What #Amplification Looks Like

One of our #NorthStars is that #WeLearnBetterTogether.  It is always important to remember that these aren’t just hashtags or slogans and they aren’t just for students.  They are there to guide our path and inspire our decisions.  Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to look a little more closely at how just part of this North Star actually actually plays out.

This is just about the time of year where we finish our first round of conversations with teachers about their progress, performance and professional growth.  With the unveiling of a new OJCS Learning Target (how we believe teaching and learning should look) last year, we have identified “Amplification” as a key pillar.  At the highest level, when we talk about a teacher’s “professional amplification”, we are looking for things like:

  • Teacher participates in school-based and online learning communities to access and extend continuous, ongoing professional learning for self, and effectively shares with colleagues knowledge about current thinking, methods and best practices in education
  • Teacher works in collaboration with others to design robust learning tasks and obtain feedback about instructional planning from colleagues and mentors, or acts as mentor or peer coach.
  • Teacher takes the initiative to inform self about current research literature and incorporates it into teaching and learning practices.
  • Teacher shares thoughts about current research openly on digital platforms.  Parents, experts and members of the larger community are invited to respond to it.
  • Teacher actively and regularly connects their own work to educators from around the world via a variety of platforms.

I thought it would be fun to see how the faculty of @The_OJCS learns with and from each other and the world.  As I have done once before, since Twitter is the platform of choice for teachers who amplify, I thought I would share a little Wakelet of recent activity:

Our students are the beneficiaries of all this amazing crowdsourced wisdom and I am so proud to work in a school where so many teachers (and it is so many more teachers – and part of Mrs. Thompson’s role as Teaching & Learning Coordinator is to do this work, which is why you see her so frequently – and comes in so many more ways than just a one-week glance at Twitter) learn from each other and the wider world!

You know who else amplifies at OJCS?  Our students!  Through their student blogfolios (Grades 4-7 and growing!) and through Classroom Twitter accounts.  But that’s for another blog post…

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Parent Primer for the Pivot

Just when I thought we were out…they pulled us back in.

I don’t mean to make light of the situation.  Back in October, I wrote a blog post explaining why we were taking time to lay the ground for a potential pivot, not knowing and very much hoping that one would not be forthcoming.  And here we are in January, two weeks into a three-week pivot of fully distanced learning…or what we certainly hope will be (only) a three-week pivot.

Let me first answer what I believe are a few pressing questions…

What does being a private school mean when it comes to closures?

Not much.  Other than us getting our letter from a different department of the Ministry of Education, and for some reason getting it consistently a few days delayed, there has been no separation between what has been required for public and private schools at any point along this journey.  One might (this one certainly has) wonder whether there could be a circumstance where private and/or individual schools are given discretion to make choices when it comes to closures, but that is not how it has played out thus far.

What is currently true about a return to in-person learning?

As of this writing, we are still scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 25th.  We have been told that any decision about extending beyond that date won’t be made/communicated until January 20th.

 

So, if you already feel comfortable with all the ways in which OJCS lives its Distance Learning Program, please feel free to skip the next long section and please jump to the two additional items below.

For anyone for whom this is still new – and for anyone who needs a refresher – let me offer a summary and syllabus of the accumulated wisdom from last spring.  What we learned last year informed how we planned this year’s hyflex program and the kinds of self-directed learning skills we knew we wanted to focus on at the beginning of the year for just this situation.  All of those successes and failures contribute to our current lived experience.

So…what’s most important to know/remember?

In our first post to parents last year about transitioning to school-at-home, we…

…talked about reasonable expectations for parents.

…shared ideas about how to create an optimal learning environment for your children (while acknowledging how unlikely it would be to achieve).

…discussed how we planned on addressing mental health concerns.

…made commitments to honor IEPs.

We ended with…

Let’s be sure to give each other permission to feel anxious or scared.  Let’s recognize that we will have both failures and successes in the weeks ahead.  Let’s create space for the messy learning and schedule challenges and conflicts.

[That still sounds about right!]

In our second post, after we launched, we focused on…

The spine of our program is the OJCS Blogosphere.  This was in the process of becoming true before the pandemic because of all the things we believe to be true about teaching and learning in the 21st century.  It is really proving its worth now that we have had to transition to distance learning on a dime.  The action is going to take place online; the architecture is anchored in classroom blogs and student blogfolios.

[This still very much remains true!]

We ended with…

I remain in awe of what we have all managed to accomplish here in such a short amount of time.  Let’s keep sharing with each other and with the wider world.  Let’s keep creating space for mistakes and anxiety.  Let’s keep celebrating small victories and minor miracles.  Let’s combat the social recession with creative social experiences.  Let’s live our school’s North Stars and our community’s Jewish values in this new virtual reality.

[Yes, please!]

Our third post focused exclusively on how distance learning amplifies quiet voices.

[This is something we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning.]

As we were gaining experience, we started to realize that there were a lot of positives from distance learning that we very much wanted to name and plan to continue in the transition back to in-person learning.  In our fourth post we highlighted the most significant ones:

  • Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices
  • Developing Self-Directed Learners
  • Strengthening Global Connectedness
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Personalized Learning

[These, too, are things we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning AND tried to frontload in case we did have to make the very pivot we are in.]

And I wasn’t the only one blogging out really helpful and important information!

Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs, has been putting out amazing posts helping parents find their way through the challenges – not just for their children, but for them – of distance learning.

Shannon LaValley, our school’s psychotherapist, put out a post addressing the mental health issues raised by distance learning.

And that brings us full circle.

Whether we are in this place for one more week or longer; whether this will be the only pivot this year or if additional pivots are in our future, please be assured that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last four years and the experience we gained last spring, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   Because it is.

Enrollment for 2021-2022 is right around the corner!  As we prepare for another exciting year at OJCS, we have been blitzing social media and holding a series of targeted “parlour meetings”.  This week we had two meetings for potential JK families.  Next week brings meetings for potential SK families and the week after is geared towards families with children in all grades.  As word of mouth continues to be our best marketing technique, your ongoing and visible support through positive social media and conversation with your peer groups has tremendous impact.  You can make all the difference in ensuring that we bring #TheOJCSDifference to more and more of our community’s children and families.

Since we were regrettably slow to inform the last time, let me share with you now the plan for our next round of Parent-Teacher Conferences, which will come around in March.  We, again, based on feedback and evolving circumstances have made changes.  What we will prototype this time, we believe, may be the model moving forward as we try to balance complex needs – most importantly having enough conference spots for a growing school.

We will shift conferences to a Thursday-Friday.  Spring Parent-Teacher Conferences will now take place on March 18th and 19th.  On Thursday, March 18th, we will have an early dismissal at 2:00 PM.  Because of safety protocols, we will be unable to provide childcare.  The conference windows on Thursday will be from 3:00 – 5:00 PM & 6:00 – 9:00 PM.  On Friday, March 19th there will be no school and the day will be dedicated to conferences.  Our feedback from parents about the ability to participate in these conferences remotely – which we will carry forward post-COVID – steers us towards no longer needing to dedicate two evenings to accommodate busy and working parents.  Should this model prove successful, our calendar for 2021-2022 will factor in an additional two days of closure.  We will both ensure we are providing the requisite number of school days and look to partners to help provide OJCS parents with childcare on what would now be four days of closure – two for PD and two for conferences.

Why I Am Studying To Be A Rabbi (Now)

[NOTE: This blog post was written before this week’s events in the States and before our school’s transition to distance learning was extended an additional two weeks.  I may have what to say about both in the week ahead, but at the risk of appearing tone deaf, I would like to share the following.]

I guess all the signs were there.  The random Facebook posts about dog ownership (despite being allergic and never having owned a dog).  Growing my hair out (and blaming it on COVID).  Signing a second long-term contract (for the first time).  Buying a house (for the second time).  Something is clearly going on…

While it might seem reasonable that a midlife crisis – as I creep closer to 50 – is in the cards, the truth is that something truly is going on.  Seeds that were planted over twenty years ago are finally coming to flower, as I prepare to embark on a journey that will hopefully not only make me a better head of school, but a better Jew and a better person.  I am pleased to share that I have been granted acceptance to the Rabbinical School at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and with the full support of my Board here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, I will begin my SLOW journey toward becoming a rabbi.

Why do I want to study to be a rabbi?  Why now?  Why AJR?  And, most importantly for current and prospective OJCS families, how will it impact my work as a Jewish day school head of school?

My passion for inspiring Jewish children and families to love and choose Jewish has only deepened during my years in the field, as has my desire to study.  The job of “day school head” is complex, but offers lots of opportunities for teaching, speaking, engaging, and constructing experiences – all of which I believe will be richer and more impactful when I have a more rigorous foundation in Tanakh/Talmud/Rabbinics, Theology, Philosophy and Liturgy.  I certainly have a background in those topics from my prior graduate school experiences, but not to the degree that I would prefer.  I believe that I will be a more empathetic and effective leader (and person) with pastoral training.  Additionally, I simply enjoy the process of serious text study and have yearned for additional opportunities to engage in torah lishmah (roughly “learning for learning’s sake”).

I am choosing to do this at AJR not just for practical concerns (the ability to do it part-time and at a distance), but from my research and my experience, I see AJR as a place where I can learn and grow in a community of like-minded travelers, led by clergy and professors from whom I will be honored to learn with and grow from.  I will be starting slowly, with just one course at a time, until I get my bearings and a sense of my bandwidth.  There are a lot of courses I can take outside the school day, but there will be courses in the future that I will have to take during the school day as well.  My commitment to the Board and to the School is that my work at OJCS will always come first.  I may need to work harder/differently in order to keep all the balls in the air, but I understand what and where my priorities lie.

My desire to go to rabbinical school at this stage of life is not about my career path and more about my career writ large.  The long and the short of it is that I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better and more effective Jewish educator, which is my life’s calling.  I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better person and a better Jew, which is my soul’s calling.

My first class begins in a couple of weeks and I am enjoying the butterflies it is bringing.  It feels good to put myself outside my comfort zone and inside a student’s mindset once again.  I look forward to sitting at the kitchen table and doing my Jewish Studies homework alongside my children.

I will certainly have lots of opportunity to share my rabbinical journey as it unfolds and since it took me 8 years to get my doctorate, we will have plenty of time for me to answer the question I have gotten most frequently in recent weeks: “Will you be Dr. Rabbi or Rabbi Dr.?”  For now, I am simply looking forward to making a good first impression on my classmates and my teacher on the first day of school.

Wish me luck!

CBB Brings the Ruach to OJCS!

December in Ottawa can be kinda dreary in a good year.  The days are short and grey and the weather makes you yearn for a warm blanket and a good book.  Add to that the interminable distance from the end of August until the end of December (Expat Alert: That is the real meaning of American Thanksgiving!  You deserve a four-day weekend in November!) and you can see why in the best of times teachers and students (and parents) can hit the wall and limp into Winter Break.  These are not the “best of times”!  These are pandemic times and so that wall is a bit higher and sturdier than normal.

What do you do when your school and your students need a COVID-friendly booster shot of ruach to lift spirits and send us into Chanukah and out to Winter Break with joy and positivity?  You turn to a partner with ruach-expertise!  This week we were blessed to bring our friends from Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB) to facilitate special ruach-filled activities in each of our grades at OJCS.

I’ve written in the past about my experiences and thoughts about Jewish camping and the power of informal/experiential education.  I won’t revisit all that ground, but I will say that when it comes to the exponential effect of multiple Jewish experiences (day school+ camp + synagogue + youth group), that…

Most importantly we encourage our students to be their authentic Jewish selves as they carry their experiences from context to context.  To me, that’s why experiential education matters.  It brings with the promise of making real what, in some cases, can only be simulated or sampled within the walls of a classroom.  Those are often the most important experiences of all…

Why is Camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their truest selves.  Why is Jewish camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their “authentic Jewish selves”.  Why is the combination so powerful?  Because what you learn at Jewish day school can be lived in Jewish camp.  The education that students at OJCS receive can be powerfully brought to life at CBB (and other camps and at synagogue and at home).  And for some of our students (probably the ones who need it most), CBB makes Judaism and being Jewish cool; that may be its most important gift to Jewish continuity.

All of this to say, that this was the week we brought the magic of camp – that special brand of ruach – to our school.  It was much-needed and much-appreciated.

This was the schedule:

This is a bit of what it looked like:

You may read and see more about it on our OJCS Student Life Blog.  Great thanks to our Student Life Coordinator Deanna Bertrend for putting things together on the OJCS side of things.  Great thanks to CBB Associate Director Jill Doctor and Assistant Director Marnie Gontovnik for leading things on the CBB side of things.  We look forward to increased collaboration between our communal institutions in the future.

Don’t forget to join us for our very special OJCS (Virtual) Family Chanukah Program on Tuesday, December 15th at 7:00 PM!  Our Jewish Studies Faculty has been hard at work putting this together and we don’t only want to celebrate our students and the holiday, but we want to celebrate a rare opportunity during these challenging times to come together as a school community.  Get your chanukkiyot, your PTA donuts, and your family together and join us on the Google Live Stream!

A Very Coronavirus Chanukah

This is normally the night where I am pouring through CAT-IV test results, doing some light statistical analysis and writing my annual blog post on our school’s results.  This is also the night historically where my primary duties are to be visible and schmoozing with parents as they come and go from Parent-Teacher Conferences.  So why is this night different from those other nights?

Wrong holiday, I know.

The very 2020 answer is, of course, COVID.  But what I am thinking about tonight is not just what is missing from this silent evening of virtual conferences and untaken standardized tests.  I am thinking about the holiday of Chanukah, which begins next week and what can be learned by refracting it through the lens of pandemic.

There is something about Chanukah which is tailor-made for this season.  Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday without a sacred text of its own.  (There is a Book of Maccabees, but it is part of the Catholic Bible.) Instead of a public reading, we are commanded to bear silent witness to the miracles of the season with a public doing – the lighting of candles in a window.

There’s nothing more COVID-friendly than a ritual that you do in your bubble, but visible to the public through a window!  That image – the action of a family candle-lighting silenced behind frozen glass – not only seems apropos of today (my first association is people visiting grandparents from the backyard) but also of Chanukah itself.

Chanukah is a fascinating holiday for many reasons.  In large part, the historical story is more of a civil war within Jewish society than a rebellion against a foreign power.  The Maccabees were fighting against (at least) two different strata of Jews – the Hellenizing elite and the acquiescing pietists.  The former were all too willing to assimilate and the latter believed it was only for God to act in the world.  The Maccabees took matters – and the covenant – into their own hands.  They were not content to let the world perfect itself; they understood themselves – and humanity – to be partners in the sacred work of repairing the world.

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but that idea of striking a balance between not letting the world overwhelm you, and taking appropriate action to perfect it, feels right for a Coronavirus Chanukah.  Since the Spring, we have been accustomed to controlling the things we can (hand-washing, masking, social distancing, bubbling, etc.) and forgoing precious, but now risky, experiences.  Perhaps as individuals that’s as much as we can do (which is still a lot!).  But as a society we aren’t simply content to let the virus do what it’s going to do; we have marshalled resources and expertise to develop therapeutics, vaccines, supply chains and distribution plans.  Like the Maccabbees, through human ingenuity and effort, we are active agents in our own salvation.

As we hopefully come through the virus night in the months ahead and begin to enter the vaccine day, let’s hope that by next Chanukah the image of a lit chanukkiah behind a window no longers resonates as COVID-proofing, but as a simple sharing of our collective joy of the holiday.

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

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

A Trip Around the OJCS Blogosphere

With the building largely sealed off due to COVID protocols, our classroom blogs and student blogfolios become even more important virtual windows into the innovative and exciting work happening at OJCS.  Recognizing that it still may be a new routine for families and that most families surely don’t have the bandwidth to visit all the blogs, it is my pleasure to serve as your occasional tour guide of The OJCS Blogosphere.  I do this a few times a year to inspire OJCS families to invest a little time, to inspire other schools and thought-leaders who may visit my blog from time to time, and to forge connections between our work and other fellow-travelers because we really do “learn better together” [North Star Alert!]  This week I will focus on classroom blogs…

From the OJCS (Middle School) Jewish Studies Blog (click here for the full blog)

Grade 8: Virtual Discussion with Tibor Egervari – Posted on November 23rd

Last week the students had the opportunity to engage in a discussion with a Holocaust survivor on Zoom. Our guest speaker, Tibor Egervari, shared his story and explain how he ended up in Canada. Tibor answered a variety of questions and provided the students with his unique insight. Tibor shared his own life lessons and encouraged our students to take a stand when they witness injustice occurring in our world. We are incredibly grateful that Tibor was able to share his perspective with us.

 

From the Grade Four – Kitah Dalet Blog (click here for the full blog)

It has been a busy few weeks… – Posted on November 11

From starting our new Science unit of ‘Sound’ to the new financial literacy math unit and looking at how maths is used in ‘real-life’, we are keeping ourselves busy and positive!

Check out our (physical distance, of course!) experiment of how sound moves in waves and causes vibrations by making our own Kazoo! I am sure Morah Ana-Lynn and Morah Andrea enjoyed the afternoon music…

Our new Grade 4 Student LOVED the playing in the first snowfall (Dare I tell her just how cold it gets!?)

Here the Grade 4s pose after a game of soccer

From the Kindergarten – Gan Blog (click here for the full blog)

Les voyelles – Posted on October 28

We are learning our French vowels! Throughout the last few weeks, we have read stories about each vowel, created booklets, used Play-Doh to make letters and played a variety of games!

French vowels are difficult because they do not sound the same in French as they do in English. Nonetheless, these kiddos are learning quickly and we have many almost-readers!

     

From the Grade 1 – Kitah Alef Blog (click here for the full blog)

In Honour of Our Veterans – Posted on November 19

Last week, our Grade 1 students wrote to our veterans to honour them. Please see the email below that Ellie received from the Canadian Legion in Westboro.  As always, we couldn’t be prouder of our students.

Good morning Ellie,

Thank you so much for giving Daphne the artwork your students did in honour of our veterans. I put a few of them up on our branch bulletin board, with credit to your school, and Daphne took the rest to give to the veterans, mostly elderly, she visits in her capacity as leader of our Hospital/Home visiting team. We think they will be both pleased and touched.

I was especially moved by this sentence in the message: I love that you saved us.

Remarkable.

I will do a Facebook post in the next couple of days to salute your young students.

Thanks again,
Claudine Wilson
Public Relations Officer
Westboro Legion

Our teachers and students are doing some pretty fantastic things, eh?

I will continue to encourage you to not only check out the blogs on The OJCS Blogosphere, but I strongly encourage you to offer a quality comment of your own.  Getting feedback and commentary from the universe is highly motivating and will help this snowball grow as it hurtles down the hill of innovative learning.

For our next tour, I’m going to give you a taste of what is happening with our Grades 4 – 7 student blogfolios.  Stay tuned!

Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter

Not once in my career have I had the pleasure of welcoming children into school in Kindergarten, watching them grow and mature, creating lasting and meaningful relationships, and then graduating them while shepping naches at what and who they have become.

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  In those 23 years of full-time work, I spent three years at the BJE-LA, three years at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, two years at Sutton Place Synagogue, five years at the Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas (SSDS-LV), four years at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), two years at the Schechter Day School Network, one year at Prizmah and I am in my fourth year here at OJCS.

Notice any trends?

I believe deeply in the human need to make meaning through stories and narratives and, thus, have always framed my career (and life) in terms of the chapters I have been able to co-author in the places I have been lucky enough lead.  These chapters have had differing lengths and different degrees of consequence, and those two things are not always so aligned.  I was the founding head of the SSDS-LV (z”l).  That was pretty significant for both me and the school.  My time at MJGDS was an extraordinary time of innovation and change -again both for me and the school.  I was the first – and last – director of an independent Schechter Day School Network (also z”l).  I was part of an amazing team of colleagues who helped birth Prizmah.  The work we are presently doing at OJCS in my first chapter here has been well-chronicled in this blog and thanks to an extraordinary team has exceeded all expectations.

The last time I wrote a “life transition” post, I had described my career as a series of “happy accidents” and I still stand by it, at least broadly speaking.  There is a lot of luck that goes into building a career.  There is also a lot of risk.  I have been fortunate that throughout most of my career, the choices have been mine to make and that when choices needed to be made, wonderful choices were available to choose.  That isn’t always true in this profession and timing is everything.  But to describe my career as a series of “accidents” is also a bit of a dodge.  It absolves me of the choices that I did in fact make along the way and the impact of those choices on the schools/organizations and communities that I left behind, not to mention on my wife and children.

This career didn’t just happen to me.  I largely made it happen and I am responsible for all the good, all the regret, all the accomplishments, all the unmet and unfulfilled expectations, all the extraordinary relationships, all the hurt feelings, and so on.  And that’s just the professional impact.  My children have had to move schools and start over more than once.  My wife has had to reestablish herself in school after school, and here in Ottawa to reinvent herself altogether.

Why have I never stayed long enough to write even a second chapter?

Ego, ambition and wanderlust.

There is value in having an ego and ambition.  They drive you towards achievement and success.  They require you to learn lots and to work hard.  And to be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone – including myself – for having ambition.  When success begets success and that next bigger or more complex opportunity arises, there is nothing wrong with going for it.  However, ego and ambition can also be dangerous, especially when they become ends and not means.  If you are constantly looking towards the next shiny thing, it makes it really hard to appreciate and enjoy what you presently have.  Ego also cuts both way.  It is not a sign of stable ego if you are easily seduced by every new opportunity; it is the opposite.  It is a fragile ego that needs to feel important and who reduces success to simple metrics (How big is the school?  How prominent?  How large the salary?).  It is also a sign of a fragile ego to put your professional ambition ahead of your family’s quality of life.  I have been that guy.  I have chased the ring.  I have picked up the phone.  I have asked my family to sacrifice their peace of mind on the altar of my ambition.

I am also someone who is attracted to the unique challenges of the start-up or the fixer-up, which also explains my career trajectory.  I have only really ever worked in places that were starting up or starting over.  I thrive in bringing order to chaos.  I do less well when order starts to take shape.  The simple truth is that I love to write first chapters.  That’s where a lot of the action takes place and the stories start to take shape.

But I am not the person I was five, ten and fifteen years ago.  What matters to me most and the kind of stories I want to write have (finally) evolved.  And so today, I am thrilled to share with you that after having worked with my board these last few months, that we have chosen here – the Ottawa Jewish Community School, the Ottawa Jewish Community and Ottawa itself – to finally write that second chapter.  For reasons related to my housing situation – and because round numbers are awesome – we will be tearing up the fifth and final year of my current contract and will replace it with a new contract that will keep us here at least five more years.

Why now and why here?

I can give all kinds of personal and family reasons.  My wife and children deserve some stability after 7 moves in 20 years.  My daughters deserve an opportunity to go through adolescence without the added stress of reinvention.  We believe that Ottawa (and Canada) is an ideal place to raise teenage girls in what is already a complicated and sometimes dangerous world.  We have found a neighborhood and support system that facilitates our observant Jewish lifestyle.  We think it will be wonderful for our children (and us) to eventually become dual citizens and for our children to have all the added opportunities (affordable and excellent universities!) that come with it.  We are still just beginning to get to know this city, province and country, but from what we have experienced thus far we feel comfortable and safe and happy here.  For those reasons alone, why wouldn’t we want to stay?

But please don’t think that I am simply settling.  Just because there are compelling personal reasons to stay doesn’t mean that professionally I am simply content to settle.  I may be slightly more mature, but I still carry lots of ambition.  This is not simply a personal decision; this is a business decision as well.

Professionally, I am as happy as I ever have been.  There were lots of challenges behind us and lots of challenges ahead of us (no chance of getting bored here!).  If my first chapter was about helping guide the school from a state of emergency to a state of stability, the next chapter will be about moving from stability to sustainability.  Please don’t think that my ambition about what can be true in Jewish day school has been lowered.  I still believe that Jewish day schools are/can/should be leading the educational (r)evolution and I know that OJCS is on the vanguard.  Our goal here at OJCS is to be the best school and even if we have not achieved it yet, we are definitely on our way.

I am blessed to work with a talented and growing administrative team, a gifted and dedicated teaching faculty, a strategic and nurturing board, supportive and committed donors, collaborative and creative institutional colleagues and a Jewish Federation that works hard to ensure that no one is left off the Jewish Superhighway.  Are there bigger and more prominent schools and Jewish communities?  Yes.  Are there schools with more resources?  Yes.  Does that mean that OJCS cannot become an innovative leader amongst Jewish day schools or Ottawan private schools?  Absolutely not.  The future of education is being written right here.   I am humbled to know that I will have a continuing hand in its authorship.

In the end, when faced with having to make a choice, the choice was clear.

I choose family.  I choose community.  I choose unlimited possibilities.  I choose innovation and excellence.  I choose the Jewish future.  I choose this school with these administrators and these teachers and these families and this board and these donors and these volunteers and this Jewish community.  I choose this time and this place to write a first second chapter.

I choose Ottawa.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Annual BlogCloud

Normally I save this annual exercise in running my blog through a word cloud app or website until the end of November.  When I was living in the States, it was because of the short week of Thanksgiving.  When I moved to Canada, it was because of my FOMO on American Thanksgiving (and because if you commit to writing a weekly blog post, they ain’t all going to be masterpieces.)  This year, however, considering my state of mind as an expat living through the ongoing federal election in the USA, I’m physically and emotionally exhausted!  So rather than wait a few more weeks, this seems like the perfect week (for me) to turn away from cable news and the constant refreshing of political websites, and return to a tried and true friend.

If you missed last year’s punny post

I genuinely do enjoy this annual exercise in “word-clouding”.  If you are unfamiliar with the idea, in a nutshell, word clouds (through an algorithm only they know) take any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  Another great feature is that, not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a word cloud representing the sum of all its written content.

This is my fourth such annual post here at OJCS and I have done them each, as stated above, in November.  So, what does this year’s BlogCloud look like and what does it reveal?  [If it is too small on your screen/device you can go ahead and zoom in.  Or just scroll up!]

I just put last and this years’ butterflies side-by-side to do a little comparison.  “Jewish”, “Teachers”, and “Students” are about the same size, but “Parents” is much smaller this year.  My only thought is that I spent so much time in March-April-May-June writing blog-length emails to parents that, perhaps, I didn’t feel the need to duplicate in this blog.  I surely don’t believe it is an intentional de-emphasis.   “Community”, “Learning” and “Time” continue to hold strong and I think it is interesting that “time” has so much focus.  Time really is one of the critical variables in learning and how we choose to use it has tremendous impact on teaching and learning.  “COVID” and “Coronavirus” make their obvious debuts.

What words would you have expected to see?  What words are you disappointed to see?

If you see something interesting in my OJCS BlogCloud, let me know in the comments!

Expat Files: Do Civics & Civility Begin At School?

Canada’s last federal election was just about a year ago (October 21, 2019) and as the head of a Canadian Jewish Day School – located in the federal capital no less – I have exactly no vivid memories of the election.

It isn’t that I don’t remember the run up, or the campaigns, or that there weren’t lots of spirited workplace conversation.  It isn’t that I don’t remember the election itself or the results or that people didn’t have feelings or opinions about the outcome.  All of those things happened.  But I cannot identify any specific moment or memory that stands out as noteworthy.

I was the head of an American Jewish Day School in 2008 (Las Vegas) and in 2012 (Jacksonville).  [In 2016, I was working for Prizmah.]  I have clear and distinct memories of both, and here I mean in terms of my normal workaday life in schools, not in my overall awareness.  I remember fraught and painful conversations as both faculty and parent communities tried to reconcile strong partisan feelings (and sometimes rancor) with our work to create safe, nurturing, inclusive school communities that were supposed to foster critical thinking skills.  The day after those elections were either funerals or celebrations depending on which team you were on.  You could see the secret high-fives and commiserating glances up and down the hallways.

Sen. Joe Lieberman Visits SSDS-LV, 2008

I don’t recall a single parent last year expressing a concern about how we were teaching or talking about the election.  Our Grade 8s had opportunity to meet with candidates and parties by virtue of our geography and I don’t recall a single parent asking that their child not be exposed to that person or that party.  In 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman (who at that point in his career was a John McCain surrogate) came to visit our tiny school in Las Vegas.  Let’s just say that people (including my father z”l) had feelings.  When Barack Obama became President and wanted to offer anodyne greetings as part of a “back to school” message, not only did we have to secure permission slips, we had families insist that their children be pulled out of class so as not to hear it.  In 2012, the most beloved teacher (Judy Reppert, z”l) in our school was bombarded with questions and criticisms as she tried to navigate “current events”.  When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to our Jewish Community Campus in 2018 for a Rosh Hashanah program, it raised exactly no eyebrows as community leaders – some of whom strongly oppose his politics – welcomed him and happily posed for selfies (guilty!).

PM Justin Trudeau Visits Ottawa Jewish Community Campus, 2018

Why?  Why this stark disparity in both civics and civility?  It is very tempting to be reductive (Canada, Good; America, Bad), but I neither feel that way nor is it true.  Political scientists will rightfully point to differing founding narratives, a huge disparity in homogeneity, surprisingly (to an uneducated American) different political systems, among other explanations.  But I am a school-person – my expertise is in education and my milieu are schools.   And so let me humbly suggest perhaps that civics and civility begin at school…

An illustration…

…I am usually the first person to arrive at school each day, after the security guards.  More often than not, I come in to find our two security guards engaged in high-level political discourse, not only about local and national politics, but about American and world politics.  They are well-read and well-informed.  I would wager that these two Canadian security guards know way more about American politics than any two average Americans.  I cannot be more clear that this is not a backhanded compliment or a knock on “security guards”.  What it is, is an indictment of civic engagement and information literacy in the States.

Our responsibility as schools seem simple, straightforward and entirely non-controversial.  We should educate our students as to how our political system works.  We should teach them the history of national politics.  We should instill in them the desire to participate fully in the political process and to proudly exercise their right to vote. We should encourage them to seek truth so that their beliefs and attitudes about how government should work (one of the definitions of “politics“) are rooted in objective reality.  They should learn to be respectful of differing opinions and to always keep an open mind.  And they should honour the office regardless of who holds it.

The most difficult trend in political discourse (particularly in the States), which impacts our ability to help students “seek truth,” is the seeming inability to agree on an objective truth – about just about anything.  This is particularly challenging in schools where the ability to develop critical thinking skills is amongst our highest responsibilities.  Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.  Or at least they used to be.

As facts themselves have been called into question, politicized, and debated, it makes it more challenging for schools to play their proper roles.  We want to provide students with the tools and skills they need to discern truth from fiction, fact from opinion.  Armed with facts, they can then form informed opinions.  When we cannot collectively point to a fact and call it a “fact” any hope for intelligent debate fades away.  What is a school (or society) to do?

Teach, that’s what.

We lean into civic engagement and information literacy.  Here, in our nation’s capital, we are blessed to have lots of opportunity to connect our school and students to the political process.  Our teachers (primarily, but not exclusively, in Social Studies) take this work seriously.  It is not extracurricular; it is curricular.  We are also blessed here with a wonderful librarian who has serious information literacy chops.  Brigitte Ruel has the best OJCS blog that you are not reading often enough.  Our students are provided with the tools they need to determine what is and what is not a credible source, how to be a “fact finder” in a time of misinformation, and how be an ace fact-checker.  And those are just examples…

Civility is not merely a concept, but a value, and one that schools should be able to model as well as teach.  We certainly do our best here. Elections are an exciting time to be a citizen.  As Jewish day schools, they are powerful opportunities to demonstrate how to have complicated and important conversations in accord with our highest values.  All we can do is our best. We try to live up to our ideals.  We teach facts.  We provide respectful space for opinions.  We encourage civic participation.

We witness history and celebrate the miracle of democracy.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Coronavirus Diaries: Preparing the Pivot

This blog post is not intended to indicate any inside information about impending school closures!  I know no more than anyone else about how long we will be blessed with in-person learning at OJCS.  Despite all the challenges – the daily stressors on families when symptoms and exposures occur, the life juggling required to accomodate unplanned learning from home and the extraordinary responsibility our teachers have assumed with grace and care to provide seamless hyflex learning – we are doing remarkably well!  I can’t visit classrooms like I used to, but from what I can see with my own eyes or on a screen, we are delivering on our promise.

Part of what happens at the beginning of each year at OJCS, is that I meet with each teacher to develop an individualized Professional Growth Plan (PGP) for the year.  We believe deeply in lifelong learning and our teachers all establish growth goals to help them be the best teachers they can be.  Through those conversations, we have come to believe that one thing we can be doing now – ahead of any pivot to distance learning should it come – is to role-play distance learning here in school.  We didn’t have any time last year to experience distance learning from the back-end (what does it look like from the student’s perspective?) or to do specific skill-building or troubleshooting, especially at the youngest grades.  We are encouraging all our teachers to take the time now, while we have it, to dedicate a period, a block, a half-day or even a full day to role-play “Distance Learning in Grade X”.  Let’s have the teacher teach from his or her device while students learn from theirs.  Let’s have the teacher create asynchronous lessons that students should (even in K) be able to navigate without (or with limited) parent support and see what happens.

What does this mean for me now?

Great question!  Not much.  You may wish to pay attention to how and when your child(ren)’s teacher(s) schedule these simulated days.  If your child is in Grades K-3, you may see a request from teachers that those students who do have access to devices (tablets or laptops) begin to bring them to school (if you are comfortable).  Whereas we are BYODevice in Grades 4-8, we rely on the school’s iPads in Grades K-3.  Although we are looking to add to our current supply, if you have a device that your child in Grades K-3 would likely be using in the case of a pivot, you may wish to send it for these scheduled practices.

Besides access to devices, how else are teachers preparing for the pivot?

We are seeing a direct result of the learning teachers did during our Pre-Planning Week and an increase in successful asynchronous and hyflex learning.  Please revisit this post to see why and how your child(ren)’s teacher(s) are beginning to embrace platforms like Classkick and Nearpod.

How else can we – as parents – prepare for the pivot?

Another excellent question!  Here, I would advise you to revisit this post from last spring that clarified home expectations.  Our goal is NOT to provide materials for homeschooling!  Our goal is to allow high-quality, rigourous, OJCS learning to happen at home.

 

We don’t know if and when this is coming, but we do know that we want to be as prepared as we can.  If we do these things now when we have ample opportunity to correct, adjust and adapt, it will make any kind of pivot that much more seamless and successful.

If you were playing the COVID “pivot” drinking game, please find a comfortable place to rest for the rest of the day!

This is normally the time of year where I post an update of our school’s philosophy with regard to standardized testing as we prepare to take this year’s exam.  This was the year that we were scheduled to pilot the CAT-5 (we have been taking the CAT-4) and to again expand the grades who take it.  The eventual goal is for each grade to take this exam each year so that we have the most actionable data.  This year, however, the CAT-5 will not roll out due to COVID and most private schools have decided to pause standardized testing.  We, too, shall pause although I would have loved to see the data.  Our theory of the case is that we did not see too much slippage last spring because of our response.  I would love to see if the data bore that out, but even figuring out the logistics of proctoring these exams in compliance with safety protocols is not a good use of our resources.  We look forward to resuming standardized testing in 2020-2021.