The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results (Yes, Even During COVID) Part II

Welcome to “Part II” of our analysis of this year’s CAT4 results!  In Tuesday’s post, we provided a lot of background context and shared out the simple results of how we did this year.  Here in our second post, we are now able to begin sharing comparative data, however patchy.  It will take at least one more non-COVID year before we can accurately compare the same grade and the same cohort year after year.  But we can get a taste of it with Grades 5-8.  What you have below are snapshots of the same cohort (the same group of children) from 2019 to 2021 (with bonus data from 2018’s Grade 3):

What are the key takeaways from this comparison (remembering that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting an “8.9” for Grade 7)?

Now bear in mind, that the metric we are normally looking at when it comes to comparing a cohort over time is whether or not we see at least one full year’s growth (on average) each year – here we are looking to see two full year’s growth since we last took the test in 2019.  This would be the place one might expect to see the full measure of COVID’s impact – these are the two years of COVID between the two tests.  However, for all four cohorts in all categories save two (2019 Grade 3 to 2021 Grade 5 “Computation & Estimation” and 2019 Grade 5 to 2021 Grade 7 “Spelling”) you see at least two full year’s growth (technically 2019 Grade 5 to 2021 Grade 7 “Computation & Estimation” was just shy) and in may cases you see more than two full year’s growth.

I’m going to say that again.

During the time of the pandemic, with all the pivots back and forth, all the many challenges of both hyflex and at-home learning, all the prolonged absences by many students (and teachers), with all the social and emotional stress and anxiety, with everything we know about what COVID has been doing to children and to families, in almost each category that we tested our students in Grades 5-8 – spending no time or energy preparing for the exams and with diverse and inclusive classes – in 22 of 24 domains we see at least the pre-COVID expected two-year gain, and in many cases we see more than two full year’s growth.

As was true with our overall scores, I was expecting to see a significant number of gaps for all the reasons I just described, but surprisingly and encouragingly, that is not what the data yields.

Let’s look at one more set data points.  We can also get a taste of how the same grade performs from one year to the next as well.  Again, we only have Grades 5-8 to look at with (with a bonus 2018 Grade 6):

Now, remember that these scores represent a completely different group of children, so it is not unusual or surprising to see variances. Teachers can only grow students from the place they received them and it is that annual growth that we are concerned with.  But over time you are looking for patterns.  Ideally each domain settles in at least a full grade above with slight fluctuations from year to year depending on that year’s particular constellation of students.  Even-better would be to see slight ticks up each year as a result of new ideas, new pedagogies, new programs, etc.  And that is actually where much of the story currently is.

In the places where we aren’t quite where we want to be, we still have work to do.  If with additional data we come to believe that Spelling or Computation & Estimation are institutional weaknesses, we will want to know whether they are weakness in every grade or do they dip in certain grades.  Between COVID and gaps in testing, we simply have no way to conclude much more than we have already laid out.  But in another year or so, we will be able to plot the trajectory of both cohorts (the same students) and grades over time to see what additional stories they tell.

To try sum up both posts, we have a lot to be proud of in our standardized test scores.  We have two areas (Spelling and Computation & Estimation) to prioritize in two grades (Five & Seven).  With regard to Spelling, it is interesting to note that when we flagged it in 2019 as a more global concern, we began providing professional growth opportunities for language arts teachers in our school on Structured Word Inquiry.  The sample sizes are too small to make grand conclusions, but it is possible that those interventions help explain why Spelling is no longer a global concern, although we do need to pay attention to where and why it is lagging where it is.  With regard to Computation & Estimation, we will – like with Spelling – have an internal conversation which may lead to PD for Math Teachers.

This fits in with the work we began on our November PD Day which focused on “Data-Driven Decision Making”.  The Math and Language Arts Teachers in Grades 5-8 will be meeting to go through CAT4 results in greater detail, with an eye towards what kinds of interventions are needed now – in this year – to fill any gaps (both for individual students and for grades); and how might we adapt about our long-term planning to ensure we are best meeting needs.

The bottom line is that our graduates – year after year – successfully place into the high school programs of their choice.  Each one had a different ceiling – they are all different – but working with them, their families and their teachers, we successfully transitioned them all to the schools (private and public) and programs (IB, Gifted, French Immersion, Arts, etc.) that they qualified for.

And now again this year, despite all the qualifications and caveats, and in the face of the most challenging set of educational circumstances any generation of students and teachers have faced, our CAT4 scores continue to demonstrate excellence.  Excellence within the grades and between them.

Not a bad place to be as we prepare to open the 2022-2023 enrollment season…

The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results (Yes, Even During COVID) Part I

This may seem like a very odd time to be sharing out results from this year’s standardized testing, which in our school is the CAT4.  We are just finishing up our first days in this year’s most recent pivot back to distance learning and we are confident that everyone – students, parents and teachers – has more pressing concerns than a very long and detailed analysis of standardized tests that we managed to squeeze in during the in-person portion of our school year.  (The post is so long that I am splitting it into two parts, and each part is still a bit lengthy.)  But with our launch of Annual Grades 9 & 12 Alumni Surveys and the opening of the admissions season for the 2022-2023 school year, one might argue that there is not a better time to be more transparent about how well we are (or aren’t) succeeding academically against an external set of benchmarks while facing extraordinary circumstances.

There is a very real question about “COVID Gaps” and the obvious impacts on children and schools from the many pivots, hyflex, hybrid, masked and socially-distanced, in-person and at-home learning experiences we have all cycled through together since March of 2020.  (I wrote earlier in the year about some of the non-academic COVID gaps that we are very much experiencing, all of which I imagine growing proportionate to the length of this current pivot.)  And it seems logical that there should be and are academic gaps, at least at the individual student level.  One might ask why we even bothered taking the CAT4 at all this year; we didn’t take it last school year for example, so it will be really hard to make meaningful apples-to-apples comparisons.  So why take them?  And why share the results, whatever they may be?

We did it for a few reasons…

The first and primary reason is that we are curious.  Curiosity may not be a “North Star” at OJCS, but it is a value.  And we are very curious to see how our standardized test scores measure up pre-COVID and post-COVID, both by grade (2019 Grade 5 v. 2021 Grade 5) and by cohort (2019 Grade 5 v. 2021 Grade 7).  We would normally be looking for patterns and outliers anyway, but now we can also look for COVID impacts as well.

Why share the results?  Because that’s what “transparency” as a value and a verb looks like.  We commit to sharing the data and our analysis regardless of outcome because we believe in the value of transparency.  We also do it because we know that for the overwhelming majority of our parents, excellence in secular academics is a non-negotiable, and that in a competitive marketplace with both well-regarded public schools and secular private schools, our parents deserve to see the school’s value proposition validated beyond anecdotes.

Now for the caveats and preemptive statements…

We have not yet shared out individual reports to our parents.  First our teachers have to have a chance to review the data to identify which test results fully resemble their children well enough to simply pass on, and which results require contextualization in private conversation.  Those contextualizing conversations will take place in the next few weeks and thereafter, we should be able to return all results.

There are a few things worth pointing out:

  • Because of COVID, this is now only our third year taking this assessment at this time of year.  We were in the process of expanding the range from Grades 3-8 in 2019, but we paused in 2020 and restricted this year’s testing to Grades 5-8.  This means that we can only compare at the grade level from 2019’s Grades 5-8 to 2021’s Grades 5-8, and we can only compare at the cohort level from 2019’s Grades 3-6 to 2021’s Grades 5-8.  And remember we have to take into account the missing year…this will make more sense in “Part II” (I hope).  Post-COVID, we will have tracking data across all grades which will allow us to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same cohort grows at least a year’s worth of growth.
  • The other issue is in the proper understanding of what a “grade equivalent score” really is.

Grade-equivalent scores attempt to show at what grade level and month your child is functioning.  However, grade-equivalent scores are not able to show this.  Let me use an example to illustrate this.  In reading comprehension, your son in Grade 5 scored a 7.3 grade equivalent on his Grade 5 test. The 7 represents the grade level while the 3 represents the month. 7.3 would represent the seventh grade, third month, which is December.  The reason it is the third month is because September is zero, October is one, etc.  It is not true though that your son is functioning at the seventh grade level since he was never tested on seventh grade material.  He was only tested on fifth grade material.  He performed like a seventh grader on fifth grade material.  That’s why the grade-equivalent scores should not be used to decide at what grade level a student is functioning.

Let me finish this section by being very clear: We do not believe that standardized test scores represent the only, nor surely the best, evidence for academic success.  Our goal continues to be providing each student with a “floor, but no ceiling” representing each student’s maximum success.  Our best outcome is still producing students who become lifelong learners.

But I also don’t want to undersell the objective evidence that shows that the work we are doing here does in fact lead to tangible success.  That’s the headline, but let’s look more closely at the story.  (You may wish to zoom (no pun intended!) in a bit on whatever device you are reading this on…)

A few tips on how to read this:

  • We take this exam in the “.2” of each grade-level year.  That means that “at grade level” [again, please refer above to a more precise definition of “grade equivalent scores”] for any grade we are looking at would be 5.2, 6.2, 7.2, etc.  For example, if you are looking at Grade 6, anything below 6.2 would constitute “below grade level” and anything above 6.2 would constitute “above grade level.”
  • The maximum score for any grade is “.9” of the next year’s grade.  If, for example, you are looking at Grade 8 and see a score of 9.9, on our forms it actually reads “9.9+” – the maximum score that can be recorded.
  • Because of when we take this test – approximately two months into the school year – it is reasonable to assume a significant responsibility for results is attributable to the prior year’s teachers and experiences.  But it is very hard to tease it out exactly, of course.

What are the key takeaways from these snapshots of the entire school?

  • Looking at four different grades through six different dimensions there are only three instances (out of twenty-four) of scoring below grade-level: Grade 5 in Computation & Estimation (4.4), and Grade 7 in Spelling (6.6) and Computation & Estimation (6.0).
  • Interestingly, compared to our 2019 results, those two dimensions – Spelling and Computation & Estimation are no longer globally lower as a school relative to the other dimensions.  In 2019, for example “Spelling” was a dimension where we scored lower as a school (even if when above grade level) relative to the other dimensions.  In 2021, we don’t see “Spelling” as scoring globally below.  (That’s a good thing!)  [We also have some anecdotal evidence that a fair number of students in Grade 7 may not have finished the Computation section, leaving a fair number of questions blank – in the case of this cohort, it might be more valuable to know how well they did on the questions they actually answered (which we will do).]

What stands out the most is how exceedingly well each and every grade has done in just about each and every section.  In almost all cases, each and every grade is performing significantly above grade-level.  This is NOT what I was expecting considering the impacts of COVID over the last two years – I was fully expecting to see at least .5 (a half-year) gap globally across the grades and subjects.  This is a surprising and very encouraging set of data points.

Stay tuned for “Part II” in which we will dive into the comparative data – of both the same grade and the same cohort (the same group of students) over time – and offer some additional summarizing thoughts.

OJCS Announces $1.5 Million Gift to Transform Classrooms & Learning Spaces

With the utmost humility and the sincerest of gratitude, it is my great honour and pleasure to announce what may be the largest single gift our school has ever received.  An anonymous donor in our community has decided to invest $1,500,000 to help ensure that our classrooms and learning spaces are as innovative as our teaching and programming.

This represents an extraordinary moment for our school – its students, parents, teachers, supporters and community – on our journey towards long-term sustainability.  Yes, of course, what happens inside the classrooms is more important than the rooms themselves.  But there’s no question that more innovative learning spaces allow for more innovative learning experiences.  This generous gift and the opportunity it presents will make a huge difference in the lives of OJCS students and teachers for a generation to come.

It is also worth saying that this new commitment to our school not only validates the hard work our teachers and board have put in over these past few years, but raises the bar for what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.  We hope that it also puts a smile on the faces of our current and prior set of major donors, including the Jewish Federation of Ottawa,  without whose contributions would never have made this gift possible.  We accept this gift not as a celebration of what we have done, but as a charge for what we now must do.

So…what happens next?

A lot!  Especially if we are going to try to start the work over the summer so that at least some of our newly upgraded classrooms and spaces will be ready for use at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year!  There will be lots of behind-the-scenes work with architect firms, general contractors, construction firms and vendors as we work to design our “classrooms of the future”.  As we did with the construction of our OJCS Makerspace – funded by a generous grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund – we will soon be convening groups of teachers and students for visioning sessions to ensure that “teacher voice” and “student voice” are appropriately included in the design.

It will be our pleasure to share designs as they come in and it will be our pleasure to show any current or prospective families the spaces we are discussing as it becomes more clear.  We are so proud at OJCS to have this opportunity to do such important and transformational work.  It is just another example of how OJCS is becoming an educational leader in our community.

Actions Speak Louder Than Candles: A Chanukah Pedagogy

I guess if the High Holidays came early this year that all the other ones probably will as well?  So I guess I can’t be surprised that Chanukah begins this Sunday evening!  As part of my blog post last year, I wrote:

Instead of a public reading, we communicate the story of Chanukah silently, with the act of lighting candles at the window so that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize our celebration of the miracles that occurred.

I found a pedagogical “a-ha moment” in my re-reading and it isn’t so much in the “silence” as it is the “act”.  Why?  Well, in the case of candles, it is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgeable amongst us can perform it. It is an action performed publicly and in the home.  And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing.  It is truly an act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.

This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah.  The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma“, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”.  Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator.  I think there are two major implications from this:  One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people.  Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work.  [This is precisely why in our search for a new “Head of Jewish Studies” we have expanded the position to include “Jewish Life” – our ideal person will have an informal and/or camping background in addition to their formal education and experiences.]  Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential.  It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our middle school students to go out into the world each Friday and in lieu of their Jewish Studies Curriculum make the world a better place by doing social action.  That’s why we are working so hard to launch our new “Mitzvah Trip” program this spring, COVID challenges notwithstanding.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.  That’s why we are exploring how to one day transition our GRAD Trip in Grade 8 from Toronto or NYC to Eretz Yisrael.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a menorah in the window, surrounded by family.  Hopefully, your family is planning on joining our OJCS Family in this year’s Annual (Virtual) Chanukah Family Program on Thursday, December 7th at 7:00 PM!

Finally, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to local healthcare or other essential workers whose light of courage amplifies and enhances this Holiday of Lights.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

BTW – if you like a playlist and a signature cocktail for your celebrations, why don’t you go ahead and make yourself a Chanukah Gelt Martini and vibe to this playlist:

My 400th Post: Blogging “The Moral Imperative of Sharing”

I published my first blog post on July 27th, 2010, entitled “Southern Hospitality”.  It was during the summer that I transitioned from being the founding Head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas (z”l) to being the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, in Jacksonville, FL.

Why did I start blogging?

Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.

If only I had remained that pithy!

What did I plan on blogging about?

We are a 21st century learning school invested in the continuity of a five thousand year-old tradition.  Our attempts to marry the past and the future into an engaging present will largely be the focus of my blog.

That still sounds about right.

Who did I imagine my blog’s audience to be?

Most of my blogging will center on experiences here at school, but I hope to be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish day school, Jewish education, education in general, and in the kinds of stuff I think happen to be interesting and worth sharing.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Or I’ll still never really know if and who is reading!

Why did I call it “A Floor, But Not a Ceiling”?

Because it represents what I believe the purpose of education to be – to ensure each child fulfills his or her own individual maximum potentials in academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual terms.  For there to be no ceiling has direct implications about what we teach and how we teach it.  I hope to use this blog to discuss these ideas and more.

And so here I am…

…11 years, 399 blog posts, three jobs and one country later.

I did a little research into my stats and metrics, but because I didn’t actually take ownership of my own website until coming here to Ottawa, most of the stats and metrics are skewed towards recency bias.  But there are a few things that (at least) I find interesting.

…here are my “Top 5” categories (a post can be assigned multiple categories):

  1. 21st Century Learning (145)
  2. Jewish Education (133)
  3. Community Building (107)
  4. Thought Leadership (106)
  5. Teaching & Learning (92)

(Crowd favorite “Transparency Files” clocked in at 60.)

…here are my “Top 5” tags (a post can be assigned multiple tags):

  1. Transparency (28)
  2. COVID (21)
  3. Innovation (20)
  4. 7 Habits (9)
  5. Second-Language Acquisition (8)

My audience has grown each year I have been here at OJCS (just like our school!) and so it comes as no surprise that 4 of my “Top 5” posts all come in the last four years:

  1. The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano (1,171)
  2. OJCS Announces $1,000,000 Gift (689)
  3. The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Plans for a “Five-Day, Full-Day” Safe Reopening (495)
  4. Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter (446)
  5. L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife (432)

So, why do I still crank out 40+ blog posts a year with a completely absurd and unacceptable average word count of nearly 900 words?

Because last week a parent emailed me to share some thoughts about something I wrote and it meant something to both of us.

Because I still believe in Dean Shareski‘s “The Moral Imperative of Sharing“.

Because it makes me a better educator, a better communicator and maybe, just maybe, a better person.

Because Silvia told me to.  [Read the post, I am still not able to talk about her in the past tense.]

Because I really believe in this stuff – that the act of putting stuff into the universe matters, even if when and how it matters is unseen or unknowable.

Because it is still true that “Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.”

Here I am and here I plan to remain.  Even when I am not sure anyone is reading.  Even when I am sure that almost no one is going to comment (no matter how desperately I plead).  Here is where I will continue to plant seeds and sow dreams.  Here is where I will continue to be transparent, even when what needs to be said is difficult.  Here is where I will work out new ideas.  Here is where I will (occasionally) let my true personality be seen.  Here is where I will advocate for teachers, for students, and for Jewish schools.

Thank you to everyone who ever read a post, subscribed, shared, commented, encouraged or helped.  It is both a privilege and a responsibility to have a voice.  I feel blessed to have been able to share mine over these 400 posts and I look forward to showing up and sharing out over the next 400 posts.

[Under 770 words! Nailed it!]

There Is A “COVID Gap” But It Isn’t (Just) Academic

This is the jinxiest and most hubristic, fate-tempting opening thought, but as things seem to have settled into what I am now thinking of more as “late-COVID” times rather than “post-COVID” times, this feels like the right time to share some thoughts about what we are experiencing with students, teachers and parents who are simply not used to this much daily face-to-face (or rather mask-to-mask) human interaction.  Whereas much of the chatter in the wider educational world this summer focused on concerns about academic gaps – how far behind academically might many children be due to a combination of lengthy pivots to distance learning and individual learning challenges in distance learning – and we at OJCS will know more as we prepare to return to standardized testing in the months ahead; what I want to focus on here, are socio-emotional gaps, which we are seeing, are real and are worthy of unpacking.

I’d wager that our school did as good a job as any in terms of navigating the multiple pivots between in-person, at-home and hyflex learning from March of 2020 up until today.  I’ve written multiple blog posts (like this one) that goes into depth about the educational challenges and opportunities COVID has presented schools and how our school has adapted and responded.  I wrote just one post that tried to deal with the socio-emotional impacts of COVID, focusing on what it means to be a “trauma-aware” school – knowing that for many of our students, teachers and families, that living through COVID is a kind of trauma that has obvious impacts on schooling.  It is worth revisiting the key idea from that post to set the stage for what I want to share here:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

I see these responses all around me, all the time.  I see it in the normally vivacious student who is unusually withdrawn.  I see it in the normally laid back parent who has grown helicopter wings.  I see it in the normally contained teacher for whom everything is now on fire.  I see all the reverses as well.  I see different reactions from different people at different times in the face of different circumstances.  I see it in the parking lot and I see it in emails and I see it on social media.  And I most definitely see it in myself.

Whether we consider ourselves to still be in the trauma of late-COVID or whether we consider ourselves to be in the post-trauma of post-COVID, the impact of COVID and the trauma it created is both real and ongoing.  And my various claims of “I see it…” from when I wrote that post last year, carried forward into this one.  What I want to do here is name a few that feel the most urgent, believing that naming something is a great first step towards meaningfully addressing it.

The New Teacher Gap

As someone who moved here five years ago, I have heard and experienced the way our community – Ottawa, Ottawa Jewish, OJCS, etc. – welcomes newcomers and most people tend to feel like “we” could do a bit better.  It can be hard breaking into an established community and the more intimate the culture, the more double-edged the entrée can be.  In a still small (but growing!) school, the size breeds an intimacy that is a huge value add…until it isn’t.  So when a new teacher joins the OJCS Family (and I am using “family” on purpose), there is so much s/he has to learn and be acculturated towards!

One thing that we have seen in the past, but has intensified through COVID, is that our students and our parents are not always as welcoming – or PATIENT – with new teachers as we might otherwise wish.  New teachers at OJCS, in addition to everything else they need to learn, are also at a bit of a disadvantage as they work to build the deep relationships with their students and their parents that their colleagues have had years to invest in and benefit from.  Change can be exciting and inspiring.  Change can also be scary and breed resentment.  I am seeing less patience for new teachers to find their footing than I had seen a few years ago.

The Parent Separation Gap

Like it or not – and many actually did like it – in many of the younger grades, parents played a pivotal role in at-home learning.  However much independent learning was fostered in school, however much time was invested in cultivating our youngest students to be self-directed – with much more success than we would have imagined pre-COVID – it is true that for lots of individual students, a parent’s role as “partner” in the learning expanded to include tech support, guidance counselor, tutor and even co-teacher.  In many families, COVID led to way more contact time and more quality time spent together.  A full-time return to in-person learning has meant revisiting the kinds of separation anxiety that is more typical to the beginning of a child’s school journey (only).

So it is no surprise that we are seeing all kinds of behaviour from both children and parents that have this post-COVID separation anxiety at its heart.  We are seeing a lot more angst and tears at drop-off, including in grades where we typically wouldn’t.  We are seeing a lot more “homesickness” or expression of “just wanting to be home”.  We are also seeing parents much more invested in the daily goings-on of school than we would typically expect.  We all agree that it is better for everyone, but especially our students, to be back in school.  We just haven’t (re)learned exactly how to do that, which comes with challenges.

The Stamina Gap

The school day at OJCS has the opening bell at 8:30 AM and the closing bell at 3:45 PM.  That is a longer-than average school day (although many Jewish day schools have longer ones, and that is without French, but that is a blog post for another day) and you can definitely see which of our students struggle as the day goes on.  And it is reasonable to assume that children who have attention issues will potentially struggle even more to maintain their focus across the many classes, teachers and material they encounter.  That was true before COVID!  One feature of hyflex and distance learning is that it provided many students with some flexibility over time – it was the rare student who was expected to be on screen and engaged on a full-day schedule.  It was more common to create blocks of online engagement that came with long periods of offline engagement.

This means that the return to full-day, in-person learning presents for many students, particularly the younger ones and those who struggle with focus, a stamina gap.  Students are simply not used to being in school all day and we didn’t exactly build in a slow return to build stamina.  In most cases, we simply assumed things would go back to “normal”.  But they have not quite yet, resulting in feelings and behaviours that we are working through.

The Empathy Solution

What’s the solution to filling in these gaps?  Well, in that same post I posited that “empathy” was the most likely solution, or at least the best possible response to the behaviors we are experiencing.  What would empathy look like in response to the gaps I have named here?  I think that when it comes to new teachers, it is understanding how challenging it may be coming into a new community and a new culture – especially a community as tight-knit and a culture as intimate as ours.  Let’s give our new teachers a reasonable amount of time to find their feet and build their relationships.  When it comes to separation anxiety, all of us – students, parents and teachers – will need to alter our short-term expectancies while keeping our eye on the long-term picture.  It isn’t that we don’t maintain high expectations for appropriate behaviour or that we don’t issue outcomes in its absence – it is that our approach for managing them comes with empathy, which we need to make explicit.  And the same is true with the “stamina gap” – it isn’t that we stop teaching earlier in the day, it is that we plan with an empathetic eye towards those students who struggle to keep it together during their long (for them) days as they build back their stamina.

Naming something is just the first step to meaningfully addressing it, and so that will be true here as well.  Are there other gaps you see other than the ones I mentioned?  Let us know.  Are there other solutions?  Let us know.  As partners in this learning journey, we have a sacred responsibility to lean into challenges as the first step to overcoming them.  This guided our path before COVID…so shall it guide our steps through and past it.

The Scholastic Book Fair is fast approaching!  This year it will be in-person for students and remains virtual for parents, grandparents, family and friends.  Please pay attention to the information coming home from classroom teachers and the school.  We thank you in advance for helping to build out our classroom libraries, for supporting our Library and for celebrating literacy!

After being unable to conduct a proper search for a new Head of Jewish Studies the last two seasons due to COVID – this position being too important to be decided over Zoom – we are cautiously optimistic that this season will be different.  So we will be posting the position in the coming weeks and hopeful to find the best candidate possible to join our team!

#The65TweetChallenge – That I Totally Just Made Up

Yes, this is one of those blog posts that aggregates information from another source (this one being Twitter).

Yes, I 100% realize that not all our parents or stakeholders follow the school on Twitter (and you 100% do NOT have to, to be in the know).

No, it is not entirely because I am still barely recovered, let alone caught up, from the two-country, weeklong double Bat Mitzvah of my youngest daughter.

Yes, I intend to resume my normal style of blogging in the weeks ahead.  (Teaser alert: “The ‘COVID Gap’ is Real, But it is NOT Academic.”)

Yes, I totally made up #The65TweetChallenge to match that our school has sent out 65 tweets from the start of the school year until the day I created the visual below.  There is nothing magical about “65”.

However…

…with more and more OJCS Faculty utilizing Twitter to share thoughts, questions and observations with the larger educational world (as Twitter is the social media platform of choice for educators) and more and more OJCS Staff sharing ownership of the school’s Twitter account, I do think it is interesting to go through our school’s Tweets as a way of checking on our values and priorities.

I know what I see when I review the timeline below, but what do you see?

Evidence of our “North Stars”?

Artifacts of “The OJCS Way” or “The OJCS Difference” (how our school uniquely views teaching and learning)?

Diversity of subject, language, and grade?

Any other interesting patterns or meaningful absences?

Hit us up in the comments below or on Twitter (@the_ojcs) itself and let us know!

When Holidays Collide

Today at OJCS is both our annual “Sukkah Hop” and “Terry Fox Run”.  Next week brings us Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, National Truth & Reconciliation Week (we are expanding the “Day” to a “Week” in order to more easily accommodate our schedule), and Orange Shirt Day.  What do all those different holidays and events have in common?

If I was in a more rabbinic mindset, I am sure there are spiritual and meaningful connections to make.  With a school administrator’s mindset, I am way too busy making sure the logistics and the timing for each of our school’s activities comes off to dig much deeper.  However, with a Jewish educator’s mindset, I love the random juxtapositions these moments on the calendar provide our students and our families because they inadvertently reveal important things about what our school – what many Jewish day schools – believe to be true about living informed, active, engaged and holistic Jewish lives in secular society.

When I meet with prospective parents who are curious about how the Jewish and secular curricula work together, I oftentimes tell them that what I love about our school are the questions it provokes – not the answers.  I love that a student will come out of a Science class having learned contemporary theories of the origins of the universe and head into a Jewish Studies class to learn traditional understandings of “Creation”.  My highest hope for that student is that the juxtaposition of science and faith inspires that student to ask questions about how multiple perspectives can be true.  The answers, to me, are less important.  What matters, is that we are the kind of school where those questions are encouraged and that in the process of making meaning, a student begins to answer those questions for him or herself, setting the stage for holistic Jewish engagement into high school and beyond.  We don’t want our students to think of themselves as bi-(or tri-)furcated selves that put aside their Jewishness during different parts of the day or curriculum.  We want our students to gain experience navigating the full program and the mystery of life as whole Jewish selves.

Being “Jewish” and being “Canadian” (or “American” or wherever you may live) is not the same thing.  However proud we legitimately ought to be of our dual or multiple identities, we are not being intellectually honest if we claim they are all identical and never in conflict.  [Please keep in mind that the choice not to choose between is itself a choice.]  This is why OJCS adopts neither rejectionist nor assimilationist attitudes towards the secular society of which we are a part.  Nor do we feel so threatened by general society that we have to make everything Jewish.  No, we strive to be interactionist—our philosophy which can be seen in everything from our curricula to our website to our field trips—seeking to allow the Jewish and the secular to interact naturally as it does in the real world.

So.

Next week our students will commemorate National Truth & Reconciliation Week, celebrate Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, and participate in Orange Shirt Day.  It is both an extraordinary and ordinary week in the life of our Jewish day school.  Not every week brings major festivals and federal holidays, to be sure.  But every week – each day – brings opportunity for our students to interact as developing young Jewish people with a complex world and to slowly, if not linearly, learn how to hold multiple perspectives and – at times – oppositional ideas as they grow into literate and committed young Jewish adults.

I don’t know what questions next week’s constellation of events will raise, but I am excited to find out!

The Coronavirus Diaries: 2021 OJCS Safe Reopening FAQ

Here we are in mid-August and we are eagerly looking forward to welcoming back our teachers and then our students in the weeks ahead!

I am definitely staying out of the prediction business, but we remain hopeful that this year will begin to feel more like normal and that it will – perhaps – be a bit more predictable.  Either way, after the experiences of the last two school years, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to deal with all issues – known and unknown – to ensure that 2021-2022 is a successful and joyous year for all our students, teachers and families.

We do recognize that there can be some churn and angst as the return of school draws closer.  We read the news and study the numbers like you do and it can sometimes feel like we are trying to put a puzzle together with new pieces constantly being dropped in.  As was true last year, we are simply doing our best to stay on top of the health guidelines, to hold awareness of what the public board and other private schools are doing, and to be as transparent as we can about what we have already decided and what remains in play.

We received provincial guidelines for reopening just a few weeks ago and have been working hard to clarify what they will mean for OJCS.

OJCS’ COVID protocols have been determined in consultation with both Ottawa Public Health, as well as the document COVID 19: Ontario Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools.  OJCS will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our school community and to deeply value the importance of our partnership with parents in ensuring students who attend school have followed the protocols carefully.  We have again put together a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for your convenience.  If you do not see your question on this list – or have additional questions or concerns based on any of the answers – please do not hesitate to be in contact with the school for greater clarity.  (Please note that the entire list of FAQ will not only be uploaded to our website, but will remain dynamic so that updates and revisions will live there [not in my blog or email].)

Let’s get started…

How will cohorting work this year?

As per provincial guidelines, classes will remain smaller than typical, and while indoors, students will be housed in one hallway with an assigned entrance/exit.  Students will be masked from Kindergarten – Grade 8 [not JK], and supported through strategic classroom organization and design to maintain distance.  [The province is requiring masking in Grades 1-8; OJCS has chosen to remain consistent with last year’s success and will continue to mask in Kindergarten.]  Students will have contact across their own grade-level when outdoors for recess, where masking will be encouraged for those students who are comfortable.  Parents of twins have had their initial requests regarding class placements honoured.

Where will learning happen this school year?

Each cohort in Grades JK-3 will continue to be assigned a primary classroom where all its learning activities are designed to take place.  General, French and Jewish Studies Teachers for each grade-level will move between these assigned grade-level spaces (with students remaining in their designated classroom whenever possible).  [Students in JK have the same teachers throughout the day.]  Cohorts in Grades 4-8 will be assigned a primary classroom or learning space (i.e. the Library), but students will travel to limited additional spaces during their learning day (i.e. for language learning).

How will Nutrition Breaks work?

We will continue to have students eat supervised within their own classrooms by a strategic and consistent team member.  Middle School students will continue to access an outdoor cafeteria as long as weather permits.  All students will wash their hands or use sanitizer before eating.

Will teachers be wearing masks?

Yes!  Our teachers have been vaccinated, however they will all continue to wear masks whenever supporting students, and access face shields and protective eyewear, as needed.

What parts of the program have been adjusted to allow for a safe reopening?

  • For JK – Grade 5, Art will continue to be taught virtually in the cohort spaces with support from the grade-level team.  Morah Shira will continue to work closely with the classroom teachers.  Middle School students who select Art for their elective, will work directly with Morah Shira, masked and socially distanced.
  • Library workshops will also be taught in-person, with precautions, and all library services will be rendered virtually and contactless.
  • Recess will be scheduled by grade-level, supervised by the strategic and consistent team members, wherever possible, and will take place in scheduled and demarcated outdoor locations which will be cleaned (see below) between usages.
  • Physical Education classes will resume this school year, with masking and distancing in place.  For Middle School students, PE Uniforms will continue to NOT be worn.
  • We will be offering Dramatic Arts this school year in lieu of music, so that our students can resume engagement in meaningful arts-related activities.
  • Tefillah (even in Middle School) will take place in grade-level groupings and with COVID-wise precautions.  [A separate email to Middle School parents with more details is forthcoming.]
  • All assemblies, events, holidays, etc., will be reimagined with any necessary adjustments or virtual components to stay in compliance with guidelines.

How else have you restricted access?

As will be described in greater detail in our soon-to-be revised OJCS Handbook, we have created three different entrances and exits to the school to further separate Junior Kindergarten – Grade 1, Grades 2 – 4 and Grades 5 – 8.  Similarly, we have cohort-specific bathroom access to those groupings.

Last year, I completed an Ottawa Public Health COVID-19 Screening Tool each morning to confirm my child was feeling well.  What is the protocol this year?

We will continue to ask families to access this screening tool EACH and EVERY day: Ottawa Public Health COVID-19 Screening Tool for School or Child Care.  Please be in touch with the school office if the screening tool is indicating that your child should remain at home.

Is there anything special I should be purchasing to best prepare my child for school?

It will be helpful for parents to invest in quality outerwear for each season of the school year, as PE classes will prioritize outdoor activities, and recesses will happen rain or shine (for the most part).  Time outdoors will continue to be prioritized for our students and their wellness.

Also, please try to send your child to school with enough water for them to drink throughout the day (i.e. two bottles of water if needed).  We do have bottle filling water fountains in each designated hallway, however, for health reasons it is best to minimize use as it involves having children touching their bottle tops and then a community fountain.

What kinds of enhanced clearing protocols will be in place throughout the school year?

Working with the Campus, we will have enhanced cleaning both in terms of frequency as well as products.  The Campus will be using a fog sanitizer machine that’s called the Fogger. It can sanitize a classroom in minutes, as well as hallways.  It will be in use during each school day to sanitize outdoor play structures and each evening in every classroom and learning space.  If a child or teacher is sent home due to illness, it will be brought in immediately to that room for a cleaning.  The product is an organic chemical that is safe for humans, animals, plants, etc.

In addition…

  • In accordance with recommendations from Public Health Ontario and Ottawa Public Health, high touch areas will be cleaned and disinfected at least twice daily. This includes door handles, push bars, railings, washroom surfaces, elevator buttons, kitchen surfaces, and light switches.
  • All other spaces will be cleaned and disinfected once per day, including hard floors.
  • In accordance with recommendations from Public Health Ontario and Ottawa Public Health, outdoor play structures will be disinfected during school hours, after each cohort has used the structure.  Protocols for cleaning outdoor play structures during winter months will be determined at a later time, as further research is required as to the safety of doing so in sub-freezing temperatures.
  • Sanitizing machines and stations have been set up in various locations on campus, and will be cleaned and filled as required. All hand sanitizer is alcohol-based.
  • Touchless paper towel dispensers have been installed in many washrooms.
  • All air filtration systems will be cleaned quarterly, and filters will be replaced regularly.

Can my child receive service from outside specialists?

We will continue to limit building access to all visitors due to COVID, as well as a lack of extra space due to our commitment to cohorting.  We will be allowing students who require tutoring with a reading specialist who sees multiple OJCS students in Grades 1-3 to resume service.  However, other specialists and professionals will need to see students outside of the school.  We will not be able, during this phase of reopening, to provide on-site, in-person access to Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, mental health professionals, etc.  We will try on a case-by-case basis to provide a supervised space for tele-therapy or virtual sessions for students in Grades 4-8.

What do I do if my child is having a particularly difficult time emotionally as the result of COVID?

We are here to partner with you in all ways.  Please let us know if there is anything we should be aware of so we can be as supportive as possible.  The grade-level teams will all be paying close attention to our students and their needs.  We also have a School Counsellor, Jennifer Munroe, available to help with student mental health.  We can arrange for a referral if that would be a helpful layer.

Will students be allowed to use lockers / cubbies this year?

Yes, students will be able to have lockers and cubbies this school year.  We will ensure the lockers are cleaned frequently.

What happens if I need to drop-off or pick-up my child from the school at some point throughout the school day?

The office staff will support with drop-off and pick-up from the front entrance, as parents, guests and visitors will not be able to access the building during this phase of reopening.  Additionally, parents coming to pick up sick children or to take children to off-site appointments will be asked to wait outdoors.  Our Office will be prepared to facilitate all these comings and goings via intercom.  For more information about access to the building, please refer to the OJCS Handbook (when it is released).

How will IEP meetings be conducted in the fall?

Our Director of Special Education, Sharon Reichstein, will be in touch with all families of students with IEPs and facilitating IEP meetings via video conference.

Will families need to provide their children with masks and sanitizer?

Yes, please!  We do ask families to equip their children with hand sanitizer to be kept in their desk, and to come with their own masks so that it is the brands they are most comfortable with.  Every classroom is equipped with hand sanitizer and extra masks as well.

Will there be a Before Care and After Care program this year?

Yes, we will be running our usual Before Care program from the school gym from 7:30 AM – 8:30 AM each day.  We will also be offering a Drop-In After Care program, as the JCC has limited space in their full-year program.  More details to come.

Who do I get in touch with if my family develops COVID or has an exposure to COVID?

Please notify both Ottawa Public Health and OJCS immediately should you discover that you have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.  For more information about our COVID health protocols, please refer to the OJCS Handbook.

Is there additional information regarding ventilation in the school?

All HVAC units have been cleaned, serviced and are all working within specifications.  Campus has increased air flow on HVAC units and new MERV 13 filters are on order and will be installed on all HVAC units.  We will continue to prioritize having windows and classroom doors open to increase air circulation.

Will there be COVID-wise fire drills this school year?

Yes, we have developed a fire safety curriculum that balances fire safety requirements with public health guidance to minimize the risk of COVID transmission.  Each class will participate in age-appropriate programming with their teachers and then practice going outside via their designated exit and lining up outside.

Will there be a Photo Day this year?

Yes, on Tuesday, October 19th. We are moving forward with individual student photos and have liaised closely with LifeTouch to ensure COVID protocols will be in place (i.e. using our vast gym space, one class at a time, nothing to hold or touch in photos, etc…).

As always, if you have any questions or concerns with any of the above, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  The revised OJCS Handbook should go live (and be sent out) soon, as will a final staffing update to close the loose ends from the spring.

Enjoy these final weeks of summer!

Summer Listening: DSLTI Gives the Gift of Genuine Reflection

Happy Summer!

I slept in until about 8:00 AM this morning and it felt so luxurious that I almost felt guilty about being such a lazybones.  Such is the life I have chosen for myself…

I am extremely blessed that both my employer and my family have signed off on two pretty significant pursuits that have been occupying what bandwidth I have available once I have put all my energy towards my primary occupation.  The first, beginning my rabbinical school studies, is something that I wrote about a few months ago.  The second, however, is not something that I have shared out yet.  I am extremely proud to have joined the faculty 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 a participant in its fourth cohort when I was just beginning my career.  DSLTI is oriented around intense summer work, with twice-yearly retreats and weekly mentoring to flesh out the full experience.  The first summer of this, the twelfth, cohort just completed its two weeks last Friday and, thus, is the inspiration for this blog post.

For my school, I believe they understand and appreciate how the learning I get from rabbinical school and from DSLTI will directly add value to my work as head of a Jewish day school.  Coming straight out of the first peak experience of DSLTI, I wanted to take an opportunity to make that added value more explicit.

There are (at least) four direct ways that my preparations and work as a DSLTI Mentor will make me a better head of school:

  • Books, books, books, articles, videos, and books!  In order to teach the formal curriculum – which this summer focused on “Mission-Vision-Philosophy”, “School Culture”, “School Teams”, “Leadership Presence” and “Strategic Change Leadership” (of which I had a shared responsibility for teaching the latter two) – one has to be current and so I will always be reading and watching and listening to the newest research and ideas (and be refreshed in the “classics”).
  • So much of how we work with our mentees – the pedagogy we employ in the program – has direct applicability to our work in schools.  I have already fleshed out the first few meetings of our own Educational Leadership Team (ELT) based on the work we did on “Teams” at DSLTI.  I have already programmed a chunk of our Faculty Pre-Planning Week using ice-breakers and texts we used at DSLTI.
  • A lot of what we work on with our mentees comes directly from real-world situations and scenarios.  The more consultancies I have an opportunity to lead or participate in, the more practical and constructive advice I receive about how to navigate experiences that absolutely can and do happen at our school.  It is like having real-time access to expertly crowdsourced expertise.
  • The most important – for me – opportunity that being a mentor in DSLTI provides is that it forces me to listen, to deeply listen.

Man was endowed with two ears and one tongue, that he may listen more than speak.  – Hasdai, Ben HaMelekh veHaNazir, ca. 1230, chapter 26

The work of a mentor is to listen and to ask questions – both clarifying and probing – to help bring a mentee towards a measure of understanding.  It is not to provide the mentee with answers to questions (although that is occasionally appropriate/necessary).  It is also the HARDEST thing on earth for me to do!  The coaching that I am going to receive so that I can be a good mentor is probably the thing that will add the most value to my work as a head of school.  I am going to be forced to slow down, to listen deeply and most importantly to shift out of the headspace of “problem-solver” and into the space of “capacity-builder”.

When our school embraced the “7 Habits” a few years ago, I spoke a little bit about this idea when describing how I thought about “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”.  The difference, I believe, is that in a “7 Habits” context we are focusing on conflict-resolution and community-building.  In the DSLTI/mentor context, we are focusing on capacity-building and leadership development.  The better skilled I can get as mentor will hopefully provide my Admin Team, our ELT, and all our teachers with opportunities for them to grow as educators and as leaders – which is an outcome that can only mean good things for our students and our school.

OJCS Families!  Stay tuned for a brief staffing update as we have largely resolved all outstanding issues!  We look forward to introducing you to the rest of the amazing 2021-2022 OJCS Faculty in the weeks ahead!