The Coronavirus Diaries: Distance Learning Amplifies Introverted Voices

Let’s say you have 20 students in a class and you have 1 hour available to teach.  If all that happened during that period was giving each student an opportunity to speak, each student would have three minutes of airtime.  That’s if the teacher doesn’t say a single word, if the entire lesson was given over to student voice, and each student spoke for the exact same length of time.  Since that never happens, if you did the math, how much time do you think a teacher actually spends hearing directly from his or her most shy/introverted/speech-challenged students during an average lesson?  Or during an average day, week, month or year?

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday and we were comparing notes about what good is coming from our schools being forced to go entirely virtual for an unknown length of time.  We were able to come up with a pretty robust list – facility with new pedagogies/platforms and increased emphasis on differentiation/personalization immediately leapt to mind.  But what I want to focus on here is another unintended benefit of going remote – a #COVID19SilverLining so says the trending hashtag – the opportunity to hear the voices that are oftentimes drowned out or kept silent by the normal course of schooling.  A lot of teachers are going get a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students. Distance learning is going to unleash and amplify introverted voices to everyone’s benefit.

In a blog post a few weeks back where I (re)introduced you to our student blogfolios, I said that:

But what I enjoy seeing the most is the range of creativity and personalization that expresses itself through their aesthetic design, the features they choose to include (and leave out), and the voluntary writing.

And that is totally true.  But what is also true, is that reading student voices or watching student videos or viewing student artwork through their blogfolios unlocks voices and personalties that don’t always come through in face-to-face engagement.  There are students who have extraordinary senses of humor and who are brilliantly creative and I had no idea!  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 blogs and blogfolios normally is now true for much of distance learning for all our students for much of our day.

The nature of the beast is that distance learning reduces the amount of frontal and whole-class learning (although it still has a place) and increases the amount of small-group and individual learning.  Those latter forms of learning still happen across a variety of platforms – live in Google Meeting, independently at home, postings on blogs/blogfolios/GoogleDocs, etc. – but they all allow for, or really require, more individual contact time between teacher and student.

We are just three days into the OJCS Distance Learning Program. Our soft launch is concluding today with student and parent surveys. All that we learned this week will be factored into the launch of Phase I, which begins on Monday and will last for two weeks.  Our students and our parents and our teachers are overwhelmed and exhausted and proud and exhilarated all at the same time.  We have already gained so much from having this experience.  But one of the biggest gains has come in our teachers’ ability to better know and to spend more time with the students they not have the bandwidth to lean into when we have crowded rooms and limited time.

We are all anxious to know if and when we are going to return to brick-and-mortar schooling.  But what we are learning about how to reach all our students, how to ensure all voices are heard, and the enhanced relationships that come as a result of new methods – all of that has to come with us when we do return.  If we can learn from this experience how to unleash the passion and talents of all our students – loud and quiet – well, that would be one heckuva #COVID19SilverLining.

The Coronavirus Diaries: The Launch Begins!

I promise that I will not be live-blogging each day of the OJCS Distance Learning Program!  But to the degree that it is helpful to document the soft launch – both for us and for fellow travelers – and because it is going to be a bit of “hurry up and wait” for the administration now that virtual classes have begun, I thought it would be good to show a little of what things actually look like.

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.  Just a quick look at the screenshot above – or a quick jump on the link – will show you how our teachers have immediately pivoted.  The action is going to take place online; the architecture is anchored in classroom blogs and student blogfolios.

How did Grade 8, for example, start its day?  Glad you asked!

How did our amazing Librarian already begin serving not just our school, but our entire community? #OJCSStoryTime anyone?

How does it look from a parent/student perspective?

And the sound outside my daughter’s “classroom”:

You get the idea; these are just from the first hours, more and more are coming as the day begins.  You can see it all on our different social media channels.

What else am I seeing?

I am seeing lots of teachers supporting other teachers.  Sharing live experiences with Google Meet, using internal Google Hangout for quick references, administrators popping in and out of “virtual” classrooms, etc.

I am seeing that in some families the anxiety starting to lift as the unknown becomes known.  But I am not naive enough to believe that this is true for all families.  Our concern and attention is going to move soon from the families and students we are engaged with to the ones we aren’t.  That will become more pressing as we move from the soft launch this week to Phase 1 after this week to the ever-more-likely Phase 2 after Passover.

What else is important during this week’s soft launch?

Preaching patience!  We chose a soft launch on purpose.  We know that some things are going to work well right away; some things are going to work once we’ve had enough time to practice; and some things aren’t going to work at all and we’ll have to adjust.  We are going to use these three days to figure out what belongs in which bucket.

  • Is Google Meet/Hangout going to ultimately prove successful with its limitations in muting and viewing the whole class?
  • How will we support students and/or parents for whom this transition proves to be more challenging?
  • How will we support teachers for whom this transition proves to be more challenging?
  • Will we need to add structured tutorials to our website/blogosphere on targeted topics (how to use Google Meet, how to submit work through GoogleDocs, etc.)?
  • How will we continue to live our North Stars?  We can see lots of examples of them already in play, but once the novelty and excitement (and stress and anxiety) wears off and we settle in, will we find opportunities for ruach?  Will we continue being “on inspiring Jewish journeys”?

In just the two hours or so since I opened this blog, I have been following the emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and chats of teachers, parents and students.  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.

We are definitely taking it one day at a time…but it has been a pretty special day one so far.

 

The Coronavirus Diaries: School-At-Home ≠ Homeschool

How quickly the world turns…

Four days ago, we were celebrating Ruach Week and I was dressed like a pirate.  Today, we are preparing to launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program and I am dressed like a teenager.  Four days ago, we weren’t sure if we were going to close.  Today, we aren’t sure if we are going to reopen.

I cannot believe how quickly things have moved and I cannot believe how quickly our school and our teachers have mobilized a response. Sure we had started talking about what would need to be true for us to go live with a distance learning program, but even I wouldn’t have thought we’d be able to switch tracks on a dime.  [I am just as impressed with how our entire Jewish Community has responded, led by Andrea Freedman and our Jewish Federation.]  But I am most impressed by our parents.  With all the challenges of transitioning to telecommuting, preparing for creative childcare, and just the nuts and bolts of being at home for a sustained period of time – plus balancing all the anxiety and concern that is so understandable – we have been so blessed to see such positive attitudes and growth mindsets.

Maybe I am still getting used to #CanadaNice, but to all the people who have found time to express their appreciation for the work the school has been doing, please know that it is greatly appreciated.  Please also know that it takes our entire team of teachers and staff to make this happen and they are just as worthy, if not more, for your appreciation.

If you thought 1,000+ words in a blog post is fun, you must really be enjoying my daily emails!  I imagine that once we launch that the email traffic (at least from me) will recede, but we are trying to strike the right balance between sharing too much and sharing too little.  I am also trying to find my balance between what information belongs here, in my blog, and what can remain contained to direct email.  I don’t want my blog to be repetitive for parents, but there is a wider audience I want looped into our work.  (Why?  Because of the “moral imperative of sharing”.  We learn from other schools and other schools learn from us.)

So in this section, I am going to cherrypick the most salient issues from parent emails.  If you have already read them, feel free to jump to the next section.

  • As previously stated, our Department of Special Needs is reaching out to each family of a child who has a support plan or IEP to discuss how we are going to continue to support and make accommodations during this transition.
  • We spoke today with Shannon Lavalley, our school’s psychotherapist, and she wanted to share out a few things…
…as JFS plans its transition to e-counseling, Shannon’s individual sessions with OJCS students is on hold.  She will be directly in contact with those families to discuss next steps once they have worked out their logistical concerns.

…we will be adding a blog for Shannon in the days ahead.  This is where Shannon can and will share out global advice and resources for OJCS families during this challenging time.  In the meanwhile, she recommends:

  • We are beginning to think about how our special school community can help ward off the coming social recession as social distancing kicks in.  Our PTA is brainstorming virtual social opportunities and calling on parents who have bandwidth to email the PTA (pta@theojcs.ca) with proposed day/time/subject.  We are thinking about things like, “PTA Happy Hour” on Thursday at 4:00 PM.  Or “Family Passover Baking” or “Adult Yoga” or “Managing Children’s Anxiety”.  We would love a blend of fun and practical ideas; #TheOJCSDifference isn’t just for students.

Our main story today, however, is about structuring a learning environment conducive to the OJCS Distance Learning Program.  Or as the blog post title suggests, what does it mean for students to participate in a “school at home” program and not homeschooling?

The biggest difference is that we do not wish for parents to have to serve as teachers.  The majority of our parents will, themselves, be trying to figure out how to perform their own jobs by remote and are not educators.  We aren’t putting together plans and activities for our parents to facilitate with their children.  We plan on providing schooling itself, albeit through a creative blend of live, remote and at-home experiences.

Let’s name that depending on people’s homes, access to devices, techno-comfort, childcare needs, etc., etc., that very few homes will be operating in what we would consider to be an “optimal environmental setting”.

What is an optimal environmental setting?

The ideal, which we imagine very few families will be able to navigate, has each OJCS student in your family logged in and actively engaged throughout his or her school day.  That they are alone in a room with a device that allows them to participate in all the live experiences, while having access to their books and materials to participate in all the remote experiences.  That when the schedule calls for breaks, that healthy snacks are available.  That when the schedule calls for physical activity, that materials or space is available.  That those who have enough executive functioning skills will be able to self-navigate and that those who do not will have enough access to an adult to find success.

Will that be equally true for each student in each grade in each family?

For sure no!  That’s why we are building care and concern, flexibility and freedom, attendance and accountability into the system.  It is also why we will be surveying families along the way to see what we can do to make things easier or more effective when we can.

Can we talk about screen time?

Let’s name that we will all need to be more flexible in our understandings of “screen time”.  Opting for a screen when lots of IRL (“in real life”) experiences were available was never our goal at OJCS.  But now that we are living in the “upside-down” it is possible that use of technology will provide our students with more and richer IRL experiences, that through technology we can combat social isolation with conversation, faces and laughter.  All “screen time” was not, and definitely now, is not equal.

Family Kabbalat Shabbat is best done with us all together in the Chapel.  But live-streaming it this Friday, through a screen, is going to be way better than not having it all!  (Hope you join me!)

Tomorrow, we launch a new chapter in our school’s journey.  Whether it winds up being a three-week, five-week or rest-of-the-school-year journey is not yet clear.  What is clear, however, is that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last three year, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  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.

This chapter in our journey may have been totally unexpected, but it does not delay us from our ultimate destination.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   The future begins tomorrow.

The Coronavirus Diaries: And So It Begins…

Today was amongst the proudest of my entire professional career.  No one is looking for a pandemic to justify everything one believes to be true about teaching and learning and nothing about school closures is worthy of celebration.

But.

Our teachers and our school were made for this moment.

With only a few weeks of prior planning, we seamlessly transitioned into an entire day of PD and meetings to finalize the soft launch of our OJCS Distance Learning Program for next week.  We met both by grade level and by subject matter to lay out the when and the what as well as the how to navigate this new world that we are entering.  We met on Zoom and on GoogleHangout.  We created calendars, schedules, resources, links, folders and drives.  Our teachers were professional and prepared.  Sure, they – like you – are anxious, but they are also in good spirits because all the work we have done over the last two years and more have uniquely prepared us for moving to remote learning on a dime.  We did not invest time and resources in new platforms and pedagogies because we ever could have imagined a school closure of this nature.  We did not pioneer blogs and blogfolios because we thought we’d need to build a Distance Learning Program around them. But boy are we happy we have done all that and more in times like these…

For the non-OJCS parents who read my blog and who may already be in closure or preparing for it, here is a snippet of what we shared out today:

“(I)n light of the decision of fellow Jewish day schools in Ontario and to remain abundantly cautious, we have taken the step to close school through April 20th.  We will reassess as we get closer to Passover Break as to when and how to physically reopen.

Here is what it means.

The school building will be open on Monday, March 16th.  This is to provide teachers and students with an opportunity to come and retrieve all the books, devices, materials, etc., that will be needed to navigate the OJCS Distance Learning Program that will launch.  The Library will be open from 9:00 – 2:00 PM for anyone who needs to stock up on library books.  We understand and respect that not everyone may feel comfortable reentering the building, but please know that according to Public Health there is no additional risk involved.  Please additionally know that the Campus took advantage of today’s closure to do a deep clean if that provides added comfort.  [Let me take a moment to personally thank Andrea Freedman and Federation who have been tremendous partners during this difficult moment.]

We will be sending out schedules for the soft launch of our OJCS Distance Learning Program by the end of day on Monday.

We will be holding a Virtual Parent Town Hall to explain the OJCS Distance Learning Program on Tuesday, March 17th at 7:00 PM.  (Link to follow.)

We will soft launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program on Wednesday, March 18th.

We will officially launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program on Monday, March 23rd.

Additionally, report cards will go home electronically on Monday and we will encourage families wishing for Parent-Teacher Conferences to either use the existing schedule for phone conversations or to reach out and schedule directly with your child(ren)’s teacher(s).”

I am so incredibly proud of our teachers who have put this program together professionally and quickly.  Each day will have structure, accountability, learning and experiences.  There will be a blend of live experiences, recorded experiences, links, etc., that are age- and subject-appropriate.  We recognize that there will be childcare and technological challenges to work through and are prepared to navigate both with the utmost flexibility and care.  Although we will need to lean into technology, please know that we do not expect any child to be in front of a screen or a device the whole day long.  There will be lots of structured activities that do not require technology, although the technology will likely be the jumping off point.

Most importantly, is that we will be providing high-quality secular, Jewish and French education and experiences that ensure that our graduates are prepared for success in Grade 9 and that all our students are adequately prepared to be promoted into their next grade level.

These are the times where I feel grateful to be part of such an extraordinary community of teachers, students, parents and institutions.  Working and pulling together, we will ensure that we are safe and that the learning continues.  And that is truly and emphatically #TheOJCSDifference.

I will be using “The Coronavirus Diaries” as a way of sharing out broader issues to our parents, our local community and the community of Jewish and secular educators who read my blog.  I will have thoughts and advice to share with parents about how to structure time and space to facilitate distance learning.  I will have thoughts and advice to share with teachers and colleagues about how to run an educational institution by remote.  (First tip – don’t let yourself go to the kitchen every time you are hungry.)  I will also hope that as people have no choice, but to be more engaged in use of blogs during these times, that people will begin to comment and share resources here and elsewhere.  It will take a virtual village to get us through and I believe deeply in the “moral imperative of sharing”.  I will share with you…and I hope you share with me.

Be safe.  Be smart.  But don’t panic.  We will come out of this stronger and better teachers and schools as a result.

OJCS Launches “Life & Legacy”

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

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

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

Why leave a Legacy Gift?

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

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

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

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

Update: Impact of $50K Gift to Strengthen the “J” at OJCS

As our Middle Schoolers write exams and our entire school gets ready for the triumphant return of “Winter Fun Day” heading into a “PD Day” and February Break, I thought it would be a great opportunity to provide a second “Update: Impact” post.  Two weeks ago, I provided an update on the impact of our French consultancy.  Today, I would like to provide an update on the impact of last spring’s $50,000 gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS.

At the time, I described the possible impact in a blog post as such:

And now, thanks to today’s gift, we know that we will go into Year Three with an amazing opportunity to build on our successes and introduce new and deeper Jewish engagement for our students and our families.

What might this investment lead to in 2019-2020?

(W)e will be revisiting our leadership team.  I will have more to say about this when it becomes concrete, but we are very excited about the possibilities we are exploring.  We also have – similar to French – opportunities to import second-language acquisition professional development so that our teachers of Hebrew will have the same resources available to them as our teachers of English and French do and will.  Updated curriculum, more Hebrew-language books and materials, and expanding our Jewish Studies Resource are all worthy to consider for investment.

How is it going shofar?  (I know.  I am past that pun window, but I feel like in a post dedicated to Jewish Studies that I can pull it off.)

Well, some of what we had imagined has in fact come true.  We have purchased new and additional Hebrew-language books and materials. We have made connections to second-language acquisition experts to improve our pedagogy.  And we have added Hebrew resource teachers and contact time to better meet the needs of students.  And all of that has made a meaningful difference.  Other things, however, we could not have predicted because new people bring new ideas.

The biggest change this year in Jewish Studies at OJCS is the addition of our new full-time Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Avi Marcovitz.  Like our Dean of Jewish Studies Emeritus Rabbi Finkelstein, Dr. Marcovitz is a critical member of our Middle School Faculty.  Unlike Rabbi Finkelstein, Dr. Marcovitz does not have another important day job, but has the opportunity to focus all his energy and creativity at our school.  He may still be getting acculturated, but in addition to assuming leadership of our Jewish Studies Faculty and building relationships with synagogues and community leaders, he has also found time for launching new programs.

Parasha & Pancakes

“Parasha & Pancakes” now takes place on  Tuesdays (Grades 3-5) & Thursdays (Grades 6-8).  With great thanks to the OJCS PTA for providing support, we have students volunteering to come to school early to learn Torah!  Who knew?  Students are taking responsibility for the cooking and Dr. Marcovitz for the learning.  Tasty pancakes to feed the body with words of Torah to feed the soul – what a great way to start the day!

Rabbi Simes z”l Yom Iyun

This grew out of a wonderful assignment with our Grade 8s who have been exchanging questions (sh’eilot) and answers (t’shuvot) with rabbis in our community on hot button topics.  The work has been so rich that we got the idea to invite those rabbis to be with us for a day of learning, which we are dedicating to the memory of our beloved teacher and communal leader, Rabbi Yehuda Simes z”l.  We are looking forward to a special day on February 24th.  Contact the office for more information.

Do you want to see the amazing intersection between Jewish Studies and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math)?  Go no farther than Morah Ruthie’s Kitah Zayin (Grade 7) Hebrew II class!  They learned all about the Israeli city of Tzfat and showed what they learned by creating VR (virtual reality) projects.  The views below aren’t as cool as viewing them through VR goggles, but they are pretty cool.  I have left one sample for you to check out below, but if you want to see them all, please check out Morah Ruthie’s blog post:

What’s next?  Something really exciting…perhaps even a game-changer.

Based on a model I first experienced (not created, it was there before me) in my last headship at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, we want to launch a brand-new Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum that is predicated on the idea that both Torah leads to deeds AND deeds lead to Torah (Kiddushin 40b).  We want to create an integrated Jewish Studies / Tikkun Olam (Social Justice) program in which the text our students learn Monday-Thursday gets put into action on Friday, each and every week.  Aligned with our North Stars, “We own our own learning,” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” we would create a committee of students, teachers, parents and community leaders to develop this curriculum 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 new program will be a direct and weekly application of Jewish wisdom.  It allows for individual choice (we imagine some of the “Mitzvah Trips” having choice for students), but more importantly through the experience of many “Mitzvah Trips,” students will make meaning of which mitzvot, which tikkon olam projects, etc., are personally meaningful.  They will also build connections to people and organizations that will strengthen their sense of peoplehood.

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 in a community without a 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 eligible to receive 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?

OJCS Celebrates Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and the Ottawa Jewish Community School is proud to be celebrating in ways big and small!  We actually kicked things off in January when current OJCS Parent Dr. Madelaine Werier met with our Knesset to introduce them to the Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN) and to brainstorm with them ways that they could raise awareness and advocacy for inclusion at our school.  Here’s how Jenny, our Knesset Communications Rep, put it in her blog post:

Maybe we can create a mission to show the other students in our school that everyone can do something to help one another. Maybe we could do a class challenge to bring awareness to the importance of inclusivity. Donating money can be part of awareness campaigns but giving time is even more important. Even just holding the door for the person behind you can make a big difference in their day. How about a video? Making a video is a really easy way to make someone feel welcome, especially to a new environment. Maybe you don’t even have to do something special, by just asking them to do something with you could make them feel more welcome. The person you are spending time with doesn’t even have to be in your grade, branch out, talk to people from the grade above or below you. I know that if someone I didn’t know came and played with me I would feel much better.

Madelaine did mention that a very important word is advocacy for us to learn about and think about how to incorporate it into Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month at OJCS. This Knesset meeting was very helpful and meaningful to our Knesset team. Thank you so much Madelaine- you definitely gave us some really amazing ideas.

And our Knesset didn’t just listen, they took action.

Our student leaders wrote our faculty an email this week:

Dear OJCS Faculty,

The month of February is JDAIM- Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and we would like to bring more awareness about the month to the school.
There are 3 ways we want to do this:
1. We want to have a door decorating challenge. Each homeroom class can choose a door to decorate around the theme of ‘Being Inclusive & Kind’. We would like to showcase photos of all the doors at our February Rosh Chodesh assembly so please have your beautiful doors all finished by February 24th. Gather the materials that you need, ‘begin with the end in mind’ with a class plan, and you can get started anytime! We can’t wait to see them!
2. The Shinshinim activities throughout the month of February are going to be run with Knesset too! The workshops will focus on the big idea that it’s important to be inclusive and celebrate & support one another’s differences.
3. When your reading buddy group meets in February, focus on books around the themes of kindness and inclusivity. We encourage you to have a class discussion or activity after the reading around these themes.
These are our school-wide initiatives, but you’re welcome to plan other activities for your class. Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN) is having a youth leadership challenge that you could enter with your class. See the poster below.
Please let us know if you have any questions. We are excited to incorporate JDAIM into our learning at OJCS.
Want to see “the poster below”?

And how can our teachers and students focus on books around the themes of kindness and inclusivity?  Well they can turn to our incredible librarian, Brigitte Ruel, who just put out a post of her own:

The month of February is JDAIM- Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.  The right book can really help foster more awareness and kindness in our students.  I have created a book bin with books on this topic for reading buddies that you can find at any time in the library.  I have also created a short list of some of our most on-point titles.

Want to see the books?  Visit her post!

Want to see an example of a teacher who was “excited to incorporate JDAIM into our learning at OJCS”?  Look no further than Grade 2!

Below is our video project that we have created in order to celebrate World Read Aloud Day (which is today!) and Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, also known as JDAIM, (which takes place through the whole month of February).

These are just a few examples of what is presently happening and what is to come in the weeks ahead.  I invite you to visit the OJCS Blogosphere and the OJCS IRL (in real life!) to see how else we celebrate JDAIM this February.

Of course, however important dedicating months to raising awareness are (and they are!), working hard to include children with unique and diverse needs is something we do each and every day at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  Thanks to generous supplemental grants from Federation we have been able to provide flexible furniture, assistive technology, and diagnostic software to benefit learners of all kinds.  We have grown our Department of Special Needs to include a part-time director, our Vice Principal, and two full-time and a variety of part-time resource teachers in English, Hebrew and French.  We have adopted a pedagogy of personalization that allows each student in our school to find the appropriate floor and fly as far as their God-give potential permits without a ceiling.  For a Jewish day school of our size and resources, we have a lot to be proud of when it comes to meeting the needs of diverse learners.

This Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, let us be reminded that we strive to meet the needs of children because we recognize that each child has special needs.  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.

Quality Comments: Welcome to OJCS Student Blogfolios!

I spend about an hour each week commenting on our student blogfolios.

What’s a “blogfolio” you ask?  Well it is a term of art that (I think) my former colleague Andrea Hernandez created, and in her words:

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

Having begun last year with Grade 5, we have now added this year’s Grade 5 as well.  [Spoiler Alert: We will be expanding the use of blogfolios in both directions in the not-too-distant future.]

During the time I set aside for my reading, I typically start at the beginning of each blogroll and make my way through as many as I can. During that hour, I can see which spelling words are being emphasized in a particular grade.  I can see which kinds of writing forms and mechanics are being introduced.  I learn which holidays (secular and Jewish) are being prepared for, celebrated or commemorated.  I see samples of their best work across the curricula.

But what I enjoy seeing the most is the range of creativity and personalization that expresses itself through their aesthetic design, the features they choose to include (and leave out), and the voluntary writing.

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

Seriously.  Look at it.

If you are a parent in one of these classes, we hope that you are already subscribed to your children’s blogfolio(s) and that grandparents and special friends are as well.  But if you are not a parent in one of these classes (or a parent in our school or a parent at all), but are (obviously!) reading my blog, I ask that however much time you would have spent reading one my typically overlong, 1,000-word (plus) posts, that you please use that time now to read one of their posts.  Even better, post a comment! It brings them such joy!  Just pick a few at random and make a burgeoning blogger’s day.

If you are interested in perusing the Grade 5 Blogroll, please click here.

If you are interested in surfing the Grade 6 Blogroll, then please click here.

With enrollment for 2019-2020 now fully open [Don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunity to lock in this year’s tuition rates by enrolling on time!], I am looking forward in upcoming posts to providing meaningful updates on two major initiatives:

  • How has the work with TACLEF impacted French at OJCS?
  • How has the gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS impacted Jewish Studies (and Life) at OJCS?

Stay tuned!

Why Sports Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair?

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

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

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

Go, Rams, Go!

Radical Transparency: Finding Wellness Through Brazen Vulnerability

I was out of the office this past Monday and Tuesday attending an Alumni Retreat of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  DSLTI is the preeminent preparer for new heads of Jewish day schools and I was lucky enough to be in its fourth cohort.  In addition to the coaching and content that comes during your cohort experience, one of the greatest ongoing values of DSLTI is its robust alumni network.  That alumni network gathers annually for a retreat and is typically a peak experience for attendees.  The topic this year was “wellness” and I was asked to speak specifically  on the connection between “transparency” and “wellness”.  As those were concepts that I didn’t automatically connect, I spent some time proposing and then rejecting possible ideas.

Here’s what I did not talk about:

At first, I thought I would approach it from the angle of how blogs and blogfolios can actually promote wellness in our school culture through small, but meaningful acts of kindness.

Then I thought I would come at it from how my own blogging and social media usage embodies transparency as a personal value that promotes my own self-care – talking about my personal flaws, coping with the death of my father, setting health goals, etc.

My next rejected idea was to talk about how I blog transparently about what I want to be true with the hope that by putting it out into the universe, I set in motion making it actually come true.

Next idea was to explore blogging as a form of personal cheshbon ha’nefesh – a self-accounting to inspire me to do and be better.

My final rejected idea was to explore how we use the concept of the “nondiscussible” to build a professional culture that promotes wellness in the workplace.

The truth is that I could have told compelling professional anecdotes about any of the above slides/topics.  And since many of them are pulled from blog posts I have already written…I guess I already have. But because DSLTI is such an intimate environment, a safe place for heads of schools to get real with themselves and each other, I decided that I would go deeper and more personal.  And so I landed here…

Imposter Syndrome” is a common condition across all professions.  It can be defined as…

…a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.

I can distill my “imposter syndrome” down to three anecdotes reflected in the slide above which served as the heart of my talk…

The handsome gentleman on the left is me at age 13.  I was yet even more handsome at age 10 when we moved from Edison, New Jersey to Fremont, California.  In addition to my amazing Jewish Neil Diamond hair, and owlish eyeglasses, I also brought with me to California an overbite of cartoonish proportions.  My overbite was so large that I could fit two fingers (sideways) comfortably inside.  The solution?  A bionator.

My Google search for a bionator reveals to my surprise its continued existence, since I had imagined it would have been banned by the Geneva Conventions as a source of torture.  In my parents’ great wisdom and to avoid my needing to wear braces until 35, not only did I get to wear the bionator for all of Grades 6 and 7, I also got to wear headgear 18 hours a day.  And one of those days was, in fact, the very first day of school.

In a new school.

In a new state.

I show up for the first day of Grade 6 with my bionator in, Jewish locks pouring through the headgear and owl eyes.  As just one example of how awesome that was, because the bionator took up every inch of space in my mouth, I had to take it out to speak.  And because I needed a toolset to take it out, I had to have prearranged times with my teachers for when I was going to be called on.  (I swear this is all true.) My Math Teacher would tell me that she was going to call on me at 10:45 AM and then at 10:30 AM I would take out my toolset and start unhooking myself.  My time would come, I would say, like, “5x,” and then I would hook myself back together.

How I ever met a friend is an enduring mystery…

That “first-day-of-school-in-a-new-school-wearing-a-bionator” is how I feel each time I walk into a new room with new people.

The hirsute gentleman in the upper righthand corner is me at age 23.  I had taken a year after university to try to figure out what path in the Jewish professional world I wanted to walk down and landed at Jewish Education.  Based on my Reform Jewish background, I should have wound up in the master’s program at the Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles.  And I likely would have if not for the friend of my mother’s who told her that if I was already going to down to LA for an interview at one seminary, that I might as well visit the Conservative one, the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).  So I set myself up an interview…

They told me that my day was going to begin with “minyan” and I said, “Great!” even though I had no idea what that was.  To paint the full picture, I wore my hair that day in a ponytail (which I assumed was more professional), put modest earrings in my four piercings, wore the only long pants in my possession coupled with Naot (Israeli Birkenstocks).  That is how I looked when a grad student met me and escorted me to the school’s beit knesset for minyan.  That morning was the first time in my life I had ever seen tefillin or a Hebrew siddur.  It was the first all-Hebrew service I had ever attended and I was totally unfamiliar with the words and the tunes.

Why I wound up attending that school and the larger Jewish journey it took me on is a longer story…

That “first-time-in-minyan” is how I feel every time I enter a synagogue.

The picture in the lower righthand corner of the slide is not a class photo.  That is the school photo from my first year as founding head of the recently closed Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas.  Grades 1 & 2, 14 students, three teachers and me.  The story of how that school came into existence and how I came to be its founding head is long and complicated.  It is, in fact, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and should you wish to join the exclusive club of my dissertation committee, my mother and my wife, I invite you to look it up and read it.  Needless to say, I was not a typical applicant for this job having never attended, worked or virtually ever stepped foot inside a day school until applying to be a founding head.

I distinctly remember the part of my interview where I attended a parlour meeting for prospective parents at the home of the rabbi who was spearheading the school’s creation.  At that time there were only the 6 students continuing into Grade 2 and prospective parents for what would turn out to be 8 students beginning Grade 1.  Because of my utter lack of experience and network – I was only accepted into DSLTI after I somehow got the job – the only way I could prepare for the interview was to do some light internet research.  I landed on PEJE’s (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, now folded into Prizmah) PDF for launching new Jewish schools and tried to commit it to memory.

At this parlour meeting was a set of parents who had graduated from The Ramaz School, a very prominent Modern Orthodox Day School in Manhattan and they asked me a ton of very reasonable and practical questions to try to ascertain how on earth I was qualified to found this new school.  As I stood in the foyer sweating through my suit, stumbling to express my views on secular curriculum, Jewish curriculum, pedagogy, Hebrew, and anything and everything else about running a school, I was quite convinced that this was the beginning and the end of my career in Jewish day school education.

Why I wound up getting the job and the larger arc of my career that it launched is a longer story…

That  “sweating through my suit” is how I feel at all our town halls.

The feedback from my DSLTI peers when I gave this presentation was instructive.  Many shared with me that they had no idea that I felt that way – I seem so confident or I appear to have a strong leadership presence.  And like most people, I both do and I don’t.  I have obviously grown and learned and failed and succeeded and achieved and done a lot since I was 10, 23 and 33.  But that’s the way imposter syndrome works for us all.

So there you have it.  The simple truth is that I employ a kind of radical transparency not only because I think it creates healthy culture, leads to sound pedagogy, fosters parental buy-in and engagement – which I do.

In a sense “transparency” is my superpower.  It is the superhero cape I adorn that lets me be my best self.  I put it all out there because doing so makes me well and, I hope, promotes wellness in others.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

This will be my last blog post before we go onto Winter Break next week.  Wishing everyone a joyous Chanukah, a Happy New (Secular) Year and a relaxing break.  We look forward to welcoming everyone back to school in 2020!