From Pivot to Pirouette

By Teri McGuire and Jill Goldstein Smith

When we think back on 2020, a few words come to mind – many we won’t share here. But one word that epitomizes the past seven months for many of us is “pivot.” As part of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) team, we identify proudly as “camp people” to our core: we strive to always be flexible, roll with the punches, and create intentional community. We live to learn in fun ways, and we live life playfully. In this age of “pivoting,” we dug deep and reimagined and reprioritized our work. And, at first, it felt awkward and cumbersome, and we, too, felt like we were pushing a huge couch up a turning stairwell – or, in our case, transitioning our 800+ attendee conference, Leaders Assembly, that we worked on all year, into our first virtual conference in early March. Many amazing colleagues have written about their journey to pivot successfully, but, here at FJC, we are done with the pivot. We have moved on to the pirouette.

The pirouette is a classic move in a ballet dancer’s repertoire – a complete turn of the body on one foot. By learning the proper positioning and form to execute a turn, like dancers, we can gracefully maneuver through and thoughtfully design these new experiences for our participants and learners, many through virtual environments. In our own work, this meant taking experiential programs like our “camp for camp counselors” Cornerstone Fellowship into the virtual space, and creating brand new virtual programming from scratch – like our S’more Learning Shavuot night of study, our Mental Health & Wellness Internship, Jewish Camp Hack-a-thon, and 5781Field gathering. Experimenting with new ways to translate the group dynamics and community building that is the hallmark of camp has felt risky, but we’ve learned that taking purposeful risks sparks innovation. We’ve gotten many questions about how we did so, and we’ve struggled to share because we’ve learned so much.

Channeling Rabbi Hillel, we’ve boiled down all we’ve learned into a few key lessons that are worth sharing “on one foot.”(Shabbat 31a) So here are our best learned lessons on how to pirouette on a micro level – lessons that get to the heart of the results of the recently released Virtual Engagement Research findings.

THE CHOREOGRAPHY

Planning a virtual gathering requires a precise plan. With our team strewn across different locations and devices (and even states, countries, and time zones), it is even more important for us all to be on the same page – literally! Running a virtual gathering is like running a TV show – so we always have a run of show with stage directions and cues down to the minute mark, to ensure the participant experience feels seamless.

Here is a Run of Show Template that you can copy and use for any virtual gathering. And here are real examples of a staff meeting and a multi-day cohort program to see how we have utilized this tool to make virtual gatherings more cohesive and intentional.

Pro Tip: When creating your own run of show, we highly recommend you take a look at break times – not just for your participants but also for you and your team. This is where we have struggled the most: our team tried to pack in so much that we were often dehydrated, hungry, and in desperate need to pee!

THE RIGHT GEAR

Dancers need the right footwear as a foundation. So, too, does a virtual experience require the right technological tools to support the goal. Knowing how to make the right choices to leverage the tools to our advantage is also key.

Like many, Zoom is generally our vehicle of choice, but, with a max of 49 people on screen at once, it’s important to consider who you want to be “in the room” for this experience. If you are looking to create the intimacy one might experience in a “circle of chairs” – where you can see everyone at once, you should keep the number of participants under 50. This will allow you to read the room and intuit how participants are engaging without the extra time to scroll.

On the other hand, FJC hosted several programs with hundreds of people. Rather than host a webinar in which participants are passive observers limited to a Q&A box, we wanted both the flexibility of breakout rooms but also the ability to highlight individuals or groups. We discovered two ways to address this, each providing different effects:

  1. We played with the “jumbotron using the spotlight feature during Israeli dance parties or morning stretching games during multi-day conferences.
  2. By instructing attendees to adjust their video settings to hide non-video participants (here’s the slide we use), a “stage was created when all participants turned off their cameras except those presenting, which gave the energy of a performance or game show. It allowed participants to see other audience members at the start and during other moments, but drew attention where we wanted it (without needing the crutch of a slidedeck).

And ascamp people,” group dynamics are our bread and butter. Here are some supplementary tools we use for creating community over Zoom.

THE STAGE

Space crafting is key even in a virtual environment. Keep your waiting room enabled while you turn your music on, share your welcoming slide or activity, and only once you’re all set and feeling ready, let your guests in. Once the ‘doors’ open, music is playing to set the tone. The moment they enter is indicative of the entire experience. Some people may be skeptical that your virtual gathering will be successful, so come ready to prove them wrong. Participants will match the energy of the presenter – so have your brightest star kick things off, with a sincere smile, upbeat energy, and confidence that they can make magic. And while we might not be able to provide refreshments, we draw people in using MentiMeter, Jamboard, and other tools to facilitate peoples immediate participation. People arrive and the play begins!

THE REHEARSAL

Perhaps the most important moment of the day is the tech “run through.” 1530 minutes prior to your start time, we encourage you to gather the whole crew together to ask clarifying questions, test out that video screen sharing one more time, and get excited about the experience to come.

THE ENSEMBLE

Keynote speakers don’t set up projectors and unwrap cookies, not because they’re fancy people, but because the role you hired them for requires focus. Similarly in virtual spaces, adequate staff coverage is imperative. Facilitating an educational experience requires focus, so we insist on having at least one buddy assigned to monitor the zoom waiting room, create breakout rooms, or paste instructions in the chat. Once we have a team in place, they need a clear mode of communication. FJC staff uses Slack like a walkie talkie system.

Beyond streamlining our behind-the-scenes communication, we also create space for community building – our program faculty are family. A separate zoom room remained open all day during our virtual Cornerstone as a “green room.” While there was no physical hallway to run into each other, faculty met to debrief with colleagues, workshop with peers, and brainstorm shifts in real-time.

THE SPOTTING POINT

Pirouettes are about focus, not force. Our spotting point is the goal(s) driving us as educators, or as Simon Sinek would remind us: return to your why to keep you grounded and focused.

Our virtual experiences have comprehensive goals. We often use this ABC framework for goals, keeping us grounded on a strong foundation as we spring and turn to lift up others:

  • Affect: How do you want people to feel?
  • Behavior: What do you want people to do?
  • Cognition: What will people know as a result?

COMPLETING THE TURN

While there is a lot of power in a pirouette, there is also a lot of grace. As we finish our virtual gathering we like to think about two different approaches to endings – how to close the day’s festivities with our participants and how to close them with our internal team.

When it comes to the participants we’ve found success with the concept of megaphone vs. telephone. We think to ourselves, do we want to leave them with a megaphone moment (announcements, new content, a dvar torah or story), or, do we want to leave off on a telephone moment (connecting through breakout group discussions, reflecting in the chat, or leverage a tool like mentimeter/mural/jamboard to be in conversation). We choose with intention, based on our goals.

Once participants leave, our internal team sticks around, even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes – and we even include that in our internal calendar invite. In person, we’d have travel, a meal, or at least clean-up time to reflect and celebrate, so we’ve learned not to limit that time just because we’re virtual. If this is a multi-session experience, we spend our time re-assessing the next gathering. If we learned something, we adjust for it in our next run of show. Because our plan is so detailed, we can play around and tinker for even more success the next time, and it is great to do that while it is all fresh in our minds!

THE CURTAIN CALL

Embrace moments and rituals to create closure for the experience. It’s impressive what a live-populated MentiMeter word cloud full of everyone’s highlights can unearth for the group. Don’t underestimate the importance of helping participants reflect to see how the group has transformed and realize all they have learned.

Opportunities for doubling down or extending the experience’s impact might include surprise swag or gifts (we’ve done cupcakes, gift boxes, books, and gift cards). These tokens can create group cohesion if sent early on and include an on-screen communal unboxing, or show appreciation if mailed at the end. They can also be an extension of your program’s goals. For example, we sent our Mental Health & Wellness interns the book #QuietingTheSilence by Blue Dove Foundation, and included a thank you note and an invitation to a post-program book discussion (where we’ll also anecdotally find out how the program might still be impacting their lives).

For us “camp people,” the playful and artful choreography of the pirouette is much more inspiring than a mechanical pivot. But to do it well, we need to practice, commit to improving, take risks, stay grounded in our goals, lean on our teammates, and never forget to have fun. We invite you to join us on stage – let us pirouette as a chorus together.

That is what we have spinning on one foot. “The rest is commentary- go and study it!”

Some articles of interest:

Jill Goldstein Smith and Teri McGuire are members of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leadership Development team. As a Senior Program Manager, Jill oversees FJC’s mental, emotional, and social health portfolio and gained experience with virtual programming this summer while designing and executing the first Jewish Camp Mental Health and Wellness Internship (with a second cohort launching this fall). As a Program Manager, Teri ran Cornerstone 202.0, a virtual version of FJC’s flagship program, and the Jewish Staff Hack-a-thon which engaged participants in innovation and ideation for the field of Jewish Camp.

Our indispensable collaborators and thought partners on this article include FJC’s Gaby Schoenfeld, Julie Finkelstein, Aimee Lerner, and Rabbi Avi Orlow. We’re also grateful to the many invaluable colleagues who supported the work of these programs and the participants who trusted us, built with us, and seriously engaged with playfulness.