The Grit to Graduate: My Charge to the Coronavirus Class of 2020

Over a decade ago, academic and psychologist Angela Duckworth released her first paper on the notion of grit and its application to education.  In both her TED Talk and her book, Duckworth defines grit as “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” that is a key ingredient for high achievement, not only in school, but in life.  If there was ever an adjective that described this year it would be “grit”.  And if there was ever a class who could successfully, not only survive, but thrive in a school year complicated by COVID, it would be this (first) Coronavirus Class of 2020.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners in grit and resilience…

The Perseverance of Parents

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who persevered to opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journey.  A year like this one sharpens both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices, those sacrifices and proves the power of perseverance.

The Passion of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during this most unusual of school years.  When I think of all the reasons why our school was able to so successfully transition to distance learning for the last third of the school year, I would place their passion at the top of the list.  “Passion” marks the spot where teachers move from good to great and where teaching moves from occupation to calling.  Passion for students means that relationships become prioritized and through relationships the magic of learning is amplified.  Passion for learning means lifelong learning and through lifelong learning comes new and innovative practices, pedagogies and platforms.  Passion for community means choosing to work and stay in a school that may not have all the bells and whistles, but does have all the heart and soul, and through community we become family.  Passion is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and proves the power of passion.

The Grit of Graduates

“A combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” really makes an apt description of the OJCS Class of 2020.  That “singularly important goal” is different for each one of you and it has changed and grown as you have changed and grown.  But what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring these unique qualities of passion and perseverance to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring them to your academic challenges and you bring them to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring them to your varying Jewish commitments and you bring them to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And all of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  This year, however, was of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many of the capstone experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  But it is here, too, where you have shown your grit and your character.  You have hung together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential, and, thus proves the promise of grit.

Our OJCS “North Star” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

“Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.

“Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.

“We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.

“We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do great deeds and be inspired to learn more.

“We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous, but required.

“We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.

The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Creates & Delivers PPE to Hillel Lodge

There is some irony (that may not be the best word) that COVID-19 delayed our official grand opening of the OJCS Makerspace (with generous support from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CSBO) Legacy Endowment Fund), and that the OJCS Makerspace has yielded our school’s first significant contribution to the community’s response to COVID-19.  We had softly opened the space prior to pivoting to distance learning while furniture and equipment were still coming in, but our official grand opening had to be indefinitely postponed.  This week, however, we got a firsthand look at what having a makerspace for our students can mean for their learning and for our community.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) describes a debate about whether the study of Torah leads to action or whether action leads to the study of Torah, and like most talmudic debates, the answer is, of course, “yes”.  At the Ottawa Jewish Community School, we deliberately create experiences and learning holistically.  Our Jewish learning and values inspire us take action to repair the world and our engagement in the world inspires us to further our Jewish learning.  This project is a wonderful embodiment of this idea in practice.

Going back a number of weeks, a parent and frontline healthcare professional, Dr. Joanne Tannebaum, came to us with an idea.  A colleague of hers had worked out a design for 3D-printing face shields and “ear-savers” and she wanted to know if we wanted to participate.  We talked it through, brought in our Middle School Science Teacher Josh Ray, and decided that the most logical partnership for our Community School would be the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge, our community’s Jewish Home for the Aged.  I reached to their CEO, Ted Cohen, and with his enthusiastic support and partnership, we were on our way!

The next step was to host a meeting between our Middle School, Dr. Tannenbaum and the leadership from Hillel Lodge to officially launch our project for producing PPE for their frontline healthcare workers through our school’s 3D printer.  During that meeting, our students got a chance to hear firsthand about the importance of PPE and were given both a design challenge (How can we make face shields and surgical masks more comfortable?) and a practical challenge (How will we create, assemble and deliver the final product?).

Mr. Ray went ahead and safely retrieved our school’s 3D printer from the Makerspace, gathered supplies, recruited student volunteers and the work began!

The easier of the two to produce is the ear-saver:

OJCS 3D-Printed “Ear-Savers” for Surgical Masks

This item helps anyone who has to wear a surgical mask or face shield relieve the pressure off their ears.  You loop your mask on the appropriate notch and voilà – your ears are spared.  This one is easily printed, comes in lots of colours, and our students have even managed to personally inscribe messages.

Why does this work matter?  Let’s see what Mr. Ray has to say:

For me, this project is so important for many reasons. It teaches students 21st century skills like 3D modeling, while connecting the importance of community and empathy at the same time. I think everyone is always looking to serve, and give back wherever possible. The need for PPE in the community has provided both the students and I that opportunity. I’m so proud of the commitment and character shown from the group of students that volunteered their own time to get involved.

OJCS 3D-Printed Face Shields

The face shields were a little more complicated.  Because we have a smaller-sized 3D printer, it took some time, research and trial-and-error to find a program that allowed us to print plastic to hold a full-sized shield.  But Mr. Ray and team eventually figured it out and we are thrilled that we can now deliver these to Hillel Lodge.

Our first (there will be more!) delivery took place on Wednesday, June 17th and it was wonderful have a couple of our Grade 8 students – Talia C. and Jessica A. – join me, Mr. Ray, Ted Cohen, Karin Bercovitch, CFO and Morag Burch, Director of Nursing to commemorate the occasion.

What is the impact of this project?  Let’s see what Mr. Cohen has to say:

All long-term care homes including the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge has a critical responsibility to keep our residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal Protective Equipment such as face-shields and masks are vital to protecting our residents and staff during this pandemic. We are grateful for the strong partnership we have with the Ottawa Jewish Community School and for their assistance creating face-shields and masks extenders for our front-line workers. This innovative initiative is not only an educational experience for the students but provides our team with vital supplies. We are thankful for the assistance we’ve received and look forward to continuing to develop our partnership.

At the end of the day, this is an example of what it means to live our values, to reach towards those North Stars.  I cannot think of a better way to express what it means when “We own our own learning,” and then make sure that “We are each responsible one to the other”.  I know that it is easy to reduce things to slogans and hashtags (guilty as charged), but slogans and hashtags are meaningful when they serve as both reminders and catalysts.

So, what does it mean when we say #WhenTorahLeadsToAction?  Let’s ask Talia:

It was such a meaningful experience for me to be able to help my community in a time of crisis. It always feels good to give back to the Jewish Community, and be a part of something bigger.

What does it mean when we say #TheOJCSDifference?  Let’s ask Jessica:

Over the years, Hillel Lodge has provided me with so many life lessons and experiences that have enriched me as a person. Since kindergarten I have been involved with Hillel Lodge therefore, I wanted to give back to a place that has so much significance in my life.

Thanks to everyone at OJCS and Hillel Lodge who played a role in bringing this partnership and project to life!  Let our next innovative collaboration be inspired by health and joy…

The Coronavirus Diaries: We Won’t Go BACK To School; We Will Go Forward

Phase II of the Ottawa Jewish Community School’s Distance Learning Program launched on Monday, April 20th upon our return from Passover Break.  “Phase II” came after both a “Soft Launch” and a “Phase I” and each iteration was developed based on feedback from student/parent/teacher surveys, shared experiences from schools on similar journeys (especially the ones a few weeks ahead) and best practices from educational experts.  Each phase has us moving farther from simply trying to reproduce brick-and-mortar schooling in a virtual context and moving closer to creating meaningful learning experiences through distance learning.

Although the spectra on which each calibration has been based – live experiences/recorded experiences, synchronous/asynchronous, teacher-directed learning/self-directed learning, group learning/independent learning, device-dependent learning/device-free learning, etc. – remain the same, we believe that each new phase has fine-tuned the program so that the highest number of students can find the highest degree of success within the range.  We know that with each family situation and each child’s learning style being highly personal that there are no one-size-fits-all programs.  We believe that we have landed in the right place – for now – and that our continuous seeking of feedback and ongoing flexibility will allow for the successful navigation of individual concerns.

We don’t know when we will return to school.  (Technically, the current restrictions end on May 4.)  We developed and launched Phase II to accommodate schooling through the end of the school year.  We would be thrilled to return sooner.  We are hopeful that the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year will take place in our classrooms.  We know that at some point in the future that we will return.  But as one of my gurus in the field Heidi Hayes Jacobs recently said,

We have to start thinking about how we don’t go back to school, but how we go forward to school.

This quote was brought to us by our friend and colleague Silvia Tolisano, whose name you may recognize because she was one of the consultants who worked with our faculty last year on innovative pedagogies and documentation of/for/as learning, who facilitated our April Faculty Meeting this week.  And like every professional development experience with Silvia (and I am lucky enough to have had a decade’s worth across two schools and four organizations), our teachers and administrators came out of it with just the right blend of feeling overwhelmed and inspired.  “Overwhelmed” because Silvia is a fountain of information, pedagogies, ideas, techniques and tricks that seems impossible for any one person to learn, let alone master.  “Inspired” because Silvia gives you permission to dream big dreams, encourages you to see challenges as opportunities, and urges you that the future is right around the corner with our children deserving nothing less than an education that will prepare them for their future success.

This extraordinary moment we are living, teaching and learning through will eventually end, but it would be a huge mistake to go back to school as it was when we have an opportunity to go forward to school as it ought to be.  This moment, however long it lasts, is a challenge, but it is also an amazing opportunity to try learn and to try and to fail and to succeed.  We are only (!) in our fourth week of distance learning, but I feel very strongly that there are five clear ways that we will want to go forward to school.

Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices

This is something that I recently blogged about, so I won’t repeat myself here.  I will simply say that I continue to find just in my own (limited) teaching and engagement with blogs and blogfolios that the use of chat rooms, the facilitation of Google Meetings with clear and obvious rules for muting and speaking, and the use of self-recorded audio and video continues to allow me to see facets of our children’s personalities and depth of thought that would surely be lost in a healthily noisy classroom context.  The feedback from teachers bear this out.  Distance learning may have forced us into these techniques, but our core values – our North Stars – of “each being responsible one to the other” and “we learn better together” require us to continue to amplify quiet voices when we go forward to school.

Developing Self-Directed Learners

This category comes directly from Silvia and was the focus of her time with our teachers this week.  Distance learning – as many of our parents can vouch for – is helped tremendously when students have the skills necessary to be self-directed learners.  And these skills are not exclusive to certain grades or subjects or even learning styles.  Our teachers have already begun thinking about how the skills you see below can make as much sense in a Kindergarten English lesson as they can a Grade 4 French lesson as they can in a Grade 8 Hebrew lesson.

One could argue (and one has!) that the only real aim in schooling is being sure that students are capable of being able to learn how to learn.  What the move to distance learning forced on us was explicitly teaching these skills to students who not have adequately mastered them yet.  We are making up for lost time now out of necessity.  But we cannot truly embody our core values – our North Stars – of “We own our learning” unless we embed these skills more deeply in our curriculum when we go forward to school.

Digital Citizenship

Digital Citizenship is already something we invest a great deal of energy in at OJCS because of what we believe to be true about teaching and learning.  However, the shift to distance learning has revealed some gaps and some delays in our workshops and curriculum.  Our teachers, working together with our amazing Librarian, Brigitte Ruel, are filling those gaps in the present and will work to make them permanent features of #TheOJCSWay when we go forward to school.

Personalized Learning

Almost more than anything else, the move to distance learning has proved the necessity and the power of personalized learning.  We have no choice, but to lean into individualized instruction, personalized curriculum, and self-directed learning.  We can’t live our North Star of “a floor, but no ceiling” without fulfilling this promise – that we will know each student in our school well enough to lovingly inspire them to reach their maximum potential academically, socially, and spiritually.  To do that well, to do that all for that matter, requires you to spend meaningful time building relationships.  It can be hard to do that in a crowded classroom, but its importance comes screamingly clear through distance.  The amount of time we are now spending in direct communication with students and parents about their learning, the care that is now being put into personalized learning programs will help ensure that when we do go forward to school that we will come that much closer to treating each student as if they have unique and special needs…because they do.

Strengthening (Global) Connectedness

Jewish day schools in general and OJCS in particular emphasize global connectedness.  We’ve always maintained connections to schools in other countries and to personalities from other cultures.  We leverage those relationships to speak in our three languages, to engage in active citizenship, to perform acts of social justice and lovingkindness, to participate in our city, provincial and federal discourse and to foster our love for the People, Land and State of Israel.

In a time of social distancing, however, not only have we had to lean on our global connectedness, but we have had to learn how to foster local and school connectedness through platforms as well.  We cannot live our North Stars of “ruach” and “being on inspiring Jewish journeys” during a time of distancing without it.  When we gather as a community for a virtual Family Kabbalat Shabbat or our students learn with and from a Holocaust survivor or when we celebrate Israel’s independence as part of a global audience, we feel the power of a connected community.

But when we go forward to school, what I’ll be thinking about is how much joy our students have each (virtual) day when they get to see each other’s smiling faces.  How can we use what we have learned about connectedness when distance was imposed on us all, to address school and community needs when distance is required for a few?  How could we incorporate our sick classmates into daily learning?  How could we incorporate parents or grandparents who are unable to be physically present, but want to be connected and involved into the life of the school?

Sooner than later – hopefully sooner! – we really will be returning.  We look forward to enjoying a hot dog and the physical company of new and returning families…at the 2020-2021 OJCS PTA Welcome Forward BBQ.

Ken y’hit ratzon.

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.