The Coronavirus Diaries: A Fifth Question for a Pandemic Passover

As was true in last week’s post, we continue to navigate uncharted territory – at home, at work and here in school.  As we close out Phase I of the OJCS Distance Learning Program this week and prepare to launch Phase II on Monday, April 20th – with no way to predict how long we will be in it – we are doing our best to approximate and innovate the kinds of Passover programming one would typically expect to find in a Jewish day school headed into its Passover Break. We may not have had the kinds of model sedarim we would typically run, but we did have lots of experiences, singalongs, show-and-tell’s and other creative ways to bring the (virtual) joy of the season into our students’ homes and families.  I continue to be equal parts grateful and awestruck by what our teachers are able to create and what our families are capable of doing.

I mentioned last week, that one outcome of social distancing during Passover is that many of us may be leading our first seders in quite a while.  That’s why I gave my “New and Revised for COVID-19 Top 10 Tips for Planning a Seder Too Good to Passover” and I hope they were helpful.  There is one tradition for upgrading and updating a seder that I have highlighted in the past, that I would also like to revisit and reframe for the times we are living in.

It has become a tradition for organizations to use the pedagogy of Passover to advocate for causes.  We can change customs (“The Four Children”), add customs (“Miriam’s Cup), or adjust customs.  One common adjustment is the addition of a “Fifth Question”.  In addition to the traditional “Four Questions,” we add one to address important issues of the day.  You can go online and find a myriad of examples of “fifth questions” that deal with everything from gun violence, hunger, drought, Israel, peace, etc.  You can find a “fifth question” for almost every cause.

Of course sometimes the questions and the conversations they inspire are more important than the answers…

As we collectively prepare to celebrate our fragile freedoms in a time of pandemic and social distancing, I would like to share with you some of my “fifth questions”:

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5780

Head of the Ottawa Jewish Day School: Why is this conversation about OJCS different than all other ones?

Jewish Day School Practitioner: How will I take the things that were positive, successful, innovative, relationship-building, personalizing, differentiated, globally-connected, quiet/introvert-amplifying and meaningful about working in a distance learning program and incorporate them into schooling when we return to school?

Israel Advocate: How can I be inspired by the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” to inspire engagement with Israel during a time when I am unable to visit?

American Expatriate in Canada: What can I learn from how my current home is approaching COVID-19 that would be of value to colleagues, family and friends in the States?

Parent: How will I take advantage of all the extra time that I am getting with my children during a time of social distancing (#COVID19SilverLinings)?  What new routines (#DaddyDaughterPE) will I try to incorporate into my parenting when things go back to normal?

What are some of your “Fifth Questions” this year?

Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach…

You Can’t Count On Uncle Moishy This Year – NEW & REVISED Tips for Planning Your Pandemic Seder Too Good to Passover

In the rush to figure out how to work, study and live in this time of social distancing, it may just now be occurring to you that if your family is going to have a meaningful Passover Seder this year, that is actually going to be up to you to plan and lead it!  If you have been lucky (that may not be the right adjective for each family) enough to be a guest at someone else’s seder for years and years, you haven’t had to take responsibility for anything other than showing up (and hopefully helping to clean the dishes).  During this year’s Pandemic Passover, when each family is likely looking at an intimate family experience, whatever kind of seder is going to happen, is going to happen because of you.

But don’t worry!  This blog post that you have likely ignored each year, is right here again, ready and updated for just such an emergency!

The first time I took responsibility for leading the seder from my father (of blessed memory), I was in the middle of my studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and deeply immersed in Jewish text and learning.  I was eager to discuss the history of the traditions, ready to parse language, prepared to study the midrash, excited to sing the traditional liturgy and totally misread the room.  I had a great seder, but I’m pretty sure no one else did!  But over lots of time and practice, I have mostly kind of figured out how to blend the traditional structure, text, prayers and songs along with newer innovations and customs into something that makes sense for the ranges of ages and backgrounds who come to my mother’s table each year in Las Vegas.

This year, however, our seder table – like most, if not all, of yours – will now be reduced to my immediate family and so even I am rethinking my plans.  The seder is still a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they still might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The seder was originally designed to be an interactive, thought-provoking, and enjoyable experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even in this most unusual of years.

Without further adieu, here are my revised top ten suggestions on how to make this year’s seder a more positive and meaningful experience:

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

The core mitzvah of Passover is telling the story.  Until the 9th century, there was no clear way of telling the story.  In fact, there was tremendous fluidity in how the story was told.  The printing press temporarily put an end to all creativity of how the story was told.  But we need not limit ourselves to the words printed in the Haggadah.  [This may be especially true if you have not been hosting Passover and don’t actually have haggadot.  Mine are with my Mom – so, we are dusting off some vintage ones this year.  If you Google “online haggadot” you will find lots of options.]  This could be done by means of a skit, game, or informally going around the table and sharing each person’s version of the story.

If there are older members at the table, this might be a good time to hear their “story,” and perhaps their “exodus” from whichever land they may have come.  If your older members are not able to be with you this year, you might wish to consider asking them write or record their stories, which you could incorporate into your seder (depending on your level of observance).  There will surely be lots of families who will be using technology to expand their seder tables to include virtual friends and families – again depending on your level of observance you could consider beginning elements of your seder before candle-lighting to incorporate this element.

2.  Sing Songs

If your family enjoys singing, the seder is a fantastic time to break out those vocal cords!  In addition to the traditional array of Haggadah melodies, new English songs are written each year, often to the tunes of familiar melodies.  Or just spend some time on YouTube! Alternatively, for the creative and adventurous souls, consider writing your own!

3.  Multiple Haggadot

For most families, I would recommend choosing one haggadah to use at the table.  This is helpful in maintaining consistency and ensuring that everyone is “on the same page.”  Nevertheless, it is also nice to have extra haggadot available for different commentaries and fresh interpretations.  Of course, this year, you may be getting by with whatever you can find around the house or what you can get from Amazon Prime!  But don’t let that inhibit you from moving forward – the core elements are essentially the same from one to the other.  Let the differences be opportunities for insight not frustration.

4.  Karpas of Substance

One solution to the “when are we going to eat” dilemma, is to have a “karpas of substance.”  The karpas (green vegetable) is served towards the beginning of the seder, and in most homes is found in the form of celery or parsley.  In truth, karpas can be eaten over any vegetable over which we say the blessing, “borei pri ha’adamah,” which praises God for “creating the fruit from the ground.”  Therefore, it is often helpful to serve something more substantial to hold your guests over until the meal begins.  Some suggestions for this are: potatoes, salad, and artichokes.

When candle-lighting times are late or children’s patience runs short, you should try to eat your gefilte fish before the seder.

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your partner and children a little homework.  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  This could be the year you go all in and come in costume – dress like an ancient Israelite or your favorite plague – your kids can’t worry about being embarrassed in front of their friends this year!

6.  Know Your Audience

This one seems kinda obvious this year…if you don’t your family by now, we can’t really help you by Passover.

7.  Fun Activities

Everyone wants to have a good time at the seder.  Each year, try something a little different to add some spice to the evening.  Consider creating a Passover game such Pesach Family Feud, Jewpardy, or Who Wants to be an Egyptian Millionaire?!  Go around the table and ask fun questions with serious or silly answers.

8.  Questions for Discussion

Depending on the ages of your children, this one may be hard to calibrate, but because so often we are catering to the youngest at the table, it is easy to forget that an adult seder ought to raise questions that are pertinent to the themes found in the haggadah.  For example, when we read “ha lachma anya—this is the bread of affliction,” why do we say that “now we are slaves?”  To what aspects of our current lives are we enslaved?  How can we become free?  What does it mean/what are the implications of being enslaved in today’s society?

We read in the haggadah, “in each generation, one is required to see to onself as if s/he was personally redeemed from Egypt.”  Why should this be the case?  How do we go about doing that?  If we really had such an experience, how would that affect our relationship with God?

One assumes – and I’ll have more to say about this next week – that the current situation may raise new questions or may cause us to view familiar text and traditions in new ways.  As you read through the haggadah, push yourself to ask these type of questions, and open them up for discussion.

9.  Share Family Traditions

Part of the beauty of Passover, is the number of fascinating traditions from around the world.  This year, in particular, is a great opportunity to begin a new tradition for your family.  One family I know likes to go around the table and ask everyone to participate in filling the cup of Elijah.  As each person pours from his/her cup into Elijah’s, s/he offers a wish/prayer for the upcoming year.  What are you going try this year?

10.  Preparation

The more thought and preparation given to the seder, the more successful the seder will be.  That may feel challenging or overwhelming this year, but however much time and attention you can put into your planning, you won’t regret it.  If you are an OJCS (or Jewish day school family), lean on your children – you paid all this money for a high-quality Jewish education, put them to work!  Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

Next week, we’ll revisit the tradition of adding a “Fifth Question” in light of current circumstances.

The Coronavirus Diaries: Distance Learning Amplifies Introverted Voices

Let’s say you have 20 students in a class and you have 1 hour available to teach.  If all that happened during that period was giving each student an opportunity to speak, each student would have three minutes of airtime.  That’s if the teacher doesn’t say a single word, if the entire lesson was given over to student voice, and each student spoke for the exact same length of time.  Since that never happens, if you did the math, how much time do you think a teacher actually spends hearing directly from his or her most shy/introverted/speech-challenged students during an average lesson?  Or during an average day, week, month or year?

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday and we were comparing notes about what good is coming from our schools being forced to go entirely virtual for an unknown length of time.  We were able to come up with a pretty robust list – facility with new pedagogies/platforms and increased emphasis on differentiation/personalization immediately leapt to mind.  But what I want to focus on here is another unintended benefit of going remote – a #COVID19SilverLining so says the trending hashtag – the opportunity to hear the voices that are oftentimes drowned out or kept silent by the normal course of schooling.  A lot of teachers are going get a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students. Distance learning is going to unleash and amplify introverted voices to everyone’s benefit.

In a blog post a few weeks back where I (re)introduced you to our student blogfolios, I said that:

But what I enjoy seeing the most is the range of creativity and personalization that expresses itself through their aesthetic design, the features they choose to include (and leave out), and the voluntary writing.

And that is totally true.  But what is also true, is that reading student voices or watching student videos or viewing student artwork through their blogfolios unlocks voices and personalties that don’t always come through in face-to-face engagement.  There are students who have extraordinary senses of humor and who are brilliantly creative and I had no idea!  Blogs and blogfolios allow teachers and administrators to get to know our students more fully and through commentary allow us to relationship-build more meaningfully.  That is why they are powerful pedagogies in normal circumstances.  What is true for blogs and blogfolios normally is now true for much of distance learning for all our students for much of our day.

The nature of the beast is that distance learning reduces the amount of frontal and whole-class learning (although it still has a place) and increases the amount of small-group and individual learning.  Those latter forms of learning still happen across a variety of platforms – live in Google Meeting, independently at home, postings on blogs/blogfolios/GoogleDocs, etc. – but they all allow for, or really require, more individual contact time between teacher and student.

We are just three days into the OJCS Distance Learning Program. Our soft launch is concluding today with student and parent surveys. All that we learned this week will be factored into the launch of Phase I, which begins on Monday and will last for two weeks.  Our students and our parents and our teachers are overwhelmed and exhausted and proud and exhilarated all at the same time.  We have already gained so much from having this experience.  But one of the biggest gains has come in our teachers’ ability to better know and to spend more time with the students they not have the bandwidth to lean into when we have crowded rooms and limited time.

We are all anxious to know if and when we are going to return to brick-and-mortar schooling.  But what we are learning about how to reach all our students, how to ensure all voices are heard, and the enhanced relationships that come as a result of new methods – all of that has to come with us when we do return.  If we can learn from this experience how to unleash the passion and talents of all our students – loud and quiet – well, that would be one heckuva #COVID19SilverLining.

The Coronavirus Diaries: School-At-Home ≠ Homeschool

How quickly the world turns…

Four days ago, we were celebrating Ruach Week and I was dressed like a pirate.  Today, we are preparing to launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program and I am dressed like a teenager.  Four days ago, we weren’t sure if we were going to close.  Today, we aren’t sure if we are going to reopen.

I cannot believe how quickly things have moved and I cannot believe how quickly our school and our teachers have mobilized a response. Sure we had started talking about what would need to be true for us to go live with a distance learning program, but even I wouldn’t have thought we’d be able to switch tracks on a dime.  [I am just as impressed with how our entire Jewish Community has responded, led by Andrea Freedman and our Jewish Federation.]  But I am most impressed by our parents.  With all the challenges of transitioning to telecommuting, preparing for creative childcare, and just the nuts and bolts of being at home for a sustained period of time – plus balancing all the anxiety and concern that is so understandable – we have been so blessed to see such positive attitudes and growth mindsets.

Maybe I am still getting used to #CanadaNice, but to all the people who have found time to express their appreciation for the work the school has been doing, please know that it is greatly appreciated.  Please also know that it takes our entire team of teachers and staff to make this happen and they are just as worthy, if not more, for your appreciation.

If you thought 1,000+ words in a blog post is fun, you must really be enjoying my daily emails!  I imagine that once we launch that the email traffic (at least from me) will recede, but we are trying to strike the right balance between sharing too much and sharing too little.  I am also trying to find my balance between what information belongs here, in my blog, and what can remain contained to direct email.  I don’t want my blog to be repetitive for parents, but there is a wider audience I want looped into our work.  (Why?  Because of the “moral imperative of sharing”.  We learn from other schools and other schools learn from us.)

So in this section, I am going to cherrypick the most salient issues from parent emails.  If you have already read them, feel free to jump to the next section.

  • As previously stated, our Department of Special Needs is reaching out to each family of a child who has a support plan or IEP to discuss how we are going to continue to support and make accommodations during this transition.
  • We spoke today with Shannon Lavalley, our school’s psychotherapist, and she wanted to share out a few things…
…as JFS plans its transition to e-counseling, Shannon’s individual sessions with OJCS students is on hold.  She will be directly in contact with those families to discuss next steps once they have worked out their logistical concerns.

…we will be adding a blog for Shannon in the days ahead.  This is where Shannon can and will share out global advice and resources for OJCS families during this challenging time.  In the meanwhile, she recommends:

  • We are beginning to think about how our special school community can help ward off the coming social recession as social distancing kicks in.  Our PTA is brainstorming virtual social opportunities and calling on parents who have bandwidth to email the PTA (pta@theojcs.ca) with proposed day/time/subject.  We are thinking about things like, “PTA Happy Hour” on Thursday at 4:00 PM.  Or “Family Passover Baking” or “Adult Yoga” or “Managing Children’s Anxiety”.  We would love a blend of fun and practical ideas; #TheOJCSDifference isn’t just for students.

Our main story today, however, is about structuring a learning environment conducive to the OJCS Distance Learning Program.  Or as the blog post title suggests, what does it mean for students to participate in a “school at home” program and not homeschooling?

The biggest difference is that we do not wish for parents to have to serve as teachers.  The majority of our parents will, themselves, be trying to figure out how to perform their own jobs by remote and are not educators.  We aren’t putting together plans and activities for our parents to facilitate with their children.  We plan on providing schooling itself, albeit through a creative blend of live, remote and at-home experiences.

Let’s name that depending on people’s homes, access to devices, techno-comfort, childcare needs, etc., etc., that very few homes will be operating in what we would consider to be an “optimal environmental setting”.

What is an optimal environmental setting?

The ideal, which we imagine very few families will be able to navigate, has each OJCS student in your family logged in and actively engaged throughout his or her school day.  That they are alone in a room with a device that allows them to participate in all the live experiences, while having access to their books and materials to participate in all the remote experiences.  That when the schedule calls for breaks, that healthy snacks are available.  That when the schedule calls for physical activity, that materials or space is available.  That those who have enough executive functioning skills will be able to self-navigate and that those who do not will have enough access to an adult to find success.

Will that be equally true for each student in each grade in each family?

For sure no!  That’s why we are building care and concern, flexibility and freedom, attendance and accountability into the system.  It is also why we will be surveying families along the way to see what we can do to make things easier or more effective when we can.

Can we talk about screen time?

Let’s name that we will all need to be more flexible in our understandings of “screen time”.  Opting for a screen when lots of IRL (“in real life”) experiences were available was never our goal at OJCS.  But now that we are living in the “upside-down” it is possible that use of technology will provide our students with more and richer IRL experiences, that through technology we can combat social isolation with conversation, faces and laughter.  All “screen time” was not, and definitely now, is not equal.

Family Kabbalat Shabbat is best done with us all together in the Chapel.  But live-streaming it this Friday, through a screen, is going to be way better than not having it all!  (Hope you join me!)

Tomorrow, we launch a new chapter in our school’s journey.  Whether it winds up being a three-week, five-week or rest-of-the-school-year journey is not yet clear.  What is clear, however, is that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last three year, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  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.

This chapter in our journey may have been totally unexpected, but it does not delay us from our ultimate destination.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   The future begins tomorrow.

The Coronavirus Diaries: And So It Begins…

Today was amongst the proudest of my entire professional career.  No one is looking for a pandemic to justify everything one believes to be true about teaching and learning and nothing about school closures is worthy of celebration.

But.

Our teachers and our school were made for this moment.

With only a few weeks of prior planning, we seamlessly transitioned into an entire day of PD and meetings to finalize the soft launch of our OJCS Distance Learning Program for next week.  We met both by grade level and by subject matter to lay out the when and the what as well as the how to navigate this new world that we are entering.  We met on Zoom and on GoogleHangout.  We created calendars, schedules, resources, links, folders and drives.  Our teachers were professional and prepared.  Sure, they – like you – are anxious, but they are also in good spirits because all the work we have done over the last two years and more have uniquely prepared us for moving to remote learning on a dime.  We did not invest time and resources in new platforms and pedagogies because we ever could have imagined a school closure of this nature.  We did not pioneer blogs and blogfolios because we thought we’d need to build a Distance Learning Program around them. But boy are we happy we have done all that and more in times like these…

For the non-OJCS parents who read my blog and who may already be in closure or preparing for it, here is a snippet of what we shared out today:

“(I)n light of the decision of fellow Jewish day schools in Ontario and to remain abundantly cautious, we have taken the step to close school through April 20th.  We will reassess as we get closer to Passover Break as to when and how to physically reopen.

Here is what it means.

The school building will be open on Monday, March 16th.  This is to provide teachers and students with an opportunity to come and retrieve all the books, devices, materials, etc., that will be needed to navigate the OJCS Distance Learning Program that will launch.  The Library will be open from 9:00 – 2:00 PM for anyone who needs to stock up on library books.  We understand and respect that not everyone may feel comfortable reentering the building, but please know that according to Public Health there is no additional risk involved.  Please additionally know that the Campus took advantage of today’s closure to do a deep clean if that provides added comfort.  [Let me take a moment to personally thank Andrea Freedman and Federation who have been tremendous partners during this difficult moment.]

We will be sending out schedules for the soft launch of our OJCS Distance Learning Program by the end of day on Monday.

We will be holding a Virtual Parent Town Hall to explain the OJCS Distance Learning Program on Tuesday, March 17th at 7:00 PM.  (Link to follow.)

We will soft launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program on Wednesday, March 18th.

We will officially launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program on Monday, March 23rd.

Additionally, report cards will go home electronically on Monday and we will encourage families wishing for Parent-Teacher Conferences to either use the existing schedule for phone conversations or to reach out and schedule directly with your child(ren)’s teacher(s).”

I am so incredibly proud of our teachers who have put this program together professionally and quickly.  Each day will have structure, accountability, learning and experiences.  There will be a blend of live experiences, recorded experiences, links, etc., that are age- and subject-appropriate.  We recognize that there will be childcare and technological challenges to work through and are prepared to navigate both with the utmost flexibility and care.  Although we will need to lean into technology, please know that we do not expect any child to be in front of a screen or a device the whole day long.  There will be lots of structured activities that do not require technology, although the technology will likely be the jumping off point.

Most importantly, is that we will be providing high-quality secular, Jewish and French education and experiences that ensure that our graduates are prepared for success in Grade 9 and that all our students are adequately prepared to be promoted into their next grade level.

These are the times where I feel grateful to be part of such an extraordinary community of teachers, students, parents and institutions.  Working and pulling together, we will ensure that we are safe and that the learning continues.  And that is truly and emphatically #TheOJCSDifference.

I will be using “The Coronavirus Diaries” as a way of sharing out broader issues to our parents, our local community and the community of Jewish and secular educators who read my blog.  I will have thoughts and advice to share with parents about how to structure time and space to facilitate distance learning.  I will have thoughts and advice to share with teachers and colleagues about how to run an educational institution by remote.  (First tip – don’t let yourself go to the kitchen every time you are hungry.)  I will also hope that as people have no choice, but to be more engaged in use of blogs during these times, that people will begin to comment and share resources here and elsewhere.  It will take a virtual village to get us through and I believe deeply in the “moral imperative of sharing”.  I will share with you…and I hope you share with me.

Be safe.  Be smart.  But don’t panic.  We will come out of this stronger and better teachers and schools as a result.