so, here, I’d like to revisit my plea to honor and celebrate those who dedicate their lives to the sacred and holy task of educating children by asking that you read If You Really Want to Appreciate Teachers, Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt, which was published in May of 2020.

Night #6

This one will be a bit of a leap, but on this night I want to think about Killer Mike.  I am a bit leery linking my January 2016 post called, Praying With Your Legs in 2016: What JDS Can Learn From Killer Mike, because re-reading it in 2022, I am not sure that I love everything that I had to say.  But the money quote, the thing that I want to remember on the Sixth Night of Chanukah is,

…the second takeaway – and the one that has more applicability to Jewish day school – is Killer Mike’s proscription for how to best support underserved communities.  He lays out a vision of empathy which can only be achieved through relationship.  This requires us to leave our comfort zones and engage with the wider world.  In Killer Mike’s context he is talking essentially about white, middle-class folk, but in it I heard echoes of a common concern families have about the ghettoization of Jewish day schools, their lack of racial diversity and the impact it has on children who will need to live, work and contribute to a multicultural world.

To make a difference in the world, I want to rededicate myself to the idea that I need to do more than engage in hashtag activism; I need to engage with people and communities outside my own.

Night #7

For night seven, I cast my eyes southward – not just south of the border, but to the actual South.  As we enter our sixth year in Ottawa, I am reminded that we will soon have lived longer in Ottawa than any other place we have ever lived.  It will beat out the seven years we lived in Jacksonville, Florida.  For this night, I want to reflect on what made living in that community so special and reflect back that light to build upon what makes living here special as well.  So there is salty taste of southern hospitality to be found in L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife published in June of 2017.

Night #8

Chanukah is about miracles.  So I will close out this holiday by reflecting on The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano, which I wrote – in shock and tears – in March of 2021.  I still cannot believe she’s gone.

Hopefully, your family is planning on joining our OJCS Family in this triumphant return to an actual, in-person Annual Chanukah Family Program on Tuesday, December 20th at 6:30 PM in the Gym!

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

Leadership Begins With You

OK, so I guess technically “Leadership” begins with “L”, but a pithy blog post title that does not make…

I have been blessed to have two leadership experiences juxtaposed across two weeks that drive home the idea that leadership is personal – and that leadership development is personalised.  I am going to spend just a bit of space sketching out what those two experiences were and then see if I can meaningfully connect the dots.

Two weeks ago, we had our November PD (Professional Development, and  although we prefer to use “Professional Growth”, “PG” is not the phrase people know) Day at the Ottawa Jewish Community School and we decided that in terms of both content and pedagogy, we wanted to lean into personalised learning.  And that is how we wound up with…

A phrase I am fond of saying is that “we should at least treat our teachers as well as we treat our students,” which is my way of saying that oftentimes what is good pedagogy and practise for teachers teaching is also good for teachers learning.  If we “own our learning” at OJCS [North Star alert!] than our teachers should have an opportunity to own their professional growth and, thus, “A Day of You” was born.  Now it was not open-ended – if you look at the fine print you’ll see “Based on Teacher-Led Evaluation Learning Targets”.  That is because although they had lots of choices, we did want to ensure that the day (like each and every other day) moves them and us closer to the OJCS Learning Target.  [What is this “OJCS Learning Target” you speak of?  Ah, yes.  Click here for an important refresher.]

Here is what teachers were asked to do…

And what tasks did they have to choose from?

You might need to zoom in if you are interested in the details, but you can see that we provided teachers with lots of choices to grow themselves in each of the domains of our Learning Target.  You also can see at the bottom that in addition to working on their own or in groups, the Admin (with support of a few of our “Leads”) offered direct coaching as well.  Like a good old fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure book (you young folk can follow the link if you don’t catch the reference), our teachers were able to create a Choose Your Own Professional Growth Adventure by filling out…

The mood and the energy in the building was fantastic and we are already thinking about our February PD Day!  More to say on this down below…

You either walk inside your story and own it or you
stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brené Brown

This week, I was in Los Angeles for the Spring Retreat of Cohort 12 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) for whom I serve as one of the Mentors.  [I have written previously about this work, including how it contributes to my work as a head of school.]  The title of the Retreat was “The Leader in Me” and it is not my place to share here the details of the readings and the learning that served as the anchor for the exchanges and conversations that anchored our time together.  What I am capable of sharing, was that it was a rare opportunity for both the mentors and the mentees to take a deep dive inward as a means to staking out the next steps and stages of our individual (personal) leadership journeys.  We studied text, we analyzed personality inventories and explored leadership theories.  We journaled and we shared and we journaled and we shared some more.  We made ourselves vulnerable and received caring feedback.

As is true with my rabbinical school journey, I carry a certain amount of guilt about the time I spend in DSLTI because I tend to believe that time is a zero-sum game – each minute not spent at school is a minute missed.  But the truth is that these experiences make – I genuinely believe – me a better leader, which is to the good of our school, our teachers and, ultimately, our students.  And the whole point of this retreat was to underline that idea – that when leaders don’t take the time to nourish and think and grow themselves, that their organizations run the risk of growing stale and declining.  When the oxygen drops, we put our masks on first and then assist others…

What’s the connective tissue?  Well.  The last thing we did at our DSLTI Retreat was to create our own leadership quotes to summarize what we believe to be true about leadership.  Mine (and I wish I could share them all!) contains some words that readers of my blog will surely recognize, but I think in some ways connects the dots from these two leadership experiences:

The goal of leadership is to ensure that there is an inspirational floor and an aspirational ceiling for each and every person in the organization – including you.

Jon Mitzmacher

Weeks like these last two are reminders that I have to keep learning and growing in order to achieve my ultimate leadership goal, which is to unleash the talent and passion of each student, teacher and administrator at OJCS.  If we can do that, then we will hit those Learning Targets and reach those North Stars.  It is a journey that I am blessed to walk, along with fellow travellers, both within my school and across the globe.  It is a journey with both a clear destination and, yet, no endpoint.  It is a journey whose momentum can only be sustained through pauses.

And with these pauses behind me and two action-packed weeks left before Winter Break, it is time to hit “play”…

The Rare Blessing of Stable Leadership in a Jewish Day School

I have had more than my share of leadership positions in Jewish Education over the years.  And that is pretty par for the course.  Some of that is to due to changing social norms about “careers” and it is the rare person in almost any field who has the same position or works for the same company from entry to retirement.  Some of that is due to the more unique pressures of educational leadership and the average lengths of tenure for independent school leaders continue to be alarmingly low (like less than four years) and, post-COVID, trending even lower.  Some of that is due to the special circumstances of Jewish day school leadership which suffers from its own kind of “grass is greener” phenomenon.  [I wrote a lot about this during my time in charge of Schechter.]  And, finally, of course, there are the individual idiosyncratic decisions that play their part as well.

I say all of this to provide context to just how rare a moment we are experiencing here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  As I wrote about a couple of years ago, I am now in the second year of a (second) contract that extends for an additional three years – putting my minimum tenure as Head of OJCS at nine years.  That, by itself, is pretty rare.  But the more local folk know that our school’s success does not hinge on my leadership, and certainly not my leadership alone.  Part of our success relies on the partnership I share with Keren Gordon.

When I came to OJCS, I was not the only person starting a new leadership position.  Ms. Gordon was elevated from her Special Needs Coordinator role (a role in which she excelled) and was named “Vice Principal” with a contract that matched mine in length.  We were constructed to be a team, match-made with the hope of complementary skills and personalities, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how quickly our partnership would bear fruit and how deeply it is has evolved over time.  From our students to our teachers; from our parents to our board – to anyone who has spent meaningful time working for or with our school – I genuinely believe it is clear how important this leadership partnership has been in helping getting our school from where it was to where it is.  But where is it going?

I imagine a question has occured to you.  If I am now working through a second contract that will end at a tenure of nine years, what about Ms. Gordon?  If her contract was originally tethered to mine, what now?  Well.  I am very pleased to let our wider community know what our Board and our Faculty have now known for a few weeks.  That after a healthy negotiation, we have come to terms on that second contract.  And there are two features of that contract that I want to name…

The first is probably obvious at this point, but worth saying out loud.  Ms. Gordon’s new contract will again match mine so that we are guaranteed at least nine years of partnership guiding the school.  I cannot underline with thicker ink how unusual that is and how much it will contribute to our school’s current and future success.  In a world with less and less stability, our school is blessed with more and more.  It matters.  Nine years literally represents the journey from SK to Grade 8, so for the families who began when we did (before we relaunched JK), Ms. Gordon and I will wind up being the only leaders they will ever know.  Our knowledge of our students, our teachers, our families and our community grows each year along the way – so each year our ability to guide our school closer to its North Stars grows as well.  So that’s the first feature – the length of time.  But there is a second…

The job of being a “head of school” is ideally split between the “CEO-like” activities that one might describe as “outward-facing” (at least so far as the students and teachers might experience it) and the “principal” activities that one might describe as “inward-facing”.  A head of school has to embody all the work of running a nonprofit while serving as instructional leader…aspirational at best, but some situations and some people do function more evenly between the two spheres.  It has become increasingly clear that here, at least during this window, I have had to occupy a bit more “CEO space” than “principal space”.  But luckily, Ms. Gordon has been here, and over the last five years based on the quality of her work and the relationships she has nurtured, she has begun to occupy more and more of that space.  And that is why, with great pleasure, I am happy to share that Keren Gordon is no longer the Vice Principal of OJCS; Keren Gordon is our Principal.  (Cue the applause!)

Although this well-earned honor doesn’t change all that much on the ground, it is still worthy of sharing with our community and of celebration.  Ms. Gordon is my right hand and partner in all the work we have done, are doing and will be doing over the next three and a half years (and who knows from there!).  Together we will have been blessed to co-author a few chapters in the narrative of this school’s story – and if that story is a story of “success”, then one of its main characters will surely be “stability”.

Let’s Talk About French…Again. L’assemblée de Français 2022

As discussed, connected to our larger theme this year of “Getting Our Mojo Back”, last night we held the second of our three critical conversations this year, that will both hearken back to give everyone equal footing and dream forward to give everyone an equal stake.  Last night’s “town hall” was dedicated to the school’s French Language Journey these last six or so years, and thank you to the parents who turned out to listen and to share.  [For those of you who might have participated had we had made a virtual option available, please know that there will be occasions when we do go hybrid.  We just felt/feel that for these conversations, it is easier to navigate live.]

What I’d like to do here, is provide a kind of annotated guide to the slides that were presented – layering in a bit of my own commentary – and ending with both some proposed next steps and opportunities for onboarding more questions and feedback from more parents.  Parent voice is critical to our ability to dream big dreams, since you, our parents, are our most important stakeholder community and partner.  Please add your voice to the conversation in whichever way is comfortable for you – comment on this blog, shoot me a private email, or make an appointment to come in.  This takes the village.

Unlike the Jewish Studies Town Hall we held in recent weeks, last night’s did not go quite so far back to the beginning.  We really began with a snapshot of what we have done in recent years…consider it, “Promises Made; Promises Kept”:

In terms of academic periods…

And in terms of pure time…it has increased this year (beyond what is reflected above) due to one of a number of more recent changes…

In addition to now offering French-language PE, we have also reorganized our approach to be aligned with the “proficiency” approach to language acquisition – a best practice which describe language learning by…

And with this commitment to the “4 Strands”…

And additionally…

And to ensure our teachers are up to the task…

Now that we are caught up about what is, let’s pivot to what’s next

On the “After School French Programs” piece…we have received LOTS of positive feedback and interest in our first two offerings.  A parent email went out the same day this post was published (11/25), so if you are a current OJCS family interested in participating, please check your email and be sure to respond to next steps.

Now these next slides are important not just in and of themselves, but what they represent (an external, objective assessment of French fluency) and create (an opportunity/responsibility to work “backwards by design” and update a curriculum map that ensures students from JK on up are best positioned to receive their certification.  Let’s talk about DELF:

We are piloting the DELF in this year’s Grade 8 and are looking forward to best utilize it – again, not only as a way of “verifying” that our students have realized a certain external standard of French fluency (or to put it more bluntly, that OJCS graduates are prepared to transition to French Immersion in Grade 9), but as a way of working backwards to ensure that each grade level is preparing students for the next grade level with DELF success front of mind.

 

And finally, because I believe in naming those things which need to be named, let me acknowledge what I also believe to be true…

…we need to hire at least one French Language Resource Teacher as soon as the budget allows for it.

…we should begin exploring “what would need to be true for OJCS to offer a French immersion track at any grade levels”, understanding there are significant space/staffing/budgetary considerations at play.

if OJCS is ultimately unable to offer the Core/Immersion options available through the public board at any grade level, then it has to clarify whether the model will continue to be Core/Extended (with however many add-ons, tweaks, supplements, etc., the model allows for) or whether its future is simply as a French Immersion Jewish Day School (à la Montreal).  At some point it is fair to “call the question”.

So…let me repeat that parent voice is critical to our ability to dream big dreams since you, our parents, are our most important stakeholder community and partner.  I am making a plea, again, to please add your voice to the conversation in whichever way is comfortable for you – comment on this blog, shoot me a private email, or make an appointment to come in.

This takes the village.

Please be sure to join us for our third and final Critical Conversation, “The ‘Future’ of OJCS” on Thursday, February 9th at 7:00 PM.

Annual Blog Cloud

It has all the makings.  It is mid-November.  It snowed for the first time.  American Thanksgiving is growing closer.  For whatever reason, this has become the sweet spot for one of my favorite little blog posts…running my blog through a “word cloud” program and seeing what happens!

If you missed last year’s punny post

I genuinely do enjoy this annual exercise in “word-clouding”.  If you are unfamiliar with the idea, in a nutshell, word clouds (through an algorithm only they know) take any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  Another great feature is that, not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a word cloud representing the sum of all its written content.

This is my sixth such annual post here at OJCS and I have done them each, as stated above, in November.  So, what does this year’s “blog cloud” look like and what does it reveal?  [If it is too small on your screen/device you can go ahead and zoom in.  Or just scroll up!]

I just put last and this years’ clouds side-by-side to do a little comparison.

Guess what didn’t make the list at all?!

COVID!

“Jewish”, “Learning” and “Time” remain strong.  “Community” is back and “Students” and “Parents” have also returned to prominence.

We see “Middle” and “Makerspace” and “Blog” show up in a big way, with “Makerspace” debuting in this post.  I think “Middle” is a reflection of how much time, energy, thought and care we are putting into our OJCS Middle School to continue to ensure that it has both a “value add” and a unique “value proposition” of its own.  It makes sense that the OJCS Makerspace, now that it has launched as a hub of innovation, has raised its profile.

I think the word “back” is so prominent because we have been so excited about all the amazing programs and conversations that we are finally able to bring…back!

Next year I hope to see “Mitzvah Trips” make the list.

What words would you have expected to see?  What words are you surprised to see?

If you see something interesting in my OJCS “blog cloud” let me know in the comments!

What is Lost and What is Gained When Blessings Become Songs

[NOTE: I will be in the States next Sunday-Wednesday attending my first Fall Retreat as a rabbinic student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  I was asked to share a brief iyun about Birkat Ha’Mazon.  You will find it below.  It is not intended to describe what is or is not true for the children and families at OJCS; rather it is a larger observation about what I do believe is true for many children and families in the larger Jewish world.]

I’m not sure by what age I realized that all the “whoop-dee-doo”s and “sour cream”s were not officially part of the liturgy, but it was definitely older than it ought to be.

Like a lot of folk, my introduction to Birkat Ha’Mazon came at Camp (for me it was UAHC Camp Swig, of blessed memory) and what was missing by way of almost any sense of where this complex and important recitation of blessings after meals actually came from, or what it was intended to do, was made up for by way of ruach.  In fact, I’d say there was an inverse relationship between the attention paid towards singing Birkat Ha’Mazon as a community-building song of ruach and the attention paid towards a religious understanding of why we take the time after eating to thank God in a very specific way for the meal we just ate.

And I don’t think this is unique to me.  After about 25 years in Jewish Education, where I have worked from camps to congregations to Israel experiences to day schools – all in either Community or Conservative contexts – I feel pretty confident that the majority of children in our camps, schools, and congregations if they encounter Birkat Ha’Mazon at all, will experience it as a song with lots of changes in melody/tempo (depending on how many parts they include), lots of elaborate hand-motions, clapping and table-banging, and plenty of creative inserts, mostly innocent, occasionally not so much.  And what is true for Birkat Ha’Mazon, I believe is likely true for tefillah in general.  And so instead of zooming in on the particular brachot of Birkat Ha’Mazon, I want to zoom out and ask the broader question of what does it mean when our blessings and prayers are (only) experienced as songs (and largely songs without [Hebrew] comprehension).

What is gained and what is lost?

Clearly what is lost is understanding, at least more than just in the broadest sense.  I assume most children know that Birkat Ha’Mazon is our way of thanking God for the food we just ate.  I assume most (including adults) don’t know its Biblical source, its Rabbinic formulation, its specific blessings and themes, etc., and most don’t wrestle with either its theological implications (Do we believe in a world without the needy?) or its modern-day relevencies (What do we really know about the means of production?).  What is gained if done with any regularity, I would argue, is not just ruach, but an implicit sense of ritual and structure that is largely inoperative for many of our children (and families) outside the context.  They may not conceive of singing Birkat Ha’Mazon as fulfilling halakhah, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Where does that leave those of us tasked with inspiring children and families to take on (what for most are) non-normative practices like daily brachot and tefillah?  If ruach to prayer is like the traditional placement of honey on the alef-bet, then, yes, absolutely let the sweetness and joy of communal singing be the price of admission, and don’t sweat the mild dispresect that comes as its cost.  But let’s not let that be the end either!

My takeaway from having been asked to prepare this iyun is to bring a version of it back to my school.  If our students can prepare weekly divrei torah (which they can and do), let’s see if once a month a student can prepare an iyun Birkat Ha’Mazon and by doing so, make our lunchtime tables not just a place for raucous singing, but also a place for meaning and reflection.  What might you do in your context?  Can’t wait to find out…

OJCS Marks Clean Speech 2022 – Clean Speech Contributes to a Community of Kindness

November is “Clean Speech” Month in Ottawa, and OJCS is proud to be one of the many organizations participating in this annual attempt to elevate our language in service of creating and sustaining communities of kindness.  In addition to what we will be doing in school (check the blogs!), I thought I would kick things off by connecting the dots backwards to two posts from last year and then forward to this year.

Last year, I took a bit of risk by asking the question, “Does the school (Do I) have responsibility for how our students behave outside of school?”.  And I answer, “yes” – with my focus being on how the school ought to address what our students do outside of school, when they come back inside.  A couple of months later, I asked a bit more provocative of a question, “What responsibility do parents play in this, and what ought the school do to facilitate constructive parent behavior?”.  And I kinda answered, but also kinda dodged because that is both a hard question to answer and a chutzpahdik question for the school (me) to answer.

Fast-forwarding into this year, children continuing to be children, parent continuing to be parents, humans continuing to be humans – becoming evermore kind is a process, not a destination.  As a few things bubbled up in a particular cohort, I wound up sending an email to parents that was more specific than what I had blogged out in answer to my own question.  Not a few parents/teachers suggested that that message was more than appropriate for the school as a whole, not simply that cohort, and so let me use this launching of Clean Speech Ottawa 2022, as the opportunity to share this message more widely.

From time to time, even when it feels a bit uncomfortable, I feel a responsibility to reach out to parents to raise awareness when the conversations and activities that take place outside school follow our children back inside.  There are two ways that this typically happens, which I’d like to share with you in the spirit of strengthening our community.

The first is to simply name that there are official and unofficial channels of communication.  For example, the school provides a Google Group of parent emails and uses it to communicate with all parents in the grade – that’s an official channel.  Almost always, parents create their own, unofficial channels, like a parent’s WhatsApp.  There are lots of good reasons for parents to do this!  The school does not need or want to be a party or privy to each and every conversation parents wish to have with each other.  (We do assume healthy and constructive conversations are taking place there, both in terms of how parents engage with each other and about school in general.)  Sometimes, however, subgroups of parents may create additional unofficial channels which may not be so inclusive.  We might be able to understand why that could be true, but generally do not prefer them.

Why?

Because it is almost 100% true that everything that lands in any unofficial channel will wind up being heard by everyone – whether they are in the channel or not.  Meaning, you should assume that anything you say in the unofficial Grade Whatever Parent WhatsApp will find its way to the school.  And, anything that you say in an unofficial subgroup of parents in a separate WhatsApp will find its way to all the parents in the grade.

How do we know?

Because it happens all the time.  Hurtful statements eventually find their way to their objects which only causes more harm and never leads to good outcomes.  We simply ask that you treat these communications as if they could be read by all and act accordingly.

In a similar vein, parenting is a complex and noisy endeavor.  Our children are sponges – they hear and absorb everything that is said.  They are also eager sharers – they like to share everything they hear.  This means, if your children hear you discussing other children – innocently or not; intentionally or not – they are going to come to school and let everyone know, including those children, about how you feel and what you have said.

How do we know?

Because it is happens all the time.

Parenting is hard and getting harder all the time.  Let this be a gentle reminder about how our words tend to take on a life of their own, sometimes with uncomfortable outcomes.  And let this be a request for partnership – we ask that you please be careful about how you discuss school matters with other parents and with (or in front of) your children.  There are appropriate channels – official and unofficial – for expressing concerns, making requests, sharing frustrations, venting, asking questions or anything else a parent may need or want to do.

Let’s work together to ensure that our children get to come to school each day with fresh starts and positive attitudes.  They have so much goodness in them and ahead of them, as individuals and as a group.

Stay tuned for a Parent Survey about our as-promised new offerings for both French and Jewish Studies after-school programming!  We are working with the JCC, and we look forward to seeing what we can offer.

Let’s Talk About the “J” in “OJCS”…Again: The JS Town Hall 2022

As discussed, connected to our larger theme this year of “Getting Our Mojo Back”, last night we held the first of our three critical conversations this year that will both hearken back to give everyone equal footing and dream forward to give everyone an equal stake.  Last night’s “town hall” was dedicated to the school’s Jewish Journey these last six or so years, and thank you to the parents who turned out to listen and to share.  [For those of you who might have participated had we had made a virtual option available, please know that there will be occasions when we do go hybrid.  We just felt/feel that for these conversations, it is easier to navigate live.]

What I’d like to do here, is provide a kind of annotated guide to the slides that were presented – layering in a bit of my own commentary – and ending with both some proposed next steps and opportunities for onboarding more questions and feedback from more parents.  Parent voice is critical to our ability to dream big dreams since you, our parents, are our most important stakeholder community and partner.  I am making a plea, here, while my word count is still under 200, to please add your voice to the conversation in whichever way is comfortable for you – comment on this blog, shoot me a private email, or make an appointment to come in.  This takes the village.

We began by turning the clock back to 2017 or so to remind ourselves of where our journey began.  Looking back is never intended to be disrespectful or disparaging of what was – there were, of course, lots of good things happening prior to my arrival (this is not about me!) – but we do want to be honest about what was true.  So here’s…

Again, this did not mean that we did not have excellent teachers or that teachers simply showed up each day without having planned their lessons.  We did and they did not.  But it is fair to say that we had done the work of clarifying much about our program as a whole – its ultimate benchmarks and standards when it comes to academics, and its mission and vision as a “Community” school.

That’s pretty straightforward.  That’s how much time we spent in Jewish Studies and how they were divided.  What jumps out in the K-5 is the decoupled nature of “Hebrew” and “Jewish Studies” and the mirroring of French in terms of when streaming took place and what we called it.

It is hard to measure outcomes without data.  But pay attention to those bullet points because the fact they were flagged then by parents as being of utmost concern absolutely guided what happened next.  [That’s why adding your voices now is paramount!  We really do act based on what you tell us!]

OK, that is what was true at the time.  So…

We had a big task in front of us!  Remember – or, know – that unlike in General or French Studies there are no external standards, curricula, or philosophies for Jewish Day Schools (of any type).  It is up to each school to make these decisions – schedule, curriculum, and clarifying what kind of “Community Day School” to be – important and exciting work indeed.  So…

 How did we begin the work?  DATA!

But also…

One of my great joys is that we have managed to create a space where each pulpit rabbi in our community is willing and able to sit around one table to engage in debates and disputes that are truly “for the sake of Heaven”.

So once we collected data, what did we wind up doing, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year?

That was quite a lot!  And since then what else…

Great that’s what we have done as a result of all the feedback and work over the last few years.  But…

We are very excited about these current initiatives and look forward to sharing back updates, results, gleanings and deliverables as each of these initiatives and programs starts to take shape.  That first bullet point hearkens all the way back to the first slide or so and closing that loop is among our highest priorities.  It is a huge task and hugely important – so no promises on anything other than transparency as to its process and a pledge to share whatever we can, as soon as we can.

But that’s just today!  We have also been thinking about…

That second bullet point is where you start to come in.  As will be true with French, in the weeks ahead we will be reaching out to parents to better understand what kinds of before- and after-school classes and experiences we might offer or be willing to host that may help to either fill gaps or simply enhance our Jewish Studies Program for all our families or, if desired, subcommunities of our families.  We really want to make sure we are doing whatever we can to meet needs in whatever ways we realistically can.  We do not have time to offer every possible Jewish Studies course or experience, but if we can partner with our parents to add what we can, when we can, it will be a win-win.  Stay tuned!

And finally, because I believe in naming those things which need to be named, let me acknowledge what I believe to be…

When we did this last, Hebrew was the priority and, to be fair, it is part of our mission.  But it is reasonable to ask the question of whether that is still true and to acknowledge that it comes at a cost.  And we definitely know that there are a variety of opinions about how much time we could and should spend in Jewish Studies – and I encourage an expansive view of that, including both academic class time and experiences.

One interesting piece of feedback that came from the town hall was that maybe, just maybe, there is an appetite for extending the school day to make the task of delivering a high-quality trilingual program a bit more attainable?  Do you think that’s true?

And finally, here are some big-picture questions we will be wrestling with as we go about dreaming the next dream for strengthening the “J” in “OJCS”…

So…let me repeat that parent voice is critical to our ability to dream big dreams since you, our parents, are our most important stakeholder community and partner.  I am making a plea, here, while my word count is now well over 1,000, to please add your voice to the conversation in whichever way is comfortable for you – comment on this blog, shoot me a private email, or make an appointment to come in.

This takes the village.

Please be sure to join us for our next Critical Conversation, “L’assembleé de Français – What is currently true about our French outcomes and what can parents expect moving forward?” on Thursday, November 24th at 7:00 PM.