Philanthropy is a Learned Behavior: Introducing the OJCS Maccabiah Games

At the Ottawa Jewish Community School, we believe that philanthropy is a learned behavior.  Each month as part of our Rosh Chodesh assemblies, we introduce the object of the upcoming month’s philanthropy.  That usually comes with at least one class taking a specific action, as well as the loonies and toonies we collect for that month’s “dress down day”.  Ideally, of course, our students would choose to bring tzedakah to support these charities out of an intrinsic motivation.  But it isn’t uncommon to use extrinsic rewards with children to encourage behaviors you hope get replaced by intrinsic motivation as they develop and mature.  In the same way that we would hope students would choose to participate in the Reading Challenge without competing for a reward, we know that for some students the reward encourages positive behavior.

This month, as we reinvent and reintroduce both our “Color War” and our “Walk/Run” into the new “OJCS Maccabiah Games,” our students have essentially chosen the school as the object of this month’s philanthropy.  Yes, we are for sure encouraging more active philanthropy than simply bringing a loonie or toonie, and yes, perhaps, it is different to make the school the object rather than outside charity.  But we don’t think it is out of bounds or off message to encourage our students and families to give back to the school.

Essentially what is being asked from our families is no different than what has been asked in prior years.  Children/families were encouraged to support the school through soliciting friends and family to sponsor them in the “Walk/Run”; this is no different.  What has changed, we hope, is that the event itself will be much more successful, fun and meaningful for our students.  The “Walk/Run” had essentially outlived its usefulness and so we have taken activities that were no longer functioning as we liked and repurposed them, simplifying our calendar and hopefully improving the events themselves.  Our first annual “OJCS Maccabiah Games” will bring together our North Stars of “Ruach” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” in a wonderful day of sport, sportsmanship, joy and philanthropy.  And we can’t wait!

So how will it work?

[Adapted from the OJCS Student Life Blog:]

On June 4, 2019 the OJCS Maccabiah Games will begin and our theme is “4 Teams, 1 Heart,” modelled after the actual Maccabiah Games theme of “80 Countries, 1 Heart”.

Who are the 4 teams?

  • Jerusalem- Team Blue!
  • Tel Aviv- Team Green!
  • Haifa- Team Red!
  • Netanya- Team Orange!

Which city will win the cup?  Teams will earn points throughout the day for event wins, showing sportsmanship, team cheers and RUACH!

We are excited to share that OJCS has partnered with Maccabi Canada for the event and Maccabi Canada athletes will join us for the opening and closing ceremonies.

As this is a fundraiser, please know that each student will have their own fundraising pages on CanadaHelps.org.  For each $25 raised, students will receive a ballot for a weekly draw on Fridays for prizes such as frozen yogurt gift cards, bookstore gift cards, and  movie night baskets.

Families are welcome to join us at the school from 3:00 – 5:00 PM on June 4, 2019 for our Family Maccabiah Games!  Bring your loonies and toonies and join us for some cold treats, meet Maccabi Canada athletes and learn more about Maccabi Canada, and try our 65′ inflatable obstacle course with your child(ren).

By the way, you don’t have to be an OJCS Family to contribute!  Pick your favorite team and contribute to the event simply by following the links:

Special “thank you” to the companies who are sponsoring this exciting event!

OJCS Announces $50,000 Gift to Strengthen the “J” in “OJCS”

We are thrilled to share with the community that an anonymous family has stepped forward to allow OJCS to continue to keep the promises it has made by making a new $50,000 gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS.  This gift feels extra special considering it has come during this liminal moment in the Jewish calendar between meaningful Jewish holidays.  As we reflect on what our People has experienced throughout its history, as we celebrate our collective triumphs and as we commit to securing the Jewish future of our children and our community – it is a blessing and a sacred responsibility for our school to receive a gift of this magnitude.  This will allow us to further strengthen and deepen our commitment to the Jewish studies and Jewish experiences that help make our school a laboratory for Jewish living and help ensure our community continues to have Jewishly literate and committed leaders into the next generation and beyond.

This now makes the third and final commitment that connects the dots between the three major areas we designated for attention in Year One, invested resources and made significant changes in Year Two and now stand ready to go deeper and farther in Year Three: the OJCS value proposition, French outcomes and Jewish mission/vision.

Each of these three has had its own cycle of candid honesty of what was, an exploration of what could be, an investment to clarify and move the work forward to what presently is and now set up for a new round of investment to continue to shape what will be, as we move together into a third year of an OJCS reimagined and revitalized.  In a nutshell…

In Year One, we identified the need to define what OJCS uniquely believes to be true about teaching and learning, we secured an anonymous gift (in partnership with Federation) that allowed us to begin a consultancy with NoTosh which led to our “North Stars”.  In Year Two, benefiting from a different anonymous gift (also with help from Federation) we were able to complete our work with NoTosh, begin our work with Silvia Tolisano and have launched a ton of innovative prototypes to transform teaching and learning at OJCS.  In Year Three, thanks to a grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Foundation we will open the first Makerspace in any school in Ottawa, among other new and returning prototypes that will help us live our North Stars.

In Year One, we identified the need to clarify our French outcomes.  We conducted research and held an initial Town Hall.  We made certain commitments to changes in the schedule and the program that we have been living in Year Two, while continuing to add to our research.  We reported back to our parents recently on our progress and then announced a huge investment in French Language PD to ensure that we take significant steps in Year Three to better address ongoing questions and to make long-term strategic planning decisions.  [We are finalizing contracts now and will share out very soon in greater detail as to the who we are partnering with and what the partnership will consist of…stay tuned.]

In Year One, we identified the need to better determine our Jewish mission and vision.  We formed a robust Rabbinic Advisory Committee with active participation from our entire, diverse rabbinic community.  We conducted research, did work, and held a Town Hall to declare our plans to strengthen our program for Year Two.  We have been living those commitments this year – daily minyanim in each grade with options in the Middle School to satisfy differing needs, increased contact time with Jewish Studies, increased rigor and immersiveness in Hebrew Language, introduction of a revised, text-based Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum, prototyping Torah Trop classes in Grades 5 & 6, and so much more.  And now, thanks to today’s gift, we know that we will go into Year Three with an amazing opportunity to build on our successes and introduce new and deeper Jewish engagement for our students and our families.

So.

What might this investment lead to in 2019-2020?

We have only begun to dream the new dreams, but we do have ideas!  As we prepare to say goodbye to our beloved Dean of Judaic Studies Rabbi Finkelstein, we will be revisiting our leadership team.  I will have more to say about this when it becomes concrete, but we are very excited about the possibilities we are exploring.  We also have – similar to French – opportunities to import second-language acquisition professional development so that our teachers of Hebrew will have the same resources available to them as our teachers of English and French do and will.  Updated curriculum, more Hebrew-language books and materials, and expanding our Jewish Studies Resource are all worthy to consider for investment.

This gift reminds us that it is important not only to count your blessings, but to make your blessings count.  We have a responsibility to steward these gifts with care and to ensure that they are being invested strategically.  We have to have clear expectations, measurables and deliverables to be sure that we are not only charting an exciting and innovative course towards the future, but actually finding our way there.

Spoiler alert.

We are.  And, yes, say it with me, that’s “The OJCS Difference”.

OJCS Parents: I emailed out the Annual Parent Survey this morning.  Please do fill it out!  Due back May 10th if you want your feedback included in reporting.

This is my 300th blog post!  There are no words to express to Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez how much they have impacted my journey as an educator and as a professional.  I have tremendous appreciation to the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), the Schechter Network and Prizmah for letting me carry my blog from organization to organization and to use it as a platform for learning and connection.  Special thanks to my Mom, my Aunt Donna and Nancy Davis for ensuring that at least three people read it.

In all seriousness, to anyone who has ever read, commented, or shared my blog…thank you, thank you, thank you.

Habits of Kindness: Synergize

Welcome to blog post #299 (!)

Firstly, it is hard to believe that we are already introducing the SIXTH Habit, “Synergize,” because there are only seven and where did all the time go!

When our school introduces a new “Habit of Kindness,” I take it upon myself to blog about it.  (Last month was “Seek first to understand, then to be understood“.)   We have been enlisting our students to prepare and present the new habit at our monthly Rosh Chodesh Assemblies.  (You can stay on top of all our Community of Kindness activities by checking out its blog.)  Here is how Mrs. Bertrend described it:

Habit #6 from Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Effective People’ was introduced to the students: Synergize.  Synergize means to work together with others to accomplish a goal, while supporting one another and working to the strengths of each person.

Grade 4 students introduced the habit to the school and discussed how they had to synergize at a recent ‘Kindness Workshop’ with Mrs. B and Shannon LaValley from JFS.

As for my reflection, let’s start with what it says from the “Leader in Me: 7 Habits for Kids” page:

Habit 6 — Synergize

Together Is Better

I value other people’s strengths and learn from them.  I get along well with others, even people who are different than me.  I work well in groups.  I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that by teaming with others we can create better solutions than anyone of us can alone.  I am humble.

What I would like to do is take this line by line, in the spirit of the haggadah, and offer a little midrash about why I think “synergize” is a habit our school has embraced.

“I value other people’s strengths and learn from them.”

As we have documented our innovative learning journey over the last year and change, one thing that has consistently been borne true, is that learning is no longer (if it ever was) about transferring knowledge from an adult to a child.  One thing that I treasure about our school is the commitment our teachers have to lifelong learning and the willingness they have to learn not only from each other, but from their students.

“I get along well with others, even people who are different than me.”

We chose “Community of Kindness” as the initiative to ensure students feel welcome, protected, and loved within (and without) our walls.  Each student, of course, is different from every other student because each is unique.  But we know that we – not just our school, but each of us – should be ultimately judged by how we treat “difference”.

“I work well in groups.”

We learn better together (North Star alert!).  One of the critical “now” literacies is the ability to work well in “groups”.  It will be the rare job our students will grow up to perform, where working well with others will not be a key to success.  It isn’t a skill you master in kindergarten and revisit in adulthood; it is an art form to be practiced daily so mastery ensues.

“I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that by teaming with others we can create better solutions than anyone of us can alone.”

Here we really see collaboration in action; that by working with each other and learning from each other we will come up something better together than we could on our own.  In addition to our “Genius Hour” projects, there are so many opportunities for students at OJCS to engage in project-based learning and the upcoming grand opening of our OJCS Makerspace is going to really help us take this to the next level.

“I am humble.”

We teach our children that each is made in God’s image and that we ought to remember that when we interact with each other.  Humility is critical to collaboration because it assumes an attitude that one does not know it all and that there is wisdom to be found in each and every one of us if we are only willing to look and to listen.  One way we have embraced humility is in the exploration to transition from Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences and from Teacher Observations to Teacher-Led Evaluations.  In both cases, we put the onus of responsibility on the learner to share growth rather than on the authority figure to ferret it out.

Next month we will finish up with “Sharpen the Saw”!

As we complete this year’s model sedarim, heading into Passover itself this weekend, should you wish to check out some Passover planning tips too good to, um…pass…over, check out last year’s post!

Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach…

Coming Blog Attractions:

  • Revised OJCS Homework Philosophy
  • OJCS Parent Survey (will be sent out the week we return)

OJCS Announces $50,000 Investment in French Education

File this under “promises made; promises kept”.

We are thrilled to share that our school will be making a $50,000 investment to ensure an increasingly excellent French education, to grow the number of students who successfully transition into French immersion programs in Grade 9, and to increase the odds of their success once placed.  This comes directly from the hard work of our French Language Faculty, the changes we began this year as a result of beginning this conversation last year, the leadership of our Board and the generosity of our donors.  This is a great day for those who already know a Jewish day school education does not preclude an excellent French education; it is an even better day for those who want to believe it, but needed a little more than anecdotal evidence to go on.

If you are new to this conversation, I encourage you to read my blog post from last February which lays out a detailed history of French education in Ontario, how it impacts OJCS and what the state of affairs was like when we began this work last school year.

Here are a few reminders and updates:

We continue to acknowledge that small sample sizes make statistical analysis complicated.  We remain committed to annual surveys of our alumni and frequent check-ins with the high schools in our community.  We do know, for example, that 50% of the students who graduated OJCS last year from French Extended are currently in Grade 9 French Immersion in high school (the other 50% opted out).  They report being successful and having been adequately prepared.  It may not be statistically significant (this was not a large class), but it lines up with last year’s data and the ample anecdotal evidence we do have that OJCS students can and do successfully transition from “Extended” to “Immersion” in Grade 9.

Here is what we committed to for this school year:

  • Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time will begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  • The selection process in Grade 3 will be more rigorous, begin earlier, come with more parental engagement, etc., so that students who do continue into “Extended” for Grades 4 and higher are even better prepared for Grade 9.
  • We will increase the rigor and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.  This includes a philosophical shift in K-3 that raises the bar – rather than aim towards the middle and wait to see who rises up, we will aim towards immersion and stream those who struggle.
  • We adjusted our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Students in OJCS have more contact time with French in each grade (except K which was already frontloaded).

Here is how our French Language Faculty put it when we met with parents twice yesterday at our “French Q & A Sessions”:

Vivre en français à OJCS

  • At OJCS, the FSL (French as a second language) faculty has made a commitment to speak French with their students everywhere in the school, so if you walked through our hallways, you would hear us speaking French to our students, increasing the interaction and contact time with our students.
  • Our enhanced FSL program with its consolidated class time (blocks of periods), all within a trilingual school where the francophone culture is alive and regularly celebrated, produces students capable of successfully communicating and learning in French.
  • Students practice their language skills in various environments, such as on the playground, and during coaching on our various OJCS sports teams.
  • Our FSL faculty is committed to offering authentic OJCS learning experiences.

While we believe we are on a gradual path towards clarity around French outcomes and increased excellence in French education, we are also aware of how serious an issue this is for a meaningful percentage of our families.  We have also seen how the use of consultancy has jumpstarted innovation and growth at our school.  What we are announcing here is going to do for French what our other consultancies have done for OJCS – dramatically speed up the process of moving from good to great.

We have identified a few different consultancies that would provide OJCS with the following features:

  • One to two years of professional development for OJCS French Faculty from the same folk who train the Immersion and Francophone programs in the public boards, including multiple in-person observation and direct training.
  • Shareable tools for benchmarking and tracking individual students over time.
  • New and updated French curriculum.
  • Individualized paths forward for high achieving students from the OJCS “Extended” program to full Immersion programs at their next schools of choice.

The tools, the curriculum and the paths would be ours after the consultancy and would become part of the budget moving forward.

We are in the process of finalizing our consultancy and will share out additional information when confirmed.  Additionally (not part of the $50K), we are also committed to adding French Resource.  We feel this will bring much needed support not only for students who have IEPs, but for any student who struggles.  [Yes, we are committed to adding Hebrew Resource as well.]

We enjoyed the opportunity to share our progress and our plans with parents.  We appreciated the candor and the tough questions we were asked.  We are pleased to share it more widely here.  Interestingly, we heard similar feedback that we heard last year about three areas.  One we tried to do something about and couldn’t get it off the ground; two we need to pay even closer attention to…

  • There was a very positive response to the idea of OJCS offering French enrichment as part of an after school program and/or as part of a summer day camp experience.  We surveyed parents last year about it for this year and did not get a critical mass.  We will try again.
  • There was a strong feeling that using Grade 4 as our arbitrary split into “Core” and “Extended” is unnecessary and that we are missing an opportunity to increase the immersive exposure in Grades K-3 when it could potentially have even more value.  We addressed this issue this year with a philosophical shift (aiming higher), but we could also choose to address it structurally (actually streaming earlier).  This will be worth exploring through consultancy.
  • There remains a meaningful percentage of our families (particularly ones who are from and/or are familiar with the model in Montreal) who would like to see us offer a full immersion track, if not embrace a full immersion model.  Although our cultural context is different, we do have a responsibility to pay attention to these families.  We will continue to survey and assess this need; we will also try to better calculate the opportunity cost of not having it – who is not coming to OJCS (and, thus, not getting a Jewish day school education) because we can’t offer it.

This is where you come in.  We desperately want to know what you think…

…what questions did this answer for you?

…what questions did this raise for you?

…what do you want to know more about?

…what else do you want us to know?

We cannot encourage you more to email, comment or come in for a conversation.  We need all voices heard as we work towards clarifying and enhancing our French mission and vision – next year and in the years ahead.

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!