Update: Impact of $50K Gift to Strengthen the “J” at OJCS

As our Middle Schoolers write exams and our entire school gets ready for the triumphant return of “Winter Fun Day” heading into a “PD Day” and February Break, I thought it would be a great opportunity to provide a second “Update: Impact” post.  Two weeks ago, I provided an update on the impact of our French consultancy.  Today, I would like to provide an update on the impact of last spring’s $50,000 gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS.

At the time, I described the possible impact in a blog post as such:

And now, thanks to today’s gift, we know that we will go into Year Three with an amazing opportunity to build on our successes and introduce new and deeper Jewish engagement for our students and our families.

What might this investment lead to in 2019-2020?

(W)e will be revisiting our leadership team.  I will have more to say about this when it becomes concrete, but we are very excited about the possibilities we are exploring.  We also have – similar to French – opportunities to import second-language acquisition professional development so that our teachers of Hebrew will have the same resources available to them as our teachers of English and French do and will.  Updated curriculum, more Hebrew-language books and materials, and expanding our Jewish Studies Resource are all worthy to consider for investment.

How is it going shofar?  (I know.  I am past that pun window, but I feel like in a post dedicated to Jewish Studies that I can pull it off.)

Well, some of what we had imagined has in fact come true.  We have purchased new and additional Hebrew-language books and materials. We have made connections to second-language acquisition experts to improve our pedagogy.  And we have added Hebrew resource teachers and contact time to better meet the needs of students.  And all of that has made a meaningful difference.  Other things, however, we could not have predicted because new people bring new ideas.

The biggest change this year in Jewish Studies at OJCS is the addition of our new full-time Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Avi Marcovitz.  Like our Dean of Jewish Studies Emeritus Rabbi Finkelstein, Dr. Marcovitz is a critical member of our Middle School Faculty.  Unlike Rabbi Finkelstein, Dr. Marcovitz does not have another important day job, but has the opportunity to focus all his energy and creativity at our school.  He may still be getting acculturated, but in addition to assuming leadership of our Jewish Studies Faculty and building relationships with synagogues and community leaders, he has also found time for launching new programs.

Parasha & Pancakes

“Parasha & Pancakes” now takes place on  Tuesdays (Grades 3-5) & Thursdays (Grades 6-8).  With great thanks to the OJCS PTA for providing support, we have students volunteering to come to school early to learn Torah!  Who knew?  Students are taking responsibility for the cooking and Dr. Marcovitz for the learning.  Tasty pancakes to feed the body with words of Torah to feed the soul – what a great way to start the day!

Rabbi Simes z”l Yom Iyun

This grew out of a wonderful assignment with our Grade 8s who have been exchanging questions (sh’eilot) and answers (t’shuvot) with rabbis in our community on hot button topics.  The work has been so rich that we got the idea to invite those rabbis to be with us for a day of learning, which we are dedicating to the memory of our beloved teacher and communal leader, Rabbi Yehuda Simes z”l.  We are looking forward to a special day on February 24th.  Contact the office for more information.

Do you want to see the amazing intersection between Jewish Studies and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math)?  Go no farther than Morah Ruthie’s Kitah Zayin (Grade 7) Hebrew II class!  They learned all about the Israeli city of Tzfat and showed what they learned by creating VR (virtual reality) projects.  The views below aren’t as cool as viewing them through VR goggles, but they are pretty cool.  I have left one sample for you to check out below, but if you want to see them all, please check out Morah Ruthie’s blog post:

What’s next?  Something really exciting…perhaps even a game-changer.

Based on a model I first experienced (not created, it was there before me) in my last headship at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, we want to launch a brand-new Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum that is predicated on the idea that both Torah leads to deeds AND deeds lead to Torah (Kiddushin 40b).  We want to create an integrated Jewish Studies / Tikkun Olam (Social Justice) program in which the text our students learn Monday-Thursday gets put into action on Friday, each and every week.  Aligned with our North Stars, “We own our own learning,” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” we would create a committee of students, teachers, parents and community leaders to develop this curriculum which integrates key Jewish values, deep textual learning and practical hands-on projects.

For example, during a week (or unit), students in Grade 6 would study on Monday-Thursday texts that describe the ethical treatment of animals and then on Friday go out into the community and volunteer in animal shelters.  Students in Grade 7 would study texts that help us understand our responsibility to feed the hungry and then on Friday go out into the community and either feed the hungry, or volunteer in both kosher and community food banks.

This new program will be a direct and weekly application of Jewish wisdom.  It allows for individual choice (we imagine some of the “Mitzvah Trips” having choice for students), but more importantly through the experience of many “Mitzvah Trips,” students will make meaning of which mitzvot, which tikkon olam projects, etc., are personally meaningful.  They will also build connections to people and organizations that will strengthen their sense of peoplehood.

We want to provide our students with Jewish experiences that inspire them to learn more Torah and we want to help our students make personal connections between the Torah they learn in school and the larger world around them.  We want our students (and families) to recognize that part of being Jewish is to make the world a better place, that doing so requires both learning and doing.  Locating this work in our Middle School allows for practical connectivity to the b’nei mitzvah process.  Providing these opportunities in a Jewish Middle School in a community without a Jewish High school, is critical to inspiring students and families to see and feel value to their Jewish learning beyond the walls of the school.

As a parent who had one child experience this program before and another one eligible to receive it now, I can tell you firsthand how impactful it is and can be.  As a principal who watched families eagerly anticipate middle school so they can start going on “mitzvah trips” and watched alumni eagerly anticipate opportunities to come back and volunteer on “mitzvah trips,” I know this creates a wonderful opportunity for our school to retain and attract students through Grade 8.

Wouldn’t you want your child to have an opportunity to make the world a better place each and every week?

OJCS Celebrates Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and the Ottawa Jewish Community School is proud to be celebrating in ways big and small!  We actually kicked things off in January when current OJCS Parent Dr. Madelaine Werier met with our Knesset to introduce them to the Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN) and to brainstorm with them ways that they could raise awareness and advocacy for inclusion at our school.  Here’s how Jenny, our Knesset Communications Rep, put it in her blog post:

Maybe we can create a mission to show the other students in our school that everyone can do something to help one another. Maybe we could do a class challenge to bring awareness to the importance of inclusivity. Donating money can be part of awareness campaigns but giving time is even more important. Even just holding the door for the person behind you can make a big difference in their day. How about a video? Making a video is a really easy way to make someone feel welcome, especially to a new environment. Maybe you don’t even have to do something special, by just asking them to do something with you could make them feel more welcome. The person you are spending time with doesn’t even have to be in your grade, branch out, talk to people from the grade above or below you. I know that if someone I didn’t know came and played with me I would feel much better.

Madelaine did mention that a very important word is advocacy for us to learn about and think about how to incorporate it into Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month at OJCS. This Knesset meeting was very helpful and meaningful to our Knesset team. Thank you so much Madelaine- you definitely gave us some really amazing ideas.

And our Knesset didn’t just listen, they took action.

Our student leaders wrote our faculty an email this week:

Dear OJCS Faculty,

The month of February is JDAIM- Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and we would like to bring more awareness about the month to the school.
There are 3 ways we want to do this:
1. We want to have a door decorating challenge. Each homeroom class can choose a door to decorate around the theme of ‘Being Inclusive & Kind’. We would like to showcase photos of all the doors at our February Rosh Chodesh assembly so please have your beautiful doors all finished by February 24th. Gather the materials that you need, ‘begin with the end in mind’ with a class plan, and you can get started anytime! We can’t wait to see them!
2. The Shinshinim activities throughout the month of February are going to be run with Knesset too! The workshops will focus on the big idea that it’s important to be inclusive and celebrate & support one another’s differences.
3. When your reading buddy group meets in February, focus on books around the themes of kindness and inclusivity. We encourage you to have a class discussion or activity after the reading around these themes.
These are our school-wide initiatives, but you’re welcome to plan other activities for your class. Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN) is having a youth leadership challenge that you could enter with your class. See the poster below.
Please let us know if you have any questions. We are excited to incorporate JDAIM into our learning at OJCS.
Want to see “the poster below”?

And how can our teachers and students focus on books around the themes of kindness and inclusivity?  Well they can turn to our incredible librarian, Brigitte Ruel, who just put out a post of her own:

The month of February is JDAIM- Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.  The right book can really help foster more awareness and kindness in our students.  I have created a book bin with books on this topic for reading buddies that you can find at any time in the library.  I have also created a short list of some of our most on-point titles.

Want to see the books?  Visit her post!

Want to see an example of a teacher who was “excited to incorporate JDAIM into our learning at OJCS”?  Look no further than Grade 2!

Below is our video project that we have created in order to celebrate World Read Aloud Day (which is today!) and Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, also known as JDAIM, (which takes place through the whole month of February).

These are just a few examples of what is presently happening and what is to come in the weeks ahead.  I invite you to visit the OJCS Blogosphere and the OJCS IRL (in real life!) to see how else we celebrate JDAIM this February.

Of course, however important dedicating months to raising awareness are (and they are!), working hard to include children with unique and diverse needs is something we do each and every day at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  Thanks to generous supplemental grants from Federation we have been able to provide flexible furniture, assistive technology, and diagnostic software to benefit learners of all kinds.  We have grown our Department of Special Needs to include a part-time director, our Vice Principal, and two full-time and a variety of part-time resource teachers in English, Hebrew and French.  We have adopted a pedagogy of personalization that allows each student in our school to find the appropriate floor and fly as far as their God-give potential permits without a ceiling.  For a Jewish day school of our size and resources, we have a lot to be proud of when it comes to meeting the needs of diverse learners.

This Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, let us be reminded that we strive to meet the needs of children because we recognize that each child has special needs.  That to truly believe that each is made in God’s image requires that we apply the filter of inclusivity whenever possible.  The work of becoming more inclusive has no beginning and has no ending.  Inclusivity is both a process and a journey, one that OJCS has proudly been on for a while and one that we intend to keep walking with our community into the future.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Update: Impact of TACLEF on French Faculty

We are about 1/4 of the way through our major French consultancy with the Centre Franco-Ontarien de Ressources Pédagogiques (Franco-Ontarian Centre for Educational Resources) or CFORP to implement the TACLEF program at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  (Please know that our work with TACLEF is generously supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.)  We thought it was an appropriate time to share back a little about what impacts the training has had, thus far, on our French faculty and program.  If you want a reminder or a refresher on why we felt it necessary to engage this consultancy and what its aims and deliverables are, I encourage you to read the post from last year that describes it great detail.

Instead of my usual delivery, I thought it would be more helpful to frame this discussion as an edited “Q & A” that I had with our senior-most French teacher,  Mr. Cinanni, who teaches Middle School Extended French at OJCS.

How has the consultancy impacted your ability to assess students?

It has allowed us to focus on reading, writing and oral communication in equal parts, which we have not always been able to do (or even thought possible).  We have definitely adjusted evaluation methods since beginning with TACLEF.

How has the consultancy impacted your ability to differentiate or personalize the learning?

It completely supports us in doing so.  Each student has his/her own strengths and weaknesses, and TACLEF – if used properly as an assessment tool – will identify these and then offer (almost too) many suggestions on how to work on those weaknesses.  We have also noticed that there may be groups of students who share the same gaps (e.g. a lack of “enriched vocabulary”) which allows us to prepare activities/lessons that many students need and will benefit from together.

How has TACLEF impacted teaching and learning in your classrooms?

As stated, 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).

How might TACLEF help us best prepare students for French immersion in Grade 9?

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 3/4 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.

Is there anything else of consequence to note at this time?

We have already been able to use TACLEF assessments to better answer questions and concerns from individual parents and to better meet the needs of individual learners.  It gives us a taste of what is to come, but we can already see that the quality of our conversations with parents has been elevated due to this work.  We believe it will make the decision-making around Core/Extended placements more objective, more scientific and more successful.

On a related note, our annual alumni surveys for students in Grades 9 & 12 are going out in the next week or so.  We like to wait until finals are complete because we think it helps (Grade 9) alumni (and their parents) better provide feedback on how well (or not) OJCS prepared them.  We include a number of questions about French in those surveys and we will report back (either an update to this post or in some other way) what we learn.

If you have more questions or concerns about French at OJCS, please don’t hesitate to contact us.  We know how important this topic is for a meaningful number of current and prospective families.  It would be our pleasure to provide more detail in conversation.

On an unrelated note, with new admissions and re-enrollment packets now out, I want to strongly recommend that anyone who has questions about the financial side of things to please make an appointment with me to discuss. It is my role to shepherd families through the process and oftentimes I can help a family better navigate the system – particularly for folk who will be seeking tuition assistance.  It would be my pleasure to sit with anyone to help better understand how the system works and what, historically, has best positioned families to be viewed in the most positive light.  If this is a source of anxiety or concern for any family – or a reason why a family may or may not choose to enroll or re-enroll – I strongly urge you to come in for a private conversation.  We have a long history of generosity that our donors, supporters and Federation have helped ensure and we will continue to work hard to ensure that financial considerations not be the determining factor for whether or not a child can receive a Jewish day school education.

Quality Comments: Welcome to OJCS Student Blogfolios!

I spend about an hour each week commenting on our student blogfolios.

What’s a “blogfolio” you ask?  Well it is a term of art that (I think) my former colleague Andrea Hernandez created, and in her words:

Portfolios give students a chance to develop metacognition, set goals and internalize what “good work” looks like.  Blogs offer a platform for creativity, communication, connection and the practice of digital citizenship. “Blog-folios”are the best of both worlds- using a blogging platform to develop writing skills, provide opportunities to connect with an authentic audience and increase reflective practices. Instead of using the entire site as a portfolio, students will use the category “portfolio” to designate those selections that represent high-quality work and reflection.

Having begun last year with Grade 5, we have now added this year’s Grade 5 as well.  [Spoiler Alert: We will be expanding the use of blogfolios in both directions in the not-too-distant future.]

During the time I set aside for my reading, I typically start at the beginning of each blogroll and make my way through as many as I can. During that hour, I can see which spelling words are being emphasized in a particular grade.  I can see which kinds of writing forms and mechanics are being introduced.  I learn which holidays (secular and Jewish) are being prepared for, celebrated or commemorated.  I see samples of their best work across the curricula.

But what I enjoy seeing the most is the range of creativity and personalization that expresses itself through their aesthetic design, the features they choose to include (and leave out), and the voluntary writing.

This is what we mean when we talk about “owning our own learning” and having a “floor, but not a ceiling” for each student.  It is also a great example of finding ways to give our students the ability to create meaningful and authentic work.  But, it isn’t just about motivation – that we can imagine more easily.  When you look more closely, however, it is really about students doing their best work and reflecting about it.  Look at how much time they spend editing.  Look at how they share peer feedback, revise, collaborate, publish and reflect.  [Spoiler Alert: When we shift into “Student-Led Conferences” the blogfolios become a critical anchor.]

Seriously.  Look at it.

If you are a parent in one of these classes, we hope that you are already subscribed to your children’s blogfolio(s) and that grandparents and special friends are as well.  But if you are not a parent in one of these classes (or a parent in our school or a parent at all), but are (obviously!) reading my blog, I ask that however much time you would have spent reading one my typically overlong, 1,000-word (plus) posts, that you please use that time now to read one of their posts.  Even better, post a comment! It brings them such joy!  Just pick a few at random and make a burgeoning blogger’s day.

If you are interested in perusing the Grade 5 Blogroll, please click here.

If you are interested in surfing the Grade 6 Blogroll, then please click here.

With enrollment for 2019-2020 now fully open [Don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunity to lock in this year’s tuition rates by enrolling on time!], I am looking forward in upcoming posts to providing meaningful updates on two major initiatives:

  • How has the work with TACLEF impacted French at OJCS?
  • How has the gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS impacted Jewish Studies (and Life) at OJCS?

Stay tuned!

Why Sports Matter

I promise that I am not motivated to write this purely because my beloved San Francisco 49ers are poised to win the NFC Championship this weekend. (This is a reference to American Football, my Canadian friends.)  I’ve been thinking about the amount of time our teacher-coaches put into the administration of our athletics programming and the amount of time our student-athletes put into practices and making up for lost class time (because our local league competes during the school day).  With time being a zero-sum game, it is reasonable to ask (about this and everything else), is it worth it?  And my answer to that question, is another question – doesn’t each child deserve an opportunity to be excellent across their day/week/year?

When we talk about “a floor, but not a ceiling” as one of our North Stars, we typically are talking about academic floors and ceilings, but our students have passions and talents in art, music, and athletics as well.  Not only does it provide an opportunity for those to students to shine (which for some may be their only time to do so), but when it comes to sports, having both a robust PE program and competitive teams allows students to reach for non-academic stars (as well).

Let me quote (liberally) from “Co-Curricular Physical Activity and Sport Programs for Middle School Students: A Position Statement by the National Association for Sporty and Physical Education’s (NASPE) Middle and Secondary School Physical Education Council (MASSPEC).”  [That is a mouthful!  You can read the entire position statement here.]:

“All students should be encouraged to participate in such after-school programs regardless of their ability and prior experience with organized sports.  The primary purposes of these programs are to provide opportunities for students to:

  1. improve self-esteem and feelings of competence through positive interactions with their peers and adults
  2. acquire new skills and refine those previously learned
  3. learn to function effectively as members of a team or group
  4. improve personal health and fitness levels
  5. to have fun and enjoy physical activity”

Those all sound like things we would like to see for our upper elementary and middle school students, yes?  “We learn better together” and “We are each responsible one to the other” are enhanced by opportunities to be part of a team.  “Ruach” is certainly amplified through fun and enjoyment.

But beyond the benefits to the participants, there are significant benefits to our school and our community worth mentioning.

Jewish day schools – especially the small or midsized ones – have a lot to get done.  We have to offer 100% of the secular academic programs of local independent and/or suburban public schools.  We have to offer the highest-quality Jewish studies program available.  We have to offer all the resources of well-rounded schools – Art, Music, Library, Technology, P.E., etc. AND we also have to offer athletics, the yearbook, robotics, etc., and all the other extracurriculars.

Fair?

Doesn’t matter.  It isn’t a choice.  We have to find the “torah” of basketball as we do the “torah” of math (not to mention the “torah” of the actual Torah).

Athletics are vitally important to our ability to maintain and grow a healthy middle school.  They demonstrate to ourselves and our parents that we are capable of providing the kinds of experiences one ought to find at the middle school level.  And that includes the opportunity to play, cheer and support athletics.

And it turns out the OJCS Rams aren’t just in it for the participation trophies!  Whether it is badminton, soccer, basketball or volleyball (most years) – our students not only have an opportunity to learn and to grow and to compete, but oftentimes to win.   Just take a gander at all the championship banners hanging up in the Gym!

Go, Rams, Go!

A Loop in the Chain

I think because of the holidays and the break that I have been thinking a lot about family recently…

There is a bag of very old, not suitable for use, tefillin sitting on the top of one of the bookshelves in my office.  They belonged to my paternal great-grandfather Alexander Mitzmacher.  I never met him and other than the very few anecdotes that have been shared with me over the years by my family, I know almost nothing about him other than the fact that he had a set of tefillin.  I can’t even say for sure that he treasured them or that he ever in fact wore them.  I only know that my grandfather of blessed memory had them in his possession and when I became the first person in my family since (at least) Alexander to put on tefillin they were given to me as just about the only non-jewelry heirloom we have.

We talk often about “Jewish continuity” and “links in the chain” as if there was a natural and smooth transference from one generation to another.  As a parent and educator, I need to believe that we have the ability to influence, guide and mentor the next generation to value and practice that which we consider important through education, experience and the making of memories.  As the observant grandson of Morris Mitzmacher, who jumped out the cheder window in 1922 and never looked back…well, I know that life is a bit more mysterious and unpredictable.

I am an only child (explains a lot, doesn’t it!) who only had one living grandfather and was that man’s only grandchild.  Let’s just say that we were exceptionally close.  He was equal parts proud and bemused by the Jewish journey that led me to a life of Jewish education and ritual observance.  He lived long enough to dance the night away at our wedding.  He died three years before our first daughter, Eliana, was born and six years before our second daughter – his namesake – Maytal joined the family.

I think of him often and marvel at how the boy who escaped Judaism grandfathered the head of a Jewish Day School.  He never stepped foot inside a synagogue again save for my Bar Mitzvah and my wedding and yet, all the while, he continued holding onto a frayed bag of ancient tefillin.  For all those years, he neither threw them out nor gave them to his son (who would have found them equally unnecessary).  Why?

I never got an answer the one time I asked and he was gone before I could ask again.

And so they sit on my bookshelf and watch me go about my work.  They tell a cautionary tale – perhaps had my grandfather had a more meaningful Jewish education he would not have jumped out that window without so much as a regretful look back.  They are humbling – we cannot ultimately control the choices our children make.  They are inspiring – it is never too late to join a Jewish journey, begin a Jewish education or try on a new Jewish practice.  The tefillin were present even when we were absent.

What are the artifacts sitting on your shelves telling silent stories? Write them down, or better yet, tell them to your children.  For by doing so we can do our part to ensure that despite the links and loops life brings us, the chain can indeed remain unbroken.

Radical Transparency: Finding Wellness Through Brazen Vulnerability

I was out of the office this past Monday and Tuesday attending an Alumni Retreat of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  DSLTI is the preeminent preparer for new heads of Jewish day schools and I was lucky enough to be in its fourth cohort.  In addition to the coaching and content that comes during your cohort experience, one of the greatest ongoing values of DSLTI is its robust alumni network.  That alumni network gathers annually for a retreat and is typically a peak experience for attendees.  The topic this year was “wellness” and I was asked to speak specifically  on the connection between “transparency” and “wellness”.  As those were concepts that I didn’t automatically connect, I spent some time proposing and then rejecting possible ideas.

Here’s what I did not talk about:

At first, I thought I would approach it from the angle of how blogs and blogfolios can actually promote wellness in our school culture through small, but meaningful acts of kindness.

Then I thought I would come at it from how my own blogging and social media usage embodies transparency as a personal value that promotes my own self-care – talking about my personal flaws, coping with the death of my father, setting health goals, etc.

My next rejected idea was to talk about how I blog transparently about what I want to be true with the hope that by putting it out into the universe, I set in motion making it actually come true.

Next idea was to explore blogging as a form of personal cheshbon ha’nefesh – a self-accounting to inspire me to do and be better.

My final rejected idea was to explore how we use the concept of the “nondiscussible” to build a professional culture that promotes wellness in the workplace.

The truth is that I could have told compelling professional anecdotes about any of the above slides/topics.  And since many of them are pulled from blog posts I have already written…I guess I already have. But because DSLTI is such an intimate environment, a safe place for heads of schools to get real with themselves and each other, I decided that I would go deeper and more personal.  And so I landed here…

Imposter Syndrome” is a common condition across all professions.  It can be defined as…

…a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.

I can distill my “imposter syndrome” down to three anecdotes reflected in the slide above which served as the heart of my talk…

The handsome gentleman on the left is me at age 13.  I was yet even more handsome at age 10 when we moved from Edison, New Jersey to Fremont, California.  In addition to my amazing Jewish Neil Diamond hair, and owlish eyeglasses, I also brought with me to California an overbite of cartoonish proportions.  My overbite was so large that I could fit two fingers (sideways) comfortably inside.  The solution?  A bionator.

My Google search for a bionator reveals to my surprise its continued existence, since I had imagined it would have been banned by the Geneva Conventions as a source of torture.  In my parents’ great wisdom and to avoid my needing to wear braces until 35, not only did I get to wear the bionator for all of Grades 6 and 7, I also got to wear headgear 18 hours a day.  And one of those days was, in fact, the very first day of school.

In a new school.

In a new state.

I show up for the first day of Grade 6 with my bionator in, Jewish locks pouring through the headgear and owl eyes.  As just one example of how awesome that was, because the bionator took up every inch of space in my mouth, I had to take it out to speak.  And because I needed a toolset to take it out, I had to have prearranged times with my teachers for when I was going to be called on.  (I swear this is all true.) My Math Teacher would tell me that she was going to call on me at 10:45 AM and then at 10:30 AM I would take out my toolset and start unhooking myself.  My time would come, I would say, like, “5x,” and then I would hook myself back together.

How I ever met a friend is an enduring mystery…

That “first-day-of-school-in-a-new-school-wearing-a-bionator” is how I feel each time I walk into a new room with new people.

The hirsute gentleman in the upper righthand corner is me at age 23.  I had taken a year after university to try to figure out what path in the Jewish professional world I wanted to walk down and landed at Jewish Education.  Based on my Reform Jewish background, I should have wound up in the master’s program at the Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles.  And I likely would have if not for the friend of my mother’s who told her that if I was already going to down to LA for an interview at one seminary, that I might as well visit the Conservative one, the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).  So I set myself up an interview…

They told me that my day was going to begin with “minyan” and I said, “Great!” even though I had no idea what that was.  To paint the full picture, I wore my hair that day in a ponytail (which I assumed was more professional), put modest earrings in my four piercings, wore the only long pants in my possession coupled with Naot (Israeli Birkenstocks).  That is how I looked when a grad student met me and escorted me to the school’s beit knesset for minyan.  That morning was the first time in my life I had ever seen tefillin or a Hebrew siddur.  It was the first all-Hebrew service I had ever attended and I was totally unfamiliar with the words and the tunes.

Why I wound up attending that school and the larger Jewish journey it took me on is a longer story…

That “first-time-in-minyan” is how I feel every time I enter a synagogue.

The picture in the lower righthand corner of the slide is not a class photo.  That is the school photo from my first year as founding head of the recently closed Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas.  Grades 1 & 2, 14 students, three teachers and me.  The story of how that school came into existence and how I came to be its founding head is long and complicated.  It is, in fact, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and should you wish to join the exclusive club of my dissertation committee, my mother and my wife, I invite you to look it up and read it.  Needless to say, I was not a typical applicant for this job having never attended, worked or virtually ever stepped foot inside a day school until applying to be a founding head.

I distinctly remember the part of my interview where I attended a parlour meeting for prospective parents at the home of the rabbi who was spearheading the school’s creation.  At that time there were only the 6 students continuing into Grade 2 and prospective parents for what would turn out to be 8 students beginning Grade 1.  Because of my utter lack of experience and network – I was only accepted into DSLTI after I somehow got the job – the only way I could prepare for the interview was to do some light internet research.  I landed on PEJE’s (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, now folded into Prizmah) PDF for launching new Jewish schools and tried to commit it to memory.

At this parlour meeting was a set of parents who had graduated from The Ramaz School, a very prominent Modern Orthodox Day School in Manhattan and they asked me a ton of very reasonable and practical questions to try to ascertain how on earth I was qualified to found this new school.  As I stood in the foyer sweating through my suit, stumbling to express my views on secular curriculum, Jewish curriculum, pedagogy, Hebrew, and anything and everything else about running a school, I was quite convinced that this was the beginning and the end of my career in Jewish day school education.

Why I wound up getting the job and the larger arc of my career that it launched is a longer story…

That  “sweating through my suit” is how I feel at all our town halls.

The feedback from my DSLTI peers when I gave this presentation was instructive.  Many shared with me that they had no idea that I felt that way – I seem so confident or I appear to have a strong leadership presence.  And like most people, I both do and I don’t.  I have obviously grown and learned and failed and succeeded and achieved and done a lot since I was 10, 23 and 33.  But that’s the way imposter syndrome works for us all.

So there you have it.  The simple truth is that I employ a kind of radical transparency not only because I think it creates healthy culture, leads to sound pedagogy, fosters parental buy-in and engagement – which I do.

In a sense “transparency” is my superpower.  It is the superhero cape I adorn that lets me be my best self.  I put it all out there because doing so makes me well and, I hope, promotes wellness in others.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

This will be my last blog post before we go onto Winter Break next week.  Wishing everyone a joyous Chanukah, a Happy New (Secular) Year and a relaxing break.  We look forward to welcoming everyone back to school in 2020!

The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results

As apparently is my new annual tradition, I again in the lull between parent-teacher conferences reviewed and analyzed our CAT4 results.  [I strongly encourage you to reread (or read for the first time) our philosophy on test-taking and how we both share the tests with parents and utilize the data in our decision-making.]  We provided our teachers with the data they need to better understand their students and 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 took place during conferences and, thus, we should be able to return all results to parents next week.

Before we get to the results, there are a few things worth pointing out:

  • This is now our second year taking this assessment at this time of year. However, we expanded our testing from last year’s Grades 3, 6 & 8 to this year’s Grades 3 – 8.  This means that although we now have “apples to apples” data, we can only track two of our grades (current Grades 4 & 7) from last year to this one.  Next year, we will have such tracking data across most grades which will allow us to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same class grows at least a year’s worth of growth.
  • The other 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.

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…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 took 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 3.2, 4.2, 5.2, 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.  It is very hard to tease it out exactly, of course.

What are the key takeaways from this snapshot of the entire school?

  • Looking at six different grades through six different dimensions there are only two instances of scoring below grade-level: Grade 3 in Spelling (2.9) and Grade 5 in Computation & Estimation (4.1).
  • Relatedly, those two dimensions  – Spelling and Computation & Estimation – are where we score the lowest as a school (even if every other grade is at or above grade level) relative to the other dimensions.
  • 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.

In addition to the overall snapshot, we are now able to begin sharing comparative data.  It will take one more year before we can accurately compare the same grade and the same class year after year.  But we can get a taste of it with Grades 3 & 6.  What you have below is a snapshot of the same class (the same group of children) from last year to this:

What are the key takeaways from this comparison?

For both classes in all categories save one (Grade 3 to 4 “Computation & Estimation”) you see at least a full year’s growth and in many cases you see more than a full year’s growth.  (The one that fell short only showed 8 months of growth.  And it comes in the category we have already recognized as being a weak spot.)

Let’s look at one more data point.  We can also get a taste of how the same grade performs from one year to the next as well.  Again, we only have Grades 3 & 6 to examine:

Now, remember that this represents a completely different group of children, so it is not unusual or surprising to see variances.  Teachers can only grow students from the place they received them and it is that annual growth that we are concerned with.  But over time you are looking for patterns.  If we believe that Spelling is a weakness, we will want to know whether it is a weakness in every grade or does it dip in certain grades.  We have no way to know that or much else new from the above graph. It simply confirms what we presently know.  But in another year or so, we will be able to plot the trajectory of both classes (the same students) and grades over time to see what additional stories they tell.

To sum up, we have a lot to be proud of in our standardized test scores. We have two areas to investigate: Spelling and Computation.  With regard to Spelling, since we noted this as a weakness last year we had already scheduled PD for our faculty.  It just so happens that we are holding a session on “Structured Word Inquiry” for our Language Arts Teachers on Monday!  With that and other efforts we would expect to see those numbers tick up next year.  With regard to Computation, we will – like with Spelling – have an internal conversation which may lead to PD for Math Teachers.  These are examples of how we use data to increase performance.

The bottom line is that our graduates successfully place into the high school programs of their choice.  Each one had a different ceiling – they are all different – but working with them, their families and their teachers, we successfully transitioned them all to the schools (private and public) and programs (IB, Gifted, French Immersion, Arts, etc.) that they qualified for.

And now each year, despite all the qualifications and caveats, our CAT4 scores continue to demonstrate excellence.  Excellence within the grades and between them. And let’s be clear, this academic excellence comes with an inclusive admissions process.

Despite our focus on individual growth, our average growth continues to significantly outpace national percentiles and grade equivalency scores.  Does investing in reflective practices (like blogging) lead to achievement ?  Does being an innovative learning pioneer translate into high academic success?

Two years in a row may not be conclusive, but it may be heading towards it!

The Transparency Files: OJCS Middle School Parent-Teacher Conferences

Talk about a niche blog post!

I recognize that I am really narrowing my audience here, but I do think there is some value in sharing aloud (rather than just emailing the contents to our current middle school parents) our thought process around how we structure our parent-teacher conferences in our middle school.  Part of the value is that some of the big ideas live beyond that narrow lens, impacting how we view parent-teacher conferences as a school and – more widely – how we view parent engagement and parent partnership.  Part of the value – I hope – is that we get some feedback from our current parents and from other schools and school leaders that will positively impact our thinking.  It can sometimes feel like you are blogging into the wind, but every now and again, I do get meaningful feedback from a blog post.  Here’s hoping this is one of them!

Last year, in a blog post that was more focused on a new-and-improved report card format, we did introduce the following change to our middle school parent-teacher conferences:

With a large number of middle school students and a fair number of middle school teachers, we are going to try to provide a larger window of time with a more strategic number of mutually selected teachers.  Instead of signing up for individual conversations with any or all teachers, we are going to be asking for parents to sign up for a 15-minute window and a request for one or two teachers they feel strongly need to be present.  Then we will meet as a full middle school faculty and assign teachers to each middle school conference, using parental request and who we believe to be important in the conversations that should happen to best support each child.

I added the boldface above, because that sentence did not seem to be clear (enough) to many families last year and, thus, unintentionally became a source of tension.  That is something I am hoping to avoid this year…

Let’s start with the observation that the entire model and structure of traditional parent-teacher conferences is likely obsolete.  Why?  Let’s count the reasons…

  • Meaningful parent partnership requires frequent conversation.  Two high-leverage, really brief engagement points do not lend themselves to relationship-building.
  • If the mantra for parent-teacher conferences (and report cards) is “No surprises!” and we’ve done that work already (see above point), then what exactly are these brief encounters designed to accomplish?
  • How much can you really discuss/show/ask/learn in such brief windows of time?  With people running behind schedule, knocking on the doors, etc. – even if you are lucky enough to be having a meaningful moment of engagement, you will likely still wind up frustrated to have it truncated by an artificially imposed time limit.

So why do we still do them?

Well, despite their challenges, they do tend to succeed in bringing more parents into the school and into conversation with their children’s teachers.    Brief conversations are better than no conversations.  Some opportunity for relationship-building is better than no opportunity for relationship-building.  So to the degree that they can and do lead to constructive conversations, it is worth continuing to try to improve upon them.

And that leads back to the changes we made last year for our middle school…

With our North Stars clarified and our culture evolving, we have an opportunity to revisit our programs and processes to be sure they are in alignment.  The move to adjust our middle school conferences was designed to ensure that we would land with a format which would provide parents with meaningful and actionable feedback, and provide us with the same in terms of inviting valuable feedback from parents – all in the service of helping our students “own their learning” and that there be “a floor, but not a ceiling” for each student.

Because we view this as a partnership, we believe it is important that both parent and teacher voice contribute to the conversation, and to determining who sits around the table.  Unlike the public board at the middle school and high school levels, we don’t believe a process which only honours parent choice serves our needs.  As we said above, when it is time to decide who should sit around the parent-teacher conference table, we “meet as a full middle school faculty and assign teachers to each middle school conference, using parental request and who we believe to be important in the conversations that should happen to best support each child.”

Why?  Why not just let parents decide who and how to spend their valuable, ever-so-short, window of time?

Well, it is the same reason we don’t do it in the Lower School.  We believe that each part of our curriculum is important and that who your child is – how they behave, how they are feeling, their academic growth, etc., – across different teachers is valuable for parents to know.  We don’t feel like you will have a full picture of your child and we don’t feel that we can get the feedback we need to serve your child, without having diverse representation.  If we had more time, we’d have the full 7-9 teachers around a larger table.  But we don’t.  So we give parents and teachers an opportunity to build a smaller team to meet in partnership.

It is worth noting that any parent at any time can request any meeting with any teacher.  It is not like this is your only opportunity to have 15 minutes with your child’s Math Teacher.  Or French.  Or Hebrew.  But for one of two nights a year, it is a wonderful (even with its structural flaws) opportunity to come together as a team of people who care deeply about your child to share what is working, discuss what might not be, plan for what could be, strengthen our own relationships, and chart a course for a successful  next term.

We are looking forward to a wonderful week of conferences.  See you there!

Annual BlogCloud – A WordCloud in the Hand…

Ah late November…

…while my internal thermometer still thinks it should be shorts weather and my internal clock still thinks it is almost time for turkey and football, the truth of things is that here, in wintry Ottawa, I am making my way through each and every report card as we gear up for Parent-Teacher Conferences.

In light of the season – Report Card Season – and in light of the many (long) serious blog posts I have been cranking out, it seems like it is just the right week for my annual word cloud post, complete with awful puns.

If you missed last year’s punny post

I do love to take an opportunity once a year to run my blog through a word cloud app or website.  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 third such annual post here at OJCS and I have done them each at approximately the same time of year.  So, what does this year’s BlogCloud 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 love the nexus of time-Jewish-teachers-parents-students!  I like seeing words like “Community”, “Learning”, “Meaningful”, and “Forward” increase in size.  I think it is great to see “Questions”, “Conversations”, and “Feedback” make an appearance.

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

If you see something interesting in my OJCS BlogCloud, let us know in the comments!