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.

The OJCS Announces $165,000 Professional Growth Gift

In our first faculty meeting this week, members of our NoTosh DesignTeam share our “Prototype Process” with the rest of the faculty.

This is not a flashback to a flashback! We are not reminding you of the $72,000 Innovation Grant we received from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CBSO) Legacy Fund to help fund some of the physical spaces we’ll need to continue to bring our innovative vision to life.  We are also not reminding you of the $50,000 Innovation Grant we received around this time last year from an anonymous family which helped fund the transformational work we recently finished with NoTosh (which lives on this year in the many powerful prototypes presently being prepared for pitches to bring teaching and learning at OJCS into greater alignment with our “North Stars”), the opportunity to double our iPads available in the school, the exciting shift towards providing teachers with Chromebooks so they can collaborate more effectively and model what learning looks like, and beginning just this week, our work with this year’s consultant, who happens to be my friend and former colleague Silvia Tolisano, whose new book the cohort of teachers working with Silvia have begun to read.

Silvia Tolisano beginning her work with a new cohort of teachers – and the full faculty – as we examine what learning is, where to find it, how to document it and learning to learn.

[I will have a lot more to discuss about Silvia’s work next week as it ties into the launch of our OJCS Blogosphere…]

No, this post is yet another example of how the work we are doing at the Ottawa Jewish Community School is not only transforming teaching and learning in our classrooms, but transforming the role of the school in our larger Jewish and educational communities.  The ripple effect of this work is not only inspiring current and prospective parents, but current and prospective donors.  We noticed this back in June when we observed:

Success begets success.  Numbers beget numbers.  A school in motion will stay in motion.  The narrative of decline is behind us; the narrative of rebirth, revitalization and rejuvenation has begun.  You can measure it objectively through numbers – attrition down, enrollment up, survey data trends, fundraising dollars, etc.  You can also measure it subjectively – feelings in the walls, word on the street, buzz in the community, etc.  You can measure it however you like.  The outcome is the same. The OJCS is laying the ground to become the innovative leader in education in our community.

And wow has that been true!

With over 170 students and our largest Kindergarten class (28) in years, and all the other optimistic indicators I wrote about at the very beginning of the year, we are off and running.  So what is going to keep us running to meet and surpass all our ambitious goals?

A school is only as great as its teachers, and its teachers can only excel if they are given opportunities to engage in meaningful, sustained, personalized, professional growth.  Twenty years of educational research shows that an investment in teachers is a (if not the) key lever in determining excellence and is among the few variables a school can completely control.

We know it is true

Part of our recent success can be attributed to how we have raised the bar of expectations for our teachers while providing them with coaching, resources and support they need to reach new heights.  In the course of a single year, even our veteran teachers have found renewed commitment to lifelong learning and our new teachers are brimming with ideas. What unites them in bringing our mission to life is a comprehensive commitment to professional learning.

Customized professional development

At OJCS, we believe what is good for our students is also good for our teachers.  In the same way we recognize that students are individuals with their own learning styles and motivations, we acknowledge that our teachers can also benefit from a similar action plan.  There are no “one-size-fit-all” approaches for meaningful growth. That is why, though still in its nascent stages, our goal is that each teacher has a well-developed individual Professional Growth Plan, developed in partnership with the administration and consisting of clear deliverables for mutual success.  These plans then allow the administration to understand common needs and determine what outside resources should be made available to our faculty.

Professional growth at OJCS is achieved through a blended and customized approach with various elements, from participation in conferences, to purchasing individual books and learning tools.

Importance of expert consultants

We have already discussed the impact of NoTosh and the beginnings of the work of Silvia.  In addition to those large initiatives, we have also begun smaller initiatives :

  • Teachers visit other schools
  • Teachers are assisted in achieving new degrees
  • New books are being purchased for our faculty library
  • Webinar access is being purchased for teacher training

Building a brighter future

Thanks to the generosity of one amazing family and the ongoing participation of our partners at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, this new gift of $165,000 over the next five years, the work will continue with customized development (e.g. webinars, conferences, site visits, etc.), and the best practices learned from the consultants will be implemented.  These are likely to include curriculum mapping and enhanced mentoring/coaching. Examples include: providing opportunities for Jewish and French Teachers to further develop their skills as teachers of second (and third) languages; and connecting teachers of Jewish Text to coaches through Prizmah.

For a school of our current and future size, an enhanced and sustained focus on professional development is required as a primary lever for future success.  This extraordinary gift will ensure that the OJCS Faculty has access to the latest research, current trends, coaching, conferences and materials necessary to provide the Jewish children of Ottawa with an innovative, world-class education and help secure the future of our Jewish community.

And, as we say…that’s #TheOJCSDifference

Not Another Article About Jewish Camping & Jewish Day School

This is typically the time of year when we wax philosophic about Jewish camping and lament that Jewish day schools can’t seem to capture the efficacy, niche, demand and profitability of our educational first cousins.

This is not that article.

(I did my version of that article a few years ago.)

This is not a knock on Jewish camping.

My personal story and Jewish journey are inextricably linked to Jewish camping.  But having just had occasion to visit many of our OJCS students at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa Summer Camp and to visit my own wife and children at Camp Ramah Darom, and being reminded of just how powerful those experiences can be, I want to name a few challenges that Jewish camping presents for families and for the Jewish day schools who enthusiastically support them.

I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges in Jewish education is identifying the vehicles of transferability from powerful experiences to meaningful Jewish choices.  And although I am partial to Jewish camping and Jewish day school as the two most likely candidates to produce said experiences, I have participated in amazing supplemental school classes, transformative youth group retreats and excellent adult education seminars.  There are opportunities abundant in Jewish education for creating connections – connections between people, connections to history and ideas, and connections to God.  However, the difficulty lies in linking those experiences to an ongoing engagement with Judaism between and after the power of those peak experiences fade.

Let’s look at a stereotypical peak Jewish camping experience.

Havdalah is a transcendent highlight for children (and teens and adults) attending Jewish summer camps.  It is amongst the most powerful events that take place at camp and for many Jewish children it takes place exclusively during the summer.  The same is true for daily/weekly prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut (of some form or another) observance, etc.  For many Jewish children (and teens and adults) these rituals only exist during the summer months when they are not only viewed as normative, but as ultimate.   Likewise, for many day school kids, kashrut, blessings, prayer, speaking in Hebrew, study of Jewish text, etc. – these activities are imbued with meaning and purpose within the confines of the school walls, but for many they end with the closing school bell.  The power in camp and day school experiences lie in their ability to make normative [or even better “cool” – which camp particularly excels at] Jewish rituals and practices that are anything, but normative in children’s family, synagogue and Jewish communal lives.

Havdalah with your parents at home on a Saturday night while your friends are waiting for you to meet them at the movies cannot hold a candle (even a braided one) to havdalah under the twinkling stars in a redwood retreat, arm-in-arm with your newfound closest friends and a guitar strumming away.  The day school student who cannot use his/her Hebrew outside of school with friends and family will only find it so meaningful for so long.  It is difficult to replicate a magical sukkah experience at a home without one.  Etc.  The potential dissonance between what is lived in Jewish educational settings and what is lived in the family is well-known and is as difficult to breach now as it has been for the last half-century or more.

Jewish schools are on the front lines of this conversation.  Although there is a meaningful percentage of families whose primary concerns are Jewish Studies, there many families enrolled in our school because they are looking for a variety of things, a topnotch secular education being at the top of the list.  The fact that it also comes with a high-quality Jewish Studies program and is housed in a Jewish setting emphasizing Jewish values can mean anything from “also important” to “nice” depending on the family.  Even in the Jewish educational setting where families are arguably the most invested, we still struggle to find the motivation and vehicle for transference.

What can we do?

In our school, where we have explicitly named “We are always on inspiring Jewish journeys,” as one of our “North Stars” it begins with admissions and carries through to graduation.  During initial family interviews, we are candid with parents about our school’s agenda for the inculcation of Jewish ritual and practice.  It is really no different than the agenda we have for the inculcation of any other facet of our program.  We want our children to go home from school excited about everything they are learning and seeking to find meaningful ways of incorporating lessons learned into lives lived.  Unlike math or reading, however, we need to be willing to reach into families’ lives to provide encouragement and education to bring the Jewish Studies curriculum to life.  Nurturing the relationships that allow that process to occur is, perhaps, the most important, fulfilling, and sacred aspect of our work.

Finding the way to sow the seeds for Jewish journeys is the secret sauce that can connect the dots from summer’s peak Jewish experiences to the school-year’s rich and rigorous Jewish education to families’ Jewish lives, enriching and enhancing each in turn.  As we prepare in the weeks ahead to welcome our children home from camp and to welcome them back to school, let’s work together to help our children appreciate that being actively engaged Jewishly is a year-round and lifelong endeavour.

Pre-Pre-Planning for 2018-2019

Happy summer!  This is a peek at what the building looks like without students, parents, and most of our teachers.  We are very excited about what it is going to look like by the time y’all come back in September. But that is another story for another blog post…

While we hope our students are enjoying the beginning of their summers, we at the school are enjoying the beginning of our plans to make 2018-2019 our best school year yet.  And to kick it off, I wanted to share a little of what we did together on your first two days of summer vacation.  After spending a day cleaning out rooms and wrapping up 2017-2018 with an amazing Staff Party, we officially opened the 2018-2019 school year with two days of what we call “Pre-Pre-Planning”. Let’s take a peek at what we did.

Thursday, June 28

9:00 AM – Welcome Activities

We opened our time together with a fun mixer and ended with our co-constructing an official OJCS Faculty Summer Playlist: “Looking to find your teacher groove this summer?  Here are some tunes to inspire reflection, relaxation, rejuvination as you celebrate a well-deserved summer break and begin dreaming next year’s dreams. Brought to you by the 2018-2019 OJCS Faculty…”  Listen along with us this summer!

9:30 AM  – Steeping in our Values: North Stars  

Having ended the year with greater clarity around our value proposition and having shared out our “North Stars” we can take a breath and prepare to begin to live our values.  So with our friends from NoTosh we spent some together thinking through important questions: What are they?  What do they mean to you?  How might they guide decision making now and in the future?  What aspects of current practice will we start, stop or keep doing?

We ended the session with our teachers making “mud maps” – three-dimensional visual representations of how they can connect their practice to the stars and how to connect the stars to each other. This was a chance for the full faculty to do an activity that we did as a design team.  We used data from the earlier conversation and a selection of toys to represent connects, insights, problems, questions.  A lot of creative ideas were generated which will surely translate to prototypes for the fall.

11:00 AM – The OJCS Book Club

Each member of the faculty will choose (at least) ONE book from the list to read this summer that will contribute to professional growth.  We will each bring ONE artifact from that learning (a blog, a PowerPoint, a video, etc.) that describes how it will impact our practice next year to be used in a pre-planning activity when we resume in August.  Want to read along with us?

1:00 PM – Chromebooks, Desktops, & SMART Boards (Oh My)!

We look forward to welcoming our teachers to the 21st century next year when we are able issue faculty laptops to all our teachers!  Our ability to work more efficiently and collaboratively will have tremendous impact on teaching and learning next year.  Next conversation?  What kinds of devices should the school expect students to have and what kinds of devices should the school be providing to students?  Stay tuned.

2:00 PM – Spiritual Check-In

It is always important for us to engage in torah lishmah as a faculty and Rabbi Finkelstein led us on an engaging and meaty text study to round out a great first day together.

Friday, June 29th 

9:00 AM – The Prototype Feedback Loop 

A number of our teachers ran mini-prototypes during the last months of school.  We took some time together for those teachers to share more broadly with the full faculty what happened and to solicit feedback.  It was very important to signal that no matter where they were at by this time, that taking the lead and sharing their successes and failures is crucial for the school to demonstrate that the values that have been established will continue to be our north stars for years to come.  We were inspired by just how much got accomplished in such a short time and how much is to come in 2018-2019.

2:30 PM – Lower School Team & Middle School Team Meetings

We ended our days together by meeting in these groupings.  It may not seem significant, but our ability next year to meet in these groupings regularly is going to make a huge difference in terms of overall behavior management and social engineering, coordination of homework/tests/projects, and improving the quality of communication.

All in all it was a wonderful two days and we left inspired about what is to come…

What have we been up to since then?  All the fun stuff we can’t do when we are busy enjoying students, parents and teachers!  Working on the building, working on curriculum, revising handbooks, revisiting procedures, working on the WEBSITE, investigating new virtual platforms, growing ourselves, and, of course, taking some time to rest and relax as we, too, need to recharge our batteries.

Four quick updates to close:

  • We are very close to being finished with hiring for next year!  So instead of doing it piecemeal, we will wait until it is complete and then look forward to sharing out the good news of who is joining our team next year.
  • We apologize for any confusion or frustration at not having our report cards ready to go by the last day of school.  I won’t go into an explanation or offer excuses.  They have now all gone out and we will ensure that this does not happen again in future years.
  • Returning and new families can look forward to a July mailing that will include all the important dates and information needed to ease back to school in September.
  • I am looking forward to seeing many of your children when I go up to Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB) next week.  I am prototyping an “OJCS @ CBB” experience to show a little love for our students and to build a stronger bridge between our community’s school and our community’s camp.  Look for pictures on social media!

The OJCS Announces $72,000 Innovation Gift

This is not a flashback!  We are not reminding you of the “innovation gift” we previously received.  Nope.  This is to let you know that we are beyond excited to share with you that the Ottawa Jewish Community School has just received a $72,000 grant (over two years) from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CBSO) Legacy Fund to help ensure that the innovation work begun this year will only be the foundation upon which the continued work of innovation will build in the years to come.  We are grateful to the CBSO Legacy Fund for the opportunity to apply and even more grateful to be amongst the worthy recipients of their philanthropy.

Success begets success.  Numbers beget numbers.  A school in motion will stay in motion.  This is what having a great year feels like.  And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer 69 year-old Jewish day school in Ottawa…I am genuinely so happy for the teachers, parents, volunteers, board, donors, supporters and the community at large to have had this year happen as it happened.  The narrative of decline is behind us; the narrative of rebirth, revitalization and rejuvenation has begun.  You can measure it objectively through numbers – attrition down, enrollment up, survey data trends, fundraising dollars, etc.  You can also measure it subjectively – feelings in the walls, word on the street, buzz in the community, etc.  You can measure it however you like.  The outcome is the same.  The OJCS is laying the ground to become the innovative leader in education in our community.

What’s next up on our innovation agenda?

We have described and shared out the first phase of work with NoTosh. We will have a little more time with our NoTosh friends to bridge the gap into the next year to ensure that the culture of prototyping and design thinking takes hold and to set us up to steep in our core values (our “North Stars”).

Our second iPad cart is up and running.

We described the work we would be doing with my friend and former colleague Silvia Tolisano beginning in October, whose new book some of us (including me!) will be reading this summer.

We will be providing Chromebooks for all our faculty next year, with all the training and support they will need.  This will be a huge step forward in terms of our ability to work and function as a complex organization.

We will be launching a new website.

We will be exploring new platforms for teaching and learning, sharing, blogging, etc., which may come to replace Google Classroom.

We will be thinking about what kinds of technologies we want our students to have and to use in the years to come.

We will launch new seminars on digital citizenship, cyberbullying, digital footprints, online identity, etc., etc., that will help our children live healthy and safe online lives aligned with our Jewish values.

What kinds of spaces will we need to do all this innovative work?

  • Transform our “Computer Lab” into an “Internet Café”

Our current “Computer Lab” is filled with obsolete computers and even more obsolete outlets, cords and wires.  We need to empty the space altogether and replace it with a state-of-art presentation space, flexible furniture, hi-speed wifi, and space to park an iPad cart, laptop cart and other technology for students and teachers to use as needed.

  • Transform our “Library” into a “Media Literacy Center”

Our current “Library” consists of an old collection with even older furniture and technology.  We need to upgrade to new library software so that it is searchable and useable by both teachers and families.  We need to upgrade the collection.  We need appropriate library furniture with an appropriate presentation space and technology section for conducting research in the 21st century.  [Money raised from Grandparents’ Day is helping this begin to become true!]

Students own the learning at OJCS and that requires a space to make!  We are ready to transition into an appropriate OJCS Makerspace that blends new technology (projection space, laptop, audio equipment, etc.,) with old (tools, crafts, etc.).

 

To which of the above will the blessing of this $72,000 grant go?  We haven’t decided yet (and the CBSO Legacy Fund has given us the flexibility to decide).  We have other donors ready to give and even more we need to inspire.  [If you would like to be counted amongst those who might be ready or willing to be inspired, don’t be shy!]  I look forward to more blog posts highlighting more gifts leading to more innovation.  Success begets success.  Numbers beget numbers. Innovation begets innovation.

This is a school in motion that intends to stay in motion.

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

After making transparent the results of my own evaluation by both myself and my faculty, it is time to turn to our other annual survey: the Annual Parent Survey.

For comparison sake, please know that I do have results from the former version of the survey and will do my best to highlight any trends I see, as well as indicate anything of import in this year’s survey.

It is hard to get an exact read on turn out because we changed from one survey per family to one survey per child.  We do know that 81 students are represented in this survey, which is just a bit over half.  We will use that baseline moving forward and hope to get closer to 70-80%.  Why do some families choose not to provide feedback (in this forum)? Families could be thrilled with what’s going on! (I’d love to vote for that one!)  Families could be resigned that the results are not taken seriously enough to invest the time in.  Hopefully, when people begin to see more links between the feedback they provide and meaningful improvement in the school it will inspire a greater rate of return.  In the meanwhile, even if validity is somewhat challenged, we operate here with a spirit of curiosity and believe we can learn from whatever there is to learn…so…let’s move on to the results.

From my experience, it looks mostly how you would expect.  There does tend to be diminishing enthusiasm for surveys as the students move on, but great job Grade 6 parents!

I wasn’t sure whether to include this data point as I didn’t want to be biased by it – all the feedback is meaningful.  That is why we conduct exit interviews with each family who chooses to leave OJCS prior to graduation – we are genuinely interested in their feedback.  I could have conducted an analysis where I separated the feedback between these three categories, but I have chosen to look at the results as a whole so as not to dismiss any piece of feedback because a family may or may not be continuing.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

Is that good?  I don’t have the exact same question from prior surveys to give you comparison data.  I can tell you from having used this survey in other locations, that scores between 7-9 tend to be healthy, and you look at scores below 7 as something you need to pay close attention to (and are thrilled if you ever get a 9 or higher).  So landing at 7.13 is technically within a healthy range, but is lower than I would like it.  I will definitely be looking to see this creep up in future years. Let’s dig deeper…

These next sections will require a little artful cutting-and-pasting from SurveyMonkey, so I apologize if it doesn’t “look” as professional as I would prefer…the data is still the data.

[Please note that the data is being sliced and diced according to my technical skill, not because there is any particular meaning to the groupings.]

The most important data point here is that our mark for offering a high-quality education is within the healthy range, 7.17.  Like above, please know that all our just-barely-above-7 scores are lower than I would prefer and clearly have room to grow.

What jumps out are the ones that fall below 7:

  • There is link between “learning styles” and “individualized attention” that really get to the heart of the school we are hoping to become.  Our premise of being a school that promises a “floor, but not a ceiling” lives here.  I will be surprised if those numbers don’t start to climb as soon as next survey.
  • There is also a link between “homework” and “study habits” that we need to pay attention to as well.  As we get more clear about what we believe teaching and learning should look like in school, we will also need to have an important conversation about what we think it should look like at home.

It is really important to name that not having comparison data makes it hard to identify trends.  So I see these numbers as pretty upsetting – and they are – but I don’t know if they reflect progress.

  • Preparing children for high school is our number one responsibility; less than a 7 is not going to cut it.
  • I’m not pleased with the score for “21st century technology” as it seems to be a step down from last year’s results (at least when compared to a question about “technology”), but as this is my area of expertise, I do feel confident that these numbers will climb next year.
  • Considering how hard we try to accept and accommodate children with exceptionalities, it is genuinely disheartening to see these numbers so low.  I think if we are being honest, the shakeup of the administrative team from last year to this has hurt our school.  We went from having a full-time, qualified special needs professional to divvying up responsibilities across multiple people and it left us a bit shorthanded. This will be addressed next year.  We also need to provide more training to our faculty on how to make accommodations.  We have a strategic goal to be even more inclusive in the years ahead…but we need to make sure we are meeting the needs of the students we presently have.

No huge bombshells here and pretty healthy in the core academic areas.

  • We are hopeful that the changes we proposed for French (which will be finalized and shared out in our final “Town Hall” – see below) will help the French numbers climb.
  • We believe that centralizing the teaching of Art, Music and PE to instructors who are both qualified and focused on their speciality will enhance the quality of all three in the year ahead.  These have been perennial concerns.

  • With regard to Jewish Studies, we know that there is work to do both in terms of academics and experiences.  I fully expect that the changes we proposed for Jewish Studies – emphasis on Hebrew fluency, reinstitution of structured tefillah, etc. – will lead to higher scores in the year to come.  As a point of reference, this year’s scores are slightly higher than the prior one, which is encouraging.
  • More field trips, more consistency with hot lunch, and providing feedback to the JCC about their after school programming are absolutely necessary.

You’ve heard me talk about myself enough by now…

  • I will pass the kudos on to our hardworking security team.
  • I think we are pleased, but nowhere near satisfied, with the score about student behavior.  We believe we have made meaningful progress this year, but are not quite where we would like to be.

Last data point:

Remember this question is only scaled 1-5!  So I am actually pretty pleased to see a 4.14, but like everything else in this survey, we will be looking to see growth in the years ahead.

So there you have it for 2017-2018!

Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys. In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses.  They added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  But please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern as we use this data to make enhancements and improvements headed into next year. By the by, we are pleased with how well satisfied our parents are with how the school is going…but be assured, just like with everything else, we expect to see growth and progress in a school where there is “a floor, but no ceiling”.

Want a sneak-peek on how we are going to get there?