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Blog: Friday, August 29, 2014

8 Tips for a Successful School Year

Numbered lists of recommendations are a favorite theme of professional texts. Over the past few years I’ve read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Lencioni, 2002), The Six Secrets of Change (Fullan, 2011), and Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader (Evans, 2010). It makes sense that through the combined efforts of the professionals in Leicester, we too can capitalize on this theme. As Kenneth Blanchard reminds us, “none of us is as smart as all of us.” Through technology, networks of professionals support informal learning in fields as diverse as business, engineering, and education.

During the new school year’s opening address, I shared eight tips for a successful school year and educators participated through a “backchannel” chat during the presentation. As I shared my PowerPoint and ideas, participants logged into a chat room and could comment on the ideas or provide ideas of their own. We projected the chat alongside the presentation. This blog entry represents the collective thoughts Leicester educators shared both during the presentation and afterwards.

TIP 1: Take risks.

Not every new instructional approach we try is received well by our students but we won’t know its potential unless we experiment with a new instructional approach. Using a backchannel chat on opening day was a risk in itself.

We also open ourselves up by sharing ideas with new people, eating with a different group of co-workers, making suggestions to the principal or director or by learning and applying technology tools to solve problems. As some expressed uncertainty about using technology before enough training is provided and confidence is developed, one Leicester educator reminded everyone to “play” with technology for learning instead of waiting for proficiency.

TIP 2: Work on relationships.

Let’s face it, some relationships – with students, parents, colleagues, & family - come easy, while others take effort. Our backchannel conversation focused on being willing to accept others’ ideas, being kind, respecting colleagues, and instilling trust. Students don’t need their teachers to be their friend but they, as well as their parents, need to know we care about their success, their safety, and their happiness. Relationships with parents, developed through strong lines of communication, ensure trust and enable partnerships that affect student success.

TIP 3: Collaborate.

“Here I go again on my own… going down the only road I’ve ever known….”

Both in life and at our jobs, we too often choose to go it alone when, in fact, two heads are always better than one. There is never enough time afforded to collaborate so we must think outside the box to come up with new ways to work together. Leveraging technology, such as Google tools and Twitter, allows collaboration to extend beyond both time and geographical limitations.

TIP 4: Be a learner

We sometimes need to be reminded that modeling what we want to see in our students is an effective means to achieving our goals. If we are learners and find joy in learning, our students can see this as a desired state for themselves. Learning how to maintain a webpage, program for VEX robotics, design an effective math intervention, use Google docs, incorporate writing in science classes, and facilitate morning meetings are not simply means to an end. Find joy in the journey and share that journey with others.

TIP 5: Set high expectations.

Students want you to expect the best from them - to behave appropriately and meet high academic expectations; the alternative is to think poorly of their character. Questions provide a means of formatively assessing student understanding; if every student immediately knows the answer to a question posed, we need to question the question or simply move on. We also need to understand that setting high expectations is not the same as grading harshly or providing very negative feedback. There are classes that are difficult to pass yet are not very rigorous and classes that are fairly rigorous where many achieve high grades (often the disconnect occurs when expectations are not made clear).

We can hold each other to high expectations as well; the alternative is to think poorly of their character. Holding each other to high expectations requires that we open ourselves up to feedback that isn’t always positive, though not necessarily negative either, which brings us to….

TIP 6: Seek feedback.

Stone and Heen’s new text, Thanks for the Feedback; The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well [even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered and, frankly, you’re not in the mood] (2014) posits that feedback that is not squarely positive “triggers” us, potentially keeping us from its benefit. The 300+ page book then sets to provide guidance toward helping us become better receivers of feedback (I’m reading it because I can use that help myself). They remind us that “receiving feedback sits at the junction of two conflicting human desires: we want to learn and grow but we also want to be accepted and respected just as we are now.”

By valuing feedback from more than one person, even if such feedback is a bit contradictory; there is more to think about. Changes based on feedback should be made only after you’ve weighted the feedback against other things that you know.

As one Leicester teacher suggests, “the expectations we set for our students are revealed as we provide rich, specific feedback to our students, both positive and constructive.” Likewise, the expectations our schools’ leaders set for our educators are “revealed as we provide rich, specific feedback to our [educators], both positive and constructive.”

TIP 7: Make learning relevant.

When teaching, we need to ask ourselves, “does the learner know how to put the knowledge to use or how this knowledge is put to use in the real world?” It’s not equally easy for all teaching areas, but relevance is important for engaging learners. I wish I had been introduced to The International Center for Leadership in Education’s Rigor Relevance Framework (see www.leadered.com) earlier in my career (and I’m sure my former students would have wished the same). This tool allows teachers to assess their curriculum and instruction against two dimensions – one based on Bloom’s Taxonomy and the other based on a continuum, created by Bill Daggett, in which knowledge for knowledge’s sake is at one end and application to real-world unpredictable situations is at the other.

TIP 8: Laugh.

The advice to take joy in week days as much as in weekends and to live in the moment was perhaps the most well received tip on the list. While we all feel a little loss from the conclusion of summer, next summer will be here before we know it and we’ll simply be a year older.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 3:15 PM|0 comments

Blog: Saturday, July 26, 2014

Learning and the Internet

The use of the Internet and social media to share ideas has expanded our ability to develop as teachers and learners. My professional learning network includes both a face-to-face critical friends group and those I follow on Twitter. Thumbing through tweets while waiting in a doctor’s office or in the grocery line often sparks “aha moments” and inspiration. I admit to consuming more than I produce, but that’s OK too.

By combining Twitter with Google tools, one inspirational Twitter friend, Alice Barr, is collecting ideas from her personal learning network for back to school icebreakers. Anyone in the world can add to her presentation about warm up activities for back to school (try it yourself) http://goo.gl/p6wPsm. Imagine that. Spend 5 minutes creating a Google presentation document, post it on Twitter with a request for others to add to the document, come back a week later, and presto.

Another group I follow has an online conversation every Saturday, using the hashtag #satchat to organize their strand of thought. Attendees of Google summits use #gafesummit so even if you can’t attend, you can follow that strand on your own and it can lead to more and more learning. Consider that I started this paragraph an hour ago. Hopping on #gafesummit, I was intrigued by a posting by Holly Clark (@HollyClarkEdu) about digital portfolios (http://goo.gl/ChDr18). A link she provided there to her article, “Four Powerful Formative Assessment Tools for the Chromebook Classroom” led to an even more interesting resource.

Connecting professionally to others through the Internet and social media is powerful, as is using these same resources to connect to students and for them to connect to each other. Teaching students to use these tools responsibly is our and parents’ responsibility. We can instead choose to play it safe though avoidance but that approach does not lead to good digital citizenship. Let’s face it, our students will use these tools outside of the classroom anyway, so their understanding of good digital citizenship is important to them 24-7, not just during the school day.

Avoidance also leads to a learning environment that is devoid of the most powerful learning tools known to humankind! Attending to direct instruction while keeping a biology backchannel open can connect a student’s question to an answer provided by a fellow student. Using Socrative for formative assessments (quick quizzes that may not count for grading but provide feedback to the teacher) can allow the teacher to know if or if not students are “getting it.” School Facebook pages can give parents and students alike information about events and celebrations. Google docs don’t simply provide cloud storage for electronic documents, but can also provide a forum for feedback on a student’s writing.

When teachers and students return to Leicester in August they will find a faster network, more areas for wi fi access, updated browsers, additional hardware, more trained teachers, a pilot Chromebook project, and other technology improvements. We will also have more reason to augment our digital citizenship curriculum for students. We wouldn’t give a learner’s permit without some instruction and expectations on how to drive a car responsibly and we shouldn’t give Internet access without some instruction and expectations on how to use it responsibly.

The future is looking bright, Leicester!

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:18 AM|0 comments

Blog: Saturday, July 5, 2014

Summer Happenings

Leicester schools are a bit quieter over the summer though several projects are keeping us fairly busy. The summer of 2014 will usher in a number of changes for personnel, future plans, and instructional offerings.


Leicester High School

As Marilyn Tencza begins her new position as superintendent in North Brookfield, Tracey Hippert will begin her tenure as our high school principal. Tracey's first challenge is to fill a music teaching position and the library media specialist position. There are also a number of teaching assistant openings (watch for postings in August) due to shifting student needs.

Leicester Middle School

Chris Fontaine will follow in Tracey Hippert's footsteps as LMS's new assistant principal. Chris has a strong instructional background built from his experiences in Springfield and Holyoke schools. There will also be a couple of new faces among the faculty at LMS due to a number of reasons, including a retirement and a schedule change. Kim Mason, a talented high school teacher, will be now teaching 8th grade social studies. A new school psychologist and a speech and language pathologist will also be joining the faculty of LMS. As a first step toward bring world languages back to the middle grades, Michelle Duprey will be split between the high school and middle school this coming school year so that seventh graders can enroll in the first half of Spanish I during the spring semester.

Leicester Memorial School

Dianne Rieder is returning to a classroom after serving as a math coach these past few years. Meg Westerlind is moving from the Primary School to the Memorial School due to the need for teachers in certain grades. Our next challenge for our elementary grades is to find a new music teacher to replace Rob Lesley, who has done an outstanding job building up our music program in the early grades.

Leicester Primary School

Andrew Rosenshine's first day as the Primary School's principal will be on July 14th. He replaces Kathy Pelley, who is now serving as the principal of the Burgess School in Sturbridge. Andrew's administrative experience as the assistant principal of the Lincoln School in Brookline as well as his years serving as an adjustment counselor will enable him to hit the ground running at the Primary School.

Central Office

Our new central office secretary, Jean Pinto, our new finance director, Angela Cavanaugh, and our new facilities director, Rory Marty, are already well established here in Leicester. They will be joined by Cate Calise, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Cate's instructional expertise and experience working for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will be of benefit as we work on the goals established through the strategic planning process.

District Improvement

Facilities Capital Planning: Teams of engineers and architects are evaluating the infrastructure of our facilities and are working with our Facilities Capital Committee to devise a 10-year capital and maintenance plan.

Technology Upgrades: Additional wifi access points are being installed at the high school and later this summer the Primary School will be rewired.

Facilities Cleaning: Our custodial staff are working hard to clean classrooms, finish flooring, and make minor repairs to our facilities to ready them for the upcoming school year.

Professional Development: Teachers and administrators spend time over the summer to home their skills and knowledge by taking courses, reading books, or attending conferences and workshops. In addition, our kindergarten teachers are being trained in the new kindergarten assessments, Chromebook training took place in June, mentoring days are planned for our new teachers, a teacher leadership day will provide training for our lead teachers, and a number of options are planned for all our staff for the August 25 and 26 professional days just prior to the start of the school year.

Science - Technology - Engineering - Math (STEM) Planning: A team of Leicester educators will be attending a 3-day institute at the Boston Museum of Science. Facilitated by the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL), the purpose of the Gateway Project Summer Institute is to help district teams develop a strategic plan in which to implement technology and engineering district-wide.

School Committee: The School Committee will participate in a training series with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). In addition, our goal is to work on additional School Committee policies. The next School Committee meeting will take place on July 21st at 4:30 pm at the high school.

This type of update can never be 100% complete so "like" Leicester Public Schools on Facebook for another source of information about Leicester Schools. Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 9:47 AM|0 comments

Blog: Sunday, June 1, 2014

Deeper Understanding of CCSS

With state testing, spring sports, class trips, concerts, and high school graduation nearly all behind us, it appears that the summer is approaching at breakneck speed – all we need is consistent good weather! The work of our teachers and students will surely slow over the summer months but neither group can put aside learning and planning if we are to expect success for the 2014-2015 school year. For students, independent reading, travel, work, and play strengthens skills and stimulates new interests. For teachers, enrolling in formal courses, participating in workshops, and revising lesson plans and assessments to ensue rigor and alignment to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks improves instructional practices.

For the final blog entry of the 2013-2014 school year I concentrate on what it really means to develop a deeper understanding of what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) expects for student learning. No district, no school, and no classroom has this mastered just yet so Leicester teachers will benefit from spending some time this summer digging a bit deeper into this work.

The Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks for English Language Arts and Literacy incorporate the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and were adopted in 2010. Recent politicizing of these standards has resulted in misconceptions regarding their relative rigor to the previous version of the frameworks, which were adopted in 2001. Regardless of one’s political ideology, what a set of standards do for education is to stimulate conversations among educators about expectations for student learning. Rick Wormeli, at a presentation in Boston, reminds us that the implementation of these standards is not a burden but a challenge. That challenge begins with an understanding of these standards and what they mean for teaching and learning.

Looking at the new Frameworks can be a bit overwhelming, especially if one endeavors to find student writing meeting these expectations or samples of texts deemed at the level of complexity for a particular grade or sample assessments for mathematics. To really understand the standards one must focus rather than review all standards in a sitting. To this end, I thought I’d look at one particular standard through the grades to show the progression of skills expected of our students. The differences between grades, provided in brackets, are my interpretations of the difference between the standard and that from the previous grade level.

For kindergarten, the reading standard for informational texts, strand 9, reads: With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).

Here is how this standard changes from grade to grade:

GRADE 1 Identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures). [DIFFERENCE: prompting and support are eliminated.]

GRADE 2 Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic. [DIFFERENCE: students are expected to pick out the most important points presented by texts before comparing and contrasting.]

GRADE 3 Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic. [DIFFERENCE: students focus on key details as well as points.]

GRADE 4 Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably. [DIFFERENCE: students must take the information and do something (write, speak) to show understanding of the subject.]

GRADE 5 Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably. [DIFFERENCE: the number of texts increases]

GRADE 6 Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person). [DIFFERENCE: students consider an author’s point of view when comparing and contrasting two texts.]

GRADE 7 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts. [DIFFERENCE: students must dig into the text to figure out what ideas were emphasized differently by two or more different authors.]

GRADE 8 Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation. [DIFFERENCE: in addition to differentiating between facts and interpretation, students must ascertain how two texts differ in a case where information is not simply different, but are in conflict.]

GRADES 9-10 Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts. [DIFFERENCE: In addition to providing a specificity of the types of documents students are reading, their analysis must address themes and concepts identified by the teacher.]

GRADES 11-12 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features. [DIFFERENCE: the standard identifies specific documents, has students considering purpose and acknowledging and analyzing rhetoric, as well as requires that students document originating across three centuries.]

From a look across grades we get a better idea of how the expectation deepens as well as builds upon skills practiced in each subsequent year. Analyzing this particular standard also provided me with a sense of how rigorous this will be for students. For this strand, students are not merely pulling out information from texts and reporting this information, they are thinking critically about what they read. Clearly, the Massachusetts Frameworks for ELA and literacy will require that Social Studies teachers design curriculum that is grounded in important social studies themes and concepts while also addressing these literacy standards.

I challenge our teachers to spend some time this summer to analyze a strand across the grades to better understand the expectations of the Common Core State Standards for their particular grade and subject. In September we will resume both curriculum revision and classroom observations to ensure that Leicester schools will be at the forefront of innovative instructional practices.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 8:23 PM|0 comments

Blog: Thursday, May 1, 2014


Video games provide immediate feedback to players. If you make a move to the right and "lose a life" you make the move to the left next time. These games are often used to illustrate the importance of feedback yet they are not exactly incomparable. In classrooms and schools our actions do not produce immediate results and feedback is often communicated verbally or in written form rather than through immediate consequences. Nevertheless, feedback is indeed important to teachers, students and schools who are on a journey of improvement but only under certain conditions. In order for feedback to be effective, however, the feedback must be descriptive and timely and the recipient must be accepting of the feedback.

Three examples of feedback mechanisms are the assessments taken by students, our new educator evaluation system and our recent district review. The evaluation system is a work in progress; as we round out our first full year using this process, it is a good time to reflect on the value of the feedback we are providing and receiving. The frequent, unannounced visits to classrooms are followed by feedback provided through the TeachPoint form, which includes both checklists and narratives. While we plan to collect survey data from teachers about this feedback, we’ve learned by simply using this tool that defining terms like “engagement” are important if we are to successfully communicate what we are seeing during visits. It’s also important to include follow up statements to inferences such as: “few students were engaged in the lesson” by accounts of what was observed. For example, statements such as the following let the recipient know why the observer made this inference: “while most students took notes while listening to the lecture, only one student interacted with the teacher by asking questions. There was no way to know whether or not students understood the content.”

Informative descriptions are also necessary following positive feedback and this can be best illustrated with student assessments. Comments like “good,” “nice job,” “good writing” do little to help students understand what they did well and therefore what they should repeat for continued success. I remember, as a student, writing a lab report, receiving an “A,” then writing the next lab report that was graded “B” but never knowing what I had done in the first report that resulted in a higher score. To be sure, providing more descriptive feedback is much more work than checks and stars, but it is also more beneficial to the recipient.

Timeliness is a virtue that cannot be undervalued with regards to feedback. It takes 6 hours to grade a classroom set of papers whether you return the papers a week later or you return them a month later. If the later, however, the six hours will have been poorly spent since the feedback will not have the same value that it would have had if provided in a more timely manner.

The recently released district review report from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report details findings and recommendations of a team of seven evaluators that visited the district from November 18-21. The feedback provided, while not particularly timely, is descriptive and specific and identifies what Leicester can do or continue to do to improve both instructional and managerial practices.

Among the strengths sited, the report includes the increased communication with stakeholders by a variety of means, including the district website, e-mail blasts, social media, a blog, and reports by principals and others at televised School Committee meetings. Improved relationships with the town were enabled by what the report describes as “a more collegial and inclusive budget process” and “clear and comprehensive budget documents.” In terms of instruction, the team recognized the work of Leicester administrators and teachers who have developed a balanced system of formative and benchmark assessments in literacy and mathematics at the elementary level (K-5). The review team reported that the district is providing clear expectations for student attendance and follow-through practices to make sure that students stay in school and facilitates transitions that take place each year at key grade junctures, supporting student achievement. The DESE report also notes that the district began to implement the new educator evaluation system one year before it was required, encouraging a professional school culture that provides for a sound foundation for improving the quality of teaching and learning in the district.

The report recognizes a number of challenges the district faces, many of which were identified by the Future Search process and which the district has begun to address. A three-year district improvement plan and individual school improvement plans have been crafted since the site visit and include goals for many of the recommendations identified by the team. These include the development and use of common assessments at the secondary level, the strengthening of effective instructional practices through sustained professional development and feedback, the increased use of data analysis to improve instructional results, and the incorporation of technology in classroom instruction. The report also notes that a vacancy in the high school principal position and the elimination of the facilities/maintenance manager have burdened administrators. Both positions will be filled by July 1st.

Although the district is in the process of developing curriculum maps, the review team noted that the maps vary in completeness and format and are not yet aligned across grade levels. Surely, the district’s current curriculum process, which spans all grade levels and subjects, can be characterized as being overly ambitious. A new district curriculum review process will take the good foundational work done already and go into greater depth, focusing on one subject each year.

The district review process and resulting feedback contributes to a better understanding of district strengths and needs to enable focused efforts to improve the schools’ and district operations. It can only be useful, however, if we are open to this feedback and use it to enable improvements that will better serve our students and the community. The district review report is posted on the DESE website as well as the district website.

Posted by Judy Paolucci|0 comments
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