Habits of Kindness: Begin With the End in Mind

So I guess I should have checked the Jewish calendar when I decided last week to share that we had launched our “Community of Kindness” initiative  by bringing the “7 Habits” to OJCS, beginning with Habit 1: Be Proactive.  Because today is Rosh Chodesh Kislev! Which means that at our Rosh Chodesh Assembly, members of our Knesset along with some of the teachers on the “7 Habits Prototype Team” introduced Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind.  The good news is that it really will now be a full month before I blog out the next habit.

“Begin With the End in Mind” is all about having a plan, having goals. It is actually a great month for this habit as we look forward to introducing new report card templates and a slightly new format for parent-teacher conferences.  (I will be blogging much more about that soon!)  As individual goal-setting is a key strategy for helping us reach the North Star of “a floor, but not a ceiling,” we look forward to meaningful conversations with parents about academic and behavioral growth.  As we believe that not only should our students aim towards the North Star of “owning their learning,” but so should we all, our teachers too have their goals, some of which they will be sharing with their students so they understand that these habits are not just for them, but for us all.  Since it is my goal to use my blog to share and model the habits as well, I thought it only fair that I use this opportunity to share some of my goals for the year.

Typically, I wait until the spring to share a self-evaluation that includes what my goals were for the year that is finishing.  And I will again in the spring cycle through my annual “Transparency Files” posts, be sharing out parent and faculty survey data, my self-evaluation, etc., but since I, too, need to “begin with the end in mind,” let me share just a few of the goals I have set for myself this year along with my Head Support & Evaluation Committee.

Jon’s Goals for 2018-2019

Establish steady and measurable growth of the student population:

  1. Establish and drive a recruitment plan to promote the school and attract new students
  2. Design and execute a retention strategy and plan.
  3. Strengthen pipeline with Ganon & Early Beginnings.
  4. Deepen relationships with synagogues.

OJCS is a school of excellence:

  1. Translating our “North Stars” (“The OJCS Way”) into a strategy document.
  2. Connecting the dots between our work with NoTosh and our work with Silvia Tolisano.
  3. Clarify what role the CAT-4 plays in evaluating academic “excellence”.
  4. Prototyping “Teacher-Led Evaluation”.
  5. Create a technology plan for teachers, students and school.
  6. Develop a comprehensive PD plan.
  7. (Constantly) improve faculty morale.

OJCS is financially sustainable – now and into the future:

  1. Staff the Strategic Fundraising Steering Committee and steward its plans for Annual, Capital and Endowed Giving.
  2. Improve Grandparents Day & Walkathon.

OJCS inspires Jewish journeys in its students, families and community:

  1. Leverage personal relationships with holiday and Shabbat experiences.
  2. Expand holiday family experiences.
  3. Thought-leadership

 

Hopefully, by better using the 7 Habits this year, when it does become time for me to share my evaluation I’ll be able to say that because I “began with the end in mind” that I reached my goals and then some!

How about you?  What are your big goals this year?  Let us know!

Habits of Kindness: Be Proactive

We have been having a conversation as both a staff and a board about the difference between “values” and “strategy”.  Now that we are living our North Stars and about to unveil (stay tuned) a powerful strategy document and presentation, all the energy we are generating and all the prototypes we are launching are dedicated to bringing us closer towards our values.

Values define who we are and why we exist. They guide us, like a moral compass for all in the community. They are the foundations of what we do and the ultimate test of whether our goals and strategy have a ‘fit’, now and in the future.

Any strategy we undertake, therefore, is to provide us with the actions and behaviors – habits – we need to adopt in order to best live our values. Today, I want to introduce a new strategy with its attendant prototypes that we have begun at the Ottawa Jewish Community School to help us truly become a Community of Kindness, where we are “responsible each to the other” and “we learn better together”.

Something I often say is that if you really want to know what a school values, you only need to look in two places- the budget and the schedule.  How we spend our two most precious resources is the clearest way to reveal what we truly value.  If we want to live our values, if we want to build a true community of kindness, not simply a catchphrase, we will need to allocate time and money.  So the first strategic decision was to position this work in the portfolio of our Student Life Coordinator, Deanna Bertrend.  We believe this strategic combination of personality and position will help ensure we are dedicating the proper resources to an initiative of such great import. As important as staffing is a plan…

“Community of Kindness” makes a great slogan and a lousy call to action.  We all recognize the need to be more “kind” and to ensure that our community act with increased “kindness” to all…but what exactly do you do?  To answer that question and to provide us with a common vision, language and set of behaviors, we are turning to a well-researched set of habits, seven of them to be exact.

Our strategy is to go ahead and adopt and adapt The Leader in Me:

The Leader in Me helps to create a common language within a school, built on proven principle-based leadership skills found in Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

  • Habit1: Be Proactive® • You’re in Charge
  • Habit2: Begin With the End in Mind® • Have a Plan
  • Habit3: Put First Things First® • Work First, Then Play
  • Habit4: Think Win-Win® • Everyone Can Win
  • Habit5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood® • Listen Before You Talk
  • Habit6: Synergize® • Together Is Better
  • Habit7: Sharpen the Saw® • Balance Feels Best

It is important to note that there has also been work in the Jewish day school field work on translating the habits into Jewish settings and value language.  Our friends at CAJE-Miami who work in this area offer the following helpful chart:

Introducing “Be Proactive” at our Middle School Retreat.

We began at Faculty Pre-Planning when we spent time in “Book Club” with those teachers who chose to read The Leader in Me as their summer reading and then later that week in a full staff briefing on the new program.  We had a soft launch at our Middle School Retreat where we introduced each of the habits to our middle school students with fun, informal activities to help them understand how these habits could positively impact them.  Our plan for the whole school will have us, beginning last month, introduce and focus on a new habit at our Rosh Chodesh assemblies.  There will be a role to play from Knesset (our student council) and as we ramp up there will be grade and age appropriate activities, including stories, lessons and resources. Parents should look for evidence of how the habits are coming to life on the website and blogs.  In fact, we even have a dedicated 7 Habits page on our OJCS Student Life blog!

Introducing the 7 Habits at our Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan assembly.

This month, we have been focusing on the first habit – “Be Proactive”.  For my part, I am going to try to “be proactive” by dedicating a post each month – this being the first – to its habit.  And we will need your help!  If you are a parent at OJCS, you are welcome to read and learn along with us.  Incorporating the habits at home will only make what we do at school that much more powerful.  So you can “be proactive” as well!

As we aim towards our (North) Stars, let’s make this the year that kindness ceases to be a slogan and starts to be a habit.

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

Marching With Fruits & Vegetables (5779 Remix)

What’s that giant sukkah you ask?  That’s our brand new (to be finished today) OJCS Sukkah – thanks to the Zaret Family & Gemstone – which we look forward to eating and celebrating in as a school community when we resume school during Chol Ha’Moed next Wednesday.  The timing of the holidays with the start of school has been crazy/amazing as we are doing our best to launch all our new procedures, initiate all our new projects AND prepare for/experience the joy of our fall Jewish holiday season!  We have come out of Yom Kippur and are headed straight for Sukkot on Sunday evening…and hopefully I will find time to put mine up before the holiday!

Sukkot is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.

But here is a complicated truth: Even though our school will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that a significant number of our students will neither be found in a synagogue nor a sukkah enjoying what is known as “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But I’d wager that many, if not most, were in synagogue a couple of days ago for Yom Kippur.  So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?!

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, the simple truth is that we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this a common occurrence?

lulavI’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable and adults, especially, are wary of feeling uneducated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering Jewish ritual for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky.  I was pursuing a degree in Jewish education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at Jewish practice for the first time (or the first time in a while) are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.

But don’t lose the forest through the trees…

I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of living a life of sacred time – there is a rhythm to the Jewish calendar, evocative and varied.  Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope many students find their way to synagogue and into sukkot this Sukkot.  I hope many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the parade.  I pledge that next year OJCS will take a more active role in providing families with the tools they may need to get started through parent workshops and community sukkah-building parties.  But if you are curious or inspired…go ahead…pick up your fruit and vegetables and march with us!

Chag sameach.

We Left As A School and Came Back As A Community

Wow.

That’s all I can say.  We got back exactly one week ago from our three-day inaugural Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith Ottawa (CBB) and it was everything we could have hoped for in a Jewish informal educational experience.  We had learning, games, athletics, prayer, social bonding, community building, hiking, zip lines, and a campfire to boot!  It felt like we squeezed a summer’s session of camp into just three days…and we are all tired enough to prove it!

After having spent a good chunk of time, in between catching up with the rest of the school and planning through the rest of our holiday experiences, putting together a video of our experience, I will let the video to the talking. I will likely have more to say after the holidays when I’ve had a chance to properly process and reflect.

We didn’t necessarily know what we would come out with, so I apologize to parents and students that not everyone may have made it in – it is not a reflection of anything other than happenstance.  We will more than make up for it with photos and videos throughout the year.  It is, I hope, a taste of why this retreat will become an important part of our middle school.  Our relationships are forever changed – for the good.  We will be able to do things within the walls of the classrooms that we never would have without having spent time together outside of them.

Here’s a taste:

Shofar So Good! (This is a LONG blog that I hope you read.)

The holidays start so early this year that I can barely squeeze in my favorite pun! With only four school days before Rosh HaShanah, we are doing our very best to get into the holiday spirit.  Our “Shofar Patrol” has been making the rounds, apples are being cut, and honey is being poured.  Let me take a moment to congratulate all our new teachers and all our new parents on a wonderful first week of school.  Your enthusiasm and your passion are welcome additions to our growing school and inspire our hopes not only for this year, but for the years to come here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

During our opening assembly, we talked as a school not only about the new colors and photos on the walls, but about the 18 new signs – 6 in Hebrew, 6 in French and 6 in English – that reflect what we now describe as “The OJCS Way”.  These are the “north stars” that came out of the work we did last year – the core values that help describe what is unique about our school.  We shared these values in a “Town Hall” last spring and they are described in greater detail in your OJCS Handbook.  We are excited to begin living those values and seeing how they impact culture and innovation in our school and community.  I also want to use them as a frame to discuss a few live issues we know are percolating…

“We learn better together.”

Those of you who are new to our school and to me, will learn that I embrace radical transparency.  I believe it is important to be authentic, honest, open to feedback and willing to lean into difficult conversations – all traits we believe worth modeling for our children. We have nothing to hide in our school and our parents are our partners. One of our north stars is that “we learn better together”. There are lots of “we’s” in our school – students with students, students with teachers, teachers with teachers, etc. – but parents are also part of the “we”.  Working together we can resolve almost any issue and adequately address any concern.

“Each person is responsible each to the other.”

I looked back to my blog a year ago and the number one issue facing our school was…our change to drop-off procedures!  It is hard to recall just how much bandwidth this took up, but it was significant.  There are a few lessons to be learned there…

We take the safety of our children as our highest concern.  The reason we invested so much energy last year in changing our drop-off procedures is that we wanted to ensure that the parking lot was controlled and safe.  We were so committed to it – and still are – that our entire administrative team commits itself each and every morning to being there.  (And we also think greeting our students each morning is the best way to start the day!)  It took a while for families to learn the ropes – and we have the emails to prove it!  But sooner than later, we got into a rhythm and now we have a safe and efficient drop-off.

It is deja vu all over again now that we have turned our attention to pick-up.  The issues are similar – we really want to make sure in a complicated world that each child finds his or her way to the right parent, carpool, bus or caregiver.  We also want to make sure students don’t wander into the parking lot or off campus without anyone noticing – things that could have happened here as a consequence of simply opening the doors and letting our entire school pour out.  There are minimal and maximal ways we could address this issue.  Lean too much to one side and you have greater convenience and less safety; lean too much to the other and you have greater safety and less convenience.  We are trying to find a middle path.

We invite your patience and appreciate your flexibility as we adjust to this new way of ending our day.  We firmly believe that sooner than later we will get into this rhythm as well, and we will add a safe and efficient pick-up to our safe and efficient drop-off.

“There’s a floor here – but no ceiling.”

This may seem like an odd place to anchor a conversation about snack and recess – which is the hot topic of the week – but it is actually where it lives.  The promise we make parents at the time of enrollment, not just at the beginning, but each and every year as we never take re-enrollment for granted, is that we have an appropriately rigorous floor for each student, but no ceiling of expectation for how far their passion and talent can fly.  That is why we are moving towards personalized learning, investing in innovation consultants, reimagining our schedules, introducing new technologies, playing with our space, etc., etc., all in the service of providing the highest-quality education possible.

We spent an enormous amount of time last year collecting data from alumni, former students and families, current students and families, the schools our children graduate into as we grappled with three really important conversations: What needs to be true about our French outcomes?  What needs to be clear about our Jewish expectations?  What is unique about teaching and learning at OJCS?  The answers to those questions were transparently shared out in Town Halls about French, Jewish Studies, and “The Future“.  And part of those answers required a re-imagination of our schedule, because time is a zero-sum game. And the reason we shared it so openly then was that we knew it would invite questions and we were happy to answer them then…and we remain happy to revisit them now that we are beginning to live them.

I want to focus here on the Lower School (K-5).  Up until this year, our Lower School had been functioning on a Middle School schedule – bells every 40 minutes dictating artificial changes that don’t suit the needs of younger students.  We wanted to move towards a larger block schedule that gives students and teachers the breathing room they need to let the learning flow at a more relaxed pace or to extend the learning where enthusiasm takes it.  So we have made that change.  It isn’t perfect (yet).  Some grades were easier than others due to personnel needs, but we are closer to where we want to be than where we were.

In Grades 1-5, in order to increase contact time in French and Jewish Studies – a need that came out loud and clear from our research last year – we are being more creative with the 50-minute block that was given to snack and recess each morning (a little over an hour after their arrival).  There has been no decrease in recess or physical activity.  (It has actually gone up with an added period of Physical Education.) What has changed – and where we are seeing the most questions and concern early on – is the nature of snack.  Our desire to provide our students with the nutrition they require remains intact.  Our willingness to provide our students with the time they require for snack has not changed.  What has changed – and where we have growing pains to work through – is that the time being given over to snack comes with a little bit of learning.

This will look and feel different in Grade One than it will in Grade Five. It will look and feel different in Week One than it will in Week Thirty. And the flexibility and autonomy our teachers have (now) allow them to make daily adjustments as per the needs of the children.  If some days the snack needs to come with little to no learning…that’s okay!  If some days the recess needs to be longer…that’s okay!  Another one of our “north stars” is that “we own our own learning” – and our teachers and students have full ownership of what needs to be true on a daily basis.  They are not being micromanaged by the administration.  That’s the real change to pay attention to – that we aren’t letting the bell dictate when learning begins or ends, or whether students can eat or not, or whether students get a body break or not – we are letting our teachers and students begin to take ownership of their learning since they know best what they need and when.

This is so new for us!  And for you.  It is natural that you have questions and concerns.  We welcome them directly.  We are having the same conversation with our teachers who also want to make sure that students have time to eat and time to play…and time to learn.  A number of parents have asked whether it would have been smarter to simply increase the length of the school day.  Believe me, I would love a longer day to work with and perhaps that’s a conversation we should be having.  But please don’t think that aren’t carefully considering the wellbeing – mental or physical – of our children.  We know the research on movement and on nutrition.  We believe our teachers – working with their students and with you – will discover what is best for each class and that we will land in a place that feels comfortable for all.

“We are all on inspiring Jewish journeys.”

One of the highlights of the first week was our inaugural “Welcome Ceremony” for Kindergarten students and parents.  Tears were shed as we took just a pause to name the liminal moment a child begins his or her formal Jewish learning.  To see them all under the tallitot surrounded by parents as our teachers shared a poem in Hebrew, French and English, and as Rabbi Finkelstein led a parental blessing before a final farewell, was to see the beginning not just of a family journey at OJCS, but – we hope – “an inspiring Jewish journey” leading…wherever it leads.  It was also a reminder of the sacred trust a family places in us for the education of their children and the holiness of such work.  A truly special way to begin the year…

“Ruach”

We added ruach (spirit or joy) as a “north star” not just because we needed six to make sure our “north star” was a “north Star of David”, but because we know how important ruach is in the life of a school.  We want our students and teachers to feel the joy of learning and the love of community.  We want each person to feel that special feeling when he or she can be their truest self and know that they will be heard and respected and loved.  That’s a lofty ambition, but one worth reaching towards.  It is why we are so excited about next week’s Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB).  It is why we are looking for greater parent engagement in our PTA and in our school.  It is why we created cafeteria space to eat and to sing together instead being siloed into classrooms.  It is why we raised money to install air conditioning in our hottest classrooms so our students can learn in comfort and not distress (with more to come).  It is why we are increasing field trip opportunities, adding electives to Middle School, and constantly re-imagining what we do and how we do it.  It is why we get up in the morning each and every day with a fire in our bellies and a smile upon our lips.

Research shows that one of the most important variables to academic success is teacher joy – when teachers are excited to teach, students are excited to learn.  And when students are excited to learn, anything is possible.  That’s the future we are building at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  That’s why we are willing to make changes, even when those changes are hard and sometimes even when those changes fail.  We will never let fear of failure prevent us from reaching towards those (north) stars, because we’ll never get there if we don’t try.

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special school- thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5779 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

What a Difference a Year Makes

Sitting here in my office on the Friday before teachers report on Monday, I cannot but marvel at how different things are from just a year ago.  This will not be one of my overly-verbose and lengthy blog posts with oodles of details.  I do that often enough and if we are being honest, I will probably be doing it again sooner than later.  Here I just want to name the feeling…and that feeling is best described by one of our new “North Stars” – ruach.

We have had so many teachers in and out of the building this summer – which represents a major cultural shift – working and planning and preparing and organizing and beautifying. Why?  Because they are full of enthusiasm and excitement about the year to come…

We have had so many vendors, parent volunteers and campus employees working tirelessly this summer – which continues a major cultural shift – painting and repairing and cleaning and beautifying.  Why? Because they understand that how the building looks and feels matters and they are invested in the year to come…

Prototyping a new behavior management system at OJCS!

We have had opportunities for the administrative team and the teachers to gather for social bonding this summer – which begins a major cultural shift – axe-throwing and karaoke singing and eating and playing together.  Why? Because we know that our relationships contribute to the joy we feel when we come to work and we know that our joy is contagious to our students and parents and we have such high hopes for the year to come…

Last year was amazing, but it barely scratched the surface.  This year will be a huge leap forward, but it too will only be a step in the direction we are heading toward.  When we say that we intend to be the finest school in Ottawa, we do not mean it as hyperbole or as a marketing slogan.  We mean it literally and it is already beginning to happen.  We see it in our two kindergarten classes which are still growing even this close to the beginning of the school year.  We see it in our overall growth of nearly 10 percent.  We see it in the caliber of our new faculty – many of whom sought us out.

We know it from the additional new gifts from donors that we haven’t even had a chance to announce yet (stay tuned!), which will only bring the future closer.  We know it from the programmatic changes launching this year – many of which were described in prior posts – but hereto, includes some new ones that we have not yet had a chance to announce (stay tuned!).

I am as excited about this year of school as I have ever been about any year in any school I have had the honor of heading.  With our “North Stars” to guide us, a team of talented administrators to lead us, a group of gifted and loving teachers to make the magic happen, a community of caring parents to partner with, and – of course – our students whose voice will be amplified and whose educational journeys represent sacred work – this year will undoubtedly be our best yet.

If you were on the fence – get off.  If you were skeptical – believe.  The future of education is being written at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

That’s #TheOJCSDifference.