L’Zoom V’Zoom: Charge to Kitah Bet Upon Receiving the Gift of Torah

[This is the brief dvar that I shared with Kitah Bet, their parents, grandparents, and special friends on Thursday, May 28th in honour of their Chagigat He’Chumah (Chumash Party).]

As I look at each box on my screen, representing teachers, students and their families, extended families and friends, and so on, I can’t help thinking of the language used to describe B‘nei Yisrael as they prepared to receive Torah at Sinai.  It says in Devarim (Deuteronomy) that, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God…” (29:9).

When it says, “all of you” we are meant to believe that the entire extended Jewish family – past, present and future – stood together at Sinai.

When it says, “this day” we are meant to understand that the gift of Torah was not a one-time act in ancient history, but rather a forever present-tense experience of covenantal renewal as each Jewish person, in their own way, stands to receive and accept the gift of Torah.

There are important lessons to be learned from these ideas…

We are living through most interesting and challenging times.  Our senses of time and space are becoming distorted through social distancing, online learning and remote workplaces.  We are all playing with differing notions of “together alone” and “alone together” at school, at work, at synagogue, with our families and our friends – all in service of maintaining feelings of connectedness with the people and things that matter most.  A day like today bridges ancient wisdom and modern technology.  We all stand together today to witness these children accept the gift of Torah – whether that is immediate family physically together, extended family and friends virtually together, or the memory of generations spiritually together.

When we stand together on this day, we are reminded that there are parents and teachers amongst us whose “this day” – an OJCS/Hillel Academy Grade 2 Chumash Party – happened years ago, but lives again today.  There are parents for whom this is their first child to reach this milestone and others for whom this is their last.  The experience of Jewish memory, however, is not that of fixed moments sealed in amber.  Our holidays, our rites of passage, our texts and our prayers are not designed to encourage nostalgia for what was, but rather to make the past present, and thus, enrich our future.  On Passover, we don’t remember what took place in ancient Egypt, we relive the experience so that it becomes ours as well.  When a child becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – when anyone is called to the Torah – the blessing one says is written in the present tense, “…notain et ha’Torah” – who gives the Torah.  God didn’t give the Torah once upon a time to our ancestors.  God gives the Torah to each of us whenever we are present to receive it.

And that brings us to today.

We celebrate our children’s first accomplishments in the study of Torah with the (symbolic) gift of Torah.  We choose to do this on the morning of Erev Shavuot to explicitly link our children’s receipt of Torah in school with our people’s receipt of Torah at Sinai.  Your choice to provide your children with a Jewish day school education forges that link.  Your choice connects your children to the generations who came before and to those yet to come.  Your choice joins your family story to the larger Jewish story.  Your choice honours the Jewish past and secures the Jewish future through the learning and experiences you have made possible for their Jewish present.

That is why, as was true with the Siddur they received at the end of Kitah Alef, the Chumash they receive at the end of Kitah Bet is not a trophy to sit upon a shelf, but a tool to continue the Jewish journey they are just beginning.  It is our hope and our prayer that the work we have begun together as partners – parents and teachers; home and school – continue in the years ahead to provide our children with Jewish moments of meaning and Jewish experiences of consequence so that they can continue to receive and accept Torah in their own unique way, infused by a love of Judaism, informed by Jewish wisdom and aligned with Jewish values.

Thank you.

Thank you to the parents who have sacrificed in ways known and unknown to give your children the gift of Jewish day school.  Before COVID-19, we would describe teachers as in loco parentis – teachers who serve as stand-ins for parents at school.  Well, in this time of distance learning, we can aptly describe parents as in loco teacheris, and thank them for the extraordinary effort that goes in to schooling-at-home.  Thank you for entrusting us with the sacred responsibility of educating your children.  It not something that we take for granted.

Thank you to the teachers who give of their love, their time and their talent each and every day.  On a day like today, special thanks to Morah Batya who has poured herself into your children and into this day.  Our teachers play a significant role in shaping our children’s stories and we are grateful for the care they attend to that holy task.

Thank you to the students who show up each day as authentic selves, even on Google Meet!  Your passion and enthusiasm for learning and for Judaism is why we wake up each day at OJCS with a spring in our steps and a smile on our faces.  We can’t wait to see who you will become!

Mazal Tov & Chag sameach!

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

I took advantage of the holiday weekend (Victoria Day, my American friends) with little opportunity to do much other than enjoy the weather at great (social) distance, to go through the results of this year’s Annual Parent Survey.  If you would like to see a full comparison with last year, you can reread those results or have them open so you can toggle back and forth.  In this post, I will try to capture the highlights and identify what trends as seem worth paying attention to.

The first thing to name, which does not come as a tremendous surprise considering the times we are living through, is that both the number and percentage of students captured in this year’s survey is markedly down from the prior two years.  We have gone from 81 students to 84 students to 54 students.  This represents about 32% of our student population.  (Even less where not each survey is fully filled out.)  As the survey is per student, not per family, it runs the risk of being even less representative than that.  (In the service of anonymity, we have no way to actually know how many families the survey actually represents.)  Last year, we were at about 40% of students represented with a goal this year of hitting 50%.

Of course, this is definitely not an “all things being equal” circumstance.  We are still navigating distance learning and it is doubtful that drawing any meaningful conclusions about participation rates is worthwhile.  [We saw a similar decline in percentage in this year’s Annual Faculty Survey and it aligns with fieldwide data.]  Whereas it is common wisdom that folks with concerns are usually more likely to fill out these surveys, there is no common wisdom when it comes to pandemic times.  So instead of worrying this year about the motivations for why families did or didn’t fill out surveys, let’s celebrate the parents who did participate and try to make meaning of what they are telling us.

As was the case last year – and is usually the case everywhere – it is the parents of our youngest students who are the most invested with decreasing participation as the years go on.  This year, we see less Kindergarten than normal, for what that’s worth.

The percentage who replied “yes” is largely unchanged from last year (and always compounded by not knowing who of the “no’s” represent graduations or relocations, as opposed to choosing to attrit prior to Grade 8).  What is different this year is that the percentage of “undecideds” is larger than the “no’s” for the first time.  An increase of uncertainty certainly seems reasonable during a time of pandemic, although we have no way to tell the difference between correlation and causation.  What continues to be true is that the overwhelming majority of families – regardless of their feedback – stay with us year after year.  This continues to say a lot about them and a lot about us.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

The first chart gives you the weighted average satisfaction score (out of 10); the second chart gives you the breakdown by category.  I will remind you that for this and all categories, I look at the range between 7-9 as the healthy band, obviously wanting scores to be closer to 9 than to 7, and looking for scores to go up each year.  In terms of “overall satisfaction”, we have now gone from 7.13 to 7.20 to 8.17.  This year marks a meaningful jump in the right direction and you can see by the second chart that it is explained by the extremely high percentage of families who graded the school an 8, 9 or 10 and the extremely low percentage of families who graded the school a 1, 2 or 3 (in fact no families graded the school a “1” or “2”) – both of those things were not (as) true last year.  This is surely good news, but let’s dig deeper…

A few things jump out…

  • The topline number is up, fairly significantly, from 7.11 to 8.0.  This marks the first time we have reached that threshold.
  • Both learning “LEVELS” and learning “STYLES” have also crossed the threshold from the less healthy high 6’s into the mid 7’s.  It would be nice to know how much of this is attributed to improvement in general and how much to how the school has responded to distance learning, but we will have that same question to answer with almost all the data.
  • I am very pleased to see that every single category is up from the prior year and that all, but one, in this section are now firmly in the healthy 7-9 range.
  • I am thrilled to see such a high score (8.25) for “creative and critical thinking skills”.
  • Our lowest score (again) is again in “Homework” although it has climbed from 6.56 to 6.91, putting it just outside the healthy band.  As I wrote about in my self-evaluation, it is hard to know if the full implementation of our new Homework Philosophy was hindered by COVID-19, but we will look to see if this score goes up with another year of implementation under our belts.

  • Hereto, every metric is higher than last year and we still want to see each one climb a little higher.
  • The topline number has moved from 6.61 to 6.97, which is so close to being a 7, but for such an important metric, I would really like to see it closer to 8.  It would be interesting to peg this question to the grade of the student captured in the data (which I cannot do in order to protect anonymity) to see if parents’ perceptions of their child(ren) as being well prepared for high school grows higher as they get closer (which would be good) to graduation.
  • So thrilled to see all three of our metrics that deal with resource and IEPs to have grown and to all enter the healthy band!  Kudos to Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs Education, and her team for all their work this year – work that I believe has proven even more valuable during this time of distance learning.  This is a clear example over time where parent voice, aligned with teacher and student voice, leads to meaningful action.  (Fill out those surveys y’all!  We really do pay attention.)

  • Thrilled to see that our topline number has moved from 7.24 to 8.17!
  • Very happy to see that every metric in General Studies is well into the healthy band and each one is up from the prior year:
    • Math: 7.09 to 7.60
    • Science: 7.09 to 7.72
    • Social Studies: 7.41 to 7.96
    • Reading: 6.93 to 8.0
    • Writing: 6.51 to 7.07
  • I would happily attribute the meaningful increase in reading to all the work our Language Arts Teachers have done with STAR Reading / Accelerated Reader, incentivizing reading in general with the “Annual Reading Challenge” and the Scholastic Book Fair, and better integrating our Library with the Classrooms.

  • I am of two minds when it comes to our French metrics.  The positive is that all three metrics are HIGHER than they were last year at this time.  That’s good news!  Our OVERALL metric went from 5.66 to 6.54.  French reading grew from 5.58 to 6.36.  French writing went 5.35 to 6.07.  Those are all meaningful jumps in the right direction.  The negative, of course, is that they all still fall below the healthy band.  However, another year of growth like this one would put all those categories firmly there.  That should be great cause for optimism since this year’s growth can fairly be attributed to the first year of our consultancy with TACLEF – a year that got truncated by a third due to COVID-19.  Immediately before we pivoted to distance learning, we posted an update on the progress we had made this year due to TACLEF.  Knowing that we have another full year of consultancy ahead of us, should inspire greater confidence that our French outcomes will soon be on par with the rest of General Studies.  That will be quite an accomplishment considering the narrative around French outcomes that the school has been working to flip during the last three years.  Bon travail to the French Department!
  • Sticking with the theme of this section, all three of our specialty classes are up as well!  Congrats to the PE Teachers for leading PE from 6.84 to 7.75, to Morah Shira for lifting Art from 7.20 to 8.33, and to new Music Teacher, Mr. Goddard, for guiding Music from 6.80 to 7.56.  It is good to know that even with a rigorous, trilingual curriculum, that we continue to offer the kinds of high-quality PE/Music/Art experiences that make a well-rounded education.

  • We are again thrilled to see all our Jewish Studies metrics continue to climb higher after another year.  We are especially pleased to see the OVERALL metric move from 7.29 to 8.08.  With another year’s commitment to immersive Hebrew pedagogy, another year of meaningful prayer experiences, the leadership of Dr. Avi Marcovitz as our new Dean of Judaics, greater engagement of our community’s clergy, etc., we are clearly headed in the right direction.  Kol ha’kavod to the Jewish Studies Department!
  • We are pleased to see our extracurricular activities and athletics climb into the healthy range this year!  We are pleased to see field trips go up, with the hope to see it over 7 in the year to come.
  • Although our hot lunch program and our after school metrics trail behind the others, they are both UP significantly from the last year.  We will continue to work with our partners and vendors and look forward to continued growth in the year ahead.

From our experimental section, we yield these two data points (and two sets of meaningful commentary).  As we see it as almost an inevitably that schools will be required to pivot back and forth from school in a bricks-and-mortar building to school through distance learning, our ability to navigate that pivot with minimal disruption and maximal academic progress – not to mention with the continuance of meaningful Jewish experiences – will be powerful value-adds for OJCS in the years ahead.

  • I noticed that I did NOT include this section (Communications) in last year’s analysis (even though I am pretty sure the questions were asked), so we will let this year’s data serve as a baseline from which to judge future metrics.
  • All of these scores are high into the healthy range!  I like to see our “open and welcoming atmosphere” come in at 8.60, our regular communication at 8.73 and the front office’s responsiveness to concerns at an 8.80 – all of our highest scores.  I think we all know that we have Ellie to thank for a lot of those high scores!
  • I will be interested to see what the impact of “Student-Led Conferences” will be on the “parent-teacher conferences” metric once launched.

  • I have already shared my thoughts on my own job performance in my prior “Transparency Files” post.  I will simply state here my pleasure in seeing all these numbers climb from the prior year.
  • The one metric that I am very pleased to see climb is the last one, which essentially serves as a proxy for school-wide behavior management.  Last year we scored a 6.69 and I stated that, “we are working on launching a new, school-wide behavior management system next year based on the “7 Habits” and anchored in our “North Stars”.  I will be surprised if this score doesn’t go up next year.”  Well, it came in this year at a 7.65.

Last data point:

Remember this question was scaled 1-5.  Our school has climbed from last year’s 4.14 to this year’s. 4.44.  I truthfully don’t know how much more there reasonably is to grow this, but we’ll keep doing our best to find out!

So there you have it for 2019-2020!

Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys!  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses and a couple of experimental sections.  Your written responses added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  Please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern.  (This includes a full set of unedited and unredacted results which goes to the Head Support and Evaluation Committee of our Board of Trustees.)  As you can see each year, we really do use this data to make enhancements and improvements each year.

We want to reverse this year’s trend in terms of parent participation, but very much wish to continue this year’s trend in increasing positive outcomes and satisfaction.  To mix school metaphors, each year simply becomes the higher “floor” we stand upon to reach towards our North Stars.  With no ceiling, we aim to reach a little closer each time.

“Going Forward to School” – Republished from eJewish Philanthropy

[The following contains ideas from a prior blog post, but this version was published on 5/12/20 on eJewishphilanthropy.com.]

Going Forward to School

The simple truth is that we don’t know when we will return to school.  We are hopeful that the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year will take place in our classrooms.  We know that at some point in the future that we will return.  But as Heidi Hayes Jacobs recently said, “We have to start thinking about how we don’t go back to school, but how we go forward to school.”

This extraordinary moment we are living, teaching and learning through will eventually end, but it would be a huge mistake to go back to school as it was when we have an opportunity to go forward to school as it ought to be.  Here are four ways we should begin thinking about going forward to school:

Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices

A lot of teachers are getting a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students.  Distance learning is unleashing and amplifying introverted voices to everyone’s benefit.   A lot of teachers are going get a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students.  Chats, backchannels, blogs and blogfolios allow teachers and administrators to get to know our students more fully and through commentary allow us to relationship-build more meaningfully.  That is why they are powerful pedagogies in normal circumstances.  What is true for chats and blogs normally is now true for much of distance learning for all our students for much of our day.  Distance learning may have forced us into these techniques, but our core values require us to continue to amplify quiet voices when we go forward to school.

Developing Self-Directed Learners

Distance learning – as many of our parents can vouch for – is helped tremendously when students have the skills necessary to be self-directed learners.  And these skills are not exclusive to certain grades or subjects or even learning styles.  According to Silvia Tolisano the skills of self-directed learning – Heutagogical Documentation, Web & Information Literacy, Choice & Voice, Curation, Tutorials, Personal Learning Network (PLN) – can and should be embedded across ages, stages, styles and curricula.  They can make as much sense in a Kindergarten English lesson as they can a Grade 4 Science lesson as they can in a Grade 8 Hebrew lesson.

One could argue that the only real aim in schooling is being sure that students are capable of being able to learn how to learn.  What the move to distance learning forced on us was explicitly teaching these skills to students who not have adequately mastered them yet.  We are making up for lost time now out of necessity.  But we should embed these skills more deeply in our curriculum when we go forward to school.

Personalized Learning

Almost more than anything else, the move to distance learning has proved the necessity and the power of personalized learning.  We have no choice, but to lean into individualized instruction, personalized curriculum, and self-directed learning.  To do that well, to do that at all for that matter, requires you to spend meaningful time building relationships.  It can be hard to do that in a crowded classroom, but its importance comes screamingly clear through distance.  The amount of time we are now spending in direct communication with students and parents about their learning, the care that is now being put into personalized learning programs will help ensure that when we do go forward to school that we will come that much closer to treating each student as if they have unique and special needs…because they do.

Strengthening (Global) Connectedness

Jewish day schools, in general, emphasize global connectedness.  We’ve always maintained connections to schools in other countries and to personalities from other cultures.  We leverage those relationships to speak in our languages, to engage in active citizenship, to perform acts of social justice and lovingkindness and to foster our love for the People, Land and State of Israel.  In a time of social distancing, however, not only have we had to lean on our global connectedness, but we have had to learn how to foster local and school connectedness through platforms as well.  When we gather as a community for a virtual Family Kabbalat Shabbat or our students learn with and from a Holocaust survivor or when we celebrate Israel’s independence as part of a global audience, we feel the power of a connected community.

But when we go forward to school, what I’ll be thinking about is how much joy our students have each (virtual) day when they get to see each other’s smiling faces.  How can we use what we have learned about connectedness when distance was imposed on us all, to address school and community needs when distance is required for a few?  How could we incorporate our sick classmates into daily learning?  How could we incorporate parents or grandparents who are unable to be physically present, but want to be connected and involved into the life of the school?

We will – at some point – return.  At that time, I hope to see lots of schools promoting “Welcome Forward” activities in recognition of all the lessons learned during these difficult times that will continue to make our schools hubs of innovation in our local and wider educational communities.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

Although it feels like COVID-19 is the only thing we experienced this year, it will -at most – constitute a third of our school year.  So even though we continue along with our Distance Learning Program, even though things continue to be unpredictable, it is still true that when the calendar turns to May and June, you can count on me to deliver a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts!  This year, I am beginning with a self-evaluation, and will continue with the sharing out of results from this year’s Annual Parent Survey, results from this year’s Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them), and will conclude with a discussion of next year’s new initiatives and an introduction of the 2020-2021 OJCS Faculty.  [Things being what they are, these posts may not follow weekly.]

So let’s lean in…

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

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s…

This year’s self-evaluation is based on goals created for this year (which was done at the beginning of the year in consultation with that same Head Support & Evaluation Committee).  You will not find a complete laundry list of my day-to-day responsibilities.  [I typically focus in this blog post on more of my “principal’s” responsibilities, and not as much on my “head of school’s” (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.)]   This means that you are only going to see selected components [there are more goals in each area than I am highlighting here] for the 2019-2020 OJCS academic year:

Establish steady and measurable growth of the student population

  1. Leverage parlour meeting(s) w/host families.
    1. Meet ahead of scheduled parlour meetings with host families to discuss an invitation strategy as well as salient points that better target the invited families.
    2. Meet after with host families to discuss follow-up strategy with a goal of converting 95% of attendees into scheduled tours.
  2. Work with Admissions Director to introduce a more data-driven approach to the entire admissions cycle.
    1. Explore data management programs (analogous to development) to  better collect and sort relevant data for the entire admissions cycle (inquiries, tours, applications, follow-ups, admissions, etc.).
    2. Introduce metrics (i.e. “touches”) into the regular moves management process.

OJCS is a school of excellence

  1. Working with French Faculty to integrate TACLEF training (year one of two).
    1. Assign a veteran teacher to shepherd the process and calendar all relevant training sessions.
    2. Meet with French Faculty after each round of training to see how teachers are faring.
    3. Encourage use of diagnostic tools as part of the process of preparing for both report cards and parent-teacher conferences.
    4. Share out with families (whether in a meeting and/or blog) updates of the work and its impact on the schools.
  2. Prototyping student blogfolios in Grades 5 & 6.
    1. Work with IT to establish the blogfolios.
    2. Work with the Educational Leadership Team (ELT) (Mrs. Thompson in particular) to help the Middle School Team understand the value of student blogfolios and how to best utilize them.
    3. Engage in proactive parent education with the families in Grade 5 (Grade 6 families began this last year) to best prepare them to be active partners.
    4. Aim for Grade 5 to prototype Student-Led Conferences for the Spring (b/c/ they tie naturally to student blogfolios).
  3. Actualize new HW Philosophy across K-8.
    1. Prepare and present new HW Philosophy (focusing on implementation strategies) to faculty during Pre-Planning Week.
    2. Facilitate a session on “Homework” at Parent Night.
    3. Work with the ELT to address ongoing issues through the implementation phase.
    4. Solicit feedback from parents, students and teachers as to how the new philosophy and policies are working.
  4. Launch new behavior management program anchored in 7 Habits / North Stars.
    1. Prepare and present new behavior management program (focusing on implementation strategies) to faculty during Pre-Planning Week
    2. Facilitate a session on “Behavior Management” at Parent Night.
    3. Work with the ELT to address ongoing issues through the implementation phase.
    4. Solicit feedback from parents, students and teachers as to how the new philosophy and policies are working.

Public  & Community Relations

  1. Introduce “Parent Workshops” (instead of “Town Halls”) around areas of intent interest (i.e. use of technology).
    1. Solicit feedback from parents as to what kinds of workshops would be meaningful to invest parental energy in participating in.
    2. Launch 1-3 Parent Workshops (either scheduled at multiple times and/or w/virtual options to accommodate busy schedules).
  2. Prototype family educational experiences.
    1. Gather feedback from parents and teachers as to what kinds of family experiences (whether in school like a “Family Kabbalat Shabbat” or outside of school like a “Family Retreat” would be meaningful.
    2. Launch 1-2 Parent Family Experiences.

 

So.  It would neither be fair nor true to blame any unfinished business or any unaccomplished goals on COVID-19, in fact in some cases it may have actually accelerated our path.  But it is both fair and true to name that it surely was and is a complicated factor.  Nonetheless, I am pleased to say that we managed to hit many of the above goals and are on our way to hitting the rest!

Here are some things to focus in on…

…we regard to Admissions, we were in the middle of a new outreach initiative to the Israeli community (championed by current OJCS Israeli parents) and had an event scheduled to bring new Israeli families to OJCS for a Lego Robotics activity, but it got canceled due to COVID-19.

…with regard to TACLEF, in addition to what I posted right before we had to pivot towards distance learning, with the (small) sample of (strategically selected) students who were used to train the teachers on the diagnostic tools, data was used not only for report cards and parent-teacher conferences, but also to navigate questions about French level placement.  If not for COVID-19, there should have / would have / will be a French Town Hall with more concrete findings and next steps.  Our last in-person training session for this year has been postponed into the already planned second year of this consultancy.

…with regard to Student Blogfolios, work was done with the ELT, but we did not get as far with the full Middle School Team as we would have liked.  Use of blogfolios in Grade 6 was pretty scattershot until we were forced into our Distance Learning Program.  Use increased out of necessity and we look forward to a carryover effect when we return to normal schooling.  Working with the Grade 5 Team, we successfully onboarded Grade 5 Parents – at least more successfully than the last cohort.  We were headed towards a prototype of a Student-Led Conference, although it is possible we may not have gotten all the way there, before COVID-19, but now this too must wait until next year.

…with regard to the new Homework Philosophy, I think, as expected, that implementation has been the trickiest part.  We will need to continue to spend meaningful time with faculty to ensure a shared understanding of how the philosophy ought to live across grades and subjects.  It is also going to be hard to know how the shift towards Distance Learning for the last third of the school will color feedback on this (and the next one below).  We will get some sense from Faculty and Parent Surveys, but not as targeted as it otherwise might have been.

…with regard to the new behavior management program, as with the new homework philosophy, implementation is the trickiest part.  We had greater success in the Lower School than in the Middle School, but good progress was being made right up until COVID-19.  More work will need to be done into next year.  Hereto, it is going to be hard to know how the shift towards Distance Learning for the last third of the school will color feedback.  As above, we will get some sense from Faculty and Parent Surveys, but not as targeted as it otherwise might have been.

…and, finally, with regard to parent and community relations, this still feels like an area for growth.  We held one workshop on “Technology” and then the move towards Distance Learning led to additional workshops specific to the pandemic.  Our virtual Family Kabbalat Shabbats and PTA virtual experiences have played a meaningful role during this time of distancing.

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether publicly commented here, privately shared with me through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

If You Really Want to Appreciate Teachers, Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt.

We will be celebrating “Faculty Appreciation Week” next week and with the overwhelming majority of schools making their ways through their versions of distance learning we will – rightfully – hear all the ways that having school at home (which is not homeschooling) has brought newfound appreciation for all the things that teachers do to facilitate learning, inspire growth, foster imagination, support development, catalyze innovation, nurture spirits and souls and otherwise care for and love their children.  We will prepare treats, send gift e-cards and even invite our students to capture their messages of appreciation.  And we should!  But if we genuinely want to show our appreciation for faculty, perhaps we should give them the one gift they most surely want and have most truly earned – the benefit of the doubt.

I wrote a torrent of words (even for me) last week about all the ways we should carry the lessons of distance learning forward to school; that there are important lessons and platforms and pedagogies and ideas that should carry forward into school whenever we do return.  We don’t want to go back to school, we want to go forward.  But in terms of teacher appreciation, I would argue the opposite.  The lesson we want to learn from distance learning about appreciating and valuing teachers is that we actually do want to go back – way back – to a time when we gave our teachers the benefit of the doubt.

Teachers are not infallible.  Teachers make mistakes.  Teachers can do the wrong thing.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean blind faith.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t advocate for their children.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t meant that sometimes parents don’t have a better solution to an issue than their teachers.  The best of schools foster healthy parent-teacher relationships explicitly because of these truths.  Both partners are required to produce the best results.  But somewhere in between my time as a student to my time as an educator, the culture changed.  Respect for teachers went from being automatic to being earned to being ignored.

So this year for “Teacher Appreciation Week” absolutely send gift cards and post creatively on social media.  Buy ads in yearbooks, post lawns signs and lead parades.  Express your appreciation for all the things your child(ren)’s teacher(s) have done to make this transition to distance learning as successful as it has been.  Please.

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

The Coronavirus Diaries: We Won’t Go BACK To School; We Will Go Forward

Phase II of the Ottawa Jewish Community School’s Distance Learning Program launched on Monday, April 20th upon our return from Passover Break.  “Phase II” came after both a “Soft Launch” and a “Phase I” and each iteration was developed based on feedback from student/parent/teacher surveys, shared experiences from schools on similar journeys (especially the ones a few weeks ahead) and best practices from educational experts.  Each phase has us moving farther from simply trying to reproduce brick-and-mortar schooling in a virtual context and moving closer to creating meaningful learning experiences through distance learning.

Although the spectra on which each calibration has been based – live experiences/recorded experiences, synchronous/asynchronous, teacher-directed learning/self-directed learning, group learning/independent learning, device-dependent learning/device-free learning, etc. – remain the same, we believe that each new phase has fine-tuned the program so that the highest number of students can find the highest degree of success within the range.  We know that with each family situation and each child’s learning style being highly personal that there are no one-size-fits-all programs.  We believe that we have landed in the right place – for now – and that our continuous seeking of feedback and ongoing flexibility will allow for the successful navigation of individual concerns.

We don’t know when we will return to school.  (Technically, the current restrictions end on May 4.)  We developed and launched Phase II to accommodate schooling through the end of the school year.  We would be thrilled to return sooner.  We are hopeful that the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year will take place in our classrooms.  We know that at some point in the future that we will return.  But as one of my gurus in the field Heidi Hayes Jacobs recently said,

We have to start thinking about how we don’t go back to school, but how we go forward to school.

This quote was brought to us by our friend and colleague Silvia Tolisano, whose name you may recognize because she was one of the consultants who worked with our faculty last year on innovative pedagogies and documentation of/for/as learning, who facilitated our April Faculty Meeting this week.  And like every professional development experience with Silvia (and I am lucky enough to have had a decade’s worth across two schools and four organizations), our teachers and administrators came out of it with just the right blend of feeling overwhelmed and inspired.  “Overwhelmed” because Silvia is a fountain of information, pedagogies, ideas, techniques and tricks that seems impossible for any one person to learn, let alone master.  “Inspired” because Silvia gives you permission to dream big dreams, encourages you to see challenges as opportunities, and urges you that the future is right around the corner with our children deserving nothing less than an education that will prepare them for their future success.

This extraordinary moment we are living, teaching and learning through will eventually end, but it would be a huge mistake to go back to school as it was when we have an opportunity to go forward to school as it ought to be.  This moment, however long it lasts, is a challenge, but it is also an amazing opportunity to try learn and to try and to fail and to succeed.  We are only (!) in our fourth week of distance learning, but I feel very strongly that there are five clear ways that we will want to go forward to school.

Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices

This is something that I recently blogged about, so I won’t repeat myself here.  I will simply say that I continue to find just in my own (limited) teaching and engagement with blogs and blogfolios that the use of chat rooms, the facilitation of Google Meetings with clear and obvious rules for muting and speaking, and the use of self-recorded audio and video continues to allow me to see facets of our children’s personalities and depth of thought that would surely be lost in a healthily noisy classroom context.  The feedback from teachers bear this out.  Distance learning may have forced us into these techniques, but our core values – our North Stars – of “each being responsible one to the other” and “we learn better together” require us to continue to amplify quiet voices when we go forward to school.

Developing Self-Directed Learners

This category comes directly from Silvia and was the focus of her time with our teachers this week.  Distance learning – as many of our parents can vouch for – is helped tremendously when students have the skills necessary to be self-directed learners.  And these skills are not exclusive to certain grades or subjects or even learning styles.  Our teachers have already begun thinking about how the skills you see below can make as much sense in a Kindergarten English lesson as they can a Grade 4 French lesson as they can in a Grade 8 Hebrew lesson.

One could argue (and one has!) that the only real aim in schooling is being sure that students are capable of being able to learn how to learn.  What the move to distance learning forced on us was explicitly teaching these skills to students who not have adequately mastered them yet.  We are making up for lost time now out of necessity.  But we cannot truly embody our core values – our North Stars – of “We own our learning” unless we embed these skills more deeply in our curriculum when we go forward to school.

Digital Citizenship

Digital Citizenship is already something we invest a great deal of energy in at OJCS because of what we believe to be true about teaching and learning.  However, the shift to distance learning has revealed some gaps and some delays in our workshops and curriculum.  Our teachers, working together with our amazing Librarian, Brigitte Ruel, are filling those gaps in the present and will work to make them permanent features of #TheOJCSWay when we go forward to school.

Personalized Learning

Almost more than anything else, the move to distance learning has proved the necessity and the power of personalized learning.  We have no choice, but to lean into individualized instruction, personalized curriculum, and self-directed learning.  We can’t live our North Star of “a floor, but no ceiling” without fulfilling this promise – that we will know each student in our school well enough to lovingly inspire them to reach their maximum potential academically, socially, and spiritually.  To do that well, to do that all for that matter, requires you to spend meaningful time building relationships.  It can be hard to do that in a crowded classroom, but its importance comes screamingly clear through distance.  The amount of time we are now spending in direct communication with students and parents about their learning, the care that is now being put into personalized learning programs will help ensure that when we do go forward to school that we will come that much closer to treating each student as if they have unique and special needs…because they do.

Strengthening (Global) Connectedness

Jewish day schools in general and OJCS in particular emphasize global connectedness.  We’ve always maintained connections to schools in other countries and to personalities from other cultures.  We leverage those relationships to speak in our three languages, to engage in active citizenship, to perform acts of social justice and lovingkindness, to participate in our city, provincial and federal discourse and to foster our love for the People, Land and State of Israel.

In a time of social distancing, however, not only have we had to lean on our global connectedness, but we have had to learn how to foster local and school connectedness through platforms as well.  We cannot live our North Stars of “ruach” and “being on inspiring Jewish journeys” during a time of distancing without it.  When we gather as a community for a virtual Family Kabbalat Shabbat or our students learn with and from a Holocaust survivor or when we celebrate Israel’s independence as part of a global audience, we feel the power of a connected community.

But when we go forward to school, what I’ll be thinking about is how much joy our students have each (virtual) day when they get to see each other’s smiling faces.  How can we use what we have learned about connectedness when distance was imposed on us all, to address school and community needs when distance is required for a few?  How could we incorporate our sick classmates into daily learning?  How could we incorporate parents or grandparents who are unable to be physically present, but want to be connected and involved into the life of the school?

Sooner than later – hopefully sooner! – we really will be returning.  We look forward to enjoying a hot dog and the physical company of new and returning families…at the 2020-2021 OJCS PTA Welcome Forward BBQ.

Ken y’hit ratzon.

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Fifth Question for a Pandemic Passover

As was true in last week’s post, we continue to navigate uncharted territory – at home, at work and here in school.  As we close out Phase I of the OJCS Distance Learning Program this week and prepare to launch Phase II on Monday, April 20th – with no way to predict how long we will be in it – we are doing our best to approximate and innovate the kinds of Passover programming one would typically expect to find in a Jewish day school headed into its Passover Break. We may not have had the kinds of model sedarim we would typically run, but we did have lots of experiences, singalongs, show-and-tell’s and other creative ways to bring the (virtual) joy of the season into our students’ homes and families.  I continue to be equal parts grateful and awestruck by what our teachers are able to create and what our families are capable of doing.

I mentioned last week, that one outcome of social distancing during Passover is that many of us may be leading our first seders in quite a while.  That’s why I gave my “New and Revised for COVID-19 Top 10 Tips for Planning a Seder Too Good to Passover” and I hope they were helpful.  There is one tradition for upgrading and updating a seder that I have highlighted in the past, that I would also like to revisit and reframe for the times we are living in.

It has become a tradition for organizations to use the pedagogy of Passover to advocate for causes.  We can change customs (“The Four Children”), add customs (“Miriam’s Cup), or adjust customs.  One common adjustment is the addition of a “Fifth Question”.  In addition to the traditional “Four Questions,” we add one to address important issues of the day.  You can go online and find a myriad of examples of “fifth questions” that deal with everything from gun violence, hunger, drought, Israel, peace, etc.  You can find a “fifth question” for almost every cause.

Of course sometimes the questions and the conversations they inspire are more important than the answers…

As we collectively prepare to celebrate our fragile freedoms in a time of pandemic and social distancing, I would like to share with you some of my “fifth questions”:

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5780

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

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

Israel Advocate: How can I be inspired by the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” to inspire engagement with Israel during a time when I am unable to visit?

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

Parent: How will I take advantage of all the extra time that I am getting with my children during a time of social distancing (#COVID19SilverLinings)?  What new routines (#DaddyDaughterPE) will I try to incorporate into my parenting when things go back to normal?

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

Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach…

You Can’t Count On Uncle Moishy This Year – NEW & REVISED Tips for Planning Your Pandemic Seder Too Good to Passover

In the rush to figure out how to work, study and live in this time of social distancing, it may just now be occurring to you that if your family is going to have a meaningful Passover Seder this year, that is actually going to be up to you to plan and lead it!  If you have been lucky (that may not be the right adjective for each family) enough to be a guest at someone else’s seder for years and years, you haven’t had to take responsibility for anything other than showing up (and hopefully helping to clean the dishes).  During this year’s Pandemic Passover, when each family is likely looking at an intimate family experience, whatever kind of seder is going to happen, is going to happen because of you.

But don’t worry!  This blog post that you have likely ignored each year, is right here again, ready and updated for just such an emergency!

The first time I took responsibility for leading the seder from my father (of blessed memory), I was in the middle of my studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and deeply immersed in Jewish text and learning.  I was eager to discuss the history of the traditions, ready to parse language, prepared to study the midrash, excited to sing the traditional liturgy and totally misread the room.  I had a great seder, but I’m pretty sure no one else did!  But over lots of time and practice, I have mostly kind of figured out how to blend the traditional structure, text, prayers and songs along with newer innovations and customs into something that makes sense for the ranges of ages and backgrounds who come to my mother’s table each year in Las Vegas.

This year, however, our seder table – like most, if not all, of yours – will now be reduced to my immediate family and so even I am rethinking my plans.  The seder is still a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they still might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The seder was originally designed to be an interactive, thought-provoking, and enjoyable experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even in this most unusual of years.

Without further adieu, here are my revised top ten suggestions on how to make this year’s seder a more positive and meaningful experience:

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

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

If there are older members at the table, this might be a good time to hear their “story,” and perhaps their “exodus” from whichever land they may have come.  If your older members are not able to be with you this year, you might wish to consider asking them write or record their stories, which you could incorporate into your seder (depending on your level of observance).  There will surely be lots of families who will be using technology to expand their seder tables to include virtual friends and families – again depending on your level of observance you could consider beginning elements of your seder before candle-lighting to incorporate this element.

2.  Sing Songs

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

3.  Multiple Haggadot

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

4.  Karpas of Substance

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

When candle-lighting times are late or children’s patience runs short, you should try to eat your gefilte fish before the seder.

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your partner and children a little homework.  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  This could be the year you go all in and come in costume – dress like an ancient Israelite or your favorite plague – your kids can’t worry about being embarrassed in front of their friends this year!

6.  Know Your Audience

This one seems kinda obvious this year…if you don’t your family by now, we can’t really help you by Passover.

7.  Fun Activities

Everyone wants to have a good time at the seder.  Each year, try something a little different to add some spice to the evening.  Consider creating a Passover game such Pesach Family Feud, Jewpardy, or Who Wants to be an Egyptian Millionaire?!  Go around the table and ask fun questions with serious or silly answers.

8.  Questions for Discussion

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

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

One assumes – and I’ll have more to say about this next week – that the current situation may raise new questions or may cause us to view familiar text and traditions in new ways.  As you read through the haggadah, push yourself to ask these type of questions, and open them up for discussion.

9.  Share Family Traditions

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

10.  Preparation

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

Next week, we’ll revisit the tradition of adding a “Fifth Question” in light of current circumstances.

The Coronavirus Diaries: Distance Learning Amplifies Introverted Voices

Let’s say you have 20 students in a class and you have 1 hour available to teach.  If all that happened during that period was giving each student an opportunity to speak, each student would have three minutes of airtime.  That’s if the teacher doesn’t say a single word, if the entire lesson was given over to student voice, and each student spoke for the exact same length of time.  Since that never happens, if you did the math, how much time do you think a teacher actually spends hearing directly from his or her most shy/introverted/speech-challenged students during an average lesson?  Or during an average day, week, month or year?

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday and we were comparing notes about what good is coming from our schools being forced to go entirely virtual for an unknown length of time.  We were able to come up with a pretty robust list – facility with new pedagogies/platforms and increased emphasis on differentiation/personalization immediately leapt to mind.  But what I want to focus on here is another unintended benefit of going remote – a #COVID19SilverLining so says the trending hashtag – the opportunity to hear the voices that are oftentimes drowned out or kept silent by the normal course of schooling.  A lot of teachers are going get a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students. Distance learning is going to unleash and amplify introverted voices to everyone’s benefit.

In a blog post a few weeks back where I (re)introduced you to our student blogfolios, I said that:

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.

And that is totally true.  But what is also true, is that reading student voices or watching student videos or viewing student artwork through their blogfolios unlocks voices and personalties that don’t always come through in face-to-face engagement.  There are students who have extraordinary senses of humor and who are brilliantly creative and I had no idea!  Blogs and blogfolios allow teachers and administrators to get to know our students more fully and through commentary allow us to relationship-build more meaningfully.  That is why they are powerful pedagogies in normal circumstances.  What is true for blogs and blogfolios normally is now true for much of distance learning for all our students for much of our day.

The nature of the beast is that distance learning reduces the amount of frontal and whole-class learning (although it still has a place) and increases the amount of small-group and individual learning.  Those latter forms of learning still happen across a variety of platforms – live in Google Meeting, independently at home, postings on blogs/blogfolios/GoogleDocs, etc. – but they all allow for, or really require, more individual contact time between teacher and student.

We are just three days into the OJCS Distance Learning Program. Our soft launch is concluding today with student and parent surveys. All that we learned this week will be factored into the launch of Phase I, which begins on Monday and will last for two weeks.  Our students and our parents and our teachers are overwhelmed and exhausted and proud and exhilarated all at the same time.  We have already gained so much from having this experience.  But one of the biggest gains has come in our teachers’ ability to better know and to spend more time with the students they not have the bandwidth to lean into when we have crowded rooms and limited time.

We are all anxious to know if and when we are going to return to brick-and-mortar schooling.  But what we are learning about how to reach all our students, how to ensure all voices are heard, and the enhanced relationships that come as a result of new methods – all of that has to come with us when we do return.  If we can learn from this experience how to unleash the passion and talents of all our students – loud and quiet – well, that would be one heckuva #COVID19SilverLining.

The Coronavirus Diaries: The Launch Begins!

I promise that I will not be live-blogging each day of the OJCS Distance Learning Program!  But to the degree that it is helpful to document the soft launch – both for us and for fellow travelers – and because it is going to be a bit of “hurry up and wait” for the administration now that virtual classes have begun, I thought it would be good to show a little of what things actually look like.

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.  Just a quick look at the screenshot above – or a quick jump on the link – will show you how our teachers have immediately pivoted.  The action is going to take place online; the architecture is anchored in classroom blogs and student blogfolios.

How did Grade 8, for example, start its day?  Glad you asked!

How did our amazing Librarian already begin serving not just our school, but our entire community? #OJCSStoryTime anyone?

How does it look from a parent/student perspective?

And the sound outside my daughter’s “classroom”:

You get the idea; these are just from the first hours, more and more are coming as the day begins.  You can see it all on our different social media channels.

What else am I seeing?

I am seeing lots of teachers supporting other teachers.  Sharing live experiences with Google Meet, using internal Google Hangout for quick references, administrators popping in and out of “virtual” classrooms, etc.

I am seeing that in some families the anxiety starting to lift as the unknown becomes known.  But I am not naive enough to believe that this is true for all families.  Our concern and attention is going to move soon from the families and students we are engaged with to the ones we aren’t.  That will become more pressing as we move from the soft launch this week to Phase 1 after this week to the ever-more-likely Phase 2 after Passover.

What else is important during this week’s soft launch?

Preaching patience!  We chose a soft launch on purpose.  We know that some things are going to work well right away; some things are going to work once we’ve had enough time to practice; and some things aren’t going to work at all and we’ll have to adjust.  We are going to use these three days to figure out what belongs in which bucket.

  • Is Google Meet/Hangout going to ultimately prove successful with its limitations in muting and viewing the whole class?
  • How will we support students and/or parents for whom this transition proves to be more challenging?
  • How will we support teachers for whom this transition proves to be more challenging?
  • Will we need to add structured tutorials to our website/blogosphere on targeted topics (how to use Google Meet, how to submit work through GoogleDocs, etc.)?
  • How will we continue to live our North Stars?  We can see lots of examples of them already in play, but once the novelty and excitement (and stress and anxiety) wears off and we settle in, will we find opportunities for ruach?  Will we continue being “on inspiring Jewish journeys”?

In just the two hours or so since I opened this blog, I have been following the emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and chats of teachers, parents and students.  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.

We are definitely taking it one day at a time…but it has been a pretty special day one so far.