The 2022 OJCS Middle School Retreat: Friendship is Magic (Getting Our Mojo Back)

We did it!

After a couple of years of COVID-friendly day trips in lieu, our Fifth Annual OJCS Middle School Retreat was a triumphant return to Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa and a return to the true spirit and format of what this experience is supposed both be and mean.  Our theme for The 2022 Middle School Retreat was the same as it was for Faculty Pre-Planning Week as it is for the whole school for the whole year: “Getting Our Mojo Back”.  Over three days, we engaged in three different peulot (informal Jewish educational programs) where our students, by class, by grade, and as a full middle school had a chance to review and lean into the Jewish values that will enable us to maintain and grow a healthy and constructive middle school community and culture.  I sometimes think that our school culture is a three-legged stool, with our North Stars, our “7 Habits” and our Jewish Values keeping us steady and stable.  I was very impressed by the level of engagement and the quality of conversation – whether we were inside, outside, sleepy or wide awake – that our students contributed to this part of the experience.

Here’s a snapshot (or 12) of our experience:

Day #1

Our day got started at school and we were quickly on our way to CBB by about 9:00 AM.  We arrived at Camp by about 10:00 AM, unpacked the bus, moved into cabins and enjoyed some free time and an opportunity to sample some of the recreational activities campers enjoy at CBB during the summer.  We then had lunch and moved into our activities for the day…
As has become our tradition, the first thing we do on the Middle School Retreat  are a set of fun, team-building activities planned and led by our Grade 8s:
[You can check out the school’s social media for some exciting tug-of-war videos!]
After that we moved into our first of three peulot (activities) for the Retreat.  We used the peulot to explore Jewish notions of “friendship” and “community”.  The first one was about Lashon Ha’Rah (Gossip) and how we can do a better job of observing the mitzvah of Lo Lashon Ha’Rah (Not Gossiping).  We explored a little text, did a little role-play and each grade recorded a 90-second PSA that we will look forward to sharing.
After the peulah we were ready for more free time and to get ready for dinner.  After dinner we went into our second peulah.  This one was about the Jewish value of Hokheah Tokhiah, which literally means “reproof”, but is shorthand for dealing with “conflict resolution”.  Again, we studied some text, did a few role-plays, learned a little about Martin Buber‘s concept of “I-It / I-Thou”, and practiced healthy ways we can navigate conflict.
Day #2

This morning we woke up bright and early and enjoyed a yummy bagel breakfast!

From there we went on a brief nature-themed Tefillah experience where we chose a location at CBB that best exemplified the “big idea” of each prayer.  For example, for the Yotzer which celebrates Creation, we climbed onto a balcony to revel in the beauty of the great outdoors.
After Tefillah, we packed up, boarded the buses and headed off to Caverne Laflèche par Arbraska for our main event!  We were split into groups and alternated between exploring the caves…
…and enjoying a ropes course and zipline adventure!
After all that adventure, we…
…headed back to camp and got ready for a yummy BBQ of hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken wings.
…played a game of Capture the Flag.
…built a campfire and did classic campfire things.
Day #3
We began the day with a spirited (bit-too-early) Kabbalat Shabbat and then moved into our final peulah of the retreat, “Dilemmas of Friendship,” which tried to tie together the themes of the retreat and set us up to be a healthy Middle School Community upon our return.
We then cleaned up our cabins and the camp, packed and loaded up the bus, and headed out to Gatineau Park for lunch and a hike.
We then boarded the bus and headed back to OJCS!
Speaking of “triumphant returns” – please join us for our in-person “Back to School Night” taking place on Wednesday, September 21st from 7:00 – 8:30 PM.  (Although we are not offering a hybrid experience, materials will be made available to parents who are unable to join us.)
Will I have time to squeeze out my annual pun-tastic High Holiday post before Rosh Hashanah?  Stay tuned!

OJCS Faculty Pre-Planning 2022: Getting Our Mojo Back!

We’re back!  I am writing near the end of an amazing Faculty Pre-Planning Week that has us poised for our biggest and best year yet!  We have a large group of amazing returning teachers and a small group of talented new teachers and the combination is almost too wonderful to name.  A school is only as good as its teachers, so…OJCS is in good hands, with all arrows pointing up.  Enrollment is still coming in, but it is safe to say that we will be over 190 for the first time in a long time.  But the best part of the week?  It was about SCHOOL and TEACHING and STUDENTS, and not about COVID and COVID and COVID.

Do you ever wonder how we spend this week of preparations while y’all are busy getting your last cottage days or summer trips or rays of sun in?  

I think there is value in our parents (and community) having a sense for the kinds of issues and ideas we explore and work on during our planning week because it foreshadows the year to come.  So as you enjoy those last days on the lake or on the couch, let me paint a little picture of how we are preparing to make 2022-2023 the best year yet.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The “Getting Our Mojo Back”  Cafe

Each year (15 years, 6 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Cafe”.  It is a collaborative brainstorming activity centered on a key question.  Each year’s question is designed to encapsulate that year’s “big idea”.  This year’s big idea?  Getting Our Mojo Back!

After the last two and a third  years, we are eager to get back on the exciting trajectory we were on BC (Before COVID) – back to being the school that did big things and tried new ideas, back to being the school where students dreamed big dreams and teachers unleashed their passion, back to being the school where parents were present and engaged and involved.  Etc.  Here’s one (of many) example of our brainstorm:

Implementing OJCS Homework Philosophy

One conversation that we are excited to be picking back up is a more fulsome implementation of the OJCS Homework Philosophy we created and shared pre-COVID.  This conversation includes questions teachers should answer before deciding whether or not to give it as homework,  like…

  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it inspiring, creative and authentic?
  • Have I personalized it?
  • Have I explained it well?  Can students complete it independently?
  • How much homework is being assigned across the team?  Will it cause unnecessary stress?

Parents can look forward to more information on that and more to be shared during Back To School Night on Tuesday, September 21st.

Book Tasting: The OJCS 2022 Summer Book Club

I think you can tell a lot by the books a school chooses to read together.  Here were the selections for this summer, which culminated in a “Book Tasting” session where lessons and wisdom were gleaned and shared:

If you want to know more about the big ideas that shape our work, feel free to read one or more of these books and tell us what you think!

Reintroducing the OJCS Makerspace

Of all the BC (Before COVID) programs to be shut down before having a chance to truly take to life, the short-lived soft launch of the OJCS Makerspace (built with a gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund) was one of the most truly disappointing.  I have blogged may times already (most recently here last spring) about all that the Makerspace was and is intended to be, but now – finally! – we are taking steps to ensure that it begins to live up to its promise.  I often say that the best measure of a school’s (or any organization’s) priorities can be found in their budget and their schedule.  How you choose to spend your money and your time means more than any marketing collateral (or blog post!), and this year we have put our money and our time behind making the OJCS Makerspace the true “hub for innovation” it was designed to be.  We have created a Makerspace Team of faculty, led by Makerspace Lead Josh Ray, who have dedicated time for teaching, coaching and facilitating Makerspace experiences; and we are dedicating specific time for each grade (as part of their Science blocks) to explicitly work in the Makerspace.

To get us off on the right foot, the OJCS Makerspace Team facilitated our first OJCS Faculty experience in the Makerspace!  (This work is a direct result of an Innovation Capacity Grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa!)  We got to play with Tinkercad and compete with each other to design “classrooms of the future”!   Oh to finally be in the space to tinker, make, play and learn!  I am so excited to no longer having to be writing about the Makerspace because your children will be coming home sharing their experiences and hopefully the fruits of their labors.

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of the “Biblical Paradigms & Imposter Syndrome”?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Thompson, Morah Lianna and I do great differentiated sessions on use of classroom blogs and student blogfolios?  Yup!

Did Morah Lianna & Ms. Gordon help us understand how we can get our mojo back  through Student Life at OJCS?  Yessiree!

Did Ms. Beswick lead a session on “Setting Up Your Class for Behaviour Success”?  You bet!

Did Ms. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all safe?  No doubt!

Did our teachers have lots of time to meet and prepare and collaborate and organize and do all the things needed to open up school on Tuesday?  And then some!

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  We are prepared to provide a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one of our precious students who we cannot wait to greet in person on the first day of school!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday weekend and a successful launch to the 2022-2023 school year…

Relationship Development = Professional Development: A DSLTI Reflection

I had the privilege earlier this month to spend two weeks in New York City, fulfilling my role as Mentor during the second summer of Cohort 12 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  [I was a Fellow in Cohort 4 and you can revisit my blog post from last summer for more context about my experiences in the program, why I am serving as a Mentor and how it fits into my current role as Head of OJCS.]  Like many programs coming out of COVID times, DSLTI navigated the transition from Zoom to in-person.  Unlike just about every leadership capacity-building program I’ve ever participated in, however, DSLTI spends at least as much time in relationship development as it does in professional development.

As I sit in my office gearing up for the return of teachers as we prepare to open my sixth year at OJCS, that is my big takeaway – my “a-ha” moment from my deeply intense and nourishing time at DSLTI.  And when you think about, it is a also a deeply Jewish idea about learning – that learning is amplified when it comes in and through authentic relationship.  Yes, in order to discuss issues that matter, a certain baseline of trust is necessary in any group.  Vulnerability, candor, and transparency are prerequisites to moments of meaning.  But I don’t simply view “relationship development” as a necessary step on a ladder towards “professional development”.  I am arguing that we learn more deeply and more significantly when we do it in relationship with like-minded fellow travelers.  Your feedback, your thoughts, your suggestions, your guidance lands on me with exponentially added force and weight, when I know you.  And when I say “know” in this context, I mean somewhere that’s neither at a superficial level, but also not at unreasonably overfamiliar level.

Professional intimacy.

That’s as close as I can come to connoting this idea.  To help teachers, to help administrators, to help students, to help myself continue to grow – to ensure that everyone in the culture can be their most authentic self in service of performing at their highest potential – I believe more attention at OJCS should and will be put towards relationship-building and relationship-sustaining.

When our teachers return for Pre-Planning Week, we will, of course, schedule traditional “professional development” sessions that deal with the art and science of teaching.  [I’ll share more about that as it draws closer.]  There are ideas, both new and old, that require time to master and to review.  There are skills that require training.  There is tachlis planning that requires time so that we are ready to welcome our students back the following week.  But we are also going to spend significant time (re)building relationships as we emerge from years of silos and isolated work.

A school is only as good as its teachers and teachers will only be their best when they are fully invested in each other, the culture, the community and the school.  An excellent Social Studies or French or Hebrew or Math Teacher will likely deliver a quality product, regardless.  But we don’t just teach Social Studies or French or Hebrew or Math at OJCS.  We teach Maia and Moshe and Liam and Lori.  To truly do that – to teach children and not just subject matter – means investing in relationships.

I cannot wait to welcome my team and my teachers back to school.

The Transparency Files: The 2022-2023 Faculty

Happy Thursday!

Things don’t usually time out quite in this way, but here we are on literally the last day of school – for teachers – and before we head into Canada Day Weekend and the true start of summer, it is my sincere joy and pleasure to be able to share out a complete picture of the amazing human beings who will be teaching our children and leading our school into the 2022-2023 school year at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

The quickest of words before I unveil the list…

…the first is simply to share that we are operating under the belief that next year will truly be a return to normal.  Or at least normal enough that it ought not impact how we divide up classes or how we program our days and year.  Of course, we will continue to maintain a Health Advisory Committee, and much closer to the start of the school year, will provide parents with what guidelines and suggestions we believe are appropriate for the start of next school year.  But as we put together our staffing picture, our classroom assignments and our calendar, we are assuming near-normal functioning.

…the second is to share with you the overarching idea that has animated our two days of what we call “Pre-Pre-Planning” – these two PD days that essentially mark the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year because they focus our teachers on how to set themselves up for a successful summer in service of a successful start to school.  We are focusing our energy on “Getting Our Mojo Back” or, perhaps, the “Great Unpause” – it is time for our school to reclaim the exciting and innovative trajectory we were on pre-COVID.  We were smack in the middle of some very important and impactful projects, initiatives and programs and we are all-too ready to get back on track.  You may get a hint of it when looking at some of the job descriptions below; you will get a full (re)introduction to it as we gear up for next year.

…the third is to please start paying attention to the updated calendar.  A return to normal means a return to events like our PTA-sponsored “Back to School BBQ” and “Meet & Greets” for JK and SK, so please be sure to update your calendars so you are ready to join us as we look to (re)build our community, to truly function again as an OJCS Family.

…the fourth is a gentle reminder that the assignments below are tentative as they always are.  Things sometimes can and do change (especially as our JK and SK classes continue to grow!), although we believe this should be much less of a factor this summer than the prior two, but sometimes we do have to make adjustments.  If an update is required, of course, it will be sent either directly to the impacted grades or in a blog post.

OK, I think I have given a lengthy enough preamble.  Let’s 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 2022-2023 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Junior Kindergarten: Susan Wollock, Jamie Ebbs (French) & Mushki Kurtz (EA)
  • Kindergarten: Andréa Black, Susan Wollock (French) & Dawn Schneider (EA)
  • Grade One: Julie Bennett/Karissa Zuorro & Efi Mouchou (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport & Efi Mouchou (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Lianna Krantzberg & Aaron Polowin (French)
  • Grade Four: Faye Mellenthin, Chelsea Cleveland (Math), Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Core) & Aaron Polowin (Extended) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Five: Abby Whitteker, Karissa Zuorro (Core) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Extended) [TWO Classes]

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah JK: Susan Wollock
  • Kitah Gan: Andréa Black
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg/Saar Baram [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Bet: Corrine Baray/Sigal Baray [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Gimmel: Sigal Baray
  • Kitah Dalet: Dana Doron [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Hay: Marina Riklin/Liat Levy [TWO Classes]

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland (Grades 6 & 7) & Josh Ray (Grade 8)
  • Language Arts: Language Arts Teacher
  • Social Studies: Michael Washerstein
  • Extended French: Wanda Canaan
  • Core French: Aaron Polowin (Grade 6) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Grades 7 & 8)
  • Hebrew: Marina Riklin (Hebrew Alef), Liat Levy (Hebrew Bet for Grade 6) & Ruthie Lebovich (Hebrew Bet for 7 & 8)
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: Corinne Baray

Specialists

  • Art & Drama: Jamie Ebbs
  • French Language PE: Stéphane Cinanni (Grades 3-8), Aaron Polowin (Grades 1 & 2) & Karissa Zuorro (Grades JK-1)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Leads

  • Makerspace: Josh Ray
  • Mitzvah Trips: Michael Washerstein
  • Student Life: Lianna Krantzberg
  • Blogging & Global Connectedness: Julie Bennett
  • Jewish Studies Curriculum: Ada Aizenberg
  • Jewish Studies Coaching: Ruthie Lebovich

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Education
  • Ashley Beswick, Resource Teacher & Behavior Support Coordinator
  • Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource

Administration

  • Josh Max – Director of Technology
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • 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 some new names and some new categories…

Let me start my saying that unlike previous years where the generic names, like “Middle School Language Arts Teacher” means that we have not yet hired someone, I am over-the-moon thrilled to say that we are actually 100% staffed for next year!  However, until contracts have been technically signed and current employers informed, we will have to wait a titch before formally introducing those last couple of employees.  But we will as soon as we can, and, we can’t wait for you to be as impressed by them as we are.

You will see a new category “Leads”.  This category, for now, replaces an older category of quasi-administrators that we had been calling “Coordinators”.  There are some internally meaningful, union-related differences between the two titles, but what is important to know is that these “Leads” all represent opportunities for OJCS teachers to build their leadership capacity by taking on quasi-administrative responsibility for high-value new or continuing programs.  We have written extensively about the OJCS Makerspace and OJCS Mitzvah Trips, and, therefore, it should come as no surprise that we are making them priorities heading into next school year.  “Student Life” and “Blogging” are in some ways carryovers from portfolios held by two teachers currently on maternity leave, but also opportunities for new teachers to both grow their leadership and help our school grow in these critical areas as well.

The last thing to mention as a segue to providing brief bios on new staff is that we have made a tactical decision to move away – at least for now – from pursuing a “Head of Jewish Studies” who has all the education, skills and experiences we have been searching for, but have failed to find.  It isn’t that we couldn’t or won’t keep looking for that just-right person, but there are too many important pieces of work that need to be done in our Jewish Studies Department to keep waiting for that savior to arrive.  We are very blessed that we have been able to essentially divide the position into five parts and that each part has been assigned to someone capable, talented, passionate and ready to go.  In a nutshell…

…I will continue to hold onto the supervision and evaluation of Jewish Studies Faculty.  It is the one part of the job that I have successfully managed during these last few years, and I believe it is both appropriate and helpful for me to keep that in my portfolio for the future.

…our JS Faculty have been in need of great mentoring and coaching and there can be no better person qualified to do that, then our own Ruthie Lebovich, master teacher with decades of experience.

…”Jewish Student Life” and “Student Life” don’t need to be kept separate in a Jewish Day School, and with Lianna Krantzberg moving into this role, between her experiences here and her administrative role at CBB-Ottawa, this merger will be both seamless and powerful.

…we have been waiting to move forward with some big-picture benchmarks and standards decisions in Jewish Studies.  What exactly do we expect students at OJCS to learn by the end of Grade 8?  What experiences do we want for them?  What is the best curriculum to support those goals?  We are past due finalizing what we expect each child, in each grade, in each part of our Jewish Studies program to learn, to know, to know how, to experience, etc., and Ada Aizenberg will be just the person to lead our team in this project.

…and we have needed a real live human being to take back the teaching of text and rabbinics in our school, and so let me now segue into the introductions…

Please welcome Corinne Baray into a permanent position at OJCS!  Ms. Baray is well known to our school community as a very respected guest teacher.  She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. She is a graduate of OJCS and the former Yitzhak Rabin High School. While her research interests surround the area of criminal law, Corinne has a particular passion for education and pedagogy.  Corinne is also an Instructor and Course Developer at Carleton University, and has taught at all academic levels, including elementary, high school, and college – as well as ESL education for elementary students in Rishon Letzion, Israel.  She has vast experience teaching in Jewish schools, has a breadth and depth of Torah and text skills, and will be a welcome addition to our Jewish Studies Faculty.

Jamie Ebbs is thrilled to join our Faculty with a diverse portfolio.  He will be creating and leading our Arts and Drama programs, as well as teaching Junior Kindergarten French and Physical Education in French.  Jamie graduated from the University of Ottawa, Bachelor of Education’s Imagination, Creativity and Innovation Cohort.  He also has a Master Degree in Cultural Studies, as well as an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Theatre.  We’ve scooped him up so he can sprinkle this love of the arts into all we do.

Efi Mouchou is relocating to Ottawa this summer from Greece with her beautiful family and looks so forward to meeting our school community.  Madame Efi is a certified teacher who completed her studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  She has taught French to all grade-levels in locations around the world over the last 20 years, however most often in International British school settings.  She is so excited to be teaching our Grade 1 & 2 French classes next year and has so much to offer our students with already developed programs from her own repertoire, as well as from close conversations with our primary French faculty.  Madame Efi is so full of life and is passionate about making French language learning fun and we look forward to welcoming her to OJCS.

Please note that I intend to take a pause from weekly blogging as we head into summer.  Of course, should the spirit move me, or an issue arises that warrants it, I will blog intermittently, until resuming my weekly routine a week or so before our teachers return for Pre-Planning Week 2022.

Happy summer!

The Bewildering Journey of the Wilderness Class of 2022

[Please find here an adapted version of the words I shared at last night’s Ottawa Jewish Community School Graduation:]

We are currently in the middle of Sefer Ba-Midbar, the Book of Numbers, on our annual journey of Torah.  “Ba-Midbar” is usually translated as “in the desert” but is more accurately understood to be “in the wilderness”, and the narrative action describes the wilderness generation who wandered from Revelation at Sinai to the brink of Redemption on the border to Eretz Yisrael.  This is the generation who stood at Sinai and built a Golden Calf.  This is the generation who received mannah from heaven and suffered the bad report of those chosen to spy out the land of “milk and honey”.  This is the generation whose relationship to God was the most intimate, who experienced miracles both daily and regularly, but who could not maintain their faith, and ultimately, were forced to wander for forty years until the next generation was ready to continue the journey to the Promised Land.  This was a generation that saw and experienced things like no other before or since.  Their wandering was both in wilderness and bewildering.  They went through some things.

Rabbinic commentators offer various explanations for why this needed to be true.  God could simply have completed the three-or-so day journey from Sinai to Israel without putting the People through a generation of wilderness.  Divine punishment for the many sins of faithlessness and complaining is the most common response.  These focus on the negative aspects of wilderness.  But there has always been a line of thought that viewed the wandering, not as punishment, but as preparation.  That the experience of wilderness – with all its challenges – was in some ways a final time to benefit from the intimacy of a small and powerful community – a family of tribes – before, say, graduating into Eretz Yisrael and, although forever remaining a family, heading out on new adventures.  Two and a third years of COVID does not forty years in a desert make.  And we have not lived through COVID as any kind of divine punishment.  But.  It sure has been bewildering.

Parents Lead the Way

Our collective journey through the wilderness would have not reached this threshold without the perseverance of parents and all that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning during these middle school years of pandemic learning.  What I have come to realize more and more each year is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting a child’s journey through adolescence towards young adulthood.

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, legacy, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that 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 journeys.  Years like these last three sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with semi-self-directed Grade 8 students, the transitions to and from distance learning strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention Wi-Fi!).

Like Moshe, all we can do as parents is guide our children along the journey – sometimes as bewildered as they are from all it entails – until we reach a point where they start to move forward on their own journeys.  We believe that a night like tonight serves as a meaningful way-station along that path, that it validates parental choices and sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.  On a personal note, let me just thank you as a fellow parent in this class.  There is nothing as bewildering as being both parent and principal and I thank you for letting me wear both hats as we co-parented this group through the wilderness.

Teachers Who Illuminate

In Parashat Be’ha’lotekhah we get the description of the seven lamps that light up the sanctuary.  One way to read the “lamps” is for them to stand in for “education”, and the way teachers light up the minds and hearts of others.  Education is not only a matter of mastering information; it’s about questioning and exploring.  Teachers make a school and we have never seen greater proof of that than during these last three years.  I believe that teaching at its highest form is about unleashing the passion and talents of students.  During these dark wilderness days of pandemic learning, when you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?

This desire to create space for students to shine is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  This soft glow of vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  The ceding of the spotlight to our students is exactly why at graduation we pause for an opportunity to acknowledge not only the Grade 8 Teachers, but to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time shone together to create a class.

Finding Your Voice

With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up can sometimes be a genuine act of courage, a way of giving voice.  But when showing up has meant sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you have each started to find your voices, each one unique and worthy.  You bring your voice to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities

The stories from our wilderness journey are filled with examples of people finding their voice, displaying courage, and standing up for what is right.  From Caleb and Yehoshua who broke with the Ten Spies and vouched for the Land’s goodness to the Five Daughters of Zelophehad who stood up to Moshe and influenced the making of a new law by God to allow women to own land, our time in the wilderness inspired people to find their voices, show courage and stand up for what is right and what is just.  I have seen that spark of righteous justice from this class in recent years.  Perhaps it was not always channeled as constructively as it could be, but we believe that the instinct to fight for what you believe is right is to be nourished and to be celebrated.  Graduates of OJCS leave having spent years honing their presentation skills, speaking in public, and engaging in many acts of social action and tikkun olam.  We know that you will walk into your high schools of choice as nascent leaders who are prepared to advocate for yourselves and the voiceless.  We know that you will bring your voices to your varying Jewish commitments and to many expressions of community service and social justice. 

Our OJCS “North Stars” 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 (these) 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.”

What happens online, not only doesn’t stay online, it follows your child to school.

I distinctly remember when it hit me.  I was hosting a large PTA-sponsored spaghetti dinner a year or so into my last headship and after everyone had settled into the room, I took a step back and zoomed out.  This event was taking place in a room about as large as our school cafeteria and as I panned back and forth, the “a-ha” came screaming out of my consciousness.  If you had taken a picture of a typical student lunch and mapped it onto a picture of this parent dinner, it would be a perfect match.  The parents of the same children who typically hang out together were hanging out together.  The parents of the same children who typically struggle to find friends to sit with were struggling to find friends to sit with.  The same groups, the same pairs, the same cliques – what was true for the students was true for their parents.

And of course it was.

As our school year is winding down and parents look forward to our sharing out the faculty lineup for next year (coming soon!), I want to revisit territory I first staked out, here, in a blog post titled, “Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?”

In that post, I asked the following question: “Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?”

My answer was most affirmatively, “Yes,” and I will let you (re)read the post to see why.

But, I also qualified my answer in the following way: “Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.”

Well…I think I would like an opportunity to ask that question: “Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address the role parents play in behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

And, again, I think the answer is, “yes”.

But, boy, is that more complicated.

The simple issue to explore is how to help parents best partner with school to truly become a community of kindness.  The simple challenge is how to lovingly intervene when it becomes apparent that help may be required.

We are parenting in uncharted territory.  Our children have access to information and to each other in ways we, not only never anticipated, but in ways that continue to change – and we may, or not, even be aware that it is happening.  Whether it is through texting, chatting, or gaming, our children are in constant contact.  And just like in reality-reality, their behavior in virtual reality provides opportunities for kindness and opportunities for its opposite.  And parents play a crucial role in determining the outcomes.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, if it finds its way to me, it means the outcome was not-so-good.  When it finds me, it usually means that a child has been excluded or disparaged.  When it finds me, it usually means that a child has been exposed to language or content which may be inappropriate.  When it finds me, it usually means that a parent is concerned about which influences are following their children from school without an invitation.

And when it finds me, I have to ask myself what am I to do?

This is normally the point in my blog where I would proceed to ramble on for another 500 words or so and provide the answer to my own question.

But to be transparent, I can’t.  Because I actually don’t know the answer.

So, please, whether you are a parent, educator or concerned party, comment on this blog (or email me at j.mitzmacher@theojcs.ca or come in for a coffee if you are local) and let’s collaborate on an answer.  You can take the time it normally would have taken you to finish this blog post to formulate your response.

How do I address my fully accepted responsibility to care about the role parents play in behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

Teacher Appreciation Week 2022: There Has Never Been a More Important Time to Support Teachers

“Teacher Appreciation Week” – like so much of our calendar – is a reminder of something that ought not be restricted to a week or a day.  Teacher Appreciation Week during a third consecutive COVID school year?  That should be a reminder that we owe our teachers and those who care for our children much more than “appreciation”…

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  Stress, fatigue, under-appreciation, burnout – these factors have (sadly) always been present (as they have been in almost all forms of education, service work and nonprofits).  The days of the 30-year teacher and/or administrator have been ending in slow motion for years and decades, but the exodus we are experiencing since COVID is unprecedented and potentially cataclysmic.

As Danna Thomas put it earlier this year:

We are accustomed to feelings of uncertainty while simultaneously putting on a brave face as we continue to show up day in and day out. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers were tasked with supporting students in the midst of the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an educator burnout pandemic.

We know that stress and burnout are not new phenomena to educators, but unfortunately they’re getting worse.  When teacher burnout increases, teaching quality decreases, which results in less effective classroom management and reduced student engagement. When teacher stress increases, it contributes to student stress, which has been linked to learning and mental health problems.

We have been both lucky and blessed at OJCS, pre-pandemic and during COVID, with a significant number of veteran teachers and administrators who continue to make OJCS their address for their love of children and their passion for teaching, year after year.  But that doesn’t mean that the last few years have not taken their toll.  They have.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should take their commitment and dedication for granted.  We shouldn’t.  What it means – to me – is that the small things that truly demonstrate “appreciation” matter now, more than ever.

With Teacher Appreciation Week launching next week, during which our Admin, PTA and Board eagerly look forward to celebrating and spoiling our teachers, you can make a huge difference to the overall wellbeing of our school by simply picking an item from below (aggregated from lots of blog posts) and making a teacher’s day:

  • A personalized note or email
  • A homemade craft
  • Caffeine
  • A hot meal
  • Gift cards
  • Plants
  • A personalized thank-you sign
  • Small treasures
  • Something special that reminds a teacher of his/her student(s)
  • Alcohol (but check first!)
  • Show up for school!
  • Spa treatment
  • Experiential gifts (like a remote yoga or dance class)
  • Donations to a dream project
  • Year-Round Advocacy

My personal suggestion?  Absolutely send gift cards and post creatively on social media.  Buy ads in yearbooks, post lawns signs and lead parades.  Do any and all of the above list.  Express your appreciation for all the things your child(ren)’s teacher(s) have done to make in-person, hyflex and distance learning as successful as it has been.  Please.

But if you want to go the extra mile this year?  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.

Please be on the lookout for this year’s Annual Parent Survey, which will be emailed to you no later than Monday and due back no later than May 13th!

Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

Admissions seasons tend to bring up big-picture questions and spark big-picture conversations.  Which makes sense as parents – both new and returning – are making critical decisions about where, why and how they want their children to be educated.  Today, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on a question that bubbles up from time to time that I struggle to provide a clear answer to.  It gets asked in lots of different ways, but essentially boils down to the same idea: Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

Typically the question is specific to an incident of negative behavior, although it is just as fair to ask about positive behavior as well, and I intend to address both.

Jewish day schools are in the character-building business.  It is a significant motivation for parents to enroll their children in our schools.  We care at least as much about who our students are as we care about what they can accomplish.  We utilize Jewish value language across the curriculum to reinforce the idea that being a mensch is not something one does only in certain classes, but something one is all day long.  Our teachers work hard all day to ensure that our school lives up to the ideal of being a community of kindness.  And even during school we struggle to achieve our goal.  That’s precisely why we launched our new behavior management program anchored in the “7 Habits” in the first place.  [Click here for a recap.]  We recognized that in order to become that community it required all of us working together to build the safe, loving environment our children deserve. But even these new approaches emphasizes what happens under our watchful eye.

What about the text sent out at 9:00 PM?

What about the play-date on Sunday?  Or the ones some children are not invited to?

What about the hallways during Bar Mitzvah services?

Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.  If I witness or discover noteworthy behavior of my students when we are not technically in school, what exactly are my responsibilities to respond or react?  Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

The simple answer is “yes”.  I care deeply about who our students are when they are not in school because how they behave when no one is watching matters a whole lot more than how they behave under close supervision.  That’s the true measure of character. That’s derekh eretz.

OK, that part is simple.  I am proud when students behave well outside of school and disappointed when they don’t.  But do I share those feelings with them?  Do I share those feelings with their parents?  Is it my place to hold them accountable for those behaviors?  Those are the vexing questions I struggle to answer effectively – especially when the behaviors are grey.

The black-and-white ones are easy; they always are when the level of behavior is so significant it cannot be ignored.  We already engage parents when we discover social events where students are excluded. We already employ effective discipline when students bully outside school walls and times.  And on the positive end of the spectrum, we already celebrate students who are honored elsewhere.  We already praise students for their outside academic, artistic and athletic achievements.  We already highlight students who perform significant acts of lovingkindness outside of school.

The grey ones are more complicated; they always are when the level of behavior is insignificant enough that it can be, and often is, ignored. We don’t always engage parents to ensure all our students have access to frequent play-dates and smaller social opportunities.  We don’t always praise students for their random acts of lovingkindness outside of school. We often ignore disruptive behavior at Bar Mitzvahs and Jewish holidays because we are ostensibly “off-duty” and we rarely call those students to account for those behaviors when next back in school.

I am not comfortable simply standing on the sidelines.

With regard to being a “community of kindness” we say that we will know if the work we have done is taking hold if students on their own are willing to address their own behavior or that of their friends.  That children will be willing to say to themselves and to each other that “we do not behave like that here”.  To me this is no different.  We need to do a better job instilling pride of school and pride of self in our students so that they feel the responsibility of representation outside our direct reach.  An OJCS student simply does not behave like that.  An OJCS student behaves with derekh eretz whether they are in school, synagogue, the hockey rink, or the mall.

I have a role to play and I am working up the courage to empower myself to do it.  If I am made aware of discouraging behavior, I will share my disappointment regardless of when or where it took place.  If I am made aware of positive behavior, I will share my pride regardless of when or where it took place.  They will know that I have high expectations.   The older ones will know that I don’t issue a character reference or a principal recommendation lightly.  If you want me to recommend you to a high school, an honors society, or even to babysit, you will earn that recommendation by making for yourself a good name.

My students will know that I care who they are and that who they are matters.

Reinventing Middle School: The (Soft) Launch of OJCS “Mitzvah Trips”

If you have ever moved from one place or organization to another, you know that the last thing people want to hear is, “In my last…”.  There is a reasonable shelf-life for looking back to prior experiences in service of carrying forward ideas and programs that work, but here at OJCS, as I sit halfway through my fifth year, we ought to be past the, “In my last school…”.  And if not for COVID, I’d like to think we would.  But there is one big idea that I have been so excited to bring to OJCS that has been on pause since we teased its arrival back in the halcyon days of almost exactly two years ago in February 2020.  But the time for waiting is no more, COVID notwithstanding, and I am beyond pleased and excited to share the next stage of reinventing and reimagining Middle School (Grades 6-8) at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

Beginning with a soft launch this March, we are pleased to introduce a new Middle School Social Justice Project – The OJCS Mitzvah Project – that is predicated on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, the idea that each of us are here to do our part to make our world a better place.  We will begin the work of integrating the formal Jewish Studies curriculum that our Middle School experiences on Mondays through Thursdays, with social justice experiences on Fridays, each and every week.  Aligned with our school’s core values [North Stars alert!] of “We own our own learning,” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” we will create a committee of students, teachers, parents, and community leaders to develop this project, which integrates key Jewish values, deep textual learning and practical hands-on projects.  

For example, during a week (or unit), students in Grade 6 would study on Monday-Thursday texts that describe the ethical treatment of animals, and then on Friday go out into the community and volunteer in animal shelters.  Students in Grade 7 would study texts that help us understand our responsibility to feed the hungry, and then on Friday go out into the community and either feed the hungry, or volunteer in both kosher and community food banks.  

This transition will require a “revolution” in our school that includes our schedule, our curriculum, our community partnerships and parent engagement.  It will require us to redo our middle school schedule so that all of our Jewish Studies classes would flip on Friday to the afternoon, so they can end their day with our weekly “Mitzvah Trip”.  It will require a brand-new curriculum (subjects, values, key ideas, Jewish sources, etc.) that is organized around the “Mitzvah Trip” experiences.  It will stretch our existing community partnerships and require us to invest time and energy in creating new ones, seeking a balance between Jewish and secular causes and organizations.  Logistics alone will require parent participation to help shepherd our students each Friday to the location of that week’s “Mitzvah Trip”.  However, the opportunity to transform parent participation into parent engagement is a huge value-add of their volunteerism.

We want to provide our students with Jewish experiences that inspire them to learn more Torah, and we want to help our students make personal connections between the Torah they learn in school, and the larger world around them.  We want our students (and families) to recognize that part of being Jewish is to make the world a better place, that doing so requires both learning and doing.  Locating this work in our Middle School allows for practical connectivity to the b’nei mitzvah process.  Providing these opportunities in a Jewish middle school where many parents are not looking towards Jewish high school, is critical to inspiring students and families to see and feel value to their Jewish learning beyond the walls of the school.

As a parent who had one child experience this program before and another one barely still eligible to experience it now, I can tell you firsthand how impactful it is and can be.  As a principal who watched families eagerly anticipate middle school so they can start going on “mitzvah trips” and watched alumni eagerly anticipate opportunities to come back and volunteer on “mitzvah trips,” I know this creates a wonderful opportunity for our school to retain and attract students through Grade 8.

Wouldn’t you want your child to have an opportunity to make the world a better place each and every week?

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 continue to come filtered through COVID protocols and a hylex learning program.

“Inclusion” is not simply an issue to discuss once a year, of course, and as we began our formal discussions of how we would celebrate JDAIM this year at this week’s Faculty Meeting, we began where our Director of Special Education, Sharon Reichstein, always encourages us to – with a shift in our mindset about what “special needs” really is and what it means:

For teachers, it’s important to always be thinking with a lens of inclusion in order to support and meet the needs of all learners (Shift the Spec Ed Mindset!!)  It’s important for our students to be open, understanding, and inclusive to ALL members of our community.

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.

Even as we navigate a complicated set of safety protocols, here are just a few examples of how we are gearing up to make JDAIM a special month at OJCS…

…Sharon Reichstein, along with our Grade 2 General Studies Teacher Lianna Krantzberg , rolled out a set of “choice boards” for both Lower & Middle Schools, as well as a Padlet to our entire faculty that includes all the links and ideas that have been collected, thus far.  As they 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 choice boards, 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” with an eye towards not only goosing individual participation but class participation as well.

…this year continues 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.