The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results (Yes, Even During COVID) Part II

Welcome to “Part II” of our analysis of this year’s CAT4 results!  In Tuesday’s post, we provided a lot of background context and shared out the simple results of how we did this year.  Here in our second post, we are now able to begin sharing comparative data, however patchy.  It will take at least one more non-COVID year before we can accurately compare the same grade and the same cohort year after year.  But we can get a taste of it with Grades 5-8.  What you have below are snapshots of the same cohort (the same group of children) from 2019 to 2021 (with bonus data from 2018’s Grade 3):

What are the key takeaways from this comparison (remembering that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting an “8.9” for Grade 7)?

Now bear in mind, that the metric we are normally looking at when it comes to comparing a cohort over time is whether or not we see at least one full year’s growth (on average) each year – here we are looking to see two full year’s growth since we last took the test in 2019.  This would be the place one might expect to see the full measure of COVID’s impact – these are the two years of COVID between the two tests.  However, for all four cohorts in all categories save two (2019 Grade 3 to 2021 Grade 5 “Computation & Estimation” and 2019 Grade 5 to 2021 Grade 7 “Spelling”) you see at least two full year’s growth (technically 2019 Grade 5 to 2021 Grade 7 “Computation & Estimation” was just shy) and in may cases you see more than two full year’s growth.

I’m going to say that again.

During the time of the pandemic, with all the pivots back and forth, all the many challenges of both hyflex and at-home learning, all the prolonged absences by many students (and teachers), with all the social and emotional stress and anxiety, with everything we know about what COVID has been doing to children and to families, in almost each category that we tested our students in Grades 5-8 – spending no time or energy preparing for the exams and with diverse and inclusive classes – in 22 of 24 domains we see at least the pre-COVID expected two-year gain, and in many cases we see more than two full year’s growth.

As was true with our overall scores, I was expecting to see a significant number of gaps for all the reasons I just described, but surprisingly and encouragingly, that is not what the data yields.

Let’s look at one more set data points.  We can also get a taste of how the same grade performs from one year to the next as well.  Again, we only have Grades 5-8 to look at with (with a bonus 2018 Grade 6):

Now, remember that these scores represent a completely different group of children, so it is not unusual or surprising to see variances. Teachers can only grow students from the place they received them and it is that annual growth that we are concerned with.  But over time you are looking for patterns.  Ideally each domain settles in at least a full grade above with slight fluctuations from year to year depending on that year’s particular constellation of students.  Even-better would be to see slight ticks up each year as a result of new ideas, new pedagogies, new programs, etc.  And that is actually where much of the story currently is.

In the places where we aren’t quite where we want to be, we still have work to do.  If with additional data we come to believe that Spelling or Computation & Estimation are institutional weaknesses, we will want to know whether they are weakness in every grade or do they dip in certain grades.  Between COVID and gaps in testing, we simply have no way to conclude much more than we have already laid out.  But in another year or so, we will be able to plot the trajectory of both cohorts (the same students) and grades over time to see what additional stories they tell.

To try sum up both posts, we have a lot to be proud of in our standardized test scores.  We have two areas (Spelling and Computation & Estimation) to prioritize in two grades (Five & Seven).  With regard to Spelling, it is interesting to note that when we flagged it in 2019 as a more global concern, we began providing professional growth opportunities for language arts teachers in our school on Structured Word Inquiry.  The sample sizes are too small to make grand conclusions, but it is possible that those interventions help explain why Spelling is no longer a global concern, although we do need to pay attention to where and why it is lagging where it is.  With regard to Computation & Estimation, we will – like with Spelling – have an internal conversation which may lead to PD for Math Teachers.

This fits in with the work we began on our November PD Day which focused on “Data-Driven Decision Making”.  The Math and Language Arts Teachers in Grades 5-8 will be meeting to go through CAT4 results in greater detail, with an eye towards what kinds of interventions are needed now – in this year – to fill any gaps (both for individual students and for grades); and how might we adapt about our long-term planning to ensure we are best meeting needs.

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

And now again this year, despite all the qualifications and caveats, and in the face of the most challenging set of educational circumstances any generation of students and teachers have faced, our CAT4 scores continue to demonstrate excellence.  Excellence within the grades and between them.

Not a bad place to be as we prepare to open the 2022-2023 enrollment season…

The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results (Yes, Even During COVID) Part I

This may seem like a very odd time to be sharing out results from this year’s standardized testing, which in our school is the CAT4.  We are just finishing up our first days in this year’s most recent pivot back to distance learning and we are confident that everyone – students, parents and teachers – has more pressing concerns than a very long and detailed analysis of standardized tests that we managed to squeeze in during the in-person portion of our school year.  (The post is so long that I am splitting it into two parts, and each part is still a bit lengthy.)  But with our launch of Annual Grades 9 & 12 Alumni Surveys and the opening of the admissions season for the 2022-2023 school year, one might argue that there is not a better time to be more transparent about how well we are (or aren’t) succeeding academically against an external set of benchmarks while facing extraordinary circumstances.

There is a very real question about “COVID Gaps” and the obvious impacts on children and schools from the many pivots, hyflex, hybrid, masked and socially-distanced, in-person and at-home learning experiences we have all cycled through together since March of 2020.  (I wrote earlier in the year about some of the non-academic COVID gaps that we are very much experiencing, all of which I imagine growing proportionate to the length of this current pivot.)  And it seems logical that there should be and are academic gaps, at least at the individual student level.  One might ask why we even bothered taking the CAT4 at all this year; we didn’t take it last school year for example, so it will be really hard to make meaningful apples-to-apples comparisons.  So why take them?  And why share the results, whatever they may be?

We did it for a few reasons…

The first and primary reason is that we are curious.  Curiosity may not be a “North Star” at OJCS, but it is a value.  And we are very curious to see how our standardized test scores measure up pre-COVID and post-COVID, both by grade (2019 Grade 5 v. 2021 Grade 5) and by cohort (2019 Grade 5 v. 2021 Grade 7).  We would normally be looking for patterns and outliers anyway, but now we can also look for COVID impacts as well.

Why share the results?  Because that’s what “transparency” as a value and a verb looks like.  We commit to sharing the data and our analysis regardless of outcome because we believe in the value of transparency.  We also do it because we know that for the overwhelming majority of our parents, excellence in secular academics is a non-negotiable, and that in a competitive marketplace with both well-regarded public schools and secular private schools, our parents deserve to see the school’s value proposition validated beyond anecdotes.

Now for the caveats and preemptive statements…

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

There are a few things worth pointing out:

  • Because of COVID, this is now only our third year taking this assessment at this time of year.  We were in the process of expanding the range from Grades 3-8 in 2019, but we paused in 2020 and restricted this year’s testing to Grades 5-8.  This means that we can only compare at the grade level from 2019’s Grades 5-8 to 2021’s Grades 5-8, and we can only compare at the cohort level from 2019’s Grades 3-6 to 2021’s Grades 5-8.  And remember we have to take into account the missing year…this will make more sense in “Part II” (I hope).  Post-COVID, we will have tracking data across all grades which will allow us to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same cohort grows at least a year’s worth of growth.
  • The other issue is in the proper understanding of what a “grade equivalent score” really is.

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

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

But I also don’t want to undersell the objective evidence that shows that the work we are doing here does in fact lead to tangible success.  That’s the headline, but let’s look more closely at the story.  (You may wish to zoom (no pun intended!) in a bit on whatever device you are reading this on…)

A few tips on how to read this:

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

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

  • Looking at four different grades through six different dimensions there are only three instances (out of twenty-four) of scoring below grade-level: Grade 5 in Computation & Estimation (4.4), and Grade 7 in Spelling (6.6) and Computation & Estimation (6.0).
  • Interestingly, compared to our 2019 results, those two dimensions – Spelling and Computation & Estimation are no longer globally lower as a school relative to the other dimensions.  In 2019, for example “Spelling” was a dimension where we scored lower as a school (even if when above grade level) relative to the other dimensions.  In 2021, we don’t see “Spelling” as scoring globally below.  (That’s a good thing!)  [We also have some anecdotal evidence that a fair number of students in Grade 7 may not have finished the Computation section, leaving a fair number of questions blank – in the case of this cohort, it might be more valuable to know how well they did on the questions they actually answered (which we will do).]

What stands out the most is how exceedingly well each and every grade has done in just about each and every section.  In almost all cases, each and every grade is performing significantly above grade-level.  This is NOT what I was expecting considering the impacts of COVID over the last two years – I was fully expecting to see at least .5 (a half-year) gap globally across the grades and subjects.  This is a surprising and very encouraging set of data points.

Stay tuned for “Part II” in which we will dive into the comparative data – of both the same grade and the same cohort (the same group of students) over time – and offer some additional summarizing thoughts.

OJCS Announces $1.5 Million Gift to Transform Classrooms & Learning Spaces

With the utmost humility and the sincerest of gratitude, it is my great honour and pleasure to announce what may be the largest single gift our school has ever received.  An anonymous donor in our community has decided to invest $1,500,000 to help ensure that our classrooms and learning spaces are as innovative as our teaching and programming.

This represents an extraordinary moment for our school – its students, parents, teachers, supporters and community – on our journey towards long-term sustainability.  Yes, of course, what happens inside the classrooms is more important than the rooms themselves.  But there’s no question that more innovative learning spaces allow for more innovative learning experiences.  This generous gift and the opportunity it presents will make a huge difference in the lives of OJCS students and teachers for a generation to come.

It is also worth saying that this new commitment to our school not only validates the hard work our teachers and board have put in over these past few years, but raises the bar for what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.  We hope that it also puts a smile on the faces of our current and prior set of major donors, including the Jewish Federation of Ottawa,  without whose contributions would never have made this gift possible.  We accept this gift not as a celebration of what we have done, but as a charge for what we now must do.

So…what happens next?

A lot!  Especially if we are going to try to start the work over the summer so that at least some of our newly upgraded classrooms and spaces will be ready for use at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year!  There will be lots of behind-the-scenes work with architect firms, general contractors, construction firms and vendors as we work to design our “classrooms of the future”.  As we did with the construction of our OJCS Makerspace – funded by a generous grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund – we will soon be convening groups of teachers and students for visioning sessions to ensure that “teacher voice” and “student voice” are appropriately included in the design.

It will be our pleasure to share designs as they come in and it will be our pleasure to show any current or prospective families the spaces we are discussing as it becomes more clear.  We are so proud at OJCS to have this opportunity to do such important and transformational work.  It is just another example of how OJCS is becoming an educational leader in our community.

How Studying to be a Rabbi is Making Me a Better Head of School

We have been conducting a series of “Town Hall” meetings with Middle School classes as part of amplifying student voice [North Star Alert!  “We own our learning.”] and I found myself in Grade 7.  We were chit-chatting at the end and a student raised his hand and asked me a question: “I heard that you were in school or something?  That you are studying to be a rabbi?”

Yup!

And after a little more back-and-forth, the money quote: “Why would you choose to be in school when you don’t have to?!”

Why indeed!

As I am spending my late nights and Sundays preparing my final papers and studying for my final exams, I sometimes wonder that exact same thing!  But as I am preparing to finish my first year (this marks the end of my third trimester) of rabbinical school, I wanted to reflect for a bit about what this journey has meant to me, not only personally, but professionally – how has becoming a rabbinical school student impacted my headship?

I am currently taking my fourth and fifth classes.  (I barely have the bandwidth for two classes a trimester, which is why I am on a long, slow journey towards ordination.)  My first class was a unique “Peace & Conflict Studies” course that dealt with navigating conflict in a Jewish workplace with a spiritual dimension.  My second and third classes were a Liturgy class about the High Holidays and the second trimester (I was grandfathered in) of Beginning Talmud.  I am currently finishing out the Beginning Talmud track and am taking a Halakhah class about “Genetics & Jewish Law”.  However interesting or not you may think those classes sound, let me take a moment to answer my own question.

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.

That’s what I wrote last January when I announced that I was becoming a rabbi.  The first part for sure has come true.  (The second part is true metaphorically, if not in practice.)  And that is what I shared with my Grade 7s – that the fact that I am struggling to remember long-ago buried Hebrew, while working in Aramaic trying to unpack talmudic conversation, and having to do so publicly, out loud in front of classmates and teacher, really does give me much-needed empathy for my students.  I have days when I pray that the teacher calls on me because I am totally excited to share my learning, and there are days when I pray that the teacher doesn’t notice me because I am not sure that I understand something and I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of my peers – “student’s mindset” for sure!

Whether it is time management (when do I do my homework?), imposter syndrome (will they realize that I don’t know things?), second (or third) language acquisition (please don’t make me express myself in a language that I am not totally comfortable in!), and so much more – for my students for whom academics are not their strongest suit, this experience has been and will be wonderful for my empathy.  And that empathy will, hopefully, help me think carefully about the kinds of supports those students need to be – and, more importantly -to feel successful.

Of course, for those students who LOVE to learn…me too!  Other than not having enough time in the day or days in the week, I am so enjoying learning again (especially Talmud)!

What is most fun for me, however, is when I can make a direct application between something I am studying and something I am working on.  [Obviously, a Jewish workplace would never have conflict so that class on “Peace & Conflict Studies” wouldn’t apply.  Ha.]  I have the pleasure – which I mean sincerely – of leading services each morning with Grade 6.  One of the things we have studied this year in Talmud is the Weekday Amidah, especially the first three brakhot.  In a wonderful bit of happenstance, that exact sugya of Talmud is one that we were studying – how did the Rabbis decide how many brakhot we should say, what should they be about and from where were they derived?  The fact that I could unpack that in a very grade-appropriate way with our Grade 6s is exactly why I wanted to go to rabbinical school.  Not because it was neat for me (it was so cool!), but because it allows me to subtly enhance the learning of my students and to add their link of learning to the chain of Jewish learning through the ages.

So, one year down, many (many) years to go!  In the meanwhile, I can put my report card on the fridge next to my children’s and I will doubly enjoy Winter Break with both my student and principal hats.

Do you want to see how JK at OJCS will set your child up for success in school?  Do you have a friend or relative with a child entering JK?  Please contact our Admissions Director, Jennifer Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca), to find out more or to book a COVID-friendly tour.  You may also reserve your spot at our upcoming “JK Parlour Meeting” scheduled for Tuesday, December 17th at 7:00 PM (link made available when you RSVP).

We will be sending home information next week about how the school will navigate COVID protocols coming out of Winter Break, including providing families with rapid testing.  Please be on the lookout for an important EMAIL.

We have a VERY EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT to share next week that you are definitely going to want to hear!  No spoilers here!

Shining the OJCS Spotlight: JK – The OJCS Way!

[This post was co-authored with OJCS JK Teacher, Susan Wollock.]

During this “Festival of Lights” it seems very appropriate to kick off a new series of blog posts (to be written intermittently) that shines a spotlight on new, exciting or important things happening at OJCS.  It also feels appropriate to launch this series because even if we are (please God) in “late-COVID” times, our protocols have been in place for so long that we have parents who may have never stepped foot inside our building!  And if that is true, how much more so for the rest of our community.  That’s the big idea – to share out big things that are happening at OJCS that you may not be in the know about.

And yes, of course, it is not a coincidence that we are beginning with “Junior Kindergarten” as we ramp up for the admissions season for the 2022-2023 school year.  We are so proud of our new JK program and all the deliciousness that is happening there – what better time to share than now?

So, what are the most important things to know about JK @ OJCS?

Well, JK at OJCS is a trilingual program with lots of opportunities for cross-curricular activities.  Here’s a topically specific example: Chanukah.  In JK, we use Chanukah as an opportunity to learn numeracy (How many nights do we celebrate Chanukah?), vocabulary (How do you say sufganiyot in French?), and holiday songs in all three languages.

In JK we learn through play – with emphasis on social, emotional, cognitive, language, literacy, math, science, physical motor skills.  In addition our JKers have daily Physical Education indoors and twice-daily outdoor play (those that nap get out once a day in the beginning of the year but then as they drop their nap they will participate in the second).  Our beautiful JK classroom is anchored in Centres throughout the room that focus on art, science, sensory play, literacy, fine motor, cooperative play and dramatic play.

At OJCS, JK has weekly STEAM experiments and exploration where we follow the scientific method in an age-appropriate way in addition to other amazing weekly activities such as Art with Tashi (our Art Teacher), Music and Movement (guided and freestyle).

But most importantly, they’re just the most adorable kids in the school!  [Note from Jon: I know which classroom to visit whenever I need a smile!]

Do you want to see how JK at OJCS will set your child up for success in school?  Do you have a friend or relative with a child entering JK?  Please contact our Admissions Director, Jennifer Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca), to find out more or to book a COVID-friendly tour.  You may also reserve your spot at our upcoming “JK Parlour Meeting” scheduled for Tuesday, December 17th at 7:00 PM (link made available when you RSVP).

Do you want to see (with your eyes!) what JK at OJCS looks like in action?  Stay tuned to social media and other outlets when we debut our new JK Promo Video next week!

Actions Speak Louder Than Candles: A Chanukah Pedagogy

I guess if the High Holidays came early this year that all the other ones probably will as well?  So I guess I can’t be surprised that Chanukah begins this Sunday evening!  As part of my blog post last year, I wrote:

Instead of a public reading, we communicate the story of Chanukah silently, with the act of lighting candles at the window so that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize our celebration of the miracles that occurred.

I found a pedagogical “a-ha moment” in my re-reading and it isn’t so much in the “silence” as it is the “act”.  Why?  Well, in the case of candles, it is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgeable amongst us can perform it. It is an action performed publicly and in the home.  And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing.  It is truly an act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.

This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah.  The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma“, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”.  Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator.  I think there are two major implications from this:  One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people.  Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work.  [This is precisely why in our search for a new “Head of Jewish Studies” we have expanded the position to include “Jewish Life” – our ideal person will have an informal and/or camping background in addition to their formal education and experiences.]  Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential.  It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our middle school students to go out into the world each Friday and in lieu of their Jewish Studies Curriculum make the world a better place by doing social action.  That’s why we are working so hard to launch our new “Mitzvah Trip” program this spring, COVID challenges notwithstanding.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.  That’s why we are exploring how to one day transition our GRAD Trip in Grade 8 from Toronto or NYC to Eretz Yisrael.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a menorah in the window, surrounded by family.  Hopefully, your family is planning on joining our OJCS Family in this year’s Annual (Virtual) Chanukah Family Program on Thursday, December 7th at 7:00 PM!

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!

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

If the days are growing short and (American) Thanksgiving is coming…#AnnualBlogCloud

Ah yes, here we are in mid-November.  We had our first super mild snowfall, the days are growing shorter and colder, my FOMO for American Thanksgiving is ramping up and my seasonal affective disorder lamp is shining that sweet, sweet Vitamin D in my direction.  That can mean only one thing – time to dust off the annual BlogCloud post!  (It is also true that if you are going to write 400 weekly posts and counting, you need to have some standard-issue content to fall back upon.)

If you missed last year’s punny post

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

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

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

“Jewish”, “Teacher” and “Student” still hold strong at about the same size, and even if “Parent” is still smaller, it is proportionately larger than last year.  That would lend credence to my conclusion that the increase in parent emails due to COVID explains “Parent”‘s waxing and waning.  Interestingly, although “Learning” and “Time” remain strong, “Community” is much smaller than in prior years.  I wonder if that is a casualty of COVID, in that we have many less opportunities to gather as and to function as a full community.  I take it is a warning and a reminder that we start to more fully occupy this “late COVID” or “post COVID” space, that one thing that has not yet snapped back is our emphasis on community.  (The fact that “COVID” is a bit smaller this year makes me so happy!)  Mission accepted!

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

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

OJCS Announces NEW Makerspace Consultancy

Again, for the second week in a row, I am tempting the fates by assuming that we have entered a period of somewhat normalcy and, again, hoping to avoid a jinx.  This week, it is to announce an exciting consultancy we have launched at OJCS that will – finally – allow us to truly roll out the Makerspace as it was originally intended to be.  Do you remember way back in March 2019, when we announced that thanks to a generous gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund, that we were going to take on our first major project to make our physical space as innovative as our educational program – namely designing and constructing the OJCS Makerspace?

It feels like a lifetime ago!  After design, came construction and after construction came furnishing and timing being everything, you may recall that it took until about a full calendar year later, January of 2020, that we were finally able – even though there were (are!) still some design elements and furnishings not yet in place – to begin using the Makerspace.  That means that by the time Middle School Science relocated to their new space, we had about a month or so of contact time and then…COVID.  Thanks to COVID we either could not use the space at all or had such limitations on its usage due to safety protocols that its functionality was severely compromised.  Long story short…we built this amazing space and still haven’t had much of an opportunity to use it the way that it was designed.

But that’s about to change…

Knowing that for 2021-2022 we could return to the “soft launch” of the space, and believing that in 2022-2023 we ought to be able to officially launch, we decided to engage a consultancy to ensure that we wind up using the space in the best possible way.  And so I am pleased to share that thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS will be working with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.

What will we be doing?

Well, as was the case with our last two consultancies, we have identified a small cohort who will work with Future Design School to…

  1. Create a statement of principles, in collaboration with the OJCS team, that defines what the makerspace at OJCS is focused on, and how it will be leveraged.
  2. Provide scaffolded support to the Middle School Science teacher and two other teachers to develop an approach for designing lessons to be delivered in the makerspace.
  3. Provide recommendations in a final summary from consultancy on next steps to be taken with all teachers to integrate the use of the makerspace into their lessons.

The OJCS Makerspace Design Team will include Josh Ray, our Middle School Science Teacher, Faye Mellenthin, our Grade 4 General Studies Teacher, Mike Washerstein, a Middle School Jewish Studies and Grade 6 Language Arts Teacher, and will be headed up by Melissa Thompson, our Teaching & Learning Coordinator (and Grades 7 & 8 LA Teacher).  This ensures that the principles, the units, the standalone lessons, etc., cut across grades and languages and allows us to not only build content that we can use right away, but to build capacity that we can use to develop curriculum and programming into the future.

We have our first meeting next week and we will share results and updates as they start to happen.  Not only can we not wait to start using the Makerspace to its fullest potential, we also cannot wait to show you all that it can do and be.  Maybe even in person!  Stay tuned.

My 400th Post: Blogging “The Moral Imperative of Sharing”

I published my first blog post on July 27th, 2010, entitled “Southern Hospitality”.  It was during the summer that I transitioned from being the founding Head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas (z”l) to being the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, in Jacksonville, FL.

Why did I start blogging?

Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.

If only I had remained that pithy!

What did I plan on blogging about?

We are a 21st century learning school invested in the continuity of a five thousand year-old tradition.  Our attempts to marry the past and the future into an engaging present will largely be the focus of my blog.

That still sounds about right.

Who did I imagine my blog’s audience to be?

Most of my blogging will center on experiences here at school, but I hope to be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish day school, Jewish education, education in general, and in the kinds of stuff I think happen to be interesting and worth sharing.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Or I’ll still never really know if and who is reading!

Why did I call it “A Floor, But Not a Ceiling”?

Because it represents what I believe the purpose of education to be – to ensure each child fulfills his or her own individual maximum potentials in academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual terms.  For there to be no ceiling has direct implications about what we teach and how we teach it.  I hope to use this blog to discuss these ideas and more.

And so here I am…

…11 years, 399 blog posts, three jobs and one country later.

I did a little research into my stats and metrics, but because I didn’t actually take ownership of my own website until coming here to Ottawa, most of the stats and metrics are skewed towards recency bias.  But there are a few things that (at least) I find interesting.

…here are my “Top 5” categories (a post can be assigned multiple categories):

  1. 21st Century Learning (145)
  2. Jewish Education (133)
  3. Community Building (107)
  4. Thought Leadership (106)
  5. Teaching & Learning (92)

(Crowd favorite “Transparency Files” clocked in at 60.)

…here are my “Top 5” tags (a post can be assigned multiple tags):

  1. Transparency (28)
  2. COVID (21)
  3. Innovation (20)
  4. 7 Habits (9)
  5. Second-Language Acquisition (8)

My audience has grown each year I have been here at OJCS (just like our school!) and so it comes as no surprise that 4 of my “Top 5” posts all come in the last four years:

  1. The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano (1,171)
  2. OJCS Announces $1,000,000 Gift (689)
  3. The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Plans for a “Five-Day, Full-Day” Safe Reopening (495)
  4. Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter (446)
  5. L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife (432)

So, why do I still crank out 40+ blog posts a year with a completely absurd and unacceptable average word count of nearly 900 words?

Because last week a parent emailed me to share some thoughts about something I wrote and it meant something to both of us.

Because I still believe in Dean Shareski‘s “The Moral Imperative of Sharing“.

Because it makes me a better educator, a better communicator and maybe, just maybe, a better person.

Because Silvia told me to.  [Read the post, I am still not able to talk about her in the past tense.]

Because I really believe in this stuff – that the act of putting stuff into the universe matters, even if when and how it matters is unseen or unknowable.

Because it is still true that “Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.”

Here I am and here I plan to remain.  Even when I am not sure anyone is reading.  Even when I am sure that almost no one is going to comment (no matter how desperately I plead).  Here is where I will continue to plant seeds and sow dreams.  Here is where I will continue to be transparent, even when what needs to be said is difficult.  Here is where I will work out new ideas.  Here is where I will (occasionally) let my true personality be seen.  Here is where I will advocate for teachers, for students, and for Jewish schools.

Thank you to everyone who ever read a post, subscribed, shared, commented, encouraged or helped.  It is both a privilege and a responsibility to have a voice.  I feel blessed to have been able to share mine over these 400 posts and I look forward to showing up and sharing out over the next 400 posts.

[Under 770 words! Nailed it!]

There Is A “COVID Gap” But It Isn’t (Just) Academic

This is the jinxiest and most hubristic, fate-tempting opening thought, but as things seem to have settled into what I am now thinking of more as “late-COVID” times rather than “post-COVID” times, this feels like the right time to share some thoughts about what we are experiencing with students, teachers and parents who are simply not used to this much daily face-to-face (or rather mask-to-mask) human interaction.  Whereas much of the chatter in the wider educational world this summer focused on concerns about academic gaps – how far behind academically might many children be due to a combination of lengthy pivots to distance learning and individual learning challenges in distance learning – and we at OJCS will know more as we prepare to return to standardized testing in the months ahead; what I want to focus on here, are socio-emotional gaps, which we are seeing, are real and are worthy of unpacking.

I’d wager that our school did as good a job as any in terms of navigating the multiple pivots between in-person, at-home and hyflex learning from March of 2020 up until today.  I’ve written multiple blog posts (like this one) that goes into depth about the educational challenges and opportunities COVID has presented schools and how our school has adapted and responded.  I wrote just one post that tried to deal with the socio-emotional impacts of COVID, focusing on what it means to be a “trauma-aware” school – knowing that for many of our students, teachers and families, that living through COVID is a kind of trauma that has obvious impacts on schooling.  It is worth revisiting the key idea from that post to set the stage for what I want to share here:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

I see these responses all around me, all the time.  I see it in the normally vivacious student who is unusually withdrawn.  I see it in the normally laid back parent who has grown helicopter wings.  I see it in the normally contained teacher for whom everything is now on fire.  I see all the reverses as well.  I see different reactions from different people at different times in the face of different circumstances.  I see it in the parking lot and I see it in emails and I see it on social media.  And I most definitely see it in myself.

Whether we consider ourselves to still be in the trauma of late-COVID or whether we consider ourselves to be in the post-trauma of post-COVID, the impact of COVID and the trauma it created is both real and ongoing.  And my various claims of “I see it…” from when I wrote that post last year, carried forward into this one.  What I want to do here is name a few that feel the most urgent, believing that naming something is a great first step towards meaningfully addressing it.

The New Teacher Gap

As someone who moved here five years ago, I have heard and experienced the way our community – Ottawa, Ottawa Jewish, OJCS, etc. – welcomes newcomers and most people tend to feel like “we” could do a bit better.  It can be hard breaking into an established community and the more intimate the culture, the more double-edged the entrée can be.  In a still small (but growing!) school, the size breeds an intimacy that is a huge value add…until it isn’t.  So when a new teacher joins the OJCS Family (and I am using “family” on purpose), there is so much s/he has to learn and be acculturated towards!

One thing that we have seen in the past, but has intensified through COVID, is that our students and our parents are not always as welcoming – or PATIENT – with new teachers as we might otherwise wish.  New teachers at OJCS, in addition to everything else they need to learn, are also at a bit of a disadvantage as they work to build the deep relationships with their students and their parents that their colleagues have had years to invest in and benefit from.  Change can be exciting and inspiring.  Change can also be scary and breed resentment.  I am seeing less patience for new teachers to find their footing than I had seen a few years ago.

The Parent Separation Gap

Like it or not – and many actually did like it – in many of the younger grades, parents played a pivotal role in at-home learning.  However much independent learning was fostered in school, however much time was invested in cultivating our youngest students to be self-directed – with much more success than we would have imagined pre-COVID – it is true that for lots of individual students, a parent’s role as “partner” in the learning expanded to include tech support, guidance counselor, tutor and even co-teacher.  In many families, COVID led to way more contact time and more quality time spent together.  A full-time return to in-person learning has meant revisiting the kinds of separation anxiety that is more typical to the beginning of a child’s school journey (only).

So it is no surprise that we are seeing all kinds of behaviour from both children and parents that have this post-COVID separation anxiety at its heart.  We are seeing a lot more angst and tears at drop-off, including in grades where we typically wouldn’t.  We are seeing a lot more “homesickness” or expression of “just wanting to be home”.  We are also seeing parents much more invested in the daily goings-on of school than we would typically expect.  We all agree that it is better for everyone, but especially our students, to be back in school.  We just haven’t (re)learned exactly how to do that, which comes with challenges.

The Stamina Gap

The school day at OJCS has the opening bell at 8:30 AM and the closing bell at 3:45 PM.  That is a longer-than average school day (although many Jewish day schools have longer ones, and that is without French, but that is a blog post for another day) and you can definitely see which of our students struggle as the day goes on.  And it is reasonable to assume that children who have attention issues will potentially struggle even more to maintain their focus across the many classes, teachers and material they encounter.  That was true before COVID!  One feature of hyflex and distance learning is that it provided many students with some flexibility over time – it was the rare student who was expected to be on screen and engaged on a full-day schedule.  It was more common to create blocks of online engagement that came with long periods of offline engagement.

This means that the return to full-day, in-person learning presents for many students, particularly the younger ones and those who struggle with focus, a stamina gap.  Students are simply not used to being in school all day and we didn’t exactly build in a slow return to build stamina.  In most cases, we simply assumed things would go back to “normal”.  But they have not quite yet, resulting in feelings and behaviours that we are working through.

The Empathy Solution

What’s the solution to filling in these gaps?  Well, in that same post I posited that “empathy” was the most likely solution, or at least the best possible response to the behaviors we are experiencing.  What would empathy look like in response to the gaps I have named here?  I think that when it comes to new teachers, it is understanding how challenging it may be coming into a new community and a new culture – especially a community as tight-knit and a culture as intimate as ours.  Let’s give our new teachers a reasonable amount of time to find their feet and build their relationships.  When it comes to separation anxiety, all of us – students, parents and teachers – will need to alter our short-term expectancies while keeping our eye on the long-term picture.  It isn’t that we don’t maintain high expectations for appropriate behaviour or that we don’t issue outcomes in its absence – it is that our approach for managing them comes with empathy, which we need to make explicit.  And the same is true with the “stamina gap” – it isn’t that we stop teaching earlier in the day, it is that we plan with an empathetic eye towards those students who struggle to keep it together during their long (for them) days as they build back their stamina.

Naming something is just the first step to meaningfully addressing it, and so that will be true here as well.  Are there other gaps you see other than the ones I mentioned?  Let us know.  Are there other solutions?  Let us know.  As partners in this learning journey, we have a sacred responsibility to lean into challenges as the first step to overcoming them.  This guided our path before COVID…so shall it guide our steps through and past it.

The Scholastic Book Fair is fast approaching!  This year it will be in-person for students and remains virtual for parents, grandparents, family and friends.  Please pay attention to the information coming home from classroom teachers and the school.  We thank you in advance for helping to build out our classroom libraries, for supporting our Library and for celebrating literacy!

After being unable to conduct a proper search for a new Head of Jewish Studies the last two seasons due to COVID – this position being too important to be decided over Zoom – we are cautiously optimistic that this season will be different.  So we will be posting the position in the coming weeks and hopeful to find the best candidate possible to join our team!