Habits of Kindness: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

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

Although I did not purposely get behind in my “7 Habits” blog posts, it does work out nicely to land with this habit during the week of Parent-Teacher Conferences.

A lot of attention was spent before the last round of conferences on the new format for report cards and middle school conferences.  We received a lot of positive feedback on those changes, but as we continue to try to be responsive to parent needs, we are going to try to take it up another level this round.  Here is how we described it to our teachers:

As you finalize parent-teacher conference preparations, we remind you that successful conferences include artifacts, next steps and solutions.  We encourage you to think through the lens of bringing solutions, not just problems, to the table.  For any issue you need to raise with parents about academic progress or behavior, don’t just come with the issue, but with a practical solution to propose.  Parents cannot be partners without clear expectations.  We believe this mindset will go a long way towards having productive conferences and, more importantly, towards greater success in school.

We look forward to facilitating solutions-driven conversations and we will look for feedback to see how well we did.  But all of this is focused on what we are going to bring to the table.  That’s only one part of the conference.  We also have to be ready to listen – to really hear – what you are coming to tell us.  And that’s why this month’s habit is so perfectly timed.

We have been thinking about this at OJCS for quite some time now. Last year, we spent a faculty meeting exploring examples of ineffective and effective communication from a related field to help us prepare:

Which doctor would you prefer?  Which hospital would you entrust your family to?  This led, at the time, to a very productive and ongoing conversation about listening that we hope continues to lead to better and better ways of interacting with parents in our school.

Between our best preparations and our parents’ best intentions, we are looking forward to healthy and productive parent-teacher conferences this week.  We are coming to the table with artifacts, next steps and solutions.  But we are also coming with listening ears and open hearts; we hope that both parent and teacher will use this time to “seek first to understand and then to be understood”.  If we can, (we can!) we ensure that the holy work we do together to educate children will be advanced.

Jewish Day Schools As Incubators of Jewish Leadership

What is “Jewish leadership”?

Does it refer to Jews who serve in leadership roles?  Is it about Jews who lead in accordance with Jewish values?

The first is common; the second is rare.

We’ve been thinking about it a lot at OJCS.   We have come to believe that Jewish day schools can serve as incubators for Jewish leadership because they have the opportunity to encourage and inspire both.

I had the privilege of addressing this topic last Shabbat when I spoke at Congregation Machzikei Hadas and it went well enough that I was encouraged to blog about it this week.

About three, four, years ago I had the opportunity to visit Donna Klein Jewish Academy  in Boca Raton, Florida and I can still recall how each time we entered a new classroom, how a student would automatically pop up, come over, introduce themselves, tell us what was happening in the class, and then offer to answer any questions we may have. Class after class after class.  No prompting from teachers.  I further noted how each teacher had a personal mission statement on the doors of each classroom.  The hallways were labeled in both Hebrew and English with each of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

That was how I was first introduced to the “7 Habits”.  I further learned how CAJE-Miami helped provide training for many of the Jewish day schools in South Florida to receive training in The Leader in Me – which helps schools bring the 7 Habits to life – and provided some Jewish value translation work to ensure they could live throughout the Jewish day school experience.  And, with some stops between then and now, that is how it came to be that OJCS began prototyping its own version of the 7 Habits this year.

I have been blogging about the details of this prototype as we have introduced each new habit (and, yes, I am actually now one behind) and in preparation for last Shabbat I came across an article from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that helped me connect some dots.  “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership” is the title and the symmetry was too good to pass up.  As a first step, I expanded upon a visual already created by CAJE-Miami and I created a visual that integrated Rabbi Sacks’ “Seven Principles” with the “7 Habits” with Jewish values. What I did conversationally, was link each of the “sevens” with Jewish text and real examples of what it looks like in a school or classroom.  In a nutshell, I tried to answer the question of what happens when a Jewish day school moves Jewish leadership from the implicit curriculum to the explicit curriculum.

Here’s a graphic organizer to help you get oriented:

You may note that all of the “sevens” are further divided along Rabbi Hillel’s famous dictum from Pirkei Avot 1:14 (again borrowed from CAJE-Miami) – the first three focus on the individual, the second three on the relationship between the individual and community, and the final on, let’s say “timing”.  So.  How about we explore what this can look like in real life and in real classrooms?

  • #1: For me, the relevant texts are the juxtaposition between the lack of responsibility taken by Adam in the Garden of Eden (the serpent made me do it!) and Cain (Am I my brother’s keeper?) and how Moshe responds when he sees a Hebrew slave being beaten or when he discovers Yitro’s daughters being harassed by shepherds.  In terms of examples, in our school being proactive and taking responsibility lives in both formal structures like Knesset (student government) and informal structures like prototyping.  Two recent examples come to mind.  A member of Knesset pitched us on letting a student co-own the school’s Instagram account to make it more student-friendly. Also, the entire Grade 4 pitched us on allowing them greater access to student blogging:

The prototyping culture we are creating encourages and incentivizes students to take responsibility, to be proactive and in the parlance of our “North Stars” to truly “own their own learning”.

  • #2: Here we look to Sefer D’varim (Book of Deuteronomy) in which during the last month of his life, Moshe sets out a vision and a set of laws to secure it.  When we think at OJCS about the future, about “beginning with the end in mind,” we want our students to learn how to envision a future for themselves and then learn how to communicate and achieve it.  We provide them with opportunities to develop these skills through a variety of student-led experiences with both high and low stakes.  We collaboratively goal-set with each student around academic and behavioral outcomes, for example, as we head down a path that will likely end in student-led conferences (replacing parent-teacher conferences).  We also provide students with opportunities to plan and run clubs such as our “Detective Club” and “Alien Club”.
  • #3: Thinking about “putting first things first” and an overall sense of timing leads me to Rabbi Tarfon who said in Mishnah Avot 2:16, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In the life of school, this resonates with all the ways we are trying to help our students navigate time management and executive functioning.  We now offer a Study Skills Elective each week.  We offer twice-weekly Study Hall.  We are looking at an Executive Functioning Boot Camp model for next year.  We are looking at tools like Google Calendar and Google Keep.  Another way we think about “putting first things first” is building on the success of our Middle School Retreat in helping create a sense of community and shared expectations for our middle schoolers each and every year.
  • #4: This next one is a little dense, but is actually one of my favorite teachings about leadership.   Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a leading theologian and philosopher from the Reform Movement, wrote an article years and years ago in which he asserted that (religious) leadership should model itself on the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum. “Tzimtzum” as described by Isaac Luria is the idea that in order to create the world, God had to contract Godself in order to make room for creation to take place.  In other words, sometimes leadership is about making space for others to lead.  These ideas are embedded in two of our North Stars – “We learn better together” & “We are each responsible one to the other” – and live in the commitment we have made to project-based learning and conflict resolution.
  • #5: The Torah teaches that a king must write his own Sefer Torah which “must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:19).  Leaders learn.  At OJCS, this lives in the North Star of “A floor, but no ceiling,” and in our emphasis on personalized learning.  This year we are prototyping “Genius Hour” projects as just one example of letting students lead with their passion and letting their passion lead to their learning.  In terms of “seeking first to understand and then be understood” we are working with JFS to provide “Kindness Workshops” to our students to help them skill-build towards active listening.
  • #6: Here I am going to quote directly from Rabbi Sacks in his article when he says, “One of Judaism’s greatest insights into leadership: The highest form of leadership is teaching.  Power begets followers.  Teaching creates leaders”.  We provide our students with lots of opportunities to learn through teaching and to learn leadership skills by “owning their learning”.  Whether it is a Grade 6 WE Day project, leading a Rosh Chodesh assembly, designing a Hebrew Escape Room or interviewing residents at Hillel Lodge, our students develop the skills to see projects through, to dream dreams, to speak publicly, and to organize.  These are all the building blocks of leadership.
  • #7: There are no shortage of examples of stressed out and overwhelmed leaders in the Bible.  Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah – just to name a few – all at some point prayed to die rather than carry on as a Jewish leader.  That is certainly an extreme example of the toll leadership can take, but we acknowledge that stress is very real for our students and families.  It is partly why one of our North Stars is “Ruach” – we have intentionally and explicitly named joy and spirit and wellness as a guiding value in our school.  Studying in school (and teaching!) is supposed to be joyful.  We do our best to provide wellness and mindfulness into the school day.  It is why we remain committed to Art, Music and PE as part of a well-rounded experience.  Students deserve to feel successful and joyful and not each student is going to find that in the traditional academic subjects. It is why we have a “Ruach Week” and a Middle School Retreat.  It is also why we are looking at advisory and guidance models.  The emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our students is important for them as human beings, and as future leaders.

We cannot take for granted that what was once true will always be true.  It has been true for generations that the leaders of Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues have come from the ranks of Jewish day schools; and flourished as a result.  If we want that to continue – if we want to secure the Jewish future – our schools will need to work to make what was once implicit, explicit.  Jewish leadership requires Jewish leaders who know how to lead – not just as Jews, but Jewish-ly.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

OJCS Building First School-Based Makerspace in Ottawa! (Wait…what’s a “makerspace”?)

It just got real.  Real exciting.

As we announced last year, thanks to the generosity of the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund, we were going to take on our first major project to make our physical space as innovative as our educational program.  Or rather, we are now able to think about designing spaces that will best allow the unique vision OJCS has for teaching and learning to best come to life.  [With a building as “seasoned” as ours, we don’t lack for options!]  We intend to completely redo our “computer lab” and transform it into a tech-friendly collaborative workspace.  We intend to completely redo our “library” and transform it into a 22nd century media literacy center. Etc.  But we have decided to lead with a makerspace.  Why?  Glad you asked!

Although more and more schools have invested in makerspaces, it is still rare enough that it is okay if you are asking yourself an obvious question: What is a makerspace?

Makerspaces are popping up in schools across the country. Makerspaces provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent as they deeply engage in science, engineering and tinkering.

A makerspace is not solely a science lab, woodshop, computer lab or art room, but it may contain elements found in all of these familiar spaces. Therefore, it must be designed to accommodate a wide range of activities, tools and materials. Diversity and cross-pollination of activities are critical to the design, making and exploration process, and they are what set makerspaces and STEAM labs apart from single-use spaces.

When you think about many of the exciting prototypes in play this year at OJCS – Genius Hour, VR, 21st Century Judaica, Robotics, Blogs, Recreating Biblical Artifacts and QR Codes for Art Projects, just to name a very few – they share one feature in common.  They all require our students (and teachers) to make something.  These are all learning prototypes that include or result in a tangible (including digital or virtual) product. They are also projects that are both cross-curricular and collaborative.  A classroom is not always designed to house learning of this kind.  Our school needs a place where students can come as a class or in teams or on their own to be inspired.  Our school needs a place where teachers can come with students or in their own teams or on their own to be inspired.  Our school needs a learning commons designed as a hub of creativity.  Our school needs an incubator of innovation.  Our school needs a makerspace.

And so the work has begun!  Our first step was to identify a partner to bring our dreams to life.  We interviewed a few architecture firms, but found in our new friends Ryan and Wendy, from Project1 Studio, a partner who brings enthusiasm, creativity and expertise to the work. Our next step, which was this week, was to convene a group of teachers, students and administrators for a “Visioning Session” to allow them to begin to identify the kinds of activities we believe should take place in our new OJCS Makerspace.  What will be the right blend of…

  • movie-making equipment (green screens, sound mixing, movie editing equipment, etc.)
  • robotics,
  • coding,
  • 3D printing,
  • VR,
  • state of the art presentation space (TED Talk-style),
  • woodworking,
  • crafts,
  • science/STEM/STEAM,
  • brainstorming/mental-mapping/collaborating spaces,
  • inspiring/relaxing/creativity-inducing spaces,

…activities, tools and zones to maximize our space and enhance energy and enthusiasm for learning at OJCS.

[Where is this space going to be located, you might be wondering (if you are an OJCS parent)?

We are working with the footprint of our current Science Lab and adjoining offices.  That gives us about a 1,300 square foot space to play with, but it does require that we factor in our current Science needs within the design.]

Once we settle on our priorities, we will move to design.  From design we move to furniture and fixtures and from there we move to construction itself.  Our current schedule has us breaking ground in July and on target for a grand opening on the very first day of the 2019-2020 school year!

It will be our pleasure to share out designs as they come in and it would be our pleasure to show any current or prospective families the spaces we are discussing.  Although we know the building isn’t the most important factor in a quality education, we also know that the right kinds of spaces can have a meaningful impact on the educational experience.  We are proud at OJCS to be creating innovative spaces to match our innovative program.  It is just another example of how OJCS is becoming an educational leader in our community.

And we are still just beginning…

“Caught Being Kind” at OJCS: One Year Later

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote:

If each time the school calls is to inform the parent that their child has misbehaved (or is sick or forgot their lunch), one imagines that when the phone rings and the school’s phone number comes up on the “caller ID”, the parent is not exactly excited to pick up.  But what if just every now and again we are calling to let them know how proud we are of their child?

How often do principals or heads of school get to call parents with good news?

And that was before we had clarified our “North Stars” or launched our “7 Habits“.  It was simply a desire to flip the script.

If each time you were sent to the “principal’s office” was because you were in trouble, you probably wouldn’t want to be hanging out in that part of the building.  And if a principal only spent his or her time with students referred for misbehavior, there would be a significant gap in relationships.

We made a commitment that our teachers would start sending students to us when they do something kind.  That way when the phone rings in the home of an OJCS parent and the school comes up on the “caller ID”, the emotion it triggers is excitement and not dread.

So, how’s it going?

It actually took a bit longer than expected to get going, but it has been slowly building this year.  The above is just from the last few weeks…so…pick up the phone when we call…your child may be next!

The Transparency Files: Why Do We Give Homework?

That’s not rhetorical.  It is an actual, live question that we are finally ready to begin answering here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, as promised.

It is reasonable to conclude that there are various philosophies about what the purpose of homework ought to be and that there is ample research to be found supporting just about all of them.  For our school, however, the conversation comes with a context.  Considering who we are and what we believe to be true about teaching and learning, what ought to be the role of homework here?

What is our current homework policy?

We have a simple 10 minutes that incrementally increases by grade level (outside of reading) formula for estimating the appropriate time it should take a typical student to complete his or her homework.

Part of the impetus for taking this on is that not only does that policy seem not to hold true often enough, it fails to address the whys and whats of homework.  It only speaks to, “how much?”  We can do better.

 

The purpose of an OJCS Homework Policy, once re-imagined, will be to provide guidelines for teachers, provide for consistency through the grades, and to educate parents who have questions about homework.  A school policy regarding homework, along with clear expectations for teachers as to what constitutes good homework, can help to strengthen the benefits of homework for student learning.

This policy will need to address the purposes of homework, amount and frequency, and the responsibilities of teachers, students, parents, and administrators.  The OJCS Homework Policy will be based on research regarding the correlation between homework and student achievement as well as best practices for homework.

Without having had all the conversations we will be having, I do think based on the conversations we have had, that there are philosophical conclusions consistent with who we are that we can put up front that will inform the policy once complete.  The philosophy at the Ottawa Jewish Community School regarding K-8 homework is that it should only be assigned if it is meaningful, purposeful, and appropriate. Homework will serve to deepen student learning and enhance understanding.  Homework should be consistent with the school’s “North Stars” and strive to incorporate creativity, critical thinking, authenticity, and student ownership.

There are also some commonsense practices we believe will help to increase the benefits of homework while minimizing potential problems.

Homework is more effective when:

…..the purpose of the homework assignment is clear.  Students should leave the classroom with a clear understanding of what they are being asked to do and how to do it.

…..it does not discourage and frustrate students.  Students should be familiar with the concepts and material (unless a flipped pedagogy is being employed).

…..it is on a consistent schedule.  It can help busy students and parents remember to do assignments when they are consistent.

…..it is explicitly related to the classwork.

…..it is engaging and creative.

…..it is authentic.

…..feedback is given.  Follow-up is necessary to address any comprehension issues that may arise.

…..it is personalized.

 

This is not to suggest that we are not presently trying to live up to the above in our current practice.  But it is to suggest that our written policy fails to provide teachers, parents or students with sufficient guidance to ensure that all students in all grades are doing appropriate homework – appropriate quality, appropriate content and appropriate length.

As with every other initiative or project we undertake at OJCS, our conversation and conclusions about homework will be done collaboratively and transparently.  We look forward to these conversations, to doing the work, and to sharing it out when done.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results

In the lull between parent-teacher conferences, I spent my time reading and analyzing the results of this year’s CAT*4 testing.  [I strongly encourage you to reread (or read for the first time) my philosophy on test-taking and how we planned on both sharing the tests with parents and utilizing the data in our decision-making.]  We are in the process of providing our teachers with the data they need to better understand their students and to identify which test results fully resemble their children well enough to simply pass on and which results require contextualization in private conversation.

In terms of sharing out the results publicly, which I will happily do, there are a few things worth pointing out:

  • Although we do have prior years, they are not “apples to apples” enough to plot as comparison data.  This is mostly because of our decision to change our testing window and partially because we don’t have enough grades taking the test often enough.  (I have data on spring tests from two and three years ago for grades 3 & 6.)  If that changes, part of this annual analysis will consist of tracking the grades over time to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same class 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.

One final caveat about why share out grade and class averages at all when so much of our focus is on personalized learning and individual growth…

Here, my thinking has been influenced by the work I was doing prior to coming to Ottawa, in my role as Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network and then part of the transition team which helped create Prizmah.  I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with colleagues about the different challenges Jewish day schools often have from their secular private school and high-achieving public (and/or gifted programs and in the States and/or magnet and/or charter) school neighbors.  The biggest difference comes down to a philosophy of admissions.  [Please note that although a primary audience for my blog are OJCS parents, other folk read as well, so I am including references to forms of public education that are commonly found in the States.]

Most Jewish day schools attempt to cast the widest net possible, believing it is our mission to provide a Jewish day school education to all who may wish one.  We do not, often, restrict admission to a subset of the population who score X on an admissions test and we do not, often, adjust birthday cutoffs or recommend grade repeating to maximize academic achievement. However, schools who we are most often compared to in terms of academic achievement often do one or both.  If you then factor in whether or not you exempt special needs students from the testing and whether or not you explicitly teach to the test, you may have quite an uneven playing field to say the least.

To reframe and reset the discussion:

Jewish day schools have an inclusive admissions policy, but are expected to compete equally with elite private and high-achieving public (and gifted and, in the States, magnet and charter and suburban public) schools who have exclusive admissions policies or homogeneous populations.

So, in light of all of that – if a Jewish day school with an inclusive admissions policy, a non-exempted special needs population, and a commitment to “not teach to the test” – if that kind of school could demonstrate that it was achieving secular academic excellence on par with elite schools; well to me that would be news worth sharing.

So with all those caveats in mind, in the spirit of full transparency, and with the attitude that all data is valuable data, allow me to present this year’s results:

The bottom line of this graphic is that each grade in the Ottawa Jewish Community School scored, with a few exceptions, at a mean grade equivalent a full year higher than their current grade.  There are a few (Grade 3 Writing, Grade 3 Spelling, Grade 6 Writing, Grade 6 Spelling and Grade 6 Computation) that are closer to their current grade.  [Part of our ongoing analysis and annual comparison would be to learn more about our current spelling and writing outcomes.  Part of our deeper investigation is whether there is a way to layer on standardized French and possibly Hebrew tests to learn more about those important outcomes.]  There are a lot of grades/topics whose averages are significantly higher than that, but let the boldface sink in for a bit.

Too much time dedicated to Jewish Studies?  Nope – a high-quality Jewish Studies program enhances secular academics.  Too much time dedicated to Skyping or blogging?  Nope – an innovative learning paradigm not only positively impacts student motivation, but leads to higher student achievement.

I can sense the tone of triumphalism in my writing and, although I am extremely proud of our students and teachers for their achievements, I do not wish to sound boastful.  But with the state of Jewish day school education being what it is, when there is good news to share…share it one must!  I firmly believe that Jewish day schools with dual-curricula (and in our case tri-curricula!) and innovative pedagogy and philosophy produce unmatched excellence in secular academics.  Here in our school, we will have to prove it year after year, subject after subject, and student after student in order to live up to our mutually high expectations, but what an exciting challenge it shall be coming to school each day to tackle!

Liveblog of OJCS 2018 Winter PD Day

Sure for some folk it is “Black Friday” or a “day off” – but at OJCS it is our Winter Professional Day and we are excited to spend a day together learning!  We want you to be as excited about what we are learning and what it will mean for our school as we are, so I will once again liveblog the day.

[A liveblog is as it sounds – I am typing live as it is happening.  Which means it will come even more unedited than normal!]

9:00 AM “Speed-Geeking”

We began the day with “Speed-Geeking” – a quick rotation (about 20 minutes a station) where the cohort of teachers working with Silvia Tolisano this year (our “DocuMentors”) have each chosen a tool they have begun learning about and think other teachers would be excited to add to their growing repertoire of innovative pedagogies.

Explain Everything

In this session, they are learning about how to use the “Explain Everything” app to create tutorials, to have students better show their work, etc.  Lots of great conversation about how this might apply in Math classes – not just showing me the answer, but how they got there.  What a great example of documentation not just of learning, but as learning!  Jewish Studies Teachers are brainstorming ways they could use the app to demonstrate ability to retell the narrative of holidays.  I can tell already that a lot of teachers are going to be looking to use this in the class – across subjects and grades.  Twenty minutes goes fast!  On to the next one…

Flipgrid

In this session, teachers are being wowed by what they can do with Flipgrid.   This has become a very hot tool in the education world and we have already begun using it at OJCS (as teachers and with students).  It is a very good tool for shared reflection, a really import skill if one is going to “own their own learning” (north start alert!).  You can also develop virtual “pen pals” through FlipPals – exchanging videos with students from all over the globe.  We definitely do “learn better together” (north start alert!)!  It is always exciting to watch teachers be excited and get excited.  Right now the teachers are using a QR code to take them to two live OJCS Flipgrids being used in Grade 5 – one for our new “Genius Hour” prototype and one to share about books they love. It is another example of how 21st century learning changes the where, when and how of learning.  Students can add new videos anytime and anywhere…and they are!  It is also a great tool for teachers – so we created our own Flipgrid for our teachers to share their ideas with each other and with the world.  Time is flying…

iMovie

Do you know how amazing it is to watch a teacher who was nervous and reluctant to try a tool wind up teaching other teachers about that tool?  I do!  Because I am watching it happen in real time…iMovie isn’t so much the chiddush here, but for teachers to better understand how using video as a tool for documentation of/as/for learning is so critical for developing the artifacts we need to better understand their growth and to better explain that growth for parents.  One issue that has come up is how great video is for helping students for whom writing is a challenge be able to better express all that they are capable of.  [Side note: Watching the cohort begin to use similar language from the work they are doing with Silvia shows you that the learning is beginning to stick.  It was the same from our last PD day when the NoTosh Design Team presented in a similar fashion and began to speak the new language.]  [Side side note: Considering how many years across so many organizations I have worked with Silvia, it is extra special.  I have missed all that Silvia has brought to my last three jobs.  And to me.]  [Super inside side side note: I see you Andrea Hernandez.  We’re not done with you!]

Twitter

What’s the best way to do PD in 2018? Get on Twitter and join the conversation.  Connecting with other schools and communities?  Twitter. Expand our learning networks? Twitter.  Learn from leading international educators?  Twitter. Free, open and a sharing community?  Twitter.  Learning about Twitter from a teacher who just recently joined Twitter and is super-excited about it?  Well that’s OJCS. #TheOJCSDifference indeed!  We are being walked through a tweet, hashtags, replying, etc.  Teachers are seeing how easy it is to use and I have a feeling there will be a few more members of the Twitterverse by the time the morning comes to and end!  We’re almost done…one more to go!

Skype

Skype isn’t just for connecting with grandparents!  (Actually that’s kinda FaceTime these days, but still…) There is so much happening on Skype these days, especially for education. That’s why they call it “Skype in the Classroom“!  Between Mystery Skypes and Skype Virtual Tours and Skype Collaborations and Skype Guest Speakers there is really no end to the where in the world the learning can take you.  As has been true in other sessions, teachers of every age and every subject are beginning to dream what could be true for them.  Kitah Hay can take a virtual tour of a a kibbutz.  Grade One can have a book read to them by a famous author.  Middle School can have a Mystery Skype in Hong Kong.  And I have a feeling they will!

10:30 AM “Strong Connections Through Personalization”

This is probably the most traditional and formal of our sessions today.  Our new Director of Special Needs Sharon Reichstein is leading a session on how by beginning with relationships we can better meet the diverse needs of all our students.  As a school committed to being as inclusive as our resources allow for, and a school committed to moving towards a personalized learning approach for all its students, using one (personalization) to help achieve the other (inclusion) is both natural and super complicated.  Or rather, it might make sense philosophically or in the abstract, but the magic or the artistry is in what happens at 9:15 AM on a Tuesday in a French class with a specific group of children.

It is hard to capture a session like this appropriately and it might be the case that we share out the slides or do a version of this with our parents and community.  After watching a video of students describing what it feels like for them to live with various learning needs, our teachers are engaging in a simulation that shows them what a reading disability feels like.  And it is eye-opening to say the least…

And then a video of students struggling with organizational issues and a simulation…

And then a video of students struggling with attention issues and a simulation…

And then a video of students struggling with math issues and a simulation…

And then a video of students struggling with writing issues and a simulation…

What is important to name is that it isn’t that our teachers are being exposed to anything they don’t already know – at least intellectually. And it isn’t that our teachers don’t already make all kinds of accommodations for all kinds of students – they do.  But a radical dose of empathy is always healthy to swallow.  And I love how our teachers are responding to it…

And I love what it is going to mean for our students…

1:00 PM “The Prototype Protocol Fishbowl”

For our last session this afternoon, we went back to reconnect dots with the “Prototype Protocol” our NoTosh Design Team created to help our teachers understand how to translate the many innovative ideas they come up with into specific prototypes as part of the design-thinking culture we have created here at OJCS.  To help make it real, we created a “fishbowl” and had teachers volunteer to act out the first couple of steps in the protocol which deal with finding a peer to test assumptions.  It was great on two different levels.  It was great to hear more about some of the amazing prototypes that are in varying phases of work.  And it was great for the teachers to see real examples of how to move the work forward.  When you plant seeds, it takes time, water, sunlight and a little luck to bring forth flowers.  At OJCS, there are a lot seeds in the ground..imagine how beautiful it is going to be when they bloom.

 

So that’s it!  Another innovative PD Day has come and gone.  And we even have an hour or left to hit the “Black Friday” sales before Shabbat.  Days like today remind me how lucky I am to work in this field.  Schools like ours remind me how revolutions in education don’t happen in think-tanks or large membership organizations; they happen in schools – big and small, in large cities and small towns. They happen in Jewish day schools.  It is happening here.  And we are just getting started…

The Transparency Files: The OJCS Report Card Prototype

The season is upon us!  We are busily filling out report cards and eagerly preparing for parent-teacher conferences.  We are also continuing to innovate and to prototype, so it should be no surprise that a few changes to both are in store.

Let’s first talk about what will not be different about report cards and then what is different…

As we have discussed, the arc of our journey to reinvent and revitalize our school has begun to take shape.  Last year was about values.  We spent significant time clarifying our value proposition which is now expressed in our North Stars.  As we begin to live those values, we are spending this year focusing on strategy.  The strategies we put in place are designed to help bring us closer to our North Stars – they are how we bring “The OJCS Way” to life.  The “7 Habits Prototype” is a strategy that will help us create a community of kindness, drawing us closer to being a place where “each person is responsible one to the other” and where “we learn better together”.  Increased informal educational experiences like the “Middle School Retreat” are a strategy for infusing our community with “ruach”.  The use of Silvia Tolisano and the “Silvia Cohort” is a strategy.  Etc.

What we have launched our journey with, is time spent on the why and how of learning – what do we believe to be true about teaching and learning and what does that look like in a classroom or a school?  What we have not spent time on – nor will we in this year – is the what we are teaching (with the exceptions of Lower School Jewish Studies, which has a new curriculum and Middle School Jewish Studies, which has new benchmarks).  So the one thing that has not changed in our new report card prototype is the what.  You will find the exact same topics and subjects from last year.

Let’s focus on what is really the only meaningful change, the commentary.

Report cards are not the best place to summarize activities or curriculum.  For as long as we use the ministry standards as a floor for General Studies, we can provide parents with more detail than they would ever need about what we are teaching.  Furthermore, our handbooks, our website and classroom blogs provide parents with all the information about topics and activities they need to stay current.  And even if, with all that, there are some curricular highlights we want parents to have top of mind, we can share them at the Parent-Teacher Conferences.  Report cards, therefore, are a place for providing parents with meaningful feedback about their child’s growth.  We are looking for a “less is more” approach that breaks the commentary into two sections: “Feedback” and “Next Steps”.   This approach is a strategy for ensuring “a floor, but not a ceiling” for our students and to give them an opportunity “to own their own learning”.

Let’s give a few concrete examples:

Rachel has earned an “E” in Grade 2 Jewish Studies.

Feedback:
  • Rachel has excelled in her quizzes, homework and projects this term.  She consistently uses Hebrew in class and shows mastery over Jewish Studies content.
  • Rachel has a particular passion for Tefillah and frequently volunteers to serve as prayer-leader.
  • I’ve noticed that Rachel has some difficulty working in groups – when given the choice, she almost always prefers to work alone.
Next Steps:
  • I would like to see Rachel push herself even more with her conversational Hebrew.  I am going to create a Voicethread account for Rachel so that I can give her a few conversational prompts a week for her to orally respond to.
  • Next term, I am going to assign Rachel a few more complicated prayers that I know she is capable of learning.  
  • We are going to spend time next term skill-building around group learning so that Rachel can benefit from others and others can benefit from her.
 
Michael has earned a 65% in Grade 5 Language Arts.
 
Feedback:
  • Michael was benchmarked at a 4.2 (Grade 4, Two months) reading level on his last reading assessment.  This represents appropriate growth for Michael based on his end of Grade 4 assessment (4.0) and is consistent with his IEP.
  • Michael’s oral expression continues to surpass his written expression, but he is finding success with the voice-to-text accommodation we have made this year per his IEP.
  • I am concerned that based on his homework, quizzes, and tests – even with accommodations – that Michael is not putting in enough time at home to be as successful as he is capable of being.
Next Steps:
  • I would like to see Michael expand his reading repertoire to include more just-right books and more genres (he tends to stay with graphic novels).  This will help him continue to grow as a reader next term.
  • While we continue to make appropriate accommodations, I do want to see Michael take the next steps with his writing, which will focus on writing strong paragraphs, with a topic sentence and supporting sentences.  
  • I would like to work with you and Michael on establishing successful study habits at home so that he has every opportunity to present his best work.
Solomon has earned a 78% in Grade 7 Math.
 
Feedback:
  • Solomon received an 83% on his Unit Test, averages 74% on his quizzes and tests, and dutifully completes homework and participates in class.
  • I’ve noticed that Solomon’s written work doesn’t always reflect his ability to explain math concepts.  I have observed in class that he does not always check and recheck his work before turning in assignments and tests.
  • Solomon is having particular difficulty with multistep word problems.  He has the necessary computational skills, but sometimes cannot unpack word problems into their appropriate steps.
Next Steps:
  • I will encourage Solomon to employ new strategies for checking his work (such as putting a check mark next to each one he has rechecked) to ensure he is putting forth his best effort.
  • I am going to provide Solomon with individualized word problems this term – and will conference with him – to help him build skills.
  • Here is a link to a section of Kahn Academy that I encourage Solomon to visit if he is interested in pushing himself.  I believe Solomon has the ability to be an “A” student if he puts in the time!
Last thing…based on strong feedback we will be emailing report cards to parents on Friday, November 23rd.
The Bonus Middle School Parent-Teacher Conference Prototype

We are also very excited to introduce a new prototype for Middle School Parent-Teacher Conferences that we think will go a long way towards ensuring that these important conversations are aligned with our “North Stars”.  This new format will provide parents with meaningful and actionable feedback, and provide us with the same in terms of inviting valuable feedback from parents – all in the service of helping our students “own their learning” and that there be “a floor, but not a ceiling” for each student.

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

We are very excited about this change and the kinds of conversations we believe it will yield.  Please know that our parents are always welcome to schedule meetings with any and all of our teachers – before or after parent-teacher conferences.  If you have additional questions or concerns, you are encouraged to let us know!

This Is (Not) A Test: OJCS (Doesn’t) Prep For CAT-4

From October 29th-31st, students at the Ottawa Jewish Community School in Grades 3,  6 and 8 will be writing the Fourth Edition of the Canadian Achievement Tests (CAT- 4).  The purpose of this test is to inform instruction and programming for the 2018-2019 school year, and to measure our students’ achievement growth over time.

Seems pretty non-controversial, eh?

These days, however, the topic of “standardized testing” has become a hot topic.  So with our testing window ready to open next week, this feels like a good time to step back and clarify why we take this test and how we intend to use and share the results.  But first, two things that are new this year:

  • We moved our test window from the spring to the fall to align ourselves with other private schools in our community.  This will be helpful for comparison data.  (This is also why we didn’t take them last year.)
  • We have expanded the number of grades taking the test.  We have not yet decided whether that number will expand again in future years.

What exactly is the value of standardized testing and how do we use the information it yields?

It sounds like such a simple question…

My starting point on this issue, like many others, is that all data is good data.  There cannot possibly be any harm in knowing all that there is to know.  It is merely a question of how to best use that data to achieve the fundamental task at hand – to lovingly move a child to reach his or her maximum potential.  [North Star Alert!  “We have a floor, but not a ceiling.”]  To the degree that the data is useful for accomplishing this goal is the degree to which the data is useful at all.

Standardized tests in schools that do not explicitly teach to the test nor use curriculum specifically created to succeed on the tests – like ours – are very valuable snapshots.  Allow me to be overly didactic and emphasize each word: They are valuable – they are; they really do mean something.  And they are snapshots – they are not the entire picture, not by a long shot, of either the child or the school.  Only when contextualized in this way can we avoid the unnecessary anxiety that often bubbles up when results roll in.

Like any snapshot, the standardized test ought to resemble its object. The teacher and the parent should see the results and say to themselves, “Yup, that’s him.”  It is my experience that this is the case more often than not.  Occasionally, however, the snapshot is less clear.  Every now and again, the teacher and/or the parent – who have been in healthy and frequent communication all the year long – both look at the snapshot and say to themselves, “Who is this kid?”

When that happens and when there is plenty of other rich data – report cards, prior years’ tests, portfolios, assessments, etc. and/or teacher’s notes from the testing which reveal anxiety, sleepiness, etc. – it is okay to decide that someone put their thumb on the camera that day (or that part of the test) and discard the snapshot altogether.

Okay, you might say, but besides either telling us what we already know or deciding that it isn’t telling us anything meaningful, what can we learn?

Good question!

Here is what I expect to learn from standardized testing in our school over time if our benchmarks and standards are in alignment with the test we have chosen to take:

Individual Students:

Do we see any trends worth noting?  If the overall scores go statistically significantly down in each area test after test that would definitely be an indication that something is amiss (especially if it correlates to grades).  If a specific section goes statistically significantly down test after test, that would be an important sign to pay attention to as well.  Is there a dramatic and unexpected change in any section or overall in this year’s test?

The answers to all of the above would require conversation with teachers, references to prior tests and a thorough investigation of the rest of the data to determine if we have, indeed, discovered something worth knowing and acting upon.

This is why we will be scheduling individual meetings with parents in our school to personally discuss and unpack any test result that comes back with statistically significant changes (either positive or negative) from prior years’ testing or from current assessments.

Additionally, the results themselves are not exactly customer friendly.  There are a lot of numbers and statistics to digest, “stanines” and “percentiles” and whatnot.  It is not easy to read and interpret the results without someone who understands them guiding you.  As the educators, we feel it is our responsibility to be those guides.

Individual Classes:

Needless to say, if an entire class’ scores took a dramatic turn from one test to the next it would be worth paying attention to – especially if history keeps repeating.  To be clear, I do not mean the CLASS AVERAGE.  I do not particularly care how the “class” performs on a standardized test qua “class”.  [Yes, I said “qua” – sometimes I cannot help myself.]  What I mean is, should it be the case that each year in a particular class each student‘s scores go up or down in a statistically significant way – that would be meaningful to know. Because the only metric we concern ourselves with is an individual student’s growth over time – not how s/he compares with the “class”.

That’s what it means to cast a wide net (admissions) while having floors, but no ceilings (education).

School:

If we were to discover that as a school we consistently perform excellently or poorly in any number of subjects, it would present an opportunity to examine our benchmarks, our pedagogy, and our choice in curriculum.  If, for example, as a Lower School we do not score well in Spelling historically, it would force us to consider whether or not we have established the right benchmarks for Spelling, whether or not we teach Spelling appropriately, and/or whether or not we are using the right Spelling curriculum.

Or…if we think that utilizing an innovative learning paradigm is best for teaching and learning then we should, in time, be able to provide evidence from testing that in fact it is.  (It is!)

We eagerly anticipate the results to come and to making full use of them to help each student and teacher continue to grow and improve. We look forward to fruitful conversations.

That’s what it means to be a learning organization.

Let’s Talk About Blogs: The OJCS Blogosphere Town Hall

Early in the year, I blogged about coming attractions and shared that…

With the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, and due to significant and overwhelming feedback from parents, teachers, and students, the OJCS is transitioning away from Google Classroom and launching school-wide class blogs.   Our new blogging platform will make it a whole lot easier for parents and students to know what is happening in their classes and for teachers and students to share pictures, videos, examples and reflections of the incredible work they are doing.

We learn better together” is one our North Stars;  school blogs will help us expand the concentric circles of “we” to amplify and share the learning.

We held a “Town Hall” on October 3rd (delayed once due to the tornado) in which we laid out our big picture vision for moving towards a blogging platform and to take a tour of the “OJCS Blogosphere”.  So.  Now that we have made it through the Jewish holidays, essentially restarted school and have finished our first (!) five-day week, it seems like a good time to check in to see how this whole blogging prototype is going.

The first thing that is important is to know that the OJCS Blogosphere exists!  There are Lower School Blogs for each class K -5, a Middle School landing page with a calendar of major projects/tests, individual Middle School Teacher Blogs (Math, Language Arts, etc.), School Activities and Special Interest Blogs and Leadership Blogs. You will find increasing and increasingly exciting content on them all. You may also find navigating the blogosphere new, confusing, or frustrating, depending on what you are looking for, how easy it is to find (or not) or whether it is there (yet) at all.

The use of “prototype” to describe our launch of blogs is intentional. It is to remind us that we are trying something new, seeking feedback, and making changes as we go.  We are learning what works and what doesn’t.  We are also learning what works as a vehicle for education and what works as a vehicle for communication. Recognizing there is no one platform that does everything we want in terms of both education and communication, we are working to fill the gaps.  We have appreciated your comments and your suggestions and are meaningfully considering them as we go.  For now, however, I thought it might be easier to frame where we currently are as a hypothetical FAQ built on real email questions we have received thus far:

What are the minimum expectations of what is supposed to be where?  Is everything on the blogs or do I need monitor email, the website, The Hadashot, etc?  

We are in the beginning of a major shift, but the consistency is not yet there.  Each teacher/grade-level team was given a rubric for their blogs with the minimum “must-haves” and they include homework, class events, quizzes, and major projects.  There are some distinctions between Lower School and Middle School – the Middle School Calendar we created on the homepage for Middle School is intended for major tests/projects (only) for example, but where we are headed is a place where the blogs become the primary (only) source for information.

It is a major transition in two ways.

The first is for students.  As they get older and take on greater executive functioning, learning to manage their workloads, where to find homework, etc., transitions from teacher/parent to teacher/student(/parent).  There will likely become a point where providing physical agenda books becomes obsolete (with exceptions of course). We are learning as a faculty how to function this way and learning how to help students make the transition.

The second is for parents. With a new website (finally!) going live this week, we can finally reorient our entire communication system.  If we treat the website as a blog (for school-wide and/or community-wide communication), then we can start using our Hadashot and all school social media to direct people to the right blog to find the rest of the story.  A picture, a headline, and a link should suffice to get people where they need to be.

What do I do if I have children in multiple grades?  Do I have to go into each blog and find each relevant thing?

Depending on what you are interested in, you can subscribe (there is a box on each page) to as many blogs as you wish (at which point you will receive an email when each subscribed blog has a new post) or use the social media (email and Constant Contact included) of your choice as a cue to click on what you are interested in.  We would highly suggest that you subscribe (at a minimum) to your children’s primary blog(s).  [We would love if you subscribed to all the blogs, but that depends on how much email you would like to receive.]  It is kind of like the difference between subscribing to my blog or waiting for me to use Facebook/Twitter to share the headline of this week’s post and choosing whether you want to click or not.  Of course the school can’t use email or social media to prompt you for everything.  You will need to rely on your discretion and your children as well.  There is also a piece of this which is about where your children need to go to find what they want/need and where you need to go.  Depending on your child (and you) those could be different things.  Having lived through this in other schools, I can assure you that you will eventually (sooner than you think!) adapt and adjust.

Did this help answer some of your questions or concerns?  If you have additional ones, I encourage you to comment on this blog post or email/call/drop in.  I will happily answer your questions and happily share out in future posts additional FAQs.

 

How will we know if a move to the blogosphere is right for OJCS?  The same way we (now) measure any significant initiative – do they bring us closer to our North Stars?  Does utilizing blogs help us…

…own our learning?

…learn better together?

…inspire Jewish journeys?

…provide a floor, but not a ceiling?

…experience ruach?

…be more responsible each to the other?

I would argue emphatically that it does.  But don’t take my word for it. Go see it for yourself!   The future is here and it is open, collaborative, reflective, transparent, personalized, transformative and limitless. Students coming out of OJCS will not only be prepared to participate in this world, they will be prepared to thrive and to lead.