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Blog: Monday, January 16, 2017

50 Years Later: A Modern Struggle for Civil Rights

Today we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights activist who is known for his use of nonviolent methods in addressing racial inequality. When we talk to school children about his work, it's a good thing that these children, born 40 years after his death, can't imagine that people of color had different bathrooms, couldn't sit at the front of the bus, or went to different schools. We’ve come far.

The fact that in 2017 some are speaking about a registration of Muslim citizens is disheartening. Some may think that we need not worry about such rhetoric. We have the Constitution and Bill of Rights as protectants of religious freedom and basic rights, but these documents were mostly in place in the 1960’s as well and racial equality was still a hard won fight that some may argue is not yet won. As American citizens, all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, have a duty to safeguard these American ideals.

This weekend I attended a presentation of "Understanding the American Muslim," organized by EnjoinGood.org in response to a challenge of Mayor Marty Walsh for officials to visit a mosque during the month of January. This presentation was held at the Worcester Islamic Center and featured Asima Silva, EnjoinGood.org’s founder and a School Committee member from Wachusett. The mission of EnjoinGood.org is to dispel the fear and hate that lead to violence. They work with the community to overcome misunderstanding and to partner with other interfaith and educational organizations to make the United States a stronger and more just society.

The event was well attended and included Representative Jim McGovern, Superintendent Maureen Binienda, and other area political, educational, and governmental officials. In addition to highlighting the basics of the Muslim faith, presenters shared personal stories that depict struggles with discrimination and hate.

Most discrimination, as well as bullying, stems from a lack of knowledge. For example, common beliefs about the treatment of Muslim women are grounded more in narrow depictions of mistreatment in some subcultures, rather than the position of women in most Muslim groups, which is grounded in religious beliefs. The list of women’s rights in Islam, shared by Asima, are rights that any American women would espouse. Moreover, “Jihad,” which has become equivalent to “evil” in our country, simply means “struggle.” An individual’s striving for personal improvement or righteousness against wrongdoing is Jihad. Jihad has taken on an evil meaning in a minority of Muslim groups, rather than mainstream Islam.

Admittedly, I attended this event for a somewhat selfish reason. I hope to engage EnjoinGood.org and the Worcester Islamic Center to support a TCLP grant we will be submitting to enable an international teacher to come to Leicester to teach Arabic and I wanted to learn more about their work. The Teachers of Critical Languages Program (TCLP), a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, is designed to increase the study and acquisition of important world languages in U.S. schools. This program would enable Leicester High School to initiate an Arabic language program by bringing an Egyptian or Moroccan teacher to the U.S. to teach their native language and culture for the next academic year.

I ended up getting more than I came for because my understanding of the American Muslim, which I thought was greater than the average American, grew and, just as important, the presentation awakened a call for action. I close with an important quote shared at the event, which I hope will awaken a similar call for action in the Leicester school community to safeguard our American ideals and to ensure our schools are bully-free, not simply by punishing the bully but through education, for it is through ignorance that the bully is empowered.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

~ Pastor Martin Niemöller

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 9:34 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Sunday, December 18, 2016

Student Feedback: Chromebooks

Over the past three years, we have invested over $170,000 in the technology infrastructure to allow for wifi access throughout all four of our schools. We have also spent about $140,000 for Chromebooks at the high school and about the same amount for Chromebooks and carts for our other three schools. We are continually evaluating their use in a variety of ways to help us to ensure that we are getting the most from this significant investment.

Most recently, we surveyed students to see what they thought about how the devices were being used at the high school. 98.8 percent report favorably about their devices, with 16% reporting that the quality of the Chromebook is OK and 83% report that their device is either of good quality or best quality. While 3.8% of surveyed students reported that the device is slightly useful to them during the school day, the remaining 96.2% report it being useful and half of those report using it all the time. The numbers are only slightly lower for their use at home as, one might imagine, most students have access to a number of other devices.

In a question asking how many of their teachers use Google Classroom regularly, 12.8% report "All," 60.3% report "Most," and 26.9% report "Some." This is rather impressive, since technology often has what we call "early adopters," but to have such a large percentage of teachers using Google Classroom in the first year of implementation means that the majority of our teachers are, in fact, "early adopters." With 95.5% of students reporting that Google Classroom is helpful to them to stay organized in their studies, its use clearly contributes toward student success.

What has been most impressive about the one-to-one initiative at the high school is the way teachers are sharing best practices with each other. Much of this work is teacher-driven, rather than a set of mandates that must be implemented. Teachers volunteer to present on the use of an online tool and other teachers choose among offerings. This is done regularly during after school meetings.

As we get ready to celebrate the holidays with family and friends, let's also celebrate the many "early adopters" that continually learn new ways to engage our students.

Posted by Judy Paolucci | 0 comments

Blog: Friday, November 18, 2016

Teacher Leadership

Each year, we organize three teacher leader days to share leadership practices with our department and grade level leaders. Our theory of action is: if we develop leadership skills in our teacher leaders, district goals can be realized through shared leadership and accountability. In addition, we believe that if we don’t create structures for sharing best practices among staff, the excellence that each member of our school community exhibits is confined to each individual classroom.

On my to do list is the development of the January 19th teacher leader day training. I thought I’d start this task by reflecting on the ways educators may demonstrate each of the Teacher Leader Model Standards. These standards were developed by a consortium of professionals from state departments of education, teacher union leadership, colleges, and from teachers and school administrators from districts across the United States. I purposely chose examples from outside Leicester to avoid choosing one example over another from our district. I will, though, be adding a “Teacher Leader Corner” to the monthly district newsletter to highlight the extraordinary work Leicester teachers do to extend their reach beyond our classrooms and community.

Domain 1: Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Example: As a science teacher, I worked in a school where the principal valued teachers working together to improve instruction. She engaged the National School Reform Faculty (www.nsrfharmony.com) to train of a number of teachers in the use of protocols then established “critical friends groups.” These groups, which met on their own time, were led by teacher leaders (not necessarily those in department chair or grade level leadership positions) and focused on looking at student work, studying research articles, and consulting with each other to improve practice.

Domain 2: Accessing and Using Research to Improve Practice and Student Learning

Example: The Gems-net program, housed at the University of Rhode Island, employed 2 teachers, “borrowed” from participating districts, to train other teachers in the use of inquiry-based science materials, collect data from classrooms, and help teachers improve science instruction. After working for Gems-net for 2 years, they returned to their districts able to lead their colleagues to ensure excellent science instruction.

Domain 3: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement

Example: A literacy coach and a math coach working in Narragansett, RI collaborated with the principals to plan professional learning then support the application of that learning through structured coaching. The process involved observing the coach teach students using the learned strategy, debriefing, then having the coach observe the teacher utilizing the strategy.

Domain 4: Facilitating Improvements in Instruction and Student Learning

Example: In a district where I once taught, teachers were encouraged (and rewarded) to pursue certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (www.nbpts.org). The process involves filming one’s teaching, reflecting on the lesson taught, analyzing student work, and demonstrating contributions toward the teaching profession. It’s both rigorous and humbling. The teachers who engaged in this work emerged as better teachers and modeled for others what it means to be a reflective practitioner.

Domain 5: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement

Example: Two English teachers and a library media specialist made an invaluable contribution to the improvement efforts of their school when they identified the skills students would need to write a research report in their senior year then mapped the teaching of these skills through each year of high school. They then facilitated the collaborative scoring of student writing and the analysis of the results to determine how instruction might be strengthened to improve the students’ writing.

Domain 6: Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community

Example: A first grade teacher includes a class blog to help parents connect with their children’s school lives. Students in her class, excited to share their learning with their families, contribute to the blog and encourage their parents to read the blog each week. The teacher, knowing that one student has no Internet access at home, arranges for the student to bring home a tablet each week. She also works with the ELL teacher to ensure that information is translated, if needed, for families of ELLs.

Domain 7: Advocating for Student Learning and the Profession

EXAMPLE: Many educators across the state participated in advocacy work during the recent “No on 2” campaign to keep the charter school cap. Some took leadership roles in this work, connecting with union leaders, legislators, and other stakeholders to help voters understand the effects of lifting this cap.

My purpose for highlighting these examples is to show the diverse ways teacher leaders affect their profession and the students they serve. Some may call this leadership while others call it professionalism. Either way, it is both valued and necessary to ensure a high quality education for our students and should be supported, both financially and through continuing professional development and gratitude. Thank you to all the Leicester teachers who demonstrate professionalism and leadership here in Leicester. We can’t do what needs to be done without you.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 6:47 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Sunday, October 30, 2016

Positive School Culture

On October 27th, twenty Kuwaiti administrators, along with three interpreters and four educational consultants, visited Leicester Middle School to shadow Leicester educators as they conducted a learning walk. Their goal was to learn about American education, district and school improvement processes, and observing instruction. The visitors also met with high school students and discussed differences and similarities between education in America and Kuwait.

There was much to be proud about. Middle School teachers applied strategies they had learned from Engaging Schools at the start of this school year. Discourse between and among teachers and students was respectful and focused on important learning objectives. Educator goals are tied to school improvement goals, which are, in turn, tied to district goals. Many kind things were said about our school, students, and staff. Perhaps the strongest complement made came in the form of a question, “How did the culture of the school get to be so positive?”

The culture of a school is defined by its beliefs, traditions, values, and norms. There were several things the visitors saw that led them to characterize the culture of LMS as good:

  • Teachers and administrators working together to observe and assess instruction;

  • Teachers applying new learning to their lessons;

  • Well planned lessons; and

  • Mutual respect between and among teachers, administrators, and students.

To be sure, all relationships go through high and low points and even the best of marriages have disagreements but a positive culture transcends temporary setbacks or misunderstandings. It’s hard to fake, especially for an extended period of time.

Poor school cultures are characterized by mistrust and assumptions of bad intentions, Teachers that are part of a poor culture work to maintain the status quo, are insulted by feedback, and blame poor results on their students. It’s not a place where administrators or talented teachers like to work.

School cultures, like marriages, aren’t 100% great 100% of the time but the greater amount of time spent in a positive mode, the better. Every member of the school community - its administrators, staff, students, and parents - are responsible for school culture. Join me in commending Leicester Middle School’s administrators, staff, students, and parents for the positive culture established there.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 7:17 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Purpose for Evaluation

Regulations for the Massachusetts Framework for Educator Evaluation, were established in 2011, 5 years ago. The regulations apply to both administrators and teachers alike and guide the evaluation process in Leicester, as well as in other districts throughout the state. The Department of Education lists the following objectives(1) of the process:

  • Promote growth and development amongst leaders and teachers,
  • Place student learning at the center, using multiple measures of student learning, growth, and achievement,
  • Recognize excellence in teaching and leading,
  • Set a high bar for professional teaching status, and
  • Shorten timelines for improvement.

Most educators and, I purport, a greater percentage of educators in Leicester, have accepted this continual improvement process with passion, developing yearly goals that are meaningful and rigorous then setting off to make adjustments to practice to meet those goals.

It’s painful to see even a few educators pull back from the process, like a turtle retreating into its shell, fearful of what they perceive as a means of collecting evidence for dismissal, as if that’s the ultimate purpose. It brings me back to my early days of teaching, in the 1990’s, when the evaluation process was, indeed, primarily a means to that end. Conversations overheard at social gatherings, state meetings, and, though rare, in the hallways of our schools reveal that not everyone understands the goals of the evaluation process.

At this point in the year, educators have or are in the process have having goals approved by their evaluator. Evaluators work with individuals and teams of teachers to make sure that goals are realistic but rigorous, measurable, and clearly stated. Data from common assessments and from surveys of students and teachers help to focus efforts to have a significant effect on students. Classroom observations have also begun as administrators observe and provide feedback for six observations for every teacher under their supervision.

While individuals should make every effort to meet stated goals, it’s better to have set a high standard and come up short than to have met a weak goal. The attainment of a proficient or even an exemplary rating is not dependent upon meeting every goal. On the other hand, if goals are not met because plans were not followed or because evidence suggests inadequate instructional practices persist, despite adequate supports, a more directed support system for the teacher may be applied. Ultimately, even in this case, the preferred goal is for improved practices, rather than for dismissal.

Most of my former students would agree that my standards for their learning were rigorous. I set high standards because I wanted their learning to be optimal, not because I wanted them to fail. I’m sure there are many teachers that fit that description as well. If we all think about the evaluation process as a learning process, rigorous goals will be desired by all; no one wants a teacher with low expectations for their students as no one should want a supervisor with low expectations for those they supervise.

(1) Objectives taken directly from the Massachusetts Department of Education website

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 9:44 AM | 0 comments
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