What #Amplification Looks Like

One of our #NorthStars is that #WeLearnBetterTogether.  It is always important to remember that these aren’t just hashtags or slogans and they aren’t just for students.  They are there to guide our path and inspire our decisions.  Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to look a little more closely at how just part of this North Star actually actually plays out.

This is just about the time of year where we finish our first round of conversations with teachers about their progress, performance and professional growth.  With the unveiling of a new OJCS Learning Target (how we believe teaching and learning should look) last year, we have identified “Amplification” as a key pillar.  At the highest level, when we talk about a teacher’s “professional amplification”, we are looking for things like:

  • Teacher participates in school-based and online learning communities to access and extend continuous, ongoing professional learning for self, and effectively shares with colleagues knowledge about current thinking, methods and best practices in education
  • Teacher works in collaboration with others to design robust learning tasks and obtain feedback about instructional planning from colleagues and mentors, or acts as mentor or peer coach.
  • Teacher takes the initiative to inform self about current research literature and incorporates it into teaching and learning practices.
  • Teacher shares thoughts about current research openly on digital platforms.  Parents, experts and members of the larger community are invited to respond to it.
  • Teacher actively and regularly connects their own work to educators from around the world via a variety of platforms.

I thought it would be fun to see how the faculty of @The_OJCS learns with and from each other and the world.  As I have done once before, since Twitter is the platform of choice for teachers who amplify, I thought I would share a little Wakelet of recent activity:

Our students are the beneficiaries of all this amazing crowdsourced wisdom and I am so proud to work in a school where so many teachers (and it is so many more teachers – and part of Mrs. Thompson’s role as Teaching & Learning Coordinator is to do this work, which is why you see her so frequently – and comes in so many more ways than just a one-week glance at Twitter) learn from each other and the wider world!

You know who else amplifies at OJCS?  Our students!  Through their student blogfolios (Grades 4-7 and growing!) and through Classroom Twitter accounts.  But that’s for another blog post…

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Parent Primer for the Pivot

Just when I thought we were out…they pulled us back in.

I don’t mean to make light of the situation.  Back in October, I wrote a blog post explaining why we were taking time to lay the ground for a potential pivot, not knowing and very much hoping that one would not be forthcoming.  And here we are in January, two weeks into a three-week pivot of fully distanced learning…or what we certainly hope will be (only) a three-week pivot.

Let me first answer what I believe are a few pressing questions…

What does being a private school mean when it comes to closures?

Not much.  Other than us getting our letter from a different department of the Ministry of Education, and for some reason getting it consistently a few days delayed, there has been no separation between what has been required for public and private schools at any point along this journey.  One might (this one certainly has) wonder whether there could be a circumstance where private and/or individual schools are given discretion to make choices when it comes to closures, but that is not how it has played out thus far.

What is currently true about a return to in-person learning?

As of this writing, we are still scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 25th.  We have been told that any decision about extending beyond that date won’t be made/communicated until January 20th.

 

So, if you already feel comfortable with all the ways in which OJCS lives its Distance Learning Program, please feel free to skip the next long section and please jump to the two additional items below.

For anyone for whom this is still new – and for anyone who needs a refresher – let me offer a summary and syllabus of the accumulated wisdom from last spring.  What we learned last year informed how we planned this year’s hyflex program and the kinds of self-directed learning skills we knew we wanted to focus on at the beginning of the year for just this situation.  All of those successes and failures contribute to our current lived experience.

So…what’s most important to know/remember?

In our first post to parents last year about transitioning to school-at-home, we…

…talked about reasonable expectations for parents.

…shared ideas about how to create an optimal learning environment for your children (while acknowledging how unlikely it would be to achieve).

…discussed how we planned on addressing mental health concerns.

…made commitments to honor IEPs.

We ended with…

Let’s be sure to give each other permission to feel anxious or scared.  Let’s recognize that we will have both failures and successes in the weeks ahead.  Let’s create space for the messy learning and schedule challenges and conflicts.

[That still sounds about right!]

In our second post, after we launched, we focused on…

The spine of our program is the OJCS Blogosphere.  This was in the process of becoming true before the pandemic because of all the things we believe to be true about teaching and learning in the 21st century.  It is really proving its worth now that we have had to transition to distance learning on a dime.  The action is going to take place online; the architecture is anchored in classroom blogs and student blogfolios.

[This still very much remains true!]

We ended with…

I remain in awe of what we have all managed to accomplish here in such a short amount of time.  Let’s keep sharing with each other and with the wider world.  Let’s keep creating space for mistakes and anxiety.  Let’s keep celebrating small victories and minor miracles.  Let’s combat the social recession with creative social experiences.  Let’s live our school’s North Stars and our community’s Jewish values in this new virtual reality.

[Yes, please!]

Our third post focused exclusively on how distance learning amplifies quiet voices.

[This is something we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning.]

As we were gaining experience, we started to realize that there were a lot of positives from distance learning that we very much wanted to name and plan to continue in the transition back to in-person learning.  In our fourth post we highlighted the most significant ones:

  • Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices
  • Developing Self-Directed Learners
  • Strengthening Global Connectedness
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Personalized Learning

[These, too, are things we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning AND tried to frontload in case we did have to make the very pivot we are in.]

And I wasn’t the only one blogging out really helpful and important information!

Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs, has been putting out amazing posts helping parents find their way through the challenges – not just for their children, but for them – of distance learning.

Shannon LaValley, our school’s psychotherapist, put out a post addressing the mental health issues raised by distance learning.

And that brings us full circle.

Whether we are in this place for one more week or longer; whether this will be the only pivot this year or if additional pivots are in our future, please be assured that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last four years and the experience we gained last spring, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   Because it is.

Enrollment for 2021-2022 is right around the corner!  As we prepare for another exciting year at OJCS, we have been blitzing social media and holding a series of targeted “parlour meetings”.  This week we had two meetings for potential JK families.  Next week brings meetings for potential SK families and the week after is geared towards families with children in all grades.  As word of mouth continues to be our best marketing technique, your ongoing and visible support through positive social media and conversation with your peer groups has tremendous impact.  You can make all the difference in ensuring that we bring #TheOJCSDifference to more and more of our community’s children and families.

Since we were regrettably slow to inform the last time, let me share with you now the plan for our next round of Parent-Teacher Conferences, which will come around in March.  We, again, based on feedback and evolving circumstances have made changes.  What we will prototype this time, we believe, may be the model moving forward as we try to balance complex needs – most importantly having enough conference spots for a growing school.

We will shift conferences to a Thursday-Friday.  Spring Parent-Teacher Conferences will now take place on March 18th and 19th.  On Thursday, March 18th, we will have an early dismissal at 2:00 PM.  Because of safety protocols, we will be unable to provide childcare.  The conference windows on Thursday will be from 3:00 – 5:00 PM & 6:00 – 9:00 PM.  On Friday, March 19th there will be no school and the day will be dedicated to conferences.  Our feedback from parents about the ability to participate in these conferences remotely – which we will carry forward post-COVID – steers us towards no longer needing to dedicate two evenings to accommodate busy and working parents.  Should this model prove successful, our calendar for 2021-2022 will factor in an additional two days of closure.  We will both ensure we are providing the requisite number of school days and look to partners to help provide OJCS parents with childcare on what would now be four days of closure – two for PD and two for conferences.

A Trip Around the OJCS Blogosphere

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

From the OJCS (Middle School) Jewish Studies Blog (click here for the full blog)

Grade 8: Virtual Discussion with Tibor Egervari – Posted on November 23rd

Last week the students had the opportunity to engage in a discussion with a Holocaust survivor on Zoom. Our guest speaker, Tibor Egervari, shared his story and explain how he ended up in Canada. Tibor answered a variety of questions and provided the students with his unique insight. Tibor shared his own life lessons and encouraged our students to take a stand when they witness injustice occurring in our world. We are incredibly grateful that Tibor was able to share his perspective with us.

 

From the Grade Four – Kitah Dalet Blog (click here for the full blog)

It has been a busy few weeks… – Posted on November 11

From starting our new Science unit of ‘Sound’ to the new financial literacy math unit and looking at how maths is used in ‘real-life’, we are keeping ourselves busy and positive!

Check out our (physical distance, of course!) experiment of how sound moves in waves and causes vibrations by making our own Kazoo! I am sure Morah Ana-Lynn and Morah Andrea enjoyed the afternoon music…

Our new Grade 4 Student LOVED the playing in the first snowfall (Dare I tell her just how cold it gets!?)

Here the Grade 4s pose after a game of soccer

From the Kindergarten – Gan Blog (click here for the full blog)

Les voyelles – Posted on October 28

We are learning our French vowels! Throughout the last few weeks, we have read stories about each vowel, created booklets, used Play-Doh to make letters and played a variety of games!

French vowels are difficult because they do not sound the same in French as they do in English. Nonetheless, these kiddos are learning quickly and we have many almost-readers!

     

From the Grade 1 – Kitah Alef Blog (click here for the full blog)

In Honour of Our Veterans – Posted on November 19

Last week, our Grade 1 students wrote to our veterans to honour them. Please see the email below that Ellie received from the Canadian Legion in Westboro.  As always, we couldn’t be prouder of our students.

Good morning Ellie,

Thank you so much for giving Daphne the artwork your students did in honour of our veterans. I put a few of them up on our branch bulletin board, with credit to your school, and Daphne took the rest to give to the veterans, mostly elderly, she visits in her capacity as leader of our Hospital/Home visiting team. We think they will be both pleased and touched.

I was especially moved by this sentence in the message: I love that you saved us.

Remarkable.

I will do a Facebook post in the next couple of days to salute your young students.

Thanks again,
Claudine Wilson
Public Relations Officer
Westboro Legion

Our teachers and students are doing some pretty fantastic things, eh?

I will continue to encourage you to not only check out the blogs on The OJCS Blogosphere, but I strongly encourage you to offer a quality comment of your own.  Getting feedback and commentary from the universe is highly motivating and will help this snowball grow as it hurtles down the hill of innovative learning.

For our next tour, I’m going to give you a taste of what is happening with our Grades 4 – 7 student blogfolios.  Stay tuned!

And Now For Something Completely Different: Annual BlogCloud

Normally I save this annual exercise in running my blog through a word cloud app or website until the end of November.  When I was living in the States, it was because of the short week of Thanksgiving.  When I moved to Canada, it was because of my FOMO on American Thanksgiving (and because if you commit to writing a weekly blog post, they ain’t all going to be masterpieces.)  This year, however, considering my state of mind as an expat living through the ongoing federal election in the USA, I’m physically and emotionally exhausted!  So rather than wait a few more weeks, this seems like the perfect week (for me) to turn away from cable news and the constant refreshing of political websites, and return to a tried and true friend.

If you missed last year’s punny post

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

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

I just put last and this years’ butterflies side-by-side to do a little comparison.  “Jewish”, “Teachers”, and “Students” are about the same size, but “Parents” is much smaller this year.  My only thought is that I spent so much time in March-April-May-June writing blog-length emails to parents that, perhaps, I didn’t feel the need to duplicate in this blog.  I surely don’t believe it is an intentional de-emphasis.   “Community”, “Learning” and “Time” continue to hold strong and I think it is interesting that “time” has so much focus.  Time really is one of the critical variables in learning and how we choose to use it has tremendous impact on teaching and learning.  “COVID” and “Coronavirus” make their obvious debuts.

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

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

The Coronavirus Diaries: Preparing the Pivot

This blog post is not intended to indicate any inside information about impending school closures!  I know no more than anyone else about how long we will be blessed with in-person learning at OJCS.  Despite all the challenges – the daily stressors on families when symptoms and exposures occur, the life juggling required to accomodate unplanned learning from home and the extraordinary responsibility our teachers have assumed with grace and care to provide seamless hyflex learning – we are doing remarkably well!  I can’t visit classrooms like I used to, but from what I can see with my own eyes or on a screen, we are delivering on our promise.

Part of what happens at the beginning of each year at OJCS, is that I meet with each teacher to develop an individualized Professional Growth Plan (PGP) for the year.  We believe deeply in lifelong learning and our teachers all establish growth goals to help them be the best teachers they can be.  Through those conversations, we have come to believe that one thing we can be doing now – ahead of any pivot to distance learning should it come – is to role-play distance learning here in school.  We didn’t have any time last year to experience distance learning from the back-end (what does it look like from the student’s perspective?) or to do specific skill-building or troubleshooting, especially at the youngest grades.  We are encouraging all our teachers to take the time now, while we have it, to dedicate a period, a block, a half-day or even a full day to role-play “Distance Learning in Grade X”.  Let’s have the teacher teach from his or her device while students learn from theirs.  Let’s have the teacher create asynchronous lessons that students should (even in K) be able to navigate without (or with limited) parent support and see what happens.

What does this mean for me now?

Great question!  Not much.  You may wish to pay attention to how and when your child(ren)’s teacher(s) schedule these simulated days.  If your child is in Grades K-3, you may see a request from teachers that those students who do have access to devices (tablets or laptops) begin to bring them to school (if you are comfortable).  Whereas we are BYODevice in Grades 4-8, we rely on the school’s iPads in Grades K-3.  Although we are looking to add to our current supply, if you have a device that your child in Grades K-3 would likely be using in the case of a pivot, you may wish to send it for these scheduled practices.

Besides access to devices, how else are teachers preparing for the pivot?

We are seeing a direct result of the learning teachers did during our Pre-Planning Week and an increase in successful asynchronous and hyflex learning.  Please revisit this post to see why and how your child(ren)’s teacher(s) are beginning to embrace platforms like Classkick and Nearpod.

How else can we – as parents – prepare for the pivot?

Another excellent question!  Here, I would advise you to revisit this post from last spring that clarified home expectations.  Our goal is NOT to provide materials for homeschooling!  Our goal is to allow high-quality, rigourous, OJCS learning to happen at home.

 

We don’t know if and when this is coming, but we do know that we want to be as prepared as we can.  If we do these things now when we have ample opportunity to correct, adjust and adapt, it will make any kind of pivot that much more seamless and successful.

If you were playing the COVID “pivot” drinking game, please find a comfortable place to rest for the rest of the day!

This is normally the time of year where I post an update of our school’s philosophy with regard to standardized testing as we prepare to take this year’s exam.  This was the year that we were scheduled to pilot the CAT-5 (we have been taking the CAT-4) and to again expand the grades who take it.  The eventual goal is for each grade to take this exam each year so that we have the most actionable data.  This year, however, the CAT-5 will not roll out due to COVID and most private schools have decided to pause standardized testing.  We, too, shall pause although I would have loved to see the data.  Our theory of the case is that we did not see too much slippage last spring because of our response.  I would love to see if the data bore that out, but even figuring out the logistics of proctoring these exams in compliance with safety protocols is not a good use of our resources.  We look forward to resuming standardized testing in 2020-2021.

The Transparency Files: We Do More Than Plan For COVID

[NOTE: I wrote most of this post prior to our school’s first direct experience with COVID yesterday.  I considered delaying or rewriting this post because I do not wish to appear cavalier or tone deaf when so many families and teachers are carrying anxiety into our first day of in-person school.  However, as real – and as sad – as this “new normal” may be, it is our new normal.  And I believe that part of making that true means that we will need to resume talking about things other than COVID.  So without further adieu…]

There is obviously nothing more important than the safety of our students, teachers, families and community.  That being said, it has been wonderful to be reminded this week why we are investing so much time and energy and so many resources to be able to both safely reopen for in-person learning and provide high-quality educational, social and spiritual experiences for distance learning.  It is because we love to teach children!

So, for one blog post at least, let’s take a break from COVID safety procedures and protocols…

You may recall that despite the challenges that last spring brought us, we learned a lot through being forced into distance learning.  We summarized those gleanings in a blog post that became a slogan: “Don’t go back to school; Come forward to OJCS”.  You can see evidence of that growth by looking at how we are planning for 2020-2021.  Let’s spend just a little time sharing what our amazing OJCS Faculty has been learning about and working on during our annual “Pre-Planning Week”.   Hopefully it will leave you not only feeling comforted that your children will be safe, but feeling excited that your children will be inspired to learn, to grow and to become their best selves.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The Hyflex Cafe

Each year (13 years, 4 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”.  To no one’s surprise, this year’s big idea?  Hyflex Learning!

We call it “hyflex” because we are not simply offering a “hybrid” of both in-person and distance learning; we are preparing for the flexibility of students (and teachers) switching from one to the other in both a planned and unplanned fashion.  The “flex” stands for “flexibility” and that is as good an adjective for this year as any other.

“Getting Started With Hybrid Learning” with Emma Pass

Thanks to a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, we have been able to bring in some outside experts to work with our teachers during this week of planning.  One extraordinary expert is named Emma Pass.  Leaving aside the whole hybrid/hyflex thing, her session was an hourlong tour de force of all things hybrid learning that really set the table for the week.  Or as our Teaching & Learning Coordinator Melissa Thompson put it:

Speed-Geeking Critical Platforms for Hyflex Learning

After having spent some time exploring the big picture, here we began to explore some critical platforms that OJCS teachers are becoming more familiar with in order to succeed in hyflex learning contexts.  What do we love about speed-geeking at OJCS?  That the sessions are led by our own teachers!

Let’s check out them out!

Classkick

In this session, our Kitah Alef (Grade One) Jewish Studies Teacher Morah Ada shared about Classkick.  Classkick is an app that gives a teacher maximal flexibility to incorporate audio, text, video, picture into a shared document that students and teachers can edit and work on seamlessly.  For example, a teacher can record herself giving video instruction, embed a PDF and ask students to record their responses all in one document.  Teachers can also take pre-prepared documents (like an alef-bet chart) and designate individual letters as student manipulatives.  Meaning that a student could drag an “alef” around the document and place it where it belongs.

Primary teachers can import critical documents like their calendars or job charts.  Teachers can easily customize and personalize different assignments.  The most exciting part of the session was the conversation between teachers.  One of the goals we have as a school is to find more opportunity for our students to use their languages.  Classkick makes it really easy for teachers to record themselves giving oral prompts (personalized if needed) and for students to record themselves responding.  This will be a great way to build in more authentic contact time with Hebrew and French!

Flipgrid

Flipgrid is not new to OJCS, although it may be new to our new teachers.  [We made heavy use of it during last year’s PIVOT, especially in the primary grades.]  In this session our Grade Two General Studies Teacher Morah Lianna caught us up on all things Flipgrid.  Flipgrid essentially allows students to record 90 seconds of video in response to all kinds of prompts.  A teacher could ask the class to tell her all about their summer vacations, and each student would record themselves in response.  Flipgrid gives you both public and private options for maximal flexibility.  Flipgrid also is a great global connector since it is heavily used around the…globe!  With a sea of platforms available, one question that our teachers always have to ask is which platform makes sense for which lesson or unit or subject or students?  And how can we make choices that don’t overwhelm students (or parents)?  (How many logins can anyone manage?)

Nearpod

Nearpod is a platform we are eager to begin using at OJCS because of how easily it allows us to factor in both synchronous and asynchronous learning.  As explained by our Middle School Hebrew I Teacher Morah Ruthie, Nearpod, is a little like Classkick, but even moreso, and is intended to be a “one-stop shop” for teachers.  Nearpod allows a teacher to create lessons that can be delivered by the teacher, or can be done in-class either in groups or individually, or done at home.  Lessons can be guided by the teacher or offered to students to do at their own paces.  And, critical for these times, lessons can be offered synchronously or asynchronously.

Of the three platforms we explored, Nearpod clearly has the most maximal utility for our teachers.  They can pull content from a ton of sources, including virtual reality presentations, YouTube, Google Slides, PDFs, and just about anything and anywhere you can imagine.  Teachers can use materials that they have already created, of course.  Part of what makes Nearpod so powerful, however, is that it has a full and growing library of lessons across every (general studies) subject and each grade-level.  You can even select lessons benchmarked according to (US) national and state standards.   You can embed polls, quizzes and activities to keep students engaged and accountable.  Finally, the teacher can not only track student progress, but also provide ongoing assessment.

Proficiency Approach to Hebrew Language

Here is the second place we are utilizing grant funding from JFO.  As you know, we are in the middle of a major consultancy with our French Language Faculty that we call TACLEF.  One thing that we have learned through that experience is how much we would like to give our Hebrew Language Faculty a similar experience.  While we cannot (yet) invest in a consultancy of that magnitude, we have begun working with Orly Lavi Travish.  We will work with her on the “proficiency approach” to Hebrew language instruction.  Proficiency is…

…the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context, and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language.  Proficiency demonstrates what a language user is able to do regardless of where, when, or how the language was acquired.  The demonstration is independent of how the language was learned; the context may or may not be familiar; the evaluation of proficiency is not limited to the content of a particular curriculum that has been taught and learned.

Just like with French, we want our Hebrew outcomes to be real, spoken, authentic language.  We want to both teach and assess language proficiency in this way.  We are way farther ahead in using this approach in French (although not as far as we would like to be) than in Hebrew, but this session will hopefully be the beginning of an exciting Hebrew journey.

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of hitlamdut (mindfulness)?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Thompson do a great session on use of classroom blogs and student blogfolios?  Yup!

Did Mrs. Bertrend and Mr. Ray take us all outdoors and show us all the ways we can use our outdoor space for recess, outdoor education and learning?  Absolutely!

Did Mrs. Reichstein lead a session on creating a caring and nurturing classroom during these COVID times?  You bet!

Did Mrs. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all safe?  100%!

Did the PTA sponsor a yummy breakfast and lunch?  Yes!

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.  But at nearly 1,500 words, even I need to stop writing.

Needless to say, we are prepared to do way more than create a safe learning environment.  We are prepared to develop a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, hyflex and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one our precious students who we cannot wait to greet (in-person and virtually) on Tuesday morning!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday weekend and a successful launch to the 2020-2021 school year…

“Going Forward to School” – Republished from eJewish Philanthropy

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

Going Forward to School

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

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

Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices

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

Developing Self-Directed Learners

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

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

Personalized Learning

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

Strengthening (Global) Connectedness

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

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

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

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices

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

Developing Self-Directed Learners

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

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

Digital Citizenship

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

Personalized Learning

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

Strengthening (Global) Connectedness

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

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

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

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

Ken y’hit ratzon.

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Fifth Question for a Pandemic Passover

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

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

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

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

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

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach…

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

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

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

2.  Sing Songs

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

3.  Multiple Haggadot

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

4.  Karpas of Substance

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

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

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

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

6.  Know Your Audience

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

7.  Fun Activities

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

8.  Questions for Discussion

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

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

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

9.  Share Family Traditions

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

10.  Preparation

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

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