If Not Now: My Daughter in Israel

One of my concerns about October 7th once the security concerns began to be addressed wasn’t about the weeks in front of us, but the months.  For a good stretch of time, the focus on Israel was overwhelming in every sense of that word.  We had a fundamental imperative to both be and feel safe.  There was education to provide our students.  There were displaced Israeli children to absorb and to welcome.  There were rallies for solidarity and rallies for advocacy.  There were media requests and a need for thought-leadership.  And yet, we knew that there was inevitably going to come a time when people’s natural attention spans and bandwidth for crisis was going to yield to a shift and perhaps create a fracture.  And perhaps we are at, or nearing that time…

It isn’t to suggest that our (the school‘s) attention is waning or certainly not that our eye has moved off the ball of security even an iota.  It is, however, to suggest that people have begun to walk down different paths of engagement depending on their personal connections and experiences.  At our school, we still have teachers and families who are awaiting news of hostages and serving on the front lines of Gaza.  We still have siblings and friends experiencing anti-Semitism in their public schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.  We are still teaching “current events”, praying, raising money and engaging in acts of social justice.  But as time inches forward, I think it is fair to say that it simply isn’t top of mind for each and every person as it was…and I state that as a fact of human nature, not a judgement.

I am experiencing the way the heartstrings can be strung and restrung through my parenting.  When we made the decision as a family to stay here in Ottawa for our daughters’ high school years, in a place without a true Jewish high school, we committed to a variety of educational experiences that would build a bridge from their rigorous Jewish day school foundation to their studies in university.  One of those experiences was to spend a semester of Grade 10 studying in Israel.  And that decision got a lot more complicated since Maytal was scheduled to leave for Jerusalem in January.

Our older daughter’s experience was curtailed and compromised by COVID, but she did go.  Our girls are Ramahniks through and through, and although there are other programs, Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), was our only choice.  Normally there are upwards of 60-80 teens with a healthy Canadian cohort.  We were looking forward to Maytal getting to have the “full TRY” and then October 7th…

After months of wondering about whether the trip would go, and then worrying about whether sending her was the right choice, we made the family decision – with Maytal as its fiercest champion – that despite the number of students barely in the teens, and without a single other Canadian participating, that now really was the time.  (It very much felt like a true, “If not now, when” moment.)  And so we found ourselves a couple of weeks ago gathering with other families at Newark Airport to send our children to a very different Israel than the one we knew months ago.

Let me pause to state something obvious.  Maytal is in a bubble of privileged North American teens in Jerusalem.  She will only travel to the safest of places under the safest of conditions.   She is not living in a city near the border and we are not comparing our concerns for her wellbeing to those who are truly living in harm’s way.  Not for a moment.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t think she is brave for choosing this time to be in Israel.  (It also won’t stop my mother from worrying herself sleepless until she returns in May.)

Each ping of the WhatsApp brings news of the next adventure or a picture from the most recent one.  She has bonded with her group and has started the experience in full.  She is going to have the time of her life and being in Israel – now – will be extraordinarily impactful on her in ways we could guess and ways we cannot imagine.  We are blessed to be able to provide her with this opportunity (and grateful to the many people and institutions who helped us make it possible).

But each ping of the WhatsApp also brings anxiety.  Each news update on the state of the crisis lands differently than it did a few weeks ago.  I don’t feel like I should say this, but I don’t know how to say it differently – obviously as a member of the Jewish People, I always have skin in the game when it comes to Israel.  But now, for a short while, I also have flesh and blood.  And whether it should or not…it feels different.

I share all of this in the spirit of wanting to ensure that we continue to ask ourselves what is the right amount of space the situation in Israel should continue to occupy – for our school, for our families and for ourselves.  I know there is no “right answer” but I guess I hope that whatever newfound insight or empathy (again, I don’t think that is exactly the best word) or perspective having a child of my own living in Israel provides me, that it helps guide me to the right place.  And invite you to reflect for what the right amount of space you believe it should occupy as well.  Are we doing too much or too little as a community?  As a school?  (As a family?)

Let me know what you think.  Let’s make sure Israel remains in our thoughts and our prayers and our actions even as life inevitably encroaches.

It only gets harder and more complicated the longer it goes.

#StandWithIsrael

#AmYisraelChai

Celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and OJCS is again excited to celebrate and engage its students in meaningful activities and conversations.

“Inclusion” is not simply an issue to discuss once a year, of course, and as part of our formal discussions of how we would celebrate JDAIM this year, we are pleased that teachers from all three faculties (French, Jewish Studies & General Studies) joined with the Spec Ed Department to create a JDAIM Committee to help us take our JDAIM to a new level.  The JDAIM Committee presented at our January Faculty Meeting and reminded everyone that:

For teachers, it’s important to always be thinking with a lens of inclusion in order to support and meet the needs of all learners (Shift the Spec Ed Mindset!!).

&

It’s important for our students to be open, understanding, and inclusive to ALL members of our community.

We acknowledge that we are always trying to do better when it comes to issues like “inclusion” but never get all the way there.  Because of our school’s personalized learning approach we’d like to say that, sure, “everyone has special needs” but then we focus only on who we presently serve and not who we are-not-yet-able-to and, thus, don’t spend time exploring why.  We’d like to say that “every month is about inclusion” but without JDAIM we would miss a critical opportunity each year to reflect, to learn, to grow and to change.  We want to acknowledge the daily, weekly, and yearly work that we do to incrementally become better able to meet the needs of current students and to increase the circle of inclusivity.  But we also want to use JDAIM each year as a measuring stick and an inspiration – to have our thinking challenged, our minds opened and our hearts stirred.  We are blessed to be part of an interconnected Jewish community with partners to lovingly push and support us on our journey.

Here are just a few examples of how we are gearing up to make JDAIM a special month at OJCS…

…this year the JDAIM Committee has opted for a theme.  In light of the pending renovation, the theme for JDAIM 2024 is “Physical Space”.

…the JDAIM Committee rolled out a set of “choice boards” for both Lower & Middle Schools, as well as a Padlet to our entire faculty that includes all the links and ideas that have been collected, thus far.

…Brigitte Ruel, our Librarian, has a post on “JDAIM Storytime”.

…we will again participate in Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN)’s “Youth Leadership Award Challenge” with an eye towards not only goosing individual participation but group and class participation as well.

 

…teachers are invited to work with our School Social Worker, Quinn Rivier-Gatt, to lead a workshop with their students on inclusion, kindness, and diversity.

Classroom blogs and student blogfolios will be a great place to find examples of how OJCS lives JDAIM this year.

It bears mentioning that our ability to meet existing needs is supported thanks to generous supplemental grants from Federation that provide flexible furniture, assistive technology, and diagnostic software to benefit learners of all kind.

This Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, let us be reminded that to truly believe that each is made in God’s image requires that we apply the filter of inclusivity whenever possible.  The work of becoming more inclusive has no beginning and has no ending. Inclusivity is both a process and a journey, one that OJCS has proudly been on for a while and one that we intend to keep walking with our community into the future.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results Part 3 (of 3)

Welcome to “Part III” of our analysis of this year’s CAT4 results!

In Part I, we provided a lot of background context and shared out the simple results of how we did this year.  In Part II, we began sharing comparative data, focusing on snapshots of the same cohort (the same children) over time.  Remember that it is complicated because of four factors:

  • We only began taking the CAT*4 at this window of time in 2019 in Grades 3-8.
  • We did NOT take the CAT*4 in 2020 due to COVID.
  • We only took the CAT*4 in Grades 5-8 in 2021.
  • We resumed taking the CAT*4 in Grades 3-8 in 2022.

In the future, that part (“Part II”) of the analysis will only grow more robust and meaningful.  We also provided targeted analysis based on cohort data.

Here, in Part III, we will finish sharing comparative data, this time focusing on snapshots of the same grade (different groups of children).  Because it is really hard to identify trends while factoring in skipped years and seismic issues, unlike in Part II where we went back to 2019 for comparative purposes, we are only going focus on four grades that have multiyear comparative data post-COVID: Grades 5-8 from 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Here is a little analysis that will apply to all four snapshots:

  • Remember that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting a “6.9” for Grade 5.
  • Bear in mind, that the metric we are normally looking at when it comes to comparing a grade is either stability (if the baseline was appropriately high) or incremental growth (if the baseline was lower than desired and and the school responded with a program or intervention in response).
  • In 2023 we took it in the “.1” of the school year and in all prior years in the “.2”.  For the purposes of this analysis, I am to give or take “.1”.

Here are the grade snapshots:

What can we learn from Grade 5 over time?

  • Remember these are different children taking this test in Grade 5.  So even though, say, for “Writing Conventions” in 2022 they “only” scored at grade level and the other two years it maxxed out, you cannot necessarily conclude that something was amiss in Grade 5 in 2022.  [You could – and I did – confirm that by referring back to Part II and checking that cohort’s growth over time.]
  • What we are mostly seeing here is stability at the high end, which is exactly what we hope to see.
  • Now what might constitute a trend is what we see in “Computation & Estimation” where we began below grade level, have worked hard to institute changes to our program and find a trajectory upwards.

What can we learn from Grade 6 over time?

  • Again, because these are different children, we have to be careful, but it will be worth paying attention to “Writing Conventions” and “Spelling” to make sure that that this a cohort anomaly and not a grade trend.
  • We will also be looking for greater stability in “Computation & Estimation”.
  • Overall, however, high scores and stability for Grade 6.

What can we learn from Grade 7 over time?

  • Extremely high scores with reasonably high stability!
  • We’ll keep an eye on “Computation & Estimation” which, although high the last two years, is a bit all over the place by comparison.

What can we learn from Grade 8 over time?

  • Extremely high scores with high stability.
  • We’ll need a few more years of data to speak more authoritatively, but a snapshot of where all our students are by their last year at OJCS has to reassuring for our current parents and, hopefully, inspiring to all those who are considering how OJCS prepares its graduates for high school success.

Current Parents: CAT4 reports will be timed with report cards and Parent-Teacher Conferences.  Any parent for whom we believe a contextual conversation is a value add will be folded into conferences.

The bottom line is that our graduates – year after year – successfully place into the high school programs of their choice.  Each one had a different ceiling – they are all different – but working with them, their families and their teachers, we successfully transitioned them all to the schools (private and public) and programs (IB, Gifted, French Immersion, Arts, etc.) that they qualified for.

And now again this year, with all the qualifications and caveats, our CAT*4 scores continue to demonstrate excellence.  Excellence within the grades and between them.

Not a bad place to be as we enter the second week of the 2024-2025 enrollment season…with well over 50 families already enrolled.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results Part 2 (of 3)

Welcome to “Part II” of our analysis of this year’s CAT*4 results!

In last week’s post, we provided a lot of background context and shared out the simple results of how we did this year.  Here, in our second post, we are now able to begin sharing comparative data, focusing on snapshots of the same cohort (the same children) over time.  It is complicated because of three factors:

  • We only began taking the CAT*4 at this window of time in 2019 in Grades 3-8.
  • We did NOT take the CAT*4 in 2020 due to COVID.
  • We only took the CAT*4 in Grades 5-8 in 2021.
  • We resumed taking the CAT*4 in Grades 3-8 in 2022.

This means that there are only five cohorts that have comparative data – this year’s Grades 4-8.  And only two of those cohorts have comparative data beyond two years – this year’s Grades 7-8.  It is hard to analyze trends with without multiple years of data, but we’ll share what we can.

Here is a little analysis that will apply to all five snapshots:

  • Remember that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting a “6.9” for Grade 5.
  • Bear in mind, that the metric we are normally looking at when it comes to comparing a cohort over time is whether or not we see at least one full year’s growth (on average) each year – here we are factoring an expected two full year’s growth between 2019 and 2021.  [Feel free to refer to prior years’ results for specific analyses of both “COVID Gaps” and “COVID Catch-Ups”.]
  • In 2023 we took it in the “.1” of the school year and in all prior years in the “.2”.  If we are being technical, therefore, “.9” would actually be the truest measure of growth since the time frame is “.1” less.  For the purposes of this analysis, I am going round “.9” up and consider it a “year’s” worth of growth.

Here are the cohort snapshots:

What does this snapshot of current Grade 4s reveal?

  • Huge growth in Reading, Vocabulary and Writing Conventions.
  • Better context for Spelling.  Last week, we shared that Grade 4 Spelling (3.4) was one of only two instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level across the whole school.  Here we can see that despite that (relatively) “low” score that annual growth is intact.  That’s the positive.  On the other hand, in order for this score to fully catch up to our school’s expectations, it will have grow more than one year at a time over the next few years.
  • Better context for Math.  Although both of this year’s current scores are above grade-level expectation, we did not see the growth we would expect.  This is why we take the tests and provide our teachers with not only the results, but coaching on how to use the results.  Our Grade 4 Math Teacher now has the data she needs to help individual students fill gaps and best prepare students for math success in Grade 5.

What does this snapshot of current 5s reveal?

  • That they are crushing it!  Max scores in all, but one category, along with appropriate growth.
  • Better context for Computation & Estimation.  Both scores are well above grade level, almost-appropriate growth from year to the next, and there is still room to grow.  Let’s go!

What does this snapshot of current Grade 6s reveal?

  • Again, overall really strong scores and mostly strong growth.
  • Better context for Writing Conventions.  It may not max out, but we showed more than a year’s worth of growth.
  • Better context for Spelling.  We already knew that Grade 6 Spelling (5.6) was the other of the two instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level across the whole school.  Now we know that it went down.  Hmmm…this could be an anomaly.  This is why we keep anecdotal records; maybe we’ll learn something about when Grade 6 took this section that helps explain the results.  Or maybe it is something.  Our Middle School Language Arts Teacher will be on it.
  • Better context for Computation & Estimation.  Again, it didn’t max out, but we can see huge growth from last year.

What does this snapshot of current Grade 7s reveal?

  • That they and their teachers are crushing it!
  • Better context for Computation & Estimation.  It shows that even though this score is lower than their other max scores, while still being above grade-level, it grew more than a year’s worth from last year.

No analysis of current Grade 8s needed, just appreciation for three years of near perfection.  Not a bad advertisement for OJCS Middle School.

To sum up this post, we have so much to be proud of in the standardized test scores of these particular cohorts over time.  The Math and Language Arts Teachers in Grades 3-8 have now begun meeting to go through their  CAT*4 results in greater detail, with an eye towards what kinds of interventions are needed now – in this year – to fill any gaps (both for individual students and for cohorts); and how might we adapt our long-term planning to ensure we are best meeting needs.  Parents will be receiving their child(ren)’s score(s) soon and any contextualizing conversations will be folded into Parent-Teacher Conferences.

Stay tuned next week for the concluding “Part III” when we will look at the same grade (different students) over time, see what additional wisdom is to be gleaned from that slice of analysis, and conclude this series of posts with some final summarizing thoughts.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results Part 1 (of 3)

[Note from Jon: If you have either read this post annually or simply want to jump to the results without my excessive background and contextualizing, just scroll straight to the graph.  Spoiler alert: These are the best results we have ever had!]

Each year I fret about how to best facilitate an appropriate conversation about why our school engages in standardized testing (which for us, like many independent schools in Canada, is the CAT*4, but next year will become the CAT*5), what the results mean (and what they don’t mean), how it impacts the way in which we think about “curriculum” and, ultimately, what the connection is between a student’s individual results and our school’s personalized learning plan for that student.  It is not news that education is a field in which pendulums tend to wildly swing back and forth as new research is brought to light.  We are always living in that moment and it has always been my preference to aim towards pragmatism.  Everything new isn’t always better and, yet, sometimes it is.  Sometimes you know right away and sometimes it takes years.

The last few years, I have taken a blog post that I used to push out in one giant sea of words, and broke it into two, and now three parts, because even I don’t want to read a 3,000 word post.  But, truthfully, it still doesn’t seem enough.  I continue to worry that I have not done a thorough enough job providing background, research and context to justify a public-facing sharing of standardized test scores.  Probably because I haven’t.

And yet.

With the forthcoming launch of Annual Grades 9 & 12 Alumni Surveys and the opening of the admissions season for the 2024-2025 school year, it feels fair and appropriate to be as transparent as we can about how well we are (or aren’t) succeeding academically against an external set of benchmarks, even as we are still facing extraordinary circumstances.  [We took the text just a couple of weeks after “October 7th”.]  That’s what “transparency” as a value and a verb looks like.  We commit to sharing the data and our analysis regardless of outcome.  We also do it because we know that for the overwhelming majority of our parents, excellence in secular academics is a non-negotiable, and that in a competitive marketplace with both well-regarded public schools and secular private schools, our parents deserve to see the school’s value proposition validated beyond anecdotes.

Now for the annual litany of caveats and preemptive statements…

We have not yet shared out individual reports to our parents.  First our teachers have to have a chance to review the data to identify which test results fully resemble their children well enough to simply pass on, and which results require contextualization in private conversation.  Those contextualizing conversations will take place in the next few weeks and, thereafter, we should be able to return all results.

There are a few things worth pointing out:

  • Because of COVID, this is now only our fifth year taking this assessment at this time of year.  We were in the process of expanding the range from Grades 3-8 in 2019, but we paused in 2020 and restricted 2021’s testing to Grades 5-8.  So, this is the second year we have tested Grades 3 & 4 on this exam at this time of year.  When we shift in Parts 2 & 3 of this analysis to comparative data, this will impact who we can compare when analyze the grade (i.e. “Grade 5” over time) or the cohort (i.e. the same group of children over time).
  • Because of the shift next year to the CAT*5, it may be true that we have no choice, but to reset the baseline and (again) build out comparative data year to year.
  • The ultimate goal is to have tracking data across all grades which will allow us to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same cohort grows at least a year’s worth of growth.
  • The last issue is in the proper understanding of what a “grade equivalent score” really is.

Grade-equivalent scores attempt to show at what grade level and month your child is functioning.  However, grade-equivalent scores are not able to show this.  Let me use an example to illustrate this.  In reading comprehension, your son in Grade 5 scored a 7.3 grade equivalent on his Grade 5 test. The 7 represents the grade level while the 3 represents the month. 7.3 would represent the seventh grade, third month, which is December.  The reason it is the third month is because September is zero, October is one, etc.  It is not true though that your son is functioning at the seventh grade level since he was never tested on seventh grade material.  He was only tested on fifth grade material.  He performed like a seventh grader on fifth grade material.  That’s why the grade-equivalent scores should not be used to decide at what grade level a student is functioning.

Let me finish this section by being very clear: We do not believe that standardized test scores represent the only, nor surely the best, evidence for academic success.  Our goal continues to be providing each student with a “floor, but no ceiling” representing each student’s maximum success.  Our best outcome is still producing students who become lifelong learners.

But I also don’t want to undersell the objective evidence that shows that the work we are doing here does in fact lead to tangible success.  That’s the headline, but let’s look more closely at the story.  (You may wish to zoom in a bit on whatever device you are reading this on…)

A few tips on how to read this:

  • We normally take this exam in the “.2” of each grade-level year, but this year we took at at the “.1”.  [This will have a slight impact on the comparative data.]  That means that “at grade-level” [again, please refer above to a more precise definition of “grade equivalent scores”] for any grade we are looking at would be 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, etc.  For example, if you are looking at Grade 6, anything below 6.1 would constitute “below grade-level” and anything above 6.1 would constitute “above grade-level.”
  • The maximum score for any grade is “.9” of the next year’s grade.  If, for example, you are looking at Grade 8 and see a score of 9.9, on our forms it actually reads “9.9+” – the maximum score that can be recorded.
  • Because of when we take this test – approximately one-two months into the school year – it is reasonable to assume a significant responsibility for results is attributable to the prior year’s teachers and experiences.  But, of course, it is very hard to tease it out exactly, of course.

What are the key takeaways from these snapshots of the entire school?

  • Looking at six different grades through six different dimensions there are only two instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level: Grades 4 (3.4) and 6 (5.6) Spelling.  This is the best we have ever scored!  Every other grade and every other subject is either at or above or way above.
  • For those parents focused on high school readiness, our students in Grades 7 & 8 got the maximum score that can be recorded for each and every academic category except for Grade 7 Computation & Estimation (7.6).  Again, our Grade 8s maxxed out at 9.9 across the board and our Grades 7s maxxed out at 8.9 across the board save one.  Again, this is – by far – the best we have ever scored.

It does not require a sophisticated analysis to see how exceedingly well each and every grade has done in just about each and every section.  In almost all cases, each and every grade is performing significantly above grade-level.  This is a very encouraging set of data points.

Stay tuned next week when we begin to dive into the comparative data.  “Part II” will look at the same cohort (the same group of students) over time.  “Part III” will look at the same grade over time and conclude this series of posts with some additional summarizing thoughts.

Exam Evolution

Once upon a time all the high schools in our community – both public and private – gave formal exams in Grade 9.  And so it was not only natural, it was an advantage for students at OJCS to take a series of exams during the Grades 7 and 8 years.  It checked (at least) three meaningful boxes:

  1. Our students learned valuable note-taking, study and organizational skills by going through the process of preparing for an exam.
  2. Our school learned valuable information about what our students did (or didn’t) learn as they were preparing to exit OJCS.  Exams that were able to stretch back across grades allowed OJCS to know not just what students learned that trimester or year, but what they learned while at OJCS.
  3. Our students gained real-world experience that they could utilize in service of the exams they would be taking in Grade 9 (and beyond).

And then…say it with me…COVID.

And ever since, the public high schools have not offered exams in Grades 9 & 10 and do not seem to be on a path towards doing so again.  Private schools in our community do offer exams in Grade 9.   And to the degree that context matters, we did some digging and it is additionally true that other independent schools in our community do offer exams in Grade 8 (or even earlier) and so if that is the water we are swimming in, perhaps it is that simple.  But part of being “independent” is that we get to make the decision for ourselves, and so it begs the question about what ought we do at OJCS if one of our three boxes no longer applies?  Do the other two warrant the energy (and for some students the anxiety) for OJCS to continue to offer exams, and if so, in which grades and subjects?

Zooming out, there are lots of skills and experiences we teach and provide at OJCS that are not necessarily formally carried forward to high school.  I have learned this firsthand as a parent of two OJCS graduates, one now in university and one still in high school.  Those skills – whether they be technological, organizational, public speaking, self-advocacy and many others – may not have had direct application to this (high school) class or another, but have definitely served them well as students.  If we were deciding whether or not to use iPads, or host hackathons, or a million other things based on what will be true in public school in grade nine, we might as well be public school ourselves.  So we feel very comfortable suggesting that whether or not our graduates going on to public schools do or don’t have formal exams in grade nine, it ought not determine what we do.  So much for “Box #3”.

Boxes #1 & 2 still feel very valuable.  While always managing and paying attention to student anxiety and their version of “school/life balance” – and always honouring IEPs and Support Plans – we definitely believe that the process of preparing, studying and taking formal exams is a value add for our students as they prepare for the added rigours of high school.  Grit and resiliency can only come about through authentic experience; sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable, suffer a little adversity, be a little anxious.  So there’s “Box #1”.

Box #2 is interesting and at least for this year (and likely next) determinative.  We have lots of opportunities to utilize external benchmarks and standardized testing to provide data on what students who are graduating OJCS have (and haven’t) learned.  We have the most data on Math and Language Arts by virtue of the CAT-4, Amplify, IXL, etc.  If we wanted to gather similar results for Social Studies and/or Science we could decide if and when to add those modules to our CAT-4.  The two places where we could benefit from better knowledge is in Jewish Studies and French.  We have made significant progress in knowing what is true in French with last year’s introduction of the DELF Exam, but it only targeted the highest achieving students.  No such external standard exists for Hebrew / Jewish Studies.

And so for all of the above reasons, here is what will be true this Spring at OJCS.  Students in Grade 8 will take two exams.  They will all take a Jewish Studies Final (which is completely consistent with past and present practice) and they will take either a French Final or the DELF (the “French Final” being an in-house exam offered at both the Core and Extended (if needed) levels).  We’ll see how that goes, check results, solicit feedback and make any adjustments if needed for future years.

And with this totally normal little blog post in the middle of what is still a very complicated world and time…Winter Break.  See you 2024.

A Carnival of Blogs

What a wonderful evening last Tuesday night was at OJCS!  A FULL Gym and even-fuller hearts from a Chanukah Family Program for the (Rock of) Ages!  And that candle-lighting ceremony…I am still choked up.  Thanks to our teachers, our students and – of course – our families and friends for filling the darkness of these troubled times with the light of our spirit and ruach.  You can check out all the beautiful images and videos (Flashmob says what?) on our various OJCS social media.

Somehow we had a whole rest of the week to navigate after that…

I spent ten minutes of actual time trying to find out what the analogy is from a gaggle of geese or a flock of seagulls is to a bunch of (mini) blog posts and, indeed, it is a “carnival of blogs”.  (For real.)  And so, with Winter Break Itch starting to spread, I thought it might be useful to swap out my usual way-too-long blog post this week for a small series of mini-mini-posts, updating and reminding you of things to know.

Let the carnival begin…

Each year, I typically dedicate 3-5 blog posts to “touring the OJCS Blogosphere” as a way of helping you see how much amazing content our students and teachers create as part of our normal way of operating.  It is also with the hope that our students (and teachers) can see that the work they do matters; that by putting authentic and meaningful work into the universe, and that by the universe commenting back with feedback, that it will inspire our students (and teachers) to do their best work and to fulfil the “moral imperative of sharing”.  YOU are the “U” in “Universe”.  Momentum begets momentum.  A snowball grows as it moves.  So please, whether you are a parent or a grandparent in our school or not.  Whether you are a fellow-traveller in Jewish education or not.  Whatever brings you to this blog, please click out of it to the OJCS Blogosphere, read any blog or blogfolio and make a quality comment.  Not to put it on too thick, but it is yet one additional way to help our community feel seen and not-so-isolated.  Just a few unexpected positive comments from a few unexpected locations causes such enthusiasm…

Remember at the end of last year and the beginning of this year when we said we would be leaning farther into the Science of Reading?  Well, that is well underway with our investment into Amplify Reading.

Why did we choose Amplify? 

It is the platform that most closely aligns with the evidence-based body of research referred to as the ‘Science of Reading’. The Science of Reading research shows the need for students to have word recognition skills (such as phonemic awareness, decoding skills through phonics, and reading fluency) and language comprehension (including knowledge of vocabulary, morphology, and syntax) in order to read and comprehend text. 

Teachers have been rolling it out and you can check (Guess where!) Classroom Blogs for more information.  Like this one from our Middle School Language Arts Teacher, Jess Mender.

What about this renovation we’ve been hearing about?

That is a thing that is going to happen!  After having to share the sad news of our postponement last year, we are back on track.  We will be confirming the project and the schedule in the weeks ahead and with that comes the contingency plans for the end of this school year when we fully expect to be under construction so that we are “move-in ready” for the start of the 2024-2025 school year.  This is tremendously exciting and I cannot wait to share updated renderings with all the magic coming our way.  We know that the true value of what happens in a school is in the people and the activities, but we do know that the physical space matters.  Our children and teachers deserve a space as innovative and creative as they are and we are looking forward to this first phase of renovation launching the transformation from past to future.

Like the renovation – oft-discussed, but not-quite-yet tangible – is our school’s 75th Anniversary.  And like the renovation, which has slowly been ramping up quietly and is going to be ready for take off near the end of this school year, so, too will be the series of events celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Ottawa Jewish Community School (founded as Hillel Academy).  There are (I checked) fewer than 15 Jewish Day Schools in North America older than the Ottawa Jewish Community School, and most of those are in communities with much larger Jewish populations.  This is an incredible achievement and an extraordinary validation for those with the vision and the courage to create and sustain our special school.  An anniversary year is an opportunity to celebrate and to appreciate – and yes, to fundraise.  The past and the present of Jewish Ottawa is entwined with our school; securing the future of OJCS is how we help secure the future of Jewish Ottawa.

Now more than ever.

Op-Ed Postscript: People (Still) Read Newspapers & (Some) People ARE Wonderful

On Friday, December 1st, my Op-Ed was published in the Ottawa Citizen.

The following things have happened since…

…that morning an MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament for my American friends) physically came by to hand deliver donut holes to the staff.

…on Monday all our energy was dedicated to…

…sending four buses of students, teachers, parents and alumni to the Canadian Rally for the Jewish People where we stood in solidarity with thousands and thousands in the snow in support of Israel.  [If you want to see us in a brief news report, click here.]

…on Tuesday, a (non-Jewish) woman named Isabel G. had a zillion delicious kosher baked goods delivered to our staff.

…on Tuesday, a (non-Jewish) woman named Lauren S. had a beautiful handwritten card and candle sent to us expressing her allyship and solidarity.

…on Tuesday, a (non-Jewish) woman named Mary T., a young 89 year-old resident of an assisted living complex, called the school to see what she could do for us.

And it is only Wednesday…

That doesn’t account for all the Jewish folk I have bumped into since Friday who have gone out of their way to let me know they read, they support, they care, and they, too want to feel like we can do something.

Well.

All of the above counts as something.  And more than that, it means everything.  You would be surprised – I was – at how much these gestures mean.  It seems silly, or maybe it doesn’t, but these simple acts of lovingkindness bring a smile to an otherwise stressed Israeli face, or adds a spring in an otherwise exhausted Jewish step, or comforts a teacher who feels anxious these days – it meaningfully impacts our teachers and our school when we need it most.  And who benefits?  Happy teachers, happy students!  Everyone feels, if just for a moment, better.  And that is the best gift any of us can receive during this season, a little light in the darkness.

Chag urim sameach.

BTW – I should have asked for potato chips!  [Or did I just manifest a potato chip delivery!]

We look forward to safely welcoming you to this year’s special OJCS Chanukah Family Program!  Date and time has been communicated directly to parents and we are looking forward to coming together as an OJCS Family…now more than ever.

BTW – if you like a playlist and a signature cocktail for your celebrations, why don’t you go ahead and make yourself a Chanukah Gelt Martini and vibe to this playlist:

CAT-4 results are in!  You can look forward to my way-too-long, covered in way-too-many parts, analysis and breakdown…after Winter Break.

Public Displays of Judaism: Chanukah After 10/7

What I am thinking about today in the midst of all the noise, is the holiday of Chanukah, which begins next week and what can be learned by refracting it through the lens of a post-October 7th landscape.

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

There may be no simple Jewish ritual more fraught at this moment in history than this.  A common act that, for some, now may be heavy with anxiety, or infused with politics, or mixed with defiance, or filled with pride – or some combination thereof and therein.  To do something that is visible to the public through a window that makes it clear that you are Jewish means something this year other or more than it has in other years.

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

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but that idea of striking a balance between not letting the world overwhelm you, and taking appropriate action to perfect it, feels right – if not a bit too aspirational – for our first post-10/7 Chanukah.  Since then, our school, our community and each of us in our own ways have been trying to control the things we can while forgoing what may now feel risky.  But we all very much want to feel like we can do something.

For our school, it has included things like the amazing experience of welcoming new Israeli families in search of safety and joy or the massive participation in Monday’s Rally.  For me, personally, it has been taking on a lot more thought-leadership than I typically do in a bit more political vein than I am normally comfortable doing (see below).  People are learning more about Israel, sharing more about Israel, advocating more for Jewish Community and for Israel, and there are lots of stories of folk using this moment to rediscover and reconnect to their Jewish roots.  Like the Maccabbees, through human ingenuity and effort, we are active agents in our own salvation.

As we hopefully come through this crisis in the months ahead, let’s hope that by next Chanukah the image of a lit chanukkiah behind a window no longers resonates as a courageous act, but as a simple sharing of our collective joy of the holiday.

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

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours.

If you haven’t read, but would like to, my Op-Ed in the Ottawa Citizen, you are welcome to follow this link.

We look forward to safely welcoming you to this year’s special OJCS Chanukah Family Program!  Date and time has been communicated directly to parents and we are looking forward to coming together as an OJCS Family…now more than ever.

ExPat Files: American Thanksgiving In Canada Comes With a Side of Gratitude

To all my friends and family in the States, I wish you a “Happy Thanksgiving”.  And to all my friends in Canada, I wish you a “Happy Thursday”.

Sigh.

I know, truly, all the things about Thanksgiving in America.  And I know, truly, all the things about Thanksgiving in Canada.  [If you don’t believe me, I wrote a post about it a few years ago.]  And yet this time of year brings such strong feelings that “body memory” has to be real.  It actually starts on the weekend prior where you just know that Thanksgiving Week is coming…it is the shortest of school/work weeks…children are coming home from college (that’s American for “university”), relatives are gathering, food is being cooked, football is coming on, a four or five-day weekend is ahead, and it just goes on and on.  The whole week is filled with such anticipatory joy.

I fully acknowledge that if it has not been your experience, it may not make sense; but if it has, then it is the only thing that makes sense.  [Ask an American.]  The fomo really starts on Wednesday when you realize that you should be starting to relax and it is just another school night.  And now, today, when the only emails and social media posts you get are full of Thanksgiving, the games are starting up, and you are just…at school or work…that’s some next-level fomo.

Whatever your position on Thanksgiving (either of them) are, I would hope that we can all agree that the giving-of-the-thanks part is a net positive.  We could and should be grateful more than once a year and at a Jewish school, we have multiple opportunities each day to express our gratitude.  But since I am feeling all the Thanksgiving feels as I write my weekly blog post, I figured if I can’t watch the game, or see the family, or eat the food, the one thing I can do is express a little gratitude.

What I am grateful for this (American) Thanksgiving:

  • I am grateful for the soon-to-be gift of dual American and Canadian citizenship.  (Spoiler Alert!  Jaimee and I passed our citizenship tests and are waiting for the call to God Save the King!  We are looking forward to sharing the ceremony with our local community.)  Seven years a Canadian has been a blessing for our family and we remain proud Americans.  Doubly-blessed are we.
  • I am grateful for the men and women who defend the Land, State and People of Israel, our Holy Homeland.  We pray for the return of all the hostages and a peaceful resolution to this current conflict.  We are so hopeful that the world calms down enough for our younger daughter, Maytal, to have her semester-in-Israel experience this January, but regardless, the safety and security of Israel is never to be taken for granted and always to be grateful for.  Now more than ever.  Am Yisrael Chai.
  • I grateful for the technology that keeps me connected to friends and family.  COVID or no COVID, it is miracle that FaceTime, Zoom and Google Meet allow us to “see” parents, grandparents and friends across borders and thousands of miles.
  • I am eternally grateful to have a wife, Jaimee, whose Type A/perfectionist mothering and wife-ing creates so much space for me to dedicate my time and energy to my work and my passion.
  • I am thankful to have landed in a Jewish community that is extraordinarily capable and generous; a community that is committed to its future by its support for Jewish day school.
  • I am grateful to have landed in a Jewish day school that is full of committed, talented, caring, innovating and hardworking teachers.  A school is only as good as its teachers and we have a pretty great school!

I could go on, of course, but let me just say that I am also grateful to anyone and everyone who has ever read, shared, or commented on one of my 450+ blog posts over the years.  You often wonder/worry that you are speaking into the wind, but every now and again someone takes the time to let you know that they are, in fact, paying attention.  And that always feels great.

For my friends in the States…enjoy Thanksgiving!  For my friends in Canada…enjoy Thursday!

This is being planned with all due haste, and I do have a seat at the table, so please know that all the details of the program and our school’s participation are coming out just as soon as humanly possible.