A (First) Trip Around the OJCS Student Blogfolio-Sphere

I can think of no better use of my blog on a snowy April day during a lockdown pivot of distanced learning than shining a light on the newest and fastest growing space on our OJCS Blogosphere, our Student Blogfolios.

For those who don’t like to click through, I’ll remind you that a “blogfolio” is a term of art that (I believe) my former colleague Andrea Hernandez created, and in her words:

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

We added “student blogfolios” to our blogfosphere a couple of years ago with a prototype in Grade 5 and now each current student in our school in Grades 3-7 has his or her own blogfolio.

I try to spend a couple of hours each week reading student blogfolios and what I enjoy seeing the most is the range of creativity and personalization that expresses itself through their aesthetic design, the features they choose to include (and leave out), and the voluntary writing.

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

This year, with the building largely sealed off due to COVID protocols, our classroom blogs and student blogfolios become even more important virtual windows into the innovative and exciting work happening at OJCS.  Recognizing that it still may be a new routine for families and that most families surely don’t have the bandwidth to visit all the blogs, it is my pleasure to serve as your occasional tour guide of The OJCS Blogosphere.  I do this a few times a year to inspire OJCS families to invest a little time, to inspire other schools and thought-leaders who may visit my blog from time to time, and to forge connections between our work and other fellow-travelers because we really do “learn better together” [North Star Alert!]

This week I will focus for the first time on student blogfolios.  [Please note that due to privacy controls that some OJCS students opt for avatars instead of utilizing their first names / last initials which is our standard setting.  That may explain some of the creative titles below.]

From Audrey’s Blog (Grade 6 / click here for the full blog)

The Best Moment of My Life – Posted March 17

My class is learning all about sensory writing.

Sensory writing is really important to incorporate into your stories, paragraphs, etc. because it helps the reader imagine what you are trying to explain and it helps the reader picture the setting.

If I were to redo this assignment, I would try to make the writing longer and extend the paragraphs.

Here is my picture and my sensory writing

My Drawing

I had no idea where my parents were taking me that day. The suspense was overtaking me and I felt worried for what was to come. Was I walking into a trap or were they leading me to the most wonderful place I will ever go to? My parents refused to tell me where we were going which only fed my anticipation. The car slowed to a stop in a vacant parking lot, all I saw were willow trees around us. As I slowly stepped out of the car and my parents told me to walk through a path nearby. When I reached the other side of the trees I was flabbergasted with the sight.

I found myself standing on the beach, gazing at the outstanding sunset with a mix of yellow, orange and purple. The sun was low in the sky as if it was playing a game of hide and seek. The sun reflected on the waves that were crashing against the shore line, then very slowly creeping its way back to the water, creating a soothing noise. The air smelled like smoke from a hut in the distance. I could just imagine a family roasting marshmallows over a bonfire fire as they told scary stories. The sand was very soft on my feet as if I were standing on a pill of feathers. The sand was molding my feet making it a reasonable thing to decide to stand rather than sit. The taste of sea salt on my lips created the illusion that I was swimming in the water. As i sat down on the sand i could feel the warmth overfilling me. I could tell already that this was hands down, the best moment of my life!

I hope you enjoyed this story

Have you ever been to an outstanding place?

If so where? What happened while you were there? What were your feelings about the sight?

From TE’s Blog (Grade 4 – click here for the full blog)

Innovation Day – Pulley Project – Posted March 18

[Jon’s Note: TE’s teacher nominated this blog post in part because she is new to OJCS this year and is just learning English.  Part of the magic of blogfolios is how well it allows you to chart progress over time!]

ELEVATOR

What did I need for the elevator I built: wire, 2 long pieces of cardboard, a box, 2 short pieces of cardboard, and a stick
How I connected all the parts: I took the hot glue and the 2 long parts and the 2 short parts I put 1 of the long parts
And on both sides I glued the short parts
And over the short parts I glued the last long part
  1. How I started the structure of the elevator: I took the box and made 2 holes up the holes and inserted the stick into the holes.
  2. How I build the evaluator pulley: I take the string and fold it. At the end of the fold, I glued it to the dowl (wooden stick). at the other end, I glued the elevator box
  3. How I built the flag pole: take a large wooden pole and glued it to the base. I take more wooden sticks and glue them to the top. I take two small pieces of cardboard and make a square shape to make a pulley. Between the small cardboard, I put the rope through and on one end draw a ‘T’ and two swords on the square flag. I glue the flag to the rope.

From Maytal’s Blog (Grade 7 – click here for the full blog)

Hebrew/Photo – Posted April 20

[Jon’s Note: I never choose my own children to highlight; this came as a recommendation from her Hebrew Teacher.  However, as student blogfolios were a big part of my last headship, Maytal’s blogfolio shows what it looks like when you start in Kindergarten.  Any OJCS parent who wants to see what it will ultimately look like should take a peek.]

בכיתה שלנו לעברית מורה רותי נתנה לנו 3 תמונות לבחירה. היינו צריכים לבחור אחת ולכתוב עליה. אני בחרתי בתמונה הזאת. אני מתארת את מה שאני חושבת על התמונה.

In our Hebrew class Morah Ruthie gave us three options to write about. I chose this photo down below. I described what was happening in the photo.

בתמונה יש 5 חיילים ויש חייל אחד עם מדים עם דם. החייל הזה נהרג והחיילים מאחור זה הוא עצמו שמבקש לא לבכות לבכות עליו. הוא גם מבקש סליחה על מה שהוא עשה והוא מנסה לדבר אל החיילים שלא נהרגו.

In the photo there are five soldiers and there is one soldier who is a different colour with blood. The soldier was killed and in the background you can see the exact soldier asking not to cry for him. He is asking for forgiveness for things he has done, and trying to communicate to soldiers who are still alive.

From Hermione’s Blog (Grade 3 – click here for the full blog)

French Blog Post – Posted February 5

Quel est le nom du dernier film que tu as vu?

Lightning Mcqueen

Combien de lettres contient ton nom de famille ?

J’ai 6 lettres dans mon nom de famille.

Qu’as-tu mangé pour déjeuner ce matin ?

Des céréales avec du lait

As-tu des animaux à ta maison ? Si oui, lesquels ?

J’ai un chien.

Quel est ton sport préféré ?

Natation

Quelle est ta nourriture préférée ?

Pain dore

Quelle est ta couleur préférée ?

bleu

Nomme ton livre préféré.

Harry Potter

Quel mois est ton anniversaire ?

decembre

Quel est ton animal préféré ?

Lou arctic

Quel est ton sujet préféré à l’école ?

Les sciences

Do you want more?  Here is a curated playlist from our Teaching & Learning Coordinator Melissa Thompson:

Grade 3

Grade 4
Grade 5
Grade 6 
Grade 7

English, French and Hebrew; Language Arts, Science, Math, Social Studies, Jewish Studies and so much more…our students are doing some pretty fantastic things, eh?

I will continue to encourage you to not only check out all the blogs on The OJCS Blogosphere, but I strongly encourage you to offer a quality comment of your own – especially to our students.  Getting feedback and commentary from the universe is highly motivating and will help this snowball (no pun or passive-aggressive take on what is happening outside my window!) grow as it hurtles down the hill of innovative learning.

Where will our next tour take us?  Stay tuned!

A Parent’s Perspective on a Teen Israel Experience

I think after last week’s blog post was rendered moot by outside events within hours of publication, you’ll forgive me for seeking comfort in a non-COVID and pretty much a non-OJCS conversation…and I like the idea of talking about Israel as we just commemorated Yom HaZikaron and are now celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

My oldest daughter, Eliana, pictured above in the middle, arrived this week to Jerusalem where she was supposed to be spending her spring semester of Grade 10 as part of the TRY (Tichon Ramah Yisrael) Program.  With her bags packed since January, the universe finally aligned itself this week, and teenagers from all over North America have finally found their way to Israel.  Leaving aside the impossibility that I could be old enough to have a daughter old enough to be doing this, I thought it might be a good opportunity – especially since teen Israel experiences that aren’t the March of the Living aren’t particularly well-embedded in the culture here in Ottawa – to make a pitch and a plea for teen Israel experiences.  (And, yes, I am aware that lots of Canadian Jewish day schools do have Israel trips, and yes, I would LOVE to see us eventually do that here in Grade 8.  But that’s a different post for a different time.)

Like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with Jewish summer camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an extraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience.  My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.  And now as a parent, I am blessed to pass it forward to my children.

The power of the teen Israel experience is real.  Here’s excellent proof (even if a bit dated):

A 2011 study conducted by Ramie Arian and sponsored by iCenter indicated the following:

  • Roughly 11,000 teens traveled to Israel in 2010 – almost the same number that participated in peer-trips to Israel in the late 1990s. One difference, however, is that over 130 agencies took teens to Israel in 2010.
  • The majority of teens traveled with youth organizations, middle schools, high schools, community trips and camps.
  • The mifgash is becoming a normative part of the teen Israel travel experience, with a few select groups extending it to the full length of their programs.

Based on two iCenter convenings of 30 teen Israel trip stakeholders, the following was underscored:

  1. An experience in Israel must be seen as an essential component of Jewish Education. Ideally, students participate in multiple Israel Experiences over time.
  2. The Israel Experience is most impactful as part of a Jewish Educational continuum (pre- and post-trip programming).
  3. Teen years are critical from a developmental perspective to help form identity and relationships.

I am so excited/thrilled/jealous that my daughter gets to have this first amazing Israel experience and I look forward to seeing over the next months and years how it impacts her and our family.  And I look forward to my next daughter’s experience when it becomes her turn.  In the meanwhile, in this week that we celebrate Israel’s birthday, let us pledge not just to celebrate her with flags and falafel, not just with social media posts and tzedakah, but with a commitment to bring as many of our teens to Israel as we can.

And for the folks here at OJCS…are we ready to start talking about a Grade 8 GRAD Trip to Israel?

The Coronavirus Diaries: When Spring Brings Another Lockdown

Looking outside my office window brings a smile to my face.  The sun is shining brightly, the birds are singing and the weather is warming.  Spring is (finally) here and the feeling it most conjures up is one of things opening up.  We associate this time of year with unbundling ourselves of our winter-wear and starting to be out there, more active, returning to life, stirring the soul and (re)activating the body.

Looking outside my office door, however, tells a different story.  Because we have just begun a four-week, province-wide stay-at-home order.  Schools remain open and, although, a meaningful number of parents are opting to have their children learn from home during this surge in cases, our teachers and our staff are here – bravely navigating their anxiety and safely caring for our children.

Pivoting my view from outside my window to outside my door presents a kind of emotional whiplash.  Our every instinct is to run out into the sun and put the past year behind us.  There are so many good reasons to believe that better times are coming and, in fact, are tantalizingly close.  And yet here we are, locked down again, doing our best to keep ourselves and everyone else safe as we try to get through this next (last?) wave.

Because we know that emotions and opinions are running high, this seems like a good chance to check in.  At this moment in time, with so many questions and concerns (in all directions) about school closures, I think it is helpful to break the year into three parts – what is true during this month-long lockdown, the rest of the school year, and how we are planning to open the 2021-2022 school year.  Let’s deal in this post with the here and now.

If there is one thing I have learned over the last year it is that I am not a doctor, a public health expert, nor a politician.  If there are two things that I have learned over the last year, the other is that when the views and recommendations of doctors, public health experts and politicians are aligned it is pretty straightforward to make decisions, when they are not…things can get dicey and uncomfortable.

Please know that we view the situation right now as extremely “day-to-day”.  We look to our teachers, our parents, Ottawa Public Health, our Health Advisory Committee and to the government to provide us with the feedback and information we need to make sound decisions.  I have had opportunity this week to meet with our school’s Health Advisory Committee and to participate in a meeting of Ottawa private school heads and Ottawa Public Health.  Another critical data point comes from Dr. Vera Etches who shared the following in a letter to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board earlier this week:

I am writing to clarify that I am not asking for schools in Ottawa to close now. The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as
–          73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and
–          98% of schools are free from an outbreak.
The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around. Though variants of concern mean we need to be more careful to avoid transmission, the local situation with variants in schools hasn’t been significantly more difficult to control. When Ottawa Public Health ensured everyone in a dismissed school cohort was tested for COVID-19 after a potential exposure to a variant of concern, no higher rates of transmission were seen in the exposed cohorts. There have been outbreaks associated with variants of concern and there have been situations where the variants of concern have not spread in schools.What is most needed is to decrease the nonessential places where people are coming into close contact with others. Until fewer businesses are deemed essential and people get the message to stay at home, closing schools may inadvertently lead to additional gatherings in environments with fewer control measures in place.I ask that teachers, administrators, school staff, parents and students all continue to do their part to strictly follow the COVID-19 precautions in schools and to limit close contacts before and after school to members of their household. This is not the time to let up on our diligence to keep each other safe. Please reinforce the daily screening and ask people to consider if any symptom of COVID19 is present before they enter their school. Adults, especially, should be supported to take care to maintain distance between each other in staff rooms and during break times with their colleagues.

Needless to say, each private school is struggling with the same calculus and have the same kinds of questions that we do.  Of course, we aren’t obligated to do or not to do what other private schools choose to do, but I do believe there is value in understanding what and why and how other schools are thinking and planning.  At this moment in time, the overwhelming majority of private schools are open and plan to remain open so long as circumstances don’t deteriorate and/or we are not mandated to close.

For now, if you are an OJCS parent you should choose to do whatever you feel safest and most comfortable doing.  With the change in weather, please know that we are able to go back to enhanced ventilation practices (wide open windows) and we are using our outdoor space more liberally.  Please know that as teachers patiently wait for vaccinations to roll out, for those for whom the variants present an added risk and/or stress that we will have staff who begin to wear additional PPE, we may see use of N95 masks and extra plexiglass around teacher desks.  We are all doing our very best.

In the meanwhile, we have already reworked all our distance learning schedules based on parent, student and teacher feedback from January and have briefed our faculty.  We are completely ready for the next pivot if and when it comes.  And we will be perfectly okay if we never have to use them…

Stay tuned for a post that lays out our vision and our plans for how we will safely open the 2021-2022 school year, which we know is on people’s minds.

Speaking of the 2021-2022 school year…

…thanks to our amazing parents, for the first time in recent memory we are completely finished with re-enrollment by the first week in April and we have our highest retention rate in years!  Woo-hoo!  We are also welcoming many new families to our OJCS community next year and we know that only happens because so many of you do such a great job spreading the word.  So thank you to everyone who turned in their paperwork on time.  Thank you to everyone for being such great ambassadors for the school.  Thank you to our teachers whose work inspires your ongoing confidence.  Thank you to Jennifer Greenberg, our Admissions Director, and the whole team for crushing it during a second challenging admissions season.

Annual Parent Survey coming soon!

The Trauma-Aware Jewish Day School

Now that I have had eighteen hours of rabbinical school under my belt, I find myself becoming a bit self-conscious whenever I make a connection between something I am learning in school and the work we do here at OJCS each and every day.  I am so barely into the first baby steps towards becoming a rabbi that it almost feels chutzpahdik to make mention of it at all.  (At my current rate of taking classes, I can definitely pencil in my ordination for the Spring of 2037.)  However, I am becoming a rabbi for a reason, and as I explained when I first shared this news, it was both likely and desirable that it lend a new perspective on my work.

One of the books for the current course I am taking is Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  It is a terrific book that deals with the phenomenon of “collective trauma” and its impact on future generations.  Without doing any of her work justice, it perhaps could be best understood in a Jewish context by recognizing that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may very well suffer – consciously or subconsciously – the effects of trauma, even if they did not experience the original trauma.  In the context of my course, where all my classmates are either already or will likely be serving in a pulpit or chaplaincy, or otherwise engaged in some form of pastoral counseling, the application is a bit more obvious.  You will inevitably have congregants who suffer from trauma and, thus, let’s spend some time recognizing what trauma looks like and how one might think about managing/addressing/navigating it.

For me, the dots connected differently, but no less powerfully.

We are now into our second year of pandemic schooling.  “Collective trauma” is not an abstract idea that only applies to the victims of genocides and terror attacks, it is literally our lives.  For over a year, our students, parents, teachers and community have been – and continue to – live in and with trauma.  I think this is something we know intuitively, but if you want a little evidence, let me share with you a chart I shared with our Educational Leadership Team this week:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

Does this not sound like, I don’t know, everyone you know right now (including yourself)?

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.

There are techniques and methods from the worlds of psychology, counseling and pastoral care that have proven to have some success in moving individual people through trauma.  When it comes to collective trauma there is much less to fall back on.  (When it comes to inherited collective trauma, even less than that, thus Firestone’s book.)  When it comes to COVID-based trauma…

When I think about all those way-too-long “Weekly Update” emails I sent last spring to our parents and each blog post I have written as part of “The Coronavirus Diaries” series, I can see that I keep coming back to one saving gracenote – empathy.  That’s what I mean when I say that we have to give each other space to make mistakes.  It is what I mean when I encourage and express gratitude for patience and flexibility.  Empathy.  Empathy for the collective trauma of pandemic living doesn’t necessarily change outcomes, nor does it serve as an excuse.  It doesn’t mean that we necessarily do anything differently.  But it does help.

If in a Jewish context we can employ empathy by keeping the notion of b’tzelem elohim – the idea that each and every one of us is made in the image of God, that we each share a spark of the divine – front of mind, perhaps we can find the strength to take a breath and assume the best of each other.

At least we can try…

Tips for Planning Your Pandemic Seder 2.0 Too Good to Passover

If it was weird a couple of weeks back to note that Purim was the last holiday that we celebrated before COVID, it is equally as weird (and a bit depressing) to note that Passover will be the first holiday we are preparing to celebrate a second time during COVID.  I am surely not the only one who made a gallows humor joke at the end of last year’s seders around “L’shanah ha’ba-ah…” and where I assumed I would be spending next year’s seders.  Little did I know that I would be spending it in exactly the same place…in my house, with my immediate family and a Zoom.

Each year, I issue one or two blog posts in service of helping people take the process of planning for seder more seriously.  Why?  Because I believe (know) that like anything else, good planning leads to good outcomes.  As I noted last year,

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.

No pressure!  I got you.

One thing that I noticed when reviewing last year’s post is that I kinda forgot that if anyone were to be truly be inspired and wish to adequately prepare, that it would be helpful to give them enough time to actually do it!  I typically post too close to Passover itself to allow anyone to put any of these ideas into practice.  So, this year, I am going combine my Passover posts into one (long) helpful guide and I am going to push it out with a little more lead time.

So if this is your year to lead – whether it is something you do annually or if you are being pressed into service for the first or second time – let’s see what we can do.  Even if you have a Zoom guestlist, 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 talk-feast of an experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even during Pandemic Passover 2.0.

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 – this year’s timing with Shabbat makes it harder for those who might normally try to sneak some of this in before candle-lighting.

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 again 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.

In a year when Passover comes right out of Shabbat and candle-lighting times are late or children’s patience runs short or you are trying to accommodate varying time zones, 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, I 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?!  (Again, depending on your observance level, you could also incorporate apps like Kahoot into your experience.)  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?  How has the experience of being “locked down” during COVID and/or our impending “freedom” from COVID impacted our sense of things?

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?

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5781

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 hyflex learning program and incorporate them into schooling when we fully return to in-person learning?

Israel Advocate: How can I be inspired by the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” to inspire engagement with Israel as we hopefully prepare for things to start to open up a bit?

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?  What can I learn from how my former home is approaching COVID-19 that would be of value to colleagues, family and friends in Canada?

Parent: How will my parenting be informed with what I have learned during all these months of intense family time?  What new routines will I try to incorporate into my parenting when things go back to normal?

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

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.

Wishing you and your family an early chag kasher v’sameach

The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano

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

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

Silvia.

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

Silvia.

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

Silvia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so here we are one Jewish Year later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transparency Files: Long Range Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more dot to connect!

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

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

Celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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

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

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

And, of course…the unplanned pivot.

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

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

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

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

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

…and a few multigrade shared experiences.

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

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

Chag sameach!