The Transparency Files: The OJCS 2020-2021 Faculty

We are doing our very best to tie up all our loose ends at the very same time, without getting tripped up!  The school itself has been physically open on Thursday and today for parents to come and drop off library books, used uniforms, etc., and to pick up the contents of desks, lockers, as well as yearbooks.  After all these months of distance it is very weird seeing actual human beings in our parking lot!  At the same time, we have report cards which are being sent home electronically today as well.  Those tasks will functionally close out the 2019-2020 school year.

That sets the stage for us to focus our energies squarely on the 2020-2021 school year to come.  The most important issue, of course, that we are working on is the plan for a safe reopening.  We are finishing up our review of provincial guidelines, I have been participating in calls with the Heads of Toronto Jewish Day Schools (through their UJA), and we are keeping up with best practices in both the private school world (through CAIS) and the Jewish day school world (through Prizmah).  The “good news” so far is that there are no huge surprises.  The threefold path we have already been planning to travel – in-person, distance and a hybrid (or “hyflex”) – is how every school is being asked to plan.  The two simpler paths are easier to conceptualize.  We can imagine what it might look like to have everyone back in the building with some amount of social distancing and with restrictions on activities such as PE or Music.  We would need to make adjustments, change schedules, etc., but we’d figure out how to make it work.  We can do more than imagine what it might look like to have everyone home, because that is what we lived through during the last 13 weeks of the school year.  However, parents should not expect that our OJCS Distance Learning program would look the same in the future as it did in the past.  With more time to plan, with experiences under our belts and with student/teacher/parent feedback, it is reasonable to believe that if we were forced back into a fully remote program, that it would look meaningfully different and increasingly improved (particularly in the youngest grades).

What is less easy to imagine, of course, is the hybrid or hyflex model and this is where we are doing the greatest amount of planning.  Guidelines that cap class cohorts at 15 students or seek to limit the amount of teachers who engage with a cohort are understandably tricky for a trilingual school with class sizes that average 15-20.  We have both physical and programmatic challenges to overcome to land in the right place.  We also have to have a better handle on parent needs and wants, which is why a parent survey will be sent out within the next couple of weeks.  We look forward to sharing more about our thinking and our proposed model as it comes into focus.  We appreciate your patience as we go about our work and we stand ready to answer any question or address any concern you may have in the meanwhile.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly.

This extended caveat – why not just tell us who the teachers are! – is necessary because what follows is a bit more tentative than it otherwise would be.  It is possible that the adoption of a hybrid model could require a different assignment for a teacher here or there because some classes (Art, Music, PE, etc.) may not take place (in the same way) or some grades may not be split the same way in a hybrid model than in a full in-person model.

So with that in mind, please get excited about this gifted and loving group of teachers and administrators who will partner with our parents in the sacred work of educating our children.  I know I am!

The 2020-2021 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Kindergarten: Janet Darwish,  French Teacher (French) & Taylor Smith (EA)
  • Grade One: Ann-Lynn Rapoport &  French Teacher (French)
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport/Lianna Krantzberg & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Julie Bennett & Aaron Polowin (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Four: Faye Mellenthin, Yardena Kaiman (Core) & Aaron Polowin (Extended)
  • Grade Five: Melissa Thompson/Lianna Krantzberg, Yardena Kaiman (Core) & Aaron Polowin (Extended) [TWO Classes]

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah Gan: Shira Waldman
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg
  • Kitah Bet: Bethany Goldstein [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Gimmel: Sigal Baray [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Dalet: Ada Aizenberg
  • Kitah Hay: Yardena Kaiman & Ofra Yfrah [TWO Classes]

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland
  • Language Arts: Mike Washerstein
  • Social Studies: Deanna Bertrend
  • Extended French: Stéphane Cinanni
  • Core French:  Dr. Sylvie Raymond
  • Hebrew: Ofra Yfrah  (Level I) & Ruthie Lebovich (Level II)
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: A Rabbinics Teacher

Specialists

  • Art: Shira Waldman
  • Music: TBD (due to COVID)
  • PE: Josh Ray, Faye Mellenthin (Grades K, 1, 2 & MS Girls) & Brian Kom (3)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Needs
  • Linda Signer, Resource Teacher
  • Brian Kom, Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource

Education Leadership Team

  • Melissa Thompson, Teaching & Learning Coordinator
  • Deanna Bertrend, Student Life Coordinator

Administration

  • Josh Max – IT & Technology Support
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Head of Jewish Studies – Head of Jewish Studies
  • Staci Zemlak-Kenter – Director of Development
  • Emily Jiang – Chief Accountant
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Keren Gordon – Vice-Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

You will see two new names in the above list.  We are pleased to introduce Ofra Yfrah, a new Jewish Studies Teacher, who will be coming to us, with her family, from Israel with teaching experience and a passion for children.  We are additionally pleased to introduce Dr. Sylvie Raymond, a new French Teacher, who comes with a wealth of teaching expertise and enthusiasm for all things French.

We are moving full steam ahead with candidates for a new Head of Jewish Studies and a K-1 French Teacher, and between our extraordinary returning teachers and the quality of our new teachers, we know that the future is bright at OJCS.

This likely ends my weekly blogging for the season.  I will blog through the summer if and when there is what to share – obviously including all our thoughts and plans for a safe reopening.  Our office remains open, of course, but administration will take staggered vacation throughout the summer to make sure we are refreshed and recharged for 2020-2021.

Happy Summer!

The Grit to Graduate: My Charge to the Coronavirus Class of 2020

Over a decade ago, academic and psychologist Angela Duckworth released her first paper on the notion of grit and its application to education.  In both her TED Talk and her book, Duckworth defines grit as “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” that is a key ingredient for high achievement, not only in school, but in life.  If there was ever an adjective that described this year it would be “grit”.  And if there was ever a class who could successfully, not only survive, but thrive in a school year complicated by COVID, it would be this (first) Coronavirus Class of 2020.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners in grit and resilience…

The Perseverance of Parents

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who persevered to opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journey.  A year like this one sharpens both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices, those sacrifices and proves the power of perseverance.

The Passion of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during this most unusual of school years.  When I think of all the reasons why our school was able to so successfully transition to distance learning for the last third of the school year, I would place their passion at the top of the list.  “Passion” marks the spot where teachers move from good to great and where teaching moves from occupation to calling.  Passion for students means that relationships become prioritized and through relationships the magic of learning is amplified.  Passion for learning means lifelong learning and through lifelong learning comes new and innovative practices, pedagogies and platforms.  Passion for community means choosing to work and stay in a school that may not have all the bells and whistles, but does have all the heart and soul, and through community we become family.  Passion is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and proves the power of passion.

The Grit of Graduates

“A combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” really makes an apt description of the OJCS Class of 2020.  That “singularly important goal” is different for each one of you and it has changed and grown as you have changed and grown.  But what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring these unique qualities of passion and perseverance to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring them to your academic challenges and you bring them to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring them to your varying Jewish commitments and you bring them to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And all of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  This year, however, was of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many of the capstone experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  But it is here, too, where you have shown your grit and your character.  You have hung together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential, and, thus proves the promise of grit.

Our OJCS “North Star” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

“Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.

“Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.

“We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.

“We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do great deeds and be inspired to learn more.

“We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous, but required.

“We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.

The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Creates & Delivers PPE to Hillel Lodge

There is some irony (that may not be the best word) that COVID-19 delayed our official grand opening of the OJCS Makerspace (with generous support from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CSBO) Legacy Endowment Fund), and that the OJCS Makerspace has yielded our school’s first significant contribution to the community’s response to COVID-19.  We had softly opened the space prior to pivoting to distance learning while furniture and equipment were still coming in, but our official grand opening had to be indefinitely postponed.  This week, however, we got a firsthand look at what having a makerspace for our students can mean for their learning and for our community.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) describes a debate about whether the study of Torah leads to action or whether action leads to the study of Torah, and like most talmudic debates, the answer is, of course, “yes”.  At the Ottawa Jewish Community School, we deliberately create experiences and learning holistically.  Our Jewish learning and values inspire us take action to repair the world and our engagement in the world inspires us to further our Jewish learning.  This project is a wonderful embodiment of this idea in practice.

Going back a number of weeks, a parent and frontline healthcare professional, Dr. Joanne Tannebaum, came to us with an idea.  A colleague of hers had worked out a design for 3D-printing face shields and “ear-savers” and she wanted to know if we wanted to participate.  We talked it through, brought in our Middle School Science Teacher Josh Ray, and decided that the most logical partnership for our Community School would be the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge, our community’s Jewish Home for the Aged.  I reached to their CEO, Ted Cohen, and with his enthusiastic support and partnership, we were on our way!

The next step was to host a meeting between our Middle School, Dr. Tannenbaum and the leadership from Hillel Lodge to officially launch our project for producing PPE for their frontline healthcare workers through our school’s 3D printer.  During that meeting, our students got a chance to hear firsthand about the importance of PPE and were given both a design challenge (How can we make face shields and surgical masks more comfortable?) and a practical challenge (How will we create, assemble and deliver the final product?).

Mr. Ray went ahead and safely retrieved our school’s 3D printer from the Makerspace, gathered supplies, recruited student volunteers and the work began!

The easier of the two to produce is the ear-saver:

OJCS 3D-Printed “Ear-Savers” for Surgical Masks

This item helps anyone who has to wear a surgical mask or face shield relieve the pressure off their ears.  You loop your mask on the appropriate notch and voilà – your ears are spared.  This one is easily printed, comes in lots of colours, and our students have even managed to personally inscribe messages.

Why does this work matter?  Let’s see what Mr. Ray has to say:

For me, this project is so important for many reasons. It teaches students 21st century skills like 3D modeling, while connecting the importance of community and empathy at the same time. I think everyone is always looking to serve, and give back wherever possible. The need for PPE in the community has provided both the students and I that opportunity. I’m so proud of the commitment and character shown from the group of students that volunteered their own time to get involved.

OJCS 3D-Printed Face Shields

The face shields were a little more complicated.  Because we have a smaller-sized 3D printer, it took some time, research and trial-and-error to find a program that allowed us to print plastic to hold a full-sized shield.  But Mr. Ray and team eventually figured it out and we are thrilled that we can now deliver these to Hillel Lodge.

Our first (there will be more!) delivery took place on Wednesday, June 17th and it was wonderful have a couple of our Grade 8 students – Talia C. and Jessica A. – join me, Mr. Ray, Ted Cohen, Karin Bercovitch, CFO and Morag Burch, Director of Nursing to commemorate the occasion.

What is the impact of this project?  Let’s see what Mr. Cohen has to say:

All long-term care homes including the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge has a critical responsibility to keep our residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal Protective Equipment such as face-shields and masks are vital to protecting our residents and staff during this pandemic. We are grateful for the strong partnership we have with the Ottawa Jewish Community School and for their assistance creating face-shields and masks extenders for our front-line workers. This innovative initiative is not only an educational experience for the students but provides our team with vital supplies. We are thankful for the assistance we’ve received and look forward to continuing to develop our partnership.

At the end of the day, this is an example of what it means to live our values, to reach towards those North Stars.  I cannot think of a better way to express what it means when “We own our own learning,” and then make sure that “We are each responsible one to the other”.  I know that it is easy to reduce things to slogans and hashtags (guilty as charged), but slogans and hashtags are meaningful when they serve as both reminders and catalysts.

So, what does it mean when we say #WhenTorahLeadsToAction?  Let’s ask Talia:

It was such a meaningful experience for me to be able to help my community in a time of crisis. It always feels good to give back to the Jewish Community, and be a part of something bigger.

What does it mean when we say #TheOJCSDifference?  Let’s ask Jessica:

Over the years, Hillel Lodge has provided me with so many life lessons and experiences that have enriched me as a person. Since kindergarten I have been involved with Hillel Lodge therefore, I wanted to give back to a place that has so much significance in my life.

Thanks to everyone at OJCS and Hillel Lodge who played a role in bringing this partnership and project to life!  Let our next innovative collaboration be inspired by health and joy…

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

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

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

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

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

There are important lessons to be learned from these ideas…

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

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

And that brings us to today.

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

Mazal Tov & Chag sameach!

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

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

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

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

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

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

OJCS Launches “Life & Legacy”

You may have noticed a new sign in our lobby this week.  The Ottawa Jewish Community School has joined thirteen other local Jewish organizations who have made a commitment to work together to support the future of the Ottawa Jewish community.  Under the leadership of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation, our community is delighted to be delivering and implementing the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF)’s “Life & Legacy” initiative.

Life & Legacy is a four-year partnership initiative of the HGF that assists communities across North America, through partnerships with Jewish Foundations, to promote after-lifetime giving to benefit Jewish day schools, synagogues, social service organizations and other Jewish entities.

Life & Legacy is an innovative program designed to change the philanthropic conversation in our community by creating a collaborative approach to legacy giving.  Everyone has the power to be a legacy donor and make a difference for future generations.

Why leave a Legacy Gift?

Since 1949, the Ottawa Jewish Community School has been a cornerstone of Jewish life in Ottawa.  We produce leaders and active members of the Ottawa Jewish community who contribute to Jewish life and to the quality of life in Ottawa in an extremely significant manner.  We develop leaders of Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues, all of which flourish as a result.  In addition, nearly every secular charitable initiative in Ottawa benefits from the explicit Jewish leadership and generosity taught and experienced at OJCS.  However, we cannot take for granted that what was once true will always be true.  If we want that to continue – if we want to secure our Jewish future – we need to ensure that OJCS will be here to educate the next generations of leaders.  Jewish leadership requires Jewish leaders who know how to lead – not just as Jews, but according to Jewish values.

We are so honoured to provide Ottawa’s Jewish community with a rigorous, high-quality, innovative secular and Jewish education for its children, and it is a responsibility that we take very seriously. Creating your Jewish legacy will help OJCS remain sustainable long after you are gone.  While gifts to current operations (annual campaign) are essential to meet ongoing needs, contributions like Life & Legacy are invested to provide benefits for generations to come. You can help to endow our children with the values and knowledge they need for the future by contributing to an endowment that will itself live in perpetuity.

You will be seeing more information about the program and how to participate in the months and years ahead.  You may have never thought of yourself as a legacy donor and may be surprised to learn how easy it is to become a Life & Legacy donor, regardless of age and income level.  For now, we hope that those of you – students, teachers, parents, grandparents, etc. – who are invested in our school’s sustainability will be both comforted and inspired that we are not only planning for today and tomorrow, but for generations to come.

If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact Staci Zemlak-Kenter, our Director of Development, at s.zemlak-kenter@theojcs.ca, or 613.722.0020  x. 378.

Why Sports Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair?

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

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

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

Go, Rams, Go!

The Transparency Files: OJCS Middle School Parent-Teacher Conferences

Talk about a niche blog post!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why do we still do them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marching With Fruits & Vegetables (5780 Remix)

As promised, after having shofar-ed into Rosh Hashanah and leaned into Yom Kippur, it is time to hop into my favorite holiday of them all…Sukkot!

We are looking forward to celebrating this holiday at school with the assistance of our OJCS Sukkah [to be finished this today] (with great thanks to the Zaret Family & Gemstone), in which we look forward to eating, celebrating, shake-shake-shaking and hopping in as a school community when we resume school during Chol Ha’Moed next Wednesday.  [By the way, it seems like whenever we discuss the timing of the fall Jewish holidays relative to the start of the school year, we always describe them as coming “early” or “late”.  They don’t ever seem to come “on time”!]  Great thanks to all our teachers for the hard work that goes into holiday preparation/celebration and keeping the normal routines of school moving forward as per usual.

As I mentioned above, Sukkot is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.

But here is a complicated truth: Even though our school will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that a significant number of our students will neither be found in a synagogue nor a sukkah enjoying what is known as “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But I know that many, if not most, were in synagogue a couple of days ago for Yom Kippur.  So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?!

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, the simple truth is that we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy that our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this such a common occurrence?

lulavI’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable, and adults especially, are wary of feeling under-educated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering new Jewish rituals for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky.  I was pursuing a degree in Jewish education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at new Jewish practices for the first time (or the first time in a while) are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.

But don’t lose the sukkah through the trees…

I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of living a life of sacred time – there is a rhythm to the Jewish calendar, evocative and varied.  Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope many students find their way to synagogue and into sukkot this Sukkot.  I hope many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the parade.  [Next year under the guidance of our new Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Marcovitz, our school will take a more active role in providing families with the tools they may need to get started through parent workshops and community sukkah-building parties.]  But if you are curious or inspired…go ahead…pick up your fruit and vegetables and join the parade!

Chag sameach!

Shofar, So Good!

I realize that anything might sound anticlimactic after yesterday’s exciting announcement.  But the truth is, that as meaningful as that gift is for both today and tomorrow, it is the actual work of teaching and learning that inspired it and us.  And this is definitely the season for inspiration!

It is also the season for my most favorite and best/worst pun!  How are things going at OJCS finishing our fourth week of school and headed into Rosh Hashanah you may ask?

Well.  Shofar so good.

Our “Shofar Patrol” has been making the rounds, apples are being cut, and honey is being poured.  Let me take a moment to congratulate all our new teachers and all our new parents on a wonderful first month of school.  Your enthusiasm and your passion are welcome additions to our growing school and inspire our hopes not only for this year, but for the years to come here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  While our newest faculty members are acquitting themselves with great aplomb, our returning teachers have plenty of new tricks up their sleeves to mix with their tried and true excellence.

Echoing my thoughts about the calm before the calm, I looked back on my last two years of “Shofar So Good” posts and in each one there were major systemic changes necessary to explain in response to lived experience and parent feedback.  We had changes to carpool and dismissal (twice!), changes to our schedule, changes in online platforms, etc., etc., all (ultimately) positive changes, but all significant enough to warrant detailed conversations.  What has been wonderful shofar this year, is how smooth and calm things are.  I have been so impressed with how prepared our teachers have been, how positive our parents have been, and how enthusiastic our students have been to start the year.

Although, outside of French, we are not launching any major initiatives this year, what is bubbling up are major programmatic advances to align our practice with our “North Stars”.  Hopefully those of you who were able to join us for this week’s “Parent Night” saw evidence of that firsthand.  After conducting our AGM (Annual General Meeting), Melissa Thompson, our Teaching & Learning Coordinator, led us through our online spaces to help parents know exactly how to find the information about their child(ren)’s class(es), including homework/quizzes/tests parents want and need to know about to be wonderful partners and advocates.  We did touch briefly on the whys of blogs, blogfolios, use of technology, etc., but have scheduled a “Parent Workshop” on October 24th (8:45 AM & 7:00 PM) for exactly that conversation.

For our final session, we gave parents the choice of four different topics.  Some stayed with Mrs. Thompson for a little more hands-on support.  We had a conversation led by Keren Gordon, our Vice Principal, about how our new Homework Policy is taking shape.  We had a conversation about our new school-wide behavior management program (based on the “7 Habits“) led by Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs, and Deanna Bertrend, our Student Life Coordinator.  Our new Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Avi Marcovitz hosted a discussion on connecting the Jewish living and learning at OJCS with life at home.

If you missed any of those sessions and want more information, you can find the slides uploaded to our website and you are welcome to contact any of the above to find out more.

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special school- thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5780 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”