What a Difference a Year Makes

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

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

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

Prototyping a new behavior management system at OJCS!

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

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

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

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

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

That’s #TheOJCSDifference.

The OJCS Announces $50,000 Innovation Gift

“An older couple walk into a Jewish Federation…” is not the beginning of a borscht belt joke…but it just might be the beginning of the future of education in Ottawa.  I am not normally the b’sheret type of person.  I don’t often subscribe to the notion that the “universe” responds to what you put out there.  I am not even sure I believe that you “make your own luck”.  But I am paying attention now…

When I got an email from our Jewish Federation’s Executive Director, Andrea Freedman, that an older married couple had expressed interest in contributing to the future of Jewish education in Ottawa and did I have anything to propose, I tempered my enthusiasm.  Not due to their age, simply out of having had the prospect of a meaningful gift floated many times without landing.  But I definitely had ideas…

I just so happened to be sitting on two innovation proposals and with much help from Andrea and her team, we managed to put something compelling in front of the couple (they have expressed a preference to remain anonymous) in short order.  And thanks to Andrea’s stewardship, not only did they agree to fund them both…they also agreed to do more.

We have consistently described the school as being engaged in three critical conversations in this year of transition.  The first is a clarification of our Jewish mission and vision, the work of which continues to be shared out.  The second is an honest examination of our French outcomes, the work of which is ongoing with a first deliverable expected in early February.  The third is (probably) the most important of the three and if schools were not living creatures, would likely have launched first.  However, since change management in schools is analogous to fixing an airplane whilst flying it, it had been parked on the runway.  This conversation cuts to the heart of the very value proposition of the school and attempts to answer one very simple and consequential question: “What does the OJCS believe to be true about teaching and learning?”

The answer to this question lives in the messy world between mission statement and curriculum (both of which we presently have).  The answer to this question serves as the connective tissue between our pedagogical choices and our academic benchmarks and standards (both of which we kinda-mostly have).  The answer to this question anchors the school in a vibrant present while leading with clarity, strategy and purpose towards an innovative future.

The answer to this question is the work and the work just got real.

It is important to know your limits.  Is something I try to remind myself of in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, night-dreaming of all I want to do.  Here in my third headship, with all the lessons learned working with schools all across North America and a deep-dive into innovation, I have tried on patience.  I know that the system can only manage so much change in a given year and that it takes time to lay the ground for what’s to come.  I know what I believe to be true about teaching and learning, but that simply imposing that on a school is doomed to failure.  That is why so much of my focus this year is on systems and structures and processes.  I am in the weeds with the nuts and the bolts and the fire-putting-outs.

We have introduced “bandwidth” to our shared vocabulary here at OJCS because its maintenance is an important reality check against all proposed change.  And I have it as well.  So when it became clear to me early on that in order to get us from here to there we’d need a little help from our friends, I knew exactly who to turn to for proposals. You are going to get to know them all much better in the months ahead, but let’s introduce the partners who are going to help the Ottawa Jewish Community School become the most innovative school in Ottawa.

Sometimes it’s the haystack you need to find, not the needle.

NoTosh is a global consultancy with a passion for learning and a conviction that innovation and creativity can change the way people think, the way they learn and the way they work – as individuals, teams, organizations and communities.  NoTosh was established in 2009 to improve student engagement by challenging the status quo of teaching and learning in schools.

Beginning in January, NoTosh will work with the OJCS leadership team and faculty to:

  • Unpack some of the big questions that need answered to achieve its ambitious goals;
  • Co-design some of the nuts and bolts that will help get the school up and running with design thinking at the heart of its approaches;
  • Unpack what the unique value proposition of the school is and how does it stand apart from all other schools in the area.

Research has proven that a reflective learning culture is one of the best indicators to increase student learning.

Silvia Tolisano is a leading global educator and proponent of the documentation of learning as part of the learning process.  [She has also been a colleague and inspiration during my last three stops.  As part of my faculty at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, part of my team at the Schechter Day School Network and at Prizmah, and cofounder (along with our third partner Andrea Hernandez) of edJEWcon, I can attest firsthand to what an extraordinary educator she is.]   The work we will do with Silvia beginning in the Fall of 2018 will be a powerful learning opportunity allowing teachers to experience that shift in their learning and make documentation, reflection and sharing part of their practice.

Selected faculty will build a learning network, and share their practices, successes and failures to benefit the school community, including parents, colleagues and students.  While there is no one magic solution to excellence and this process will take time, developing a culture of shared documentation is the key to building an innovative school ready to tackle the challenge of preparing students to be successful in the 21st Century.  It creates the spine upon which student, faculty and parent culture and communication thrive.  It sets the conditions for project-based learning, collaboration and integration of new literacies.  This is the future of education and we are ready to lead.

What’s this “more” you were referring to in the opening?

Great question!

In addition to funding these two amazing proposals which will transform teaching and learning at our school, this remarkable couple is also enabling us to double the number of iPads in the school. The great news is that our teachers are already doing such wonderful work with them that we can take advantage of this blessing immediately…and will.

As we enter Winter Break and the end of a (secular) calendar year, it is natural to look a bit back and dream a bit forward…

With a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears from our talented and loving faculty, administration, and board, it is starting to happen.  We can feel it in the walls and hear it in the parking lot.  We see it in the new students joining us this January and the tours being booked for next year.  The blessing of this gift will accelerate and amplify what has already begun.  We meant it when we said that the future of education will be written at the OJCS.  That future just got closer…