The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano

The future of education fell into my lap in 2010 when I became the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Florida and inherited Silvia Tolisano on my staff.  For the many (so many) in the educational world who knew, followed, admired, and otherwise stood in amazement at the force of nature that was – and it is heartbreakingly sad to type “was” – Silvia, you are probably as surprised as I am that in a small Jewish day school in Jacksonville, a living, breathing prophetess of teaching and learning was a teacher on my staff.   [And if you are a casual reader of my blog and don’t travel in education circles, do yourself a favor and visit the most impactful blog that a teacher ever dared to dream into existence.]

Silvia Tolisano knew all the languages and traveled to all the places.  She weaved all the networks and knew all the people.  How did our little-school-that-could host international conferences and get featured on influential podcasts?  How on earth did we wind up in the orbits of so many significant movers and shakers?  How did we – for a glorious, fleeting moment – become the center of the educational universe?

Silvia.

Silvia Tolisano knew all the platforms and mastered all the literacies.  Each day with Silvia was a call to arms.  Each moment teachable and certainly worthy of documentation.  The Hebrew word for “awe” is yirah and it comes with subtle connotations of fear.  It is fair to say that our faculty was equal parts terrified and inspired during those early days.  How could you not be?  I could spend 10,000 words naming and hyperlinking each platform and pedagogy and idea that she introduced to us during those years and I would still be unable to adequately describe how much it all was.  (No fewer than 40 of my blog posts directly refer to her work.)  How did a small school with few resources blog and tweet and document and share before it became cool (and accepted best practice)?

Silvia.

Silvia was the truth.  I’d like to think that I had the smallest impact on her and her trajectory.  Our richest conversations were about faculty culture and how to move/inspire/cajole/require/utz teachers to embrace the future and I would look forward to learning new German words that better captured the spirit of our struggle.  My job was essentially to figure out how to harness the overwhelming multitudes of Silvia and make it feel achievable to the rest of us, the non-Silvias.  But whatever impact I might have had on her, she made my career.  The things that I am known for are the things that Silvia showed me first.  I simply am not who I am without her.  Did it seem weird that I brought Silvia with me from MJGDS to Schechter and then to Prizmah and then here to Ottawa (as a consultant)?  How couldn’t I?  Who are you going to bring in when you want to paint a picture of what can and should be true about teaching and learning?

Silvia.

Her first/last book (w/Janet Hale) is called A Guide to Documenting Learning and is a fitting testament to everything that she believed about education.  No one knew more and pushed harder for teachers and schools – Jewish schools – to adopt and adjust to a changing world.  What we are all living with during these times of COVID is proof positive that Silvia had it right and had it way earlier than most.  She fancied herself a witch, but she was a prophet – she didn’t dabble in magic; she knew the future.

I have spent the last few days reconnecting with colleagues and talking with my current staff about the miracle of Silvia Tolisano.  She was always a WhatsApp or Tweet away whenever you had a question or needed a resource or just wanted to know what was next.  In the sporting world of coaching, they measure influence by one’s “coaching tree.”  That is to say, one measures one’s impact on the game by how many future coaches learned with and from you and, thus carry your influence, your message, your words, and your ideas forward.

How do you measure the impact of an educational guru, coach, mentor, blogger, tweeter, sketchnoter, author, lecturer, tutorial-creator, infographic-designer, life-grabber, world-traveler, marathon runner, wife, mother, grandmother, colleague, consultant and friend?

Silvia Tolisano died way too early and with way too many years left to live.  I have never known a person who better embodied the notion that one ought not count down the days of one’s life, but should make each day count.  None of us – certainly not most of us, and definitely not me – can be Silvia.  She was an original, sui generis, never-to-be-duplicated.  But we can aspire towards the things she wanted for us.  To never fear the future.  To try and to fail and to try again.  To live a globally connected life.  To keep growing and then grow some more.  Like so many educators and lives she touched, for me, whenever I think I can’t – the job is too hard, I’m too old to learn new things, I don’t have enough time, etc. – Silvia’s voice is there to tell me that I can and I must.  That’s the work.  No excuses.

Silvia Tolisano would have hated this blog post.  She was in many ways as personally private as she was professionally public.  But this is what she taught me – and all of us – to do.  To learn and to reflect and, most importantly, to share.  For me, my professional north star is no longer.  But a star’s light continues to shine for years after its time is over and Silvia’s light – her life’s work – will continue to illuminate the path for years and years to come.  May we each be both lucky and brave enough to walk it…

Pandemic Purim: It Has Never Been More Comfortable to Leave Your Comfort Zone

It is a busy Shavuat Ha’Ruach (Spirit Week) at the Ottawa Jewish Community School!  We are so glad to be back at school – both in general, and after February Break  – that there is lots of joy in the building; the added joy of Adar and Purim just makes it that much…er, joyful.

However, as is often the case in Jewish life where we weave moments of historical tragedy into even the most joyous of occasions (the breaking of glass at a wedding to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem being the most well-known example), this Purim carries with it not just the echoes of past tragedy, but current tragedy as well.  Purim was, for most of us, the last holiday we celebrated before COVID and, thus, likely the last opportunity to be together in groups, in synagogues, in community, etc., that we have had.  That was certainly true here.  Last Purim in Ottawa was actually ground zero for the first potential exposure we experienced as a community and within days we had shut down and settled in for the great unknown of lockdowns and distance learning.

And so here we are one Jewish Year later…

As Zoomed out as most of us are, as hard as it has been for every organization, school, synagogue and institution to provide meaningful and engaging programming over the last year, it is equal parts depressing and inspiring to look back at what we have collectively accomplished and experienced together.  Each event, each milestone and each holiday that we have been forced to reimagine stretches from last Purim to this one in a chain of creative reinterpretations.  I mourn what was lost and celebrate what was gained, like everyone else.

How might that inform our celebration of Purim tonight and Friday?

Too often as parents we treat Judaism the same way we treat Disneyland – as something that we sacrifice for in order to give our children an “experience”.  We scrimp and we save and we sweat in line so that our children can go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  We also scrimp and save and sweat over paperwork so that our children can receive a Jewish education and go to camp and have a bar/bat mitzvah.  But what about us?

Maybe this year, not in spite, but because we are home with our families, we can take our turn on Mr. Mordechai’s Wild Ride?

Purim is a holiday of reversals and opposites, of mask-wearing and mask-shedding.  You can be anyone you wish in service of being your truest self.  If you think that wearing a costume is childish, what do you have to lose this year?  You can wear a costume like nobody’s watching…because no one is!  If you are typically shy about booing Haman with all your gusto in a crowd, this is your year.  You can boo Haman like nobody’s listening…because no one is!  If you are someone who likes to indulge a bit on Purim, you can drink like no one is driving…because no one is.  You get the idea.

Virtual Purim means that it has never been more comfortable to make yourself uncomfortable.  Take advantage of the opportunity to do something silly as a family tonight and tomorrow.  Not only should you not let your children have all the fun, your silliness makes a very serious statement about what it means to be Jewish – every year, but especially this one.

From my family to yours…chag Purim sameach & a freilichen Purim!

The Transparency Files: Long Range Planning

Today is our second “PD” (Professional Development, although in our internal language we prefer “Professional Growth”) Day of the school year.  Like the prior one, most of the time is being given over to our teachers in light of the high bandwidth that hylex teaching and learning requires.  A lot of the day will be spent catching up and working on second trimester report cards.  We, will, however be spending a little time in both horizontal (grade-level) and vertical (subject matter) conversations around what I am calling “Curriculum Mapping – Year Zero”.

If you read this blog – or know me – then you already know that I tend to think in terms of stories and narrative arcs.  And in living and telling the story of OJCS, I have tried to make explicit what chapters we are in and how those chapter come together.  For example the financial story of the school has been moving from “Crisis” to “Fragile Stability” on our way towards “Sustainability”.  When it comes to the educational product – what matters most to students, parents and teachers – we have documented in my blog and lots of other places the story of our journey.  Without revisiting all that territory, with the extraordinary contributions of three different consultancies, we have…

…2017-2018: Embraced transparency, clarified our value proposition [NoTosh consultancy / North Stars], defined our Jewish mission/vision and named our challenges around French outcomes.

…2018-2019: Built faculty capacity around “NOW Literacies” [Silvia Tolisano consultancy], aligned our classroom management program and our homework philosophy to our North Stars.

…2019-2020: Was supposed to be a year to PAUSE and let everyone catch up with all the changes, with the exception of launching our TACLEF Consultancy to impact French outcomes and a task force to help align our teacher evaluation process with our North Stars.  And then COVID…

The story of those three years (my first ones at OJCS) was largely about the HOWS and WHYS of teaching – what does OJCS uniquely believe to be true about teaching and learning and, then, what does “excellence” look like?

This year was supposed to begin a transition to an equally important topic – the WHATS of teaching.  As a private school we have freedom (and I would argue an obligation) to only use the provincial standards and benchmarks as the “floor” not the “ceiling”.  To make that true, we have a responsibility to be very clear about what our benchmarks and standards are for each subject in each grade.  The shorthand for that process is often called “curriculum mapping”.  In a non-COVID year, 2020-2021 would have been the first in a two-year curriculum mapping consultancy, the end result being a clear and detailed description of the “whats”.  And because I like round numbers, it would have meant that after five years, this chapter of the school would be complete and we’d be ready to start writing the next exciting one.  But still COVID…

In order not to lose momentum, however, we did this year ask our teachers to commit to putting on paper their long range plans for the year.  Before you can have a conversation about what should be, it is helpful to all be on the same page with what is.  That brings us back to today.  Today, our teachers are sharing with their grade-level teams and their subject matter teams the results of their long range planning.  Their discussions will focus on the following questions:

  1. What have you noticed in your own plans now that you have had a few months to reflect on the gap between what you planned and what actually happened?  How is your pacing with regard to meeting all of your learning expectations over the span of the whole school year?  Does anything need to be adjusted to meet those outcomes?
  2. Do you notice any gaps in your own plans?  What do you think needs to be added?  Are there opportunities to offer more detail?
  3. Do you notice any overemphasis or overlapping in your own plans? What do you think needs to be trimmed, cut or adjusted?
  4. Do you notice any gaps in the collective plans?  Is there content or learning skills that are critical for your students that don’t live in anyone’s (JS/FS/GS) plans?   Is there content that is critical for your students that doesn’t live in any grade’s plans below yours? Are there learning skills that are critical for your students that don’t live in any grade’s plans below yours?
  5. Do you notice any redundancies in the collective plans?  Is there content or learning skills that are duplicated across your plans?  How might you better collaborate and/or assign those goals/skills/experiences across the team?  Is there content or learning skills that are duplicated across your plans?  How might you better collaborate and/or assign those goals/skills/experiences across the grades?

We are grateful to have a day of conversation and collaboration.  We are excited that the work our teachers will be doing today will have real impact on teaching and learning at OJCS in the years ahead – COVID or no COVID!

One more dot to connect!

About 600 words or so ago, I mentioned a task force to align what we now believe to be true about teaching and learning with our evaluation process of teachers.  I also mentioned that we now had a clearer picture of what “excellence” in teaching and learning truly is.  Those things are connected.  The first deliverable from the task force was the creation of a new “Learning Target” for OJCS.  This “Learning Target” is the instrument of alignment – meaning we can now make big and small decisions based on whether they bring our school closer to the target or not.  If our “North Stars” represent unchanging aspirational endpoints of our educational journey, our “Learning Target” functions as a map and a compass.  I am very pleased to share it with you here for the first time:

We have a separate document providing detailing each cog in greater detail, which I will be happy to share upon request.

Celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and OJCS is excited to celebrate – even if those celebrations (like everything else these days) has to come filtered through COVID protocols.  “Inclusion” is not simply an issue to discuss once a year, of course, and because it might have gotten lost earlier in the year, I actually want to start by highlighting an extraordinary post from way back in November by our Director of Special Education, Sharon Reichstein.  Entitled “Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative,” the posts opens by declaring the term “special needs” somewhat problematic:

The mere word ‘Special Education’ comes with a whole series of preconceived notions and ideas, often different for each person who hears it. For me, Special Education is a gift, a passion, and a commitment to ensuring every child gets what they need in order to succeed. I’ve spent my entire career building on this concept. For others, Special Education is viewed as something negative, something to hide, to be embarrassed about, or even ashamed of, and I hate that! For others,  Special Education is something placed in a box over to the side, an ‘other’, a silo, something that is about them and shouldn’t have anything to do with me. But what if we shifted that narrative so that everyone – administrators, teachers, parents, and most importantly, students – felt pride, empowerment, and understanding when they heard the term Special Education. I love to imagine a world and a school where Special Education becomes so ingrained in the normal, that no one sees it as “extra work” on the part of the teacher, something to “be ashamed” of on the part of the student, or something to “be worried” about on the part of the parent.

After a lengthy post that you should really read, she concludes with

At the OJCS we are well on our way with this shift. We strive to personalize instruction and encourage students to own their own learning. Understanding how each student learns and using their strengths to improve weaknesses is what we aim to do.

There is a bit of a delicate dance we do with issues like “inclusion”.  To the degree that we state that “everyone has special needs,” you run the risk of only focusing on who you presently serve and not look to see who you do not / cannot and then explore why.  To the degree that we state “every month is about inclusion,” you run the risk of missing a critical annual opportunity to reflect, to learn, to grow and to change.  We want to acknowledge the daily, weekly, and yearly work that we do to incrementally become better able to meet the needs of current students and to increase the circle of inclusivity.  But we also want to use JDAIM as a measuring stick and an inspiration – to have our thinking challenged, our minds opened and our hearts stirred.  We are blessed to be part of an interconnected Jewish community with partners to lovingly push and support us on our journey.

Last year, we were a little more easily able to celebrate in big ways and small.  (Here is a link to last year’s post if you are curious.)  This year, we have to be a little more careful, but the month is getting started with a few initiatives…

…Deanna Bertrend, our Student Life Coordinator, rolled out a Padlet to our faculty that includes all the links and ideas that have been collected, thus far.  As she put it, “While we spend time each day fostering kind and inclusive communities in our classrooms, it is our hope that you can add a spotlight to JDAIM in your classrooms throughout the month of February- pick and choose from the Padlet activities and/or create your own.”

…Brigitte Ruel, our Librarian, has a post on books that focus on “inclusivity”.

…we will again participate in Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN)’s “Youth Leadership Award Challenge”:

…new this year is the exciting opportunity for our students to participate in the Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) Speaker Series for students in Grades 5-8.  Every Monday through Thursday this month there will be a different and free JDAIM guest speaker.  The lineup of speakers is incredible!

Classroom blogs and student blogfolios will be a great place to find examples of how OJCS lives JDAIM this year.

It bears mentioning that our ability to meet existing needs with enhanced COVID safety protocols is only possible thanks both to generous supplemental grants from Federation and from its “Emergency Campaign” that provides flexible furniture, assistive technology, and diagnostic software to benefit learners of all kinds whether they are learning in-person or at-home.  As increased personalization is carried forward from all our COVID pivots, OJCS aspires to live a pedagogy of personalization that allows each student in our school to find the appropriate floor and to fly as far as their God-given potential permits without a ceiling.

This Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, let us be reminded 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.

Seeding the Jewish Future With Hebrew: A Twist on Tu B’Shevat

We recently completed a very exciting set of virtual “parlour meetings” to share the school with different cohorts of prospective parents.  It is always nice to have an opportunity to share our school with people and these form critical touchpoints on the journey from interest to admissions.  Of course, during these meetings we spend time sharing our school’s North Stars because what better way to paint a picture of #TheOJCSWay than trying to bring our North Stars to life!  One talking point we emphasize is how our ability to “learn better together” is amplified by our proximity and relationship with the Israeli Embassy.  How blessed is our school to have access to people and resources that come with being a Jewish Community School in a nation’s capital!  Today, our students got a firsthand (virtual) opportunity to see this relationship in action…

We were thrilled last spring when in the changeover in Embassy personnel, we asked to collaborate on what we started calling “A Celebration of the Hebrew Language” – a day for our community to acknowledge and celebrate the miracle of modern Hebrew, to join together in Hebrew-focused activities, to learn more about the teaching of Hebrew, etc, etc.  Our original plan was to hone in on the January birthday of the founding father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, as an ideal date; and with us able to facilitate in-person learning from August through Winter Break, we were on schedule and on task for a special day.

And, of course…the unplanned pivot.

While still hoping for an in-person experience, we postponed this special day until Tu B’Shevat, believing that there are all sorts of natural connections between celebrating the rebirth/growth of the Hebrew language in Eretz Yisrael and celebrating the rebirth/growth of trees (and wider environmental concerns) in that same Land.  And, of course…we did not wind up back to in-person learning by the 28th.

So…without being able to predict the future and wanting to make the best of things, we went ahead today with our combined “Celebration of Hebrew” / Tu B’Shevat at OJCS in partnership with the Israeli Embassy!  It may not have all the bells and whistles that it could have – and will in the future – but it did include…

…and highly informational video put together by our own Morah Ruthie (and Josh Max), starring some of our Grade 8s (with an overgrown older guest) and special appearance by our friends at the Embassy!

…special Hebrew and Tu B’Shevat programming during Jewish Studies time!

…specially integrated information and activities prepared by Jewish Studies Faculty and integrated by General Studies/French Faculty into their blocks.

…and a few multigrade shared experiences.

[Check our social media for pictures and videos from the day!]

Whereas in the future we will be able to incorporate other aspects of our program and other partners in our community, we still feel blessed that we are able to pull off a special day.  On a day that we celebrate the physical seeding of plants and trees and connect the dots to our larger responsibility as Jews to the physical land of Israel (and our responsibility as humans to steward the physical world), it adds meaning to celebrate the miracle of modern Hebrew and to acknowledge the role it played and plays in seeding the Jewish future.  We look forward to the ongoing planting of these twin seeds in the soil of our school, to watering them through meaningful engagement, investment and partnerships and to celebrating their bloomings each season with our Israeli Embassy partners.

Chag sameach!

What #Amplification Looks Like

One of our #NorthStars is that #WeLearnBetterTogether.  It is always important to remember that these aren’t just hashtags or slogans and they aren’t just for students.  They are there to guide our path and inspire our decisions.  Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to look a little more closely at how just part of this North Star actually actually plays out.

This is just about the time of year where we finish our first round of conversations with teachers about their progress, performance and professional growth.  With the unveiling of a new OJCS Learning Target (how we believe teaching and learning should look) last year, we have identified “Amplification” as a key pillar.  At the highest level, when we talk about a teacher’s “professional amplification”, we are looking for things like:

  • Teacher participates in school-based and online learning communities to access and extend continuous, ongoing professional learning for self, and effectively shares with colleagues knowledge about current thinking, methods and best practices in education
  • Teacher works in collaboration with others to design robust learning tasks and obtain feedback about instructional planning from colleagues and mentors, or acts as mentor or peer coach.
  • Teacher takes the initiative to inform self about current research literature and incorporates it into teaching and learning practices.
  • Teacher shares thoughts about current research openly on digital platforms.  Parents, experts and members of the larger community are invited to respond to it.
  • Teacher actively and regularly connects their own work to educators from around the world via a variety of platforms.

I thought it would be fun to see how the faculty of @The_OJCS learns with and from each other and the world.  As I have done once before, since Twitter is the platform of choice for teachers who amplify, I thought I would share a little Wakelet of recent activity:

Our students are the beneficiaries of all this amazing crowdsourced wisdom and I am so proud to work in a school where so many teachers (and it is so many more teachers – and part of Mrs. Thompson’s role as Teaching & Learning Coordinator is to do this work, which is why you see her so frequently – and comes in so many more ways than just a one-week glance at Twitter) learn from each other and the wider world!

You know who else amplifies at OJCS?  Our students!  Through their student blogfolios (Grades 4-7 and growing!) and through Classroom Twitter accounts.  But that’s for another blog post…

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Parent Primer for the Pivot

Just when I thought we were out…they pulled us back in.

I don’t mean to make light of the situation.  Back in October, I wrote a blog post explaining why we were taking time to lay the ground for a potential pivot, not knowing and very much hoping that one would not be forthcoming.  And here we are in January, two weeks into a three-week pivot of fully distanced learning…or what we certainly hope will be (only) a three-week pivot.

Let me first answer what I believe are a few pressing questions…

What does being a private school mean when it comes to closures?

Not much.  Other than us getting our letter from a different department of the Ministry of Education, and for some reason getting it consistently a few days delayed, there has been no separation between what has been required for public and private schools at any point along this journey.  One might (this one certainly has) wonder whether there could be a circumstance where private and/or individual schools are given discretion to make choices when it comes to closures, but that is not how it has played out thus far.

What is currently true about a return to in-person learning?

As of this writing, we are still scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 25th.  We have been told that any decision about extending beyond that date won’t be made/communicated until January 20th.

 

So, if you already feel comfortable with all the ways in which OJCS lives its Distance Learning Program, please feel free to skip the next long section and please jump to the two additional items below.

For anyone for whom this is still new – and for anyone who needs a refresher – let me offer a summary and syllabus of the accumulated wisdom from last spring.  What we learned last year informed how we planned this year’s hyflex program and the kinds of self-directed learning skills we knew we wanted to focus on at the beginning of the year for just this situation.  All of those successes and failures contribute to our current lived experience.

So…what’s most important to know/remember?

In our first post to parents last year about transitioning to school-at-home, we…

…talked about reasonable expectations for parents.

…shared ideas about how to create an optimal learning environment for your children (while acknowledging how unlikely it would be to achieve).

…discussed how we planned on addressing mental health concerns.

…made commitments to honor IEPs.

We ended with…

Let’s be sure to give each other permission to feel anxious or scared.  Let’s recognize that we will have both failures and successes in the weeks ahead.  Let’s create space for the messy learning and schedule challenges and conflicts.

[That still sounds about right!]

In our second post, after we launched, we focused on…

The spine of our program is the OJCS Blogosphere.  This was in the process of becoming true before the pandemic because of all the things we believe to be true about teaching and learning in the 21st century.  It is really proving its worth now that we have had to transition to distance learning on a dime.  The action is going to take place online; the architecture is anchored in classroom blogs and student blogfolios.

[This still very much remains true!]

We ended with…

I remain in awe of what we have all managed to accomplish here in such a short amount of time.  Let’s keep sharing with each other and with the wider world.  Let’s keep creating space for mistakes and anxiety.  Let’s keep celebrating small victories and minor miracles.  Let’s combat the social recession with creative social experiences.  Let’s live our school’s North Stars and our community’s Jewish values in this new virtual reality.

[Yes, please!]

Our third post focused exclusively on how distance learning amplifies quiet voices.

[This is something we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning.]

As we were gaining experience, we started to realize that there were a lot of positives from distance learning that we very much wanted to name and plan to continue in the transition back to in-person learning.  In our fourth post we highlighted the most significant ones:

  • Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices
  • Developing Self-Directed Learners
  • Strengthening Global Connectedness
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Personalized Learning

[These, too, are things we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning AND tried to frontload in case we did have to make the very pivot we are in.]

And I wasn’t the only one blogging out really helpful and important information!

Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs, has been putting out amazing posts helping parents find their way through the challenges – not just for their children, but for them – of distance learning.

Shannon LaValley, our school’s psychotherapist, put out a post addressing the mental health issues raised by distance learning.

And that brings us full circle.

Whether we are in this place for one more week or longer; whether this will be the only pivot this year or if additional pivots are in our future, please be assured that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last four years and the experience we gained last spring, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   Because it is.

Enrollment for 2021-2022 is right around the corner!  As we prepare for another exciting year at OJCS, we have been blitzing social media and holding a series of targeted “parlour meetings”.  This week we had two meetings for potential JK families.  Next week brings meetings for potential SK families and the week after is geared towards families with children in all grades.  As word of mouth continues to be our best marketing technique, your ongoing and visible support through positive social media and conversation with your peer groups has tremendous impact.  You can make all the difference in ensuring that we bring #TheOJCSDifference to more and more of our community’s children and families.

Since we were regrettably slow to inform the last time, let me share with you now the plan for our next round of Parent-Teacher Conferences, which will come around in March.  We, again, based on feedback and evolving circumstances have made changes.  What we will prototype this time, we believe, may be the model moving forward as we try to balance complex needs – most importantly having enough conference spots for a growing school.

We will shift conferences to a Thursday-Friday.  Spring Parent-Teacher Conferences will now take place on March 18th and 19th.  On Thursday, March 18th, we will have an early dismissal at 2:00 PM.  Because of safety protocols, we will be unable to provide childcare.  The conference windows on Thursday will be from 3:00 – 5:00 PM & 6:00 – 9:00 PM.  On Friday, March 19th there will be no school and the day will be dedicated to conferences.  Our feedback from parents about the ability to participate in these conferences remotely – which we will carry forward post-COVID – steers us towards no longer needing to dedicate two evenings to accommodate busy and working parents.  Should this model prove successful, our calendar for 2021-2022 will factor in an additional two days of closure.  We will both ensure we are providing the requisite number of school days and look to partners to help provide OJCS parents with childcare on what would now be four days of closure – two for PD and two for conferences.

Why I Am Studying To Be A Rabbi (Now)

[NOTE: This blog post was written before this week’s events in the States and before our school’s transition to distance learning was extended an additional two weeks.  I may have what to say about both in the week ahead, but at the risk of appearing tone deaf, I would like to share the following.]

I guess all the signs were there.  The random Facebook posts about dog ownership (despite being allergic and never having owned a dog).  Growing my hair out (and blaming it on COVID).  Signing a second long-term contract (for the first time).  Buying a house (for the second time).  Something is clearly going on…

While it might seem reasonable that a midlife crisis – as I creep closer to 50 – is in the cards, the truth is that something truly is going on.  Seeds that were planted over twenty years ago are finally coming to flower, as I prepare to embark on a journey that will hopefully not only make me a better head of school, but a better Jew and a better person.  I am pleased to share that I have been granted acceptance to the Rabbinical School at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and with the full support of my Board here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, I will begin my SLOW journey toward becoming a rabbi.

Why do I want to study to be a rabbi?  Why now?  Why AJR?  And, most importantly for current and prospective OJCS families, how will it impact my work as a Jewish day school head of school?

My passion for inspiring Jewish children and families to love and choose Jewish has only deepened during my years in the field, as has my desire to study.  The job of “day school head” is complex, but offers lots of opportunities for teaching, speaking, engaging, and constructing experiences – all of which I believe will be richer and more impactful when I have a more rigorous foundation in Tanakh/Talmud/Rabbinics, Theology, Philosophy and Liturgy.  I certainly have a background in those topics from my prior graduate school experiences, but not to the degree that I would prefer.  I believe that I will be a more empathetic and effective leader (and person) with pastoral training.  Additionally, I simply enjoy the process of serious text study and have yearned for additional opportunities to engage in torah lishmah (roughly “learning for learning’s sake”).

I am choosing to do this at AJR not just for practical concerns (the ability to do it part-time and at a distance), but from my research and my experience, I see AJR as a place where I can learn and grow in a community of like-minded travelers, led by clergy and professors from whom I will be honored to learn with and grow from.  I will be starting slowly, with just one course at a time, until I get my bearings and a sense of my bandwidth.  There are a lot of courses I can take outside the school day, but there will be courses in the future that I will have to take during the school day as well.  My commitment to the Board and to the School is that my work at OJCS will always come first.  I may need to work harder/differently in order to keep all the balls in the air, but I understand what and where my priorities lie.

My desire to go to rabbinical school at this stage of life is not about my career path and more about my career writ large.  The long and the short of it is that I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better and more effective Jewish educator, which is my life’s calling.  I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better person and a better Jew, which is my soul’s calling.

My first class begins in a couple of weeks and I am enjoying the butterflies it is bringing.  It feels good to put myself outside my comfort zone and inside a student’s mindset once again.  I look forward to sitting at the kitchen table and doing my Jewish Studies homework alongside my children.

I will certainly have lots of opportunity to share my rabbinical journey as it unfolds and since it took me 8 years to get my doctorate, we will have plenty of time for me to answer the question I have gotten most frequently in recent weeks: “Will you be Dr. Rabbi or Rabbi Dr.?”  For now, I am simply looking forward to making a good first impression on my classmates and my teacher on the first day of school.

Wish me luck!

CBB Brings the Ruach to OJCS!

December in Ottawa can be kinda dreary in a good year.  The days are short and grey and the weather makes you yearn for a warm blanket and a good book.  Add to that the interminable distance from the end of August until the end of December (Expat Alert: That is the real meaning of American Thanksgiving!  You deserve a four-day weekend in November!) and you can see why in the best of times teachers and students (and parents) can hit the wall and limp into Winter Break.  These are not the “best of times”!  These are pandemic times and so that wall is a bit higher and sturdier than normal.

What do you do when your school and your students need a COVID-friendly booster shot of ruach to lift spirits and send us into Chanukah and out to Winter Break with joy and positivity?  You turn to a partner with ruach-expertise!  This week we were blessed to bring our friends from Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB) to facilitate special ruach-filled activities in each of our grades at OJCS.

I’ve written in the past about my experiences and thoughts about Jewish camping and the power of informal/experiential education.  I won’t revisit all that ground, but I will say that when it comes to the exponential effect of multiple Jewish experiences (day school+ camp + synagogue + youth group), that…

Most importantly we encourage our students to be their authentic Jewish selves as they carry their experiences from context to context.  To me, that’s why experiential education matters.  It brings with the promise of making real what, in some cases, can only be simulated or sampled within the walls of a classroom.  Those are often the most important experiences of all…

Why is Camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their truest selves.  Why is Jewish camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their “authentic Jewish selves”.  Why is the combination so powerful?  Because what you learn at Jewish day school can be lived in Jewish camp.  The education that students at OJCS receive can be powerfully brought to life at CBB (and other camps and at synagogue and at home).  And for some of our students (probably the ones who need it most), CBB makes Judaism and being Jewish cool; that may be its most important gift to Jewish continuity.

All of this to say, that this was the week we brought the magic of camp – that special brand of ruach – to our school.  It was much-needed and much-appreciated.

This was the schedule:

This is a bit of what it looked like:

You may read and see more about it on our OJCS Student Life Blog.  Great thanks to our Student Life Coordinator Deanna Bertrend for putting things together on the OJCS side of things.  Great thanks to CBB Associate Director Jill Doctor and Assistant Director Marnie Gontovnik for leading things on the CBB side of things.  We look forward to increased collaboration between our communal institutions in the future.

Don’t forget to join us for our very special OJCS (Virtual) Family Chanukah Program on Tuesday, December 15th at 7:00 PM!  Our Jewish Studies Faculty has been hard at work putting this together and we don’t only want to celebrate our students and the holiday, but we want to celebrate a rare opportunity during these challenging times to come together as a school community.  Get your chanukkiyot, your PTA donuts, and your family together and join us on the Google Live Stream!

A Very Coronavirus Chanukah

This is normally the night where I am pouring through CAT-IV test results, doing some light statistical analysis and writing my annual blog post on our school’s results.  This is also the night historically where my primary duties are to be visible and schmoozing with parents as they come and go from Parent-Teacher Conferences.  So why is this night different from those other nights?

Wrong holiday, I know.

The very 2020 answer is, of course, COVID.  But what I am thinking about tonight is not just what is missing from this silent evening of virtual conferences and untaken standardized tests.  I am thinking about the holiday of Chanukah, which begins next week and what can be learned by refracting it through the lens of pandemic.

There is something about Chanukah which is tailor-made for this season.  Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday without a sacred text of its own.  (There is a Book of Maccabees, but it is part of the Catholic Bible.) Instead of a public reading, we are commanded to bear silent witness to the miracles of the season with a public doing – the lighting of candles in a window.

There’s nothing more COVID-friendly than a ritual that you do in your bubble, but visible to the public through a window!  That image – the action of a family candle-lighting silenced behind frozen glass – not only seems apropos of today (my first association is people visiting grandparents from the backyard) but also of Chanukah itself.

Chanukah is a fascinating holiday for many reasons.  In large part, the historical story is more of a civil war within Jewish society than a rebellion against a foreign power.  The Maccabees were fighting against (at least) two different strata of Jews – the Hellenizing elite and the acquiescing pietists.  The former were all too willing to assimilate and the latter believed it was only for God to act in the world.  The Maccabees took matters – and the covenant – into their own hands.  They were not content to let the world perfect itself; they understood themselves – and humanity – to be partners in the sacred work of repairing the world.

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but that idea of striking a balance between not letting the world overwhelm you, and taking appropriate action to perfect it, feels right for a Coronavirus Chanukah.  Since the Spring, we have been accustomed to controlling the things we can (hand-washing, masking, social distancing, bubbling, etc.) and forgoing precious, but now risky, experiences.  Perhaps as individuals that’s as much as we can do (which is still a lot!).  But as a society we aren’t simply content to let the virus do what it’s going to do; we have marshalled resources and expertise to develop therapeutics, vaccines, supply chains and distribution plans.  Like the Maccabbees, through human ingenuity and effort, we are active agents in our own salvation.

As we hopefully come through the virus night in the months ahead and begin to enter the vaccine day, let’s hope that by next Chanukah the image of a lit chanukkiah behind a window no longers resonates as COVID-proofing, but as a simple sharing of our collective joy of the holiday.

Finally, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to local healthcare or other essential workers whose light of courage amplifies and enhances this Holiday of Lights.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!