Shofar, So Good: Reflections On A First Week Like No Other

Long time readers of this blog know that there is no pun too corny; and that I am good for a “shofar, so good” blog post each year come the Jewish High Holidays.  With our annual (reimagined for COVID) Middle School Retreat taking place next week (!) with its inevitable blog post to follow, it means that I get to use my pun even earlier, albeit a week too soon for Rosh Hashanah.

I have been a head of school for thirteen years across three schools and, like all my colleagues, I have never had a spring like last spring, a summer like last summer, or a first week of school like this one.

So after all the work and the planning and the logistics and protocols and the procedures…how are things going at the end of the first week of the 2020-2021 school year at the Ottawa Jewish Community School?

Shofar, so good!

We have lived a thousand micro-dramas these last few weeks as it is one thing to put protocols into writing and an entirely other thing to put them into practice.  I lived this experience myself as both a parent and a principal on the very first day of school!  My experience of trying to figure out what to do in the grey areas between policy and life is being played out in homes and schools throughout our community, province and country.  Teachers and parents are being called upon to exercise both caution and discretion in the face of unheard of conditions and we will be well-served to give each other space and permission to overcorrect and overcorrect again until we calibrate into our new normal.

But as I tried to express in last week’s post, our school is way more than a collection of COVID protocols and processes!  Of course, safety is our most pressing concern these days, but only a schmidge below is our sacred duty to educate.  And with regard to that holy enterprise, I am so grateful towards and proud of our teachers – especially the many new ones.  The job of being a teacher has never been more complicated and never more important.  Not only must our teachers do everything they had to do before, but they are also called upon to be distance and hybrid learning experts, healthcare workers and mental health professionals – all while taking care of themselves and their families.  And while this is generally true of all teachers, it is especially true at the highest bar for OJCS teachers.  Seeing the time and effort that goes into reaching it, is nothing short of inspirational.

We saw last spring how amazing our teachers were when we needed to make the pivot unplanned.  (And we know that our community was paying attention as our enrollment has grown – and is still growing – despite an economic downturn.)  Imagine how extraordinary our teachers are going to be when we have done nothing, but plan!  If you are a current OJCS parent, of course, you don’t have to imagine – you can see it each and every day.

Other thoughts and musings from the first week…

…you know how you sometimes don’t fully appreciate something until you can’t do it?  I always feel badly that I am not more of a presence in classrooms, but now I crave it!  I can’t wait to be back in classrooms!

…I didn’t think I would miss the Shofar Patrol this much!

…I know I mentioned it above, but it really is true that you cannot know something until you live it.  We have lots of fine-tuning ahead of us as we gain experience!  We appreciate both your feedback and your patience as we learn and our policies evolve.  Our “COVID FAQ” is live for a reason…it will change.

…I love using three entrances and exits this year, but please don’t tell any parents who hate it.

Please save the date!  By both parent and teacher request, we are bringing back a traditional “Back to School” on Wednesday, September 23rd at 7:00 PM.  The platform (virtual) may be new-school, but the program will be old-school.  Apparently, my telling you each year that all the information you need as parents (homework policies, behavior management programs, and the curriculum) is simply on the classroom blogs hasn’t satisfied parents or teachers!  So now that I have united you in your disagreement with me…welcome back “Back to School”.

The Transparency Files: We Do More Than Plan For COVID

[NOTE: I wrote most of this post prior to our school’s first direct experience with COVID yesterday.  I considered delaying or rewriting this post because I do not wish to appear cavalier or tone deaf when so many families and teachers are carrying anxiety into our first day of in-person school.  However, as real – and as sad – as this “new normal” may be, it is our new normal.  And I believe that part of making that true means that we will need to resume talking about things other than COVID.  So without further adieu…]

There is obviously nothing more important than the safety of our students, teachers, families and community.  That being said, it has been wonderful to be reminded this week why we are investing so much time and energy and so many resources to be able to both safely reopen for in-person learning and provide high-quality educational, social and spiritual experiences for distance learning.  It is because we love to teach children!

So, for one blog post at least, let’s take a break from COVID safety procedures and protocols…

You may recall that despite the challenges that last spring brought us, we learned a lot through being forced into distance learning.  We summarized those gleanings in a blog post that became a slogan: “Don’t go back to school; Come forward to OJCS”.  You can see evidence of that growth by looking at how we are planning for 2020-2021.  Let’s spend just a little time sharing what our amazing OJCS Faculty has been learning about and working on during our annual “Pre-Planning Week”.   Hopefully it will leave you not only feeling comforted that your children will be safe, but feeling excited that your children will be inspired to learn, to grow and to become their best selves.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The Hyflex Cafe

Each year (13 years, 4 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Cafe”.  It is a collaborative brainstorming activity centered on a key question.  Each year’s question is designed to encapsulate that year’s “big idea”.  To no one’s surprise, this year’s big idea?  Hyflex Learning!

We call it “hyflex” because we are not simply offering a “hybrid” of both in-person and distance learning; we are preparing for the flexibility of students (and teachers) switching from one to the other in both a planned and unplanned fashion.  The “flex” stands for “flexibility” and that is as good an adjective for this year as any other.

“Getting Started With Hybrid Learning” with Emma Pass

Thanks to a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, we have been able to bring in some outside experts to work with our teachers during this week of planning.  One extraordinary expert is named Emma Pass.  Leaving aside the whole hybrid/hyflex thing, her session was an hourlong tour de force of all things hybrid learning that really set the table for the week.  Or as our Teaching & Learning Coordinator Melissa Thompson put it:

Speed-Geeking Critical Platforms for Hyflex Learning

After having spent some time exploring the big picture, here we began to explore some critical platforms that OJCS teachers are becoming more familiar with in order to succeed in hyflex learning contexts.  What do we love about speed-geeking at OJCS?  That the sessions are led by our own teachers!

Let’s check out them out!

Classkick

In this session, our Kitah Alef (Grade One) Jewish Studies Teacher Morah Ada shared about Classkick.  Classkick is an app that gives a teacher maximal flexibility to incorporate audio, text, video, picture into a shared document that students and teachers can edit and work on seamlessly.  For example, a teacher can record herself giving video instruction, embed a PDF and ask students to record their responses all in one document.  Teachers can also take pre-prepared documents (like an alef-bet chart) and designate individual letters as student manipulatives.  Meaning that a student could drag an “alef” around the document and place it where it belongs.

Primary teachers can import critical documents like their calendars or job charts.  Teachers can easily customize and personalize different assignments.  The most exciting part of the session was the conversation between teachers.  One of the goals we have as a school is to find more opportunity for our students to use their languages.  Classkick makes it really easy for teachers to record themselves giving oral prompts (personalized if needed) and for students to record themselves responding.  This will be a great way to build in more authentic contact time with Hebrew and French!

Flipgrid

Flipgrid is not new to OJCS, although it may be new to our new teachers.  [We made heavy use of it during last year’s PIVOT, especially in the primary grades.]  In this session our Grade Two General Studies Teacher Morah Lianna caught us up on all things Flipgrid.  Flipgrid essentially allows students to record 90 seconds of video in response to all kinds of prompts.  A teacher could ask the class to tell her all about their summer vacations, and each student would record themselves in response.  Flipgrid gives you both public and private options for maximal flexibility.  Flipgrid also is a great global connector since it is heavily used around the…globe!  With a sea of platforms available, one question that our teachers always have to ask is which platform makes sense for which lesson or unit or subject or students?  And how can we make choices that don’t overwhelm students (or parents)?  (How many logins can anyone manage?)

Nearpod

Nearpod is a platform we are eager to begin using at OJCS because of how easily it allows us to factor in both synchronous and asynchronous learning.  As explained by our Middle School Hebrew I Teacher Morah Ruthie, Nearpod, is a little like Classkick, but even moreso, and is intended to be a “one-stop shop” for teachers.  Nearpod allows a teacher to create lessons that can be delivered by the teacher, or can be done in-class either in groups or individually, or done at home.  Lessons can be guided by the teacher or offered to students to do at their own paces.  And, critical for these times, lessons can be offered synchronously or asynchronously.

Of the three platforms we explored, Nearpod clearly has the most maximal utility for our teachers.  They can pull content from a ton of sources, including virtual reality presentations, YouTube, Google Slides, PDFs, and just about anything and anywhere you can imagine.  Teachers can use materials that they have already created, of course.  Part of what makes Nearpod so powerful, however, is that it has a full and growing library of lessons across every (general studies) subject and each grade-level.  You can even select lessons benchmarked according to (US) national and state standards.   You can embed polls, quizzes and activities to keep students engaged and accountable.  Finally, the teacher can not only track student progress, but also provide ongoing assessment.

Proficiency Approach to Hebrew Language

Here is the second place we are utilizing grant funding from JFO.  As you know, we are in the middle of a major consultancy with our French Language Faculty that we call TACLEF.  One thing that we have learned through that experience is how much we would like to give our Hebrew Language Faculty a similar experience.  While we cannot (yet) invest in a consultancy of that magnitude, we have begun working with Orly Lavi Travish.  We will work with her on the “proficiency approach” to Hebrew language instruction.  Proficiency is…

…the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context, and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language.  Proficiency demonstrates what a language user is able to do regardless of where, when, or how the language was acquired.  The demonstration is independent of how the language was learned; the context may or may not be familiar; the evaluation of proficiency is not limited to the content of a particular curriculum that has been taught and learned.

Just like with French, we want our Hebrew outcomes to be real, spoken, authentic language.  We want to both teach and assess language proficiency in this way.  We are way farther ahead in using this approach in French (although not as far as we would like to be) than in Hebrew, but this session will hopefully be the beginning of an exciting Hebrew journey.

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of hitlamdut (mindfulness)?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Thompson do a great session on use of classroom blogs and student blogfolios?  Yup!

Did Mrs. Bertrend and Mr. Ray take us all outdoors and show us all the ways we can use our outdoor space for recess, outdoor education and learning?  Absolutely!

Did Mrs. Reichstein lead a session on creating a caring and nurturing classroom during these COVID times?  You bet!

Did Mrs. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all safe?  100%!

Did the PTA sponsor a yummy breakfast and lunch?  Yes!

Did our teachers have lots of time to meet and prepare and collaborate and organize and do all the things needed to open up school on Tuesday?  And then some!

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  But at nearly 1,500 words, even I need to stop writing.

Needless to say, we are prepared to do way more than create a safe learning environment.  We are prepared to develop a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, hyflex and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one our precious students who we cannot wait to greet (in-person and virtually) on Tuesday morning!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday weekend and a successful launch to the 2020-2021 school year…

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.

Quality Comments: Welcome to OJCS Student Blogfolios!

I spend about an hour each week commenting on our student blogfolios.

What’s a “blogfolio” you ask?  Well it is a term of art that (I think) my former colleague Andrea Hernandez created, and in her words:

Portfolios give students a chance to develop metacognition, set goals and internalize what “good work” looks like.  Blogs offer a platform for creativity, communication, connection and the practice of digital citizenship. “Blog-folios”are the best of both worlds- using a blogging platform to develop writing skills, provide opportunities to connect with an authentic audience and increase reflective practices. Instead of using the entire site as a portfolio, students will use the category “portfolio” to designate those selections that represent high-quality work and reflection.

Having begun last year with Grade 5, we have now added this year’s Grade 5 as well.  [Spoiler Alert: We will be expanding the use of blogfolios in both directions in the not-too-distant future.]

During the time I set aside for my reading, I typically start at the beginning of each blogroll and make my way through as many as I can. During that hour, I can see which spelling words are being emphasized in a particular grade.  I can see which kinds of writing forms and mechanics are being introduced.  I learn which holidays (secular and Jewish) are being prepared for, celebrated or commemorated.  I see samples of their best work across the curricula.

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.

This is what we mean when we talk about “owning our own learning” and having a “floor, but not a ceiling” for each student.  It is also a great example of finding ways to give our students the ability to create meaningful and authentic work.  But, it isn’t just about motivation – that we can imagine more easily.  When you look more closely, however, it is really about students doing their best work and reflecting about it.  Look at how much time they spend editing.  Look at how they share peer feedback, revise, collaborate, publish and reflect.  [Spoiler Alert: When we shift into “Student-Led Conferences” the blogfolios become a critical anchor.]

Seriously.  Look at it.

If you are a parent in one of these classes, we hope that you are already subscribed to your children’s blogfolio(s) and that grandparents and special friends are as well.  But if you are not a parent in one of these classes (or a parent in our school or a parent at all), but are (obviously!) reading my blog, I ask that however much time you would have spent reading one my typically overlong, 1,000-word (plus) posts, that you please use that time now to read one of their posts.  Even better, post a comment! It brings them such joy!  Just pick a few at random and make a burgeoning blogger’s day.

If you are interested in perusing the Grade 5 Blogroll, please click here.

If you are interested in surfing the Grade 6 Blogroll, then please click here.

With enrollment for 2019-2020 now fully open [Don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunity to lock in this year’s tuition rates by enrolling on time!], I am looking forward in upcoming posts to providing meaningful updates on two major initiatives:

  • How has the work with TACLEF impacted French at OJCS?
  • How has the gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS impacted Jewish Studies (and Life) at OJCS?

Stay tuned!

OJCS Parent Connect: The Future of Learning

Who is excited about having a full week of school?

In addition to the joy of restarting our year and restoring our routines, we also had an opportunity this week to reconnect to our parents.  As promised back in September, we took some time this week to offer what we hope will be the first in a series of “Parent Connect” workshops to better inform parents, to solicit feedback from parents and – in the future – to help parents with hands-on guidance for navigating the educational journey at OJCS.

This week’s focus was following up on specific questions and concerns that have arisen as a result of our embrace of innovative technology, online platforms, etc., as part of our larger work of preparing students for their next schools of choice and beyond.  The slideshow below guided these conversations.  Although not everything may be perfectly clear from the slides alone, you will hopefully note that we attempted to anchor the conversation in our “North Stars” and in ongoing changes in education.  We then pivoted into ways those changes are taking shape at OJCS and ended with targeted conversations about issues of parental concern such as “Privacy”, “Screen Time”, and “Supervision”.

We are grateful to the parents who attended for their feedback!  We also welcome your feedback – either by commentary here on the blog, or email, phone calls, etc.  With what we have heard, thus far, we believe there would be continued value in providing interested parents with hands-on advice on how to navigate the internet at home (firewalls, apps for supervision, etc.), and a dedicated workshop to homework support.  Stay tuned.

We can’t wait to see what we can accomplish with five whole days of school!

OJCS Building First School-Based Makerspace in Ottawa! (Wait…what’s a “makerspace”?)

It just got real.  Real exciting.

As we announced last year, thanks to the generosity of the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund, we were going to take on our first major project to make our physical space as innovative as our educational program.  Or rather, we are now able to think about designing spaces that will best allow the unique vision OJCS has for teaching and learning to best come to life.  [With a building as “seasoned” as ours, we don’t lack for options!]  We intend to completely redo our “computer lab” and transform it into a tech-friendly collaborative workspace.  We intend to completely redo our “library” and transform it into a 22nd century media literacy center. Etc.  But we have decided to lead with a makerspace.  Why?  Glad you asked!

Although more and more schools have invested in makerspaces, it is still rare enough that it is okay if you are asking yourself an obvious question: What is a makerspace?

Makerspaces are popping up in schools across the country. Makerspaces provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent as they deeply engage in science, engineering and tinkering.

A makerspace is not solely a science lab, woodshop, computer lab or art room, but it may contain elements found in all of these familiar spaces. Therefore, it must be designed to accommodate a wide range of activities, tools and materials. Diversity and cross-pollination of activities are critical to the design, making and exploration process, and they are what set makerspaces and STEAM labs apart from single-use spaces.

When you think about many of the exciting prototypes in play this year at OJCS – Genius Hour, VR, 21st Century Judaica, Robotics, Blogs, Recreating Biblical Artifacts and QR Codes for Art Projects, just to name a very few – they share one feature in common.  They all require our students (and teachers) to make something.  These are all learning prototypes that include or result in a tangible (including digital or virtual) product. They are also projects that are both cross-curricular and collaborative.  A classroom is not always designed to house learning of this kind.  Our school needs a place where students can come as a class or in teams or on their own to be inspired.  Our school needs a place where teachers can come with students or in their own teams or on their own to be inspired.  Our school needs a learning commons designed as a hub of creativity.  Our school needs an incubator of innovation.  Our school needs a makerspace.

And so the work has begun!  Our first step was to identify a partner to bring our dreams to life.  We interviewed a few architecture firms, but found in our new friends Ryan and Wendy, from Project1 Studio, a partner who brings enthusiasm, creativity and expertise to the work. Our next step, which was this week, was to convene a group of teachers, students and administrators for a “Visioning Session” to allow them to begin to identify the kinds of activities we believe should take place in our new OJCS Makerspace.  What will be the right blend of…

  • movie-making equipment (green screens, sound mixing, movie editing equipment, etc.)
  • robotics,
  • coding,
  • 3D printing,
  • VR,
  • state of the art presentation space (TED Talk-style),
  • woodworking,
  • crafts,
  • science/STEM/STEAM,
  • brainstorming/mental-mapping/collaborating spaces,
  • inspiring/relaxing/creativity-inducing spaces,

…activities, tools and zones to maximize our space and enhance energy and enthusiasm for learning at OJCS.

[Where is this space going to be located, you might be wondering (if you are an OJCS parent)?

We are working with the footprint of our current Science Lab and adjoining offices.  That gives us about a 1,300 square foot space to play with, but it does require that we factor in our current Science needs within the design.]

Once we settle on our priorities, we will move to design.  From design we move to furniture and fixtures and from there we move to construction itself.  Our current schedule has us breaking ground in July and on target for a grand opening on the very first day of the 2019-2020 school year!

It will be our pleasure to share out designs as they come in and it would be our pleasure to show any current or prospective families the spaces we are discussing.  Although we know the building isn’t the most important factor in a quality education, we also know that the right kinds of spaces can have a meaningful impact on the educational experience.  We are proud at OJCS to be creating innovative spaces to match our innovative program.  It is just another example of how OJCS is becoming an educational leader in our community.

And we are still just beginning…

Let’s Talk About Blogs: The OJCS Blogosphere Town Hall

Early in the year, I blogged about coming attractions and shared that…

With the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, and due to significant and overwhelming feedback from parents, teachers, and students, the OJCS is transitioning away from Google Classroom and launching school-wide class blogs.   Our new blogging platform will make it a whole lot easier for parents and students to know what is happening in their classes and for teachers and students to share pictures, videos, examples and reflections of the incredible work they are doing.

We learn better together” is one our North Stars;  school blogs will help us expand the concentric circles of “we” to amplify and share the learning.

We held a “Town Hall” on October 3rd (delayed once due to the tornado) in which we laid out our big picture vision for moving towards a blogging platform and to take a tour of the “OJCS Blogosphere”.  So.  Now that we have made it through the Jewish holidays, essentially restarted school and have finished our first (!) five-day week, it seems like a good time to check in to see how this whole blogging prototype is going.

The first thing that is important is to know that the OJCS Blogosphere exists!  There are Lower School Blogs for each class K -5, a Middle School landing page with a calendar of major projects/tests, individual Middle School Teacher Blogs (Math, Language Arts, etc.), School Activities and Special Interest Blogs and Leadership Blogs. You will find increasing and increasingly exciting content on them all. You may also find navigating the blogosphere new, confusing, or frustrating, depending on what you are looking for, how easy it is to find (or not) or whether it is there (yet) at all.

The use of “prototype” to describe our launch of blogs is intentional. It is to remind us that we are trying something new, seeking feedback, and making changes as we go.  We are learning what works and what doesn’t.  We are also learning what works as a vehicle for education and what works as a vehicle for communication. Recognizing there is no one platform that does everything we want in terms of both education and communication, we are working to fill the gaps.  We have appreciated your comments and your suggestions and are meaningfully considering them as we go.  For now, however, I thought it might be easier to frame where we currently are as a hypothetical FAQ built on real email questions we have received thus far:

What are the minimum expectations of what is supposed to be where?  Is everything on the blogs or do I need monitor email, the website, The Hadashot, etc?  

We are in the beginning of a major shift, but the consistency is not yet there.  Each teacher/grade-level team was given a rubric for their blogs with the minimum “must-haves” and they include homework, class events, quizzes, and major projects.  There are some distinctions between Lower School and Middle School – the Middle School Calendar we created on the homepage for Middle School is intended for major tests/projects (only) for example, but where we are headed is a place where the blogs become the primary (only) source for information.

It is a major transition in two ways.

The first is for students.  As they get older and take on greater executive functioning, learning to manage their workloads, where to find homework, etc., transitions from teacher/parent to teacher/student(/parent).  There will likely become a point where providing physical agenda books becomes obsolete (with exceptions of course). We are learning as a faculty how to function this way and learning how to help students make the transition.

The second is for parents. With a new website (finally!) going live this week, we can finally reorient our entire communication system.  If we treat the website as a blog (for school-wide and/or community-wide communication), then we can start using our Hadashot and all school social media to direct people to the right blog to find the rest of the story.  A picture, a headline, and a link should suffice to get people where they need to be.

What do I do if I have children in multiple grades?  Do I have to go into each blog and find each relevant thing?

Depending on what you are interested in, you can subscribe (there is a box on each page) to as many blogs as you wish (at which point you will receive an email when each subscribed blog has a new post) or use the social media (email and Constant Contact included) of your choice as a cue to click on what you are interested in.  We would highly suggest that you subscribe (at a minimum) to your children’s primary blog(s).  [We would love if you subscribed to all the blogs, but that depends on how much email you would like to receive.]  It is kind of like the difference between subscribing to my blog or waiting for me to use Facebook/Twitter to share the headline of this week’s post and choosing whether you want to click or not.  Of course the school can’t use email or social media to prompt you for everything.  You will need to rely on your discretion and your children as well.  There is also a piece of this which is about where your children need to go to find what they want/need and where you need to go.  Depending on your child (and you) those could be different things.  Having lived through this in other schools, I can assure you that you will eventually (sooner than you think!) adapt and adjust.

Did this help answer some of your questions or concerns?  If you have additional ones, I encourage you to comment on this blog post or email/call/drop in.  I will happily answer your questions and happily share out in future posts additional FAQs.

 

How will we know if a move to the blogosphere is right for OJCS?  The same way we (now) measure any significant initiative – do they bring us closer to our North Stars?  Does utilizing blogs help us…

…own our learning?

…learn better together?

…inspire Jewish journeys?

…provide a floor, but not a ceiling?

…experience ruach?

…be more responsible each to the other?

I would argue emphatically that it does.  But don’t take my word for it. Go see it for yourself!   The future is here and it is open, collaborative, reflective, transparent, personalized, transformative and limitless. Students coming out of OJCS will not only be prepared to participate in this world, they will be prepared to thrive and to lead.

The OJCS Announces $165,000 Professional Growth Gift

In our first faculty meeting this week, members of our NoTosh DesignTeam share our “Prototype Process” with the rest of the faculty.

This is not a flashback to a flashback! We are not reminding you of the $72,000 Innovation Grant we received from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CBSO) Legacy Fund to help fund some of the physical spaces we’ll need to continue to bring our innovative vision to life.  We are also not reminding you of the $50,000 Innovation Grant we received around this time last year from an anonymous family which helped fund the transformational work we recently finished with NoTosh (which lives on this year in the many powerful prototypes presently being prepared for pitches to bring teaching and learning at OJCS into greater alignment with our “North Stars”), the opportunity to double our iPads available in the school, the exciting shift towards providing teachers with Chromebooks so they can collaborate more effectively and model what learning looks like, and beginning just this week, our work with this year’s consultant, who happens to be my friend and former colleague Silvia Tolisano, whose new book the cohort of teachers working with Silvia have begun to read.

Silvia Tolisano beginning her work with a new cohort of teachers – and the full faculty – as we examine what learning is, where to find it, how to document it and learning to learn.

[I will have a lot more to discuss about Silvia’s work next week as it ties into the launch of our OJCS Blogosphere…]

No, this post is yet another example of how the work we are doing at the Ottawa Jewish Community School is not only transforming teaching and learning in our classrooms, but transforming the role of the school in our larger Jewish and educational communities.  The ripple effect of this work is not only inspiring current and prospective parents, but current and prospective donors.  We noticed this back in June when we observed:

Success begets success.  Numbers beget numbers.  A school in motion will stay in motion.  The narrative of decline is behind us; the narrative of rebirth, revitalization and rejuvenation has begun.  You can measure it objectively through numbers – attrition down, enrollment up, survey data trends, fundraising dollars, etc.  You can also measure it subjectively – feelings in the walls, word on the street, buzz in the community, etc.  You can measure it however you like.  The outcome is the same. The OJCS is laying the ground to become the innovative leader in education in our community.

And wow has that been true!

With over 170 students and our largest Kindergarten class (28) in years, and all the other optimistic indicators I wrote about at the very beginning of the year, we are off and running.  So what is going to keep us running to meet and surpass all our ambitious goals?

A school is only as great as its teachers, and its teachers can only excel if they are given opportunities to engage in meaningful, sustained, personalized, professional growth.  Twenty years of educational research shows that an investment in teachers is a (if not the) key lever in determining excellence and is among the few variables a school can completely control.

We know it is true

Part of our recent success can be attributed to how we have raised the bar of expectations for our teachers while providing them with coaching, resources and support they need to reach new heights.  In the course of a single year, even our veteran teachers have found renewed commitment to lifelong learning and our new teachers are brimming with ideas. What unites them in bringing our mission to life is a comprehensive commitment to professional learning.

Customized professional development

At OJCS, we believe what is good for our students is also good for our teachers.  In the same way we recognize that students are individuals with their own learning styles and motivations, we acknowledge that our teachers can also benefit from a similar action plan.  There are no “one-size-fit-all” approaches for meaningful growth. That is why, though still in its nascent stages, our goal is that each teacher has a well-developed individual Professional Growth Plan, developed in partnership with the administration and consisting of clear deliverables for mutual success.  These plans then allow the administration to understand common needs and determine what outside resources should be made available to our faculty.

Professional growth at OJCS is achieved through a blended and customized approach with various elements, from participation in conferences, to purchasing individual books and learning tools.

Importance of expert consultants

We have already discussed the impact of NoTosh and the beginnings of the work of Silvia.  In addition to those large initiatives, we have also begun smaller initiatives :

  • Teachers visit other schools
  • Teachers are assisted in achieving new degrees
  • New books are being purchased for our faculty library
  • Webinar access is being purchased for teacher training

Building a brighter future

Thanks to the generosity of one amazing family and the ongoing participation of our partners at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, this new gift of $165,000 over the next five years, the work will continue with customized development (e.g. webinars, conferences, site visits, etc.), and the best practices learned from the consultants will be implemented.  These are likely to include curriculum mapping and enhanced mentoring/coaching. Examples include: providing opportunities for Jewish and French Teachers to further develop their skills as teachers of second (and third) languages; and connecting teachers of Jewish Text to coaches through Prizmah.

For a school of our current and future size, an enhanced and sustained focus on professional development is required as a primary lever for future success.  This extraordinary gift will ensure that the OJCS Faculty has access to the latest research, current trends, coaching, conferences and materials necessary to provide the Jewish children of Ottawa with an innovative, world-class education and help secure the future of our Jewish community.

And, as we say…that’s #TheOJCSDifference

The OJCS Announces $72,000 Innovation Gift

This is not a flashback!  We are not reminding you of the “innovation gift” we previously received.  Nope.  This is to let you know that we are beyond excited to share with you that the Ottawa Jewish Community School has just received a $72,000 grant (over two years) from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CBSO) Legacy Fund to help ensure that the innovation work begun this year will only be the foundation upon which the continued work of innovation will build in the years to come.  We are grateful to the CBSO Legacy Fund for the opportunity to apply and even more grateful to be amongst the worthy recipients of their philanthropy.

Success begets success.  Numbers beget numbers.  A school in motion will stay in motion.  This is what having a great year feels like.  And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer 69 year-old Jewish day school in Ottawa…I am genuinely so happy for the teachers, parents, volunteers, board, donors, supporters and the community at large to have had this year happen as it happened.  The narrative of decline is behind us; the narrative of rebirth, revitalization and rejuvenation has begun.  You can measure it objectively through numbers – attrition down, enrollment up, survey data trends, fundraising dollars, etc.  You can also measure it subjectively – feelings in the walls, word on the street, buzz in the community, etc.  You can measure it however you like.  The outcome is the same.  The OJCS is laying the ground to become the innovative leader in education in our community.

What’s next up on our innovation agenda?

We have described and shared out the first phase of work with NoTosh. We will have a little more time with our NoTosh friends to bridge the gap into the next year to ensure that the culture of prototyping and design thinking takes hold and to set us up to steep in our core values (our “North Stars”).

Our second iPad cart is up and running.

We described the work we would be doing with my friend and former colleague Silvia Tolisano beginning in October, whose new book some of us (including me!) will be reading this summer.

We will be providing Chromebooks for all our faculty next year, with all the training and support they will need.  This will be a huge step forward in terms of our ability to work and function as a complex organization.

We will be launching a new website.

We will be exploring new platforms for teaching and learning, sharing, blogging, etc., which may come to replace Google Classroom.

We will be thinking about what kinds of technologies we want our students to have and to use in the years to come.

We will launch new seminars on digital citizenship, cyberbullying, digital footprints, online identity, etc., etc., that will help our children live healthy and safe online lives aligned with our Jewish values.

What kinds of spaces will we need to do all this innovative work?

  • Transform our “Computer Lab” into an “Internet Café”

Our current “Computer Lab” is filled with obsolete computers and even more obsolete outlets, cords and wires.  We need to empty the space altogether and replace it with a state-of-art presentation space, flexible furniture, hi-speed wifi, and space to park an iPad cart, laptop cart and other technology for students and teachers to use as needed.

  • Transform our “Library” into a “Media Literacy Center”

Our current “Library” consists of an old collection with even older furniture and technology.  We need to upgrade to new library software so that it is searchable and useable by both teachers and families.  We need to upgrade the collection.  We need appropriate library furniture with an appropriate presentation space and technology section for conducting research in the 21st century.  [Money raised from Grandparents’ Day is helping this begin to become true!]

Students own the learning at OJCS and that requires a space to make!  We are ready to transition into an appropriate OJCS Makerspace that blends new technology (projection space, laptop, audio equipment, etc.,) with old (tools, crafts, etc.).

 

To which of the above will the blessing of this $72,000 grant go?  We haven’t decided yet (and the CBSO Legacy Fund has given us the flexibility to decide).  We have other donors ready to give and even more we need to inspire.  [If you would like to be counted amongst those who might be ready or willing to be inspired, don’t be shy!]  I look forward to more blog posts highlighting more gifts leading to more innovation.  Success begets success.  Numbers beget numbers. Innovation begets innovation.

This is a school in motion that intends to stay in motion.