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Blog: Monday, November 4, 2013

Culture and Change

If you spend time in any school you can quickly ascertain the prevailing school culture. Are students respectful? How do adults talk to students? What do adults say about their students? Does the office provide a welcoming environment to school guests? What do teachers talk about in teacher meetings? How are books arranged? How are school rules enforced? Is there a sense of school pride?

At a time when much effort of school staff is focused on technical work such as aligning curriculum on the Common Core, developing common assessments, identifying students for interventions, analyzing data, and implementing new curricula, it's easy to disregard the more human side of our work. Yet, Sergiovani (1992... an oldie but goody) reminds us that "culture is the most powerful source of leverage for bringing about change in a school." Pam Robbins adds, "ambitious goals, such as creating schools as learning communities, in which all students and staff perform at high levels, are best served and more easily accomplished in environments characterized by a spirit of interdependence, a focus on learning, and a sense of shared responsibility for student outcomes.

Culture, defined as the beliefs and customs of a group, manifests itself in a school’s traditions, its celebrations and rituals, expectations, physical environment, use of time, norms, and its definition of success. So when an individual complains about a new procedure I get that; how we’ve always done things is actually pretty important. On the other hand, Albert Einstein defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Change is as inevitable as taxes, so how can we respect the culture that frankly, is a strength of our school community, while also making changes that will eventually serve our community better? Below are 5 tips for undergoing change while building positive culture:

(1) Assume positive intentions. If you are a student it may be your teacher who decided that a change in classroom routine is in order. Perhaps you are a parent who hopes to understand why the school is no longer sending home paper newsletters. You may instead be a teacher who now must enter a code to use the photocopier. The changes you are experiencing, with few exceptions, have been made by people with positive intentions. Why would it be otherwise? Few people thrive on the discomfort of others or seek to make change for change sake alone.

(2) Smile. Many of the changes we fret over are first-order changes. First-order change involves adjustments within an existing process. New learning is rarely required and it’s mostly non-transformational. Second-order change means we are shifting gears and always requires new learning. One should be relatively easy while the other is significantly harder, yet we sometimes get caught up in the little things. Unhappy about a relatively small change, we frown, but if we remember to smile or even force ourselves to smile (try holding a pencil lengthwise between your teeth)* we release endorphins, which naturally reduce stress.

(3) Be an agent of change. For second-order changes, be part of the decision-making process. Be a member of the School Council, serve on the principal selection committee, participate in curriculum revisions. Don’t spend too much time trying to control first-order changes; they’re simply not that important and you can’t control nor should want to control everything.

(4) (a) Surround yourself with positive people. Did you ever find yourself unhappy about a change only after spending time with someone who was unhappy about a change? Google “hang out with positive people” and you will find 204 million results. (b) Avoid negative people. Enough said.

(5) Face your fears! Recognize the root of your fear of a particular change. If you fear that you lack certain knowledge or skills, make a plan to fill that gap in knowledge. If you believe that there are ambiguous guidelines or direction, seek clarity.

Let’s enjoy the traditions, celebrations, and routines of our school community’s culture as we continue to evolve to better meet its needs.

*The technique of holding a pencil between your teeth is most commonly attributed to Fritz Strack (1988).

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 4:17 PM|0 comments

Blog: Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Week in Leicester Schools

After a week like the one that just ended, it's difficult to focus a blog entry on just one topic so I narrowed it down to three: characteristics of a literacy-rich elementary classroom, professional learning, and a look at town needs.

The Literacy-Rich Elementary Classroom - There was a time when administrators, ill-equipped to evaluate teachers, focused solely on a few classroom characteristics, such as the volume of children's voices or the bulletin board decorations. Today we know that a myriad of characteristics contribute to effective instruction. As I visited classrooms in Leicester I noted a number of good practices that must be supported, duplicated, and expected of all our professionals.

How a teacher sets up the classroom environment says much about the teachers' values and professional knowledge. Elementary classrooms should have books in bins arranged by levels and by genre or subject (i.e. animals). Leveled books are often used for guided or small group reading and bins of books arranged by subjects provide students with an easy way to find books of interest for independent reading. If you've ever seen a student try to find a book of interest in a bookcase packed with skinny, early-level books you know how useless this arrangement of books really is. Comfortable spots for small group work; independent reading stations for math, science, drama, or other subjects; listening stations; and other learning areas are arranged purposefully for student learning.

Mini-lessons focused on some aspect of the writing process or a comprehension strategy or a math concept can involve whole-class instruction but young students have limited attention spans as well as a wide range of abilities and skills and benefit by smaller doses of direct instruction followed by small group work. Highly skilled teachers utilize teaching assistants well, group students strategically, and establish classroom routines. As a former high school teacher, I've learned much from the elementary classrooms I visited and I also think many of these practices can be adapted for use in higher grades. If ever I thought that teaching first graders was easier than teaching high school chemistry, what I've learned through classroom visits has negated that hypothesis.

Professional Learning - While students enjoyed a day off this Friday, teachers were busy learning at a jam-packed professional development day in Leicester. Teachers had 5-8 choices for sessions at each of five different blocks of time. Sessions included Envision Math, Mastery Objectives, Helping Traumatized Students Learn, Recognizing Signs of Depression & Suicide Risks in Youth, Total Participation Techniques, School Law, Teacher Evaluation, Writing Effective Rubrics, and others.

While days like this past Friday provide time for structured training, professional learning also occurs in a variety of ways throughout the year. Teachers take courses, after-school meetings include short presentations on relevant subjects, and grade-level and department meetings include shared lesson planning and data analysis. We are, unfortunately, losing two positions that specifically address improving instructional practices for English language arts and mathematics - the instructional coaches. High performing districts include positions, such as instructional coaches and technology integrators, to contribute to ensuring effective teaching practices. Much emphasis in Massachusetts has been on improving the teacher evaluation system to improve teachers throughout the Commonwealth, but evaluation, though important, is limited. Feedback, though important, doesn't take the place of modeled lessons, consultancies, or co-designing lessons.

Town Needs - Leicester has had a long history of a contentious relationship between the town and schools and this relationship has not served it well. I've worked as an administrator in two other towns - both of which were characterized by positive town and school relationships. I am accustomed to working together with other department heads and elected officials to troubleshoot issues and work on projects of benefit to town residents. Prioritizing capital needs trusting that all who sit around the table are looking out for what's best for the town rather than solely for their own department, feels a lot different than doing the same thing with neither trust nor a common mission.

Although the bid for a 2 1/2 override was unsuccessful, the meetings between town and school officials contributed to an improved understanding of needs and issues affecting all town departments. This was certainly just a start and more work is needed to build upon what has already been accomplished. Our new town administrator has a fresh perspective and savvy financial strategies that will benefit Leicester. We are on the right path. Surprisingly, however, there are a few town residents, apparently longing to nurture continued contention and armed with incomplete information, working against this goal. I hope you will join me in paying little attention to these efforts. Instead, come to town meeting knowing that much time and effort will have been put toward the budget plan presented for town vote. The plan will not be ideal since, frankly, there's not enough revenues here to provide for adequate town services (including schools), but it will be balanced. Our budget plan includes eliminating positions and, more importantly, great educators and staff members, but that could not be avoided, given the current town resources. Our work will then begin, the very next day, to find new efficiencies, new revenues, and new ways of doing business in Leicester.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:07 AM|0 comments

Blog: Friday, September 20, 2013

Public Perception

As a leader of a public school system, a town or a police department, or any other agency that serves the public, it is essential to earn public trust. Parents entrust their children to us and it is important for them to feel that their children are safe and that the adults with whom they spend their day have their best interest in mind. And so we try to communicate what we are doing to ensure quality teaching and learning and an effective learning environment. We celebrate our successes and the successes of our students.

During the presentation of our budget we also need to articulate our needs, which sometimes comes into conflict with our goal to instill confidence in our schools. How do we articulate the need for classroom door locks (cost of approximately $56,000) while concurrently telling parents that our schools are safe and secure? How do we articulate the need for technology infrastructure (wiring, wi fi, etc. at an average cost of $100,000 per building) while also assuring parents that their children are being educated to be ready for the 21st century workforce?

At each of the public forums about the override individuals have shared information about our schools that is intended to paint a picture of a school department that has no needs. That same information, I contend, shows a district in need. I'll focus on two here, as event the most concise discussion of each is longer than most readers might want!

This summer a company in Northboro donated some office furniture to Leicester. The operations manager was struckby our eagerness to take their cast offs but we explained that we had no budget for furniture. Surprised by a lack of a plan for systematic replacement of furniture, he threw in a few more chairs. Indeed, in Yarmouth I developed a plan for a step wise replacement of old furniture over time that was budgeted annually at an amount far above the $18,000 expended this past year in Leicester.

The Middle and Memorial schools have the oldest furniture in the district. Desks are mismatched and are often older than the children's parents. Teachers do a great job making their classrooms as warm and welcoming as possible, given what they have to work with.

Some of the Middle School's cafeteria tables had been breaking; the individual seats on the rectangular tables were not holding up. Our plan to move cafeteria tables from the Memorial School to the Middle School and replace the Memorial School tables was enabled through the expenditure of before and after school funds. Round tables would be better for the before and after school programming as well as for the cafeteria environment. By not tapping into the operational budget we could both meet the Middle School's needs as well as the Memorial School's needs without having to request funding from an already strapped town. Some individuals in the town would like you to believe that this decision was poor and unfair to the town while, in fact, the furniture purchased doesn't make much of a dent in the district's need for better furniture nor does it put any burden on taxpayers funds.

The availability of revolving account funds for the school district is another source of contention for some. Good fiscal practices, which I hope that you expect your public officials to employ, include plans that expend these types of funds after they are garnered, rather than in anticipation of their collection. In this way, fluctuations in amounts collected do not catch leaders off guard. My fiscal plan for Leicester includes this practice.

This year, we cut out some planned expenditures from our School Choice funds in order to hold some funding aside for the fall during this time when the results of an override vote are unknown. Rather than laying off an additional 7 employees, causing the town to increase its unemployment costs (perhaps unnecessarily if an override passes), we used School Choice funds to hold off this reduction. If it becomes necessary later this fall, a few retirements and resignations will cut back on the unemployment burden. So, was this a poor decision to build up some funds in this manner? Anyone in the business world would call this responsible.

I hope that if information about the schools shared at public meetings lead to questions, you will call. I'm trying to refrain from taking on a defensive posture or responding to comments that are clearly meant to inflame rather than inform. I am also committed to minimizing the comparisons among Leicester departments. It's something that has been done here in Leicester for too long and not to a positive end. Our police department has needs. Our public works department has needs. Our town needs a library and, assuredly, our community deserves a school department that serves our youngest residents, respects our oldest residents, and is a source of pride for all.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:20 AM|0 comments

Blog: Friday, September 13, 2013

Total Participation Techniques

Going into Primary School classrooms this past week reminded me that teachers’ toolboxes for techniques and protocols for engaging students can never be big enough. Every time I walk into classrooms I learn something new that I can add to my own toolbox so thank you Primary School teachers for the techniques you’ve contributed. What the general public rarely understands is that when planning lessons teachers need not only attend to “what” but also to “how;” keeping students focused on the work, intellectually engaged, and understanding the purpose of the work they are doing takes intentionality.

Since a common practice for teachers at all levels involves students sharing their work, I did a little research to find different techniques for teachers to try out. Some may already be part of teachers’ toolboxes here in Leicester and others may be new. Some are appropriate at all grade levels while others may need to be modified for a particular grade.

GOING OVER HOMEWORK PROBLEMS - David Ginsberg suggests that as teachers wrap up the class opener, they can share answers to homework on a Smartboard or projector then give students time to check their answers while the teacher circulates to identify problems worth reviewing. [http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coach_gs_teaching_tips/2011/10/homework_only_review_what_students_need_you_to_review.html]

I’ve learned more from watching other teachers than from reading or Googling and one teacher I know was particularly adept at engaging students during problem sharing. He used small whiteboards often and paired this low tech tool with a document camera. Students used their individual whiteboards to share their work then the teacher chose one of the whiteboards to put under the document camera to share. No one had to wait for the student to write out their answer on the board after being chosen and no one knew if they’d be the one whose board would be chosen for sharing. Of course the teacher didn’t share every problem because even this engaging method would get tedious.

SHARING WRITING IN A WRITERS’ WORKSHOP – If we ask students to share their writing we need to identify the reason for that sharing and let the listeners know the expectations for listening and responding to the writer. Donald Graves in A Fresh Look at Writing (1994) provides an example, which, if done well, can only accommodate a couple of sharings on a particular day. He explains that the teacher may provide directions, such as: "John is going to read a short selection. During his reading our job is to listen so well, that when he finishes we’ll see how much we can remember. Authors need to know what their audiences can remember. See how much of his actual words you can remember. Next, we’ll comment on what strikes us in the piece. Finally, you can ask questions of John to learn still more about his piece." After John reads from his writing he can then call on his peers to share “(1) what they remember; (2) what strikes them; (3) questions they wish to ask.” (p. 116 and also shared at: http://www.suzanne-williams.com/sharing.htm).

A publication of the curriculum office of the Austin Independent School District, “The First Twenty Days for the Intermediate Grades Writing Workshop,” provides the following expectations for sharing writing: “Teach your expectations for how students will share their writing this year. Explain that sharing time has a greater purpose than just reading what they wrote that day. When students share, listeners get to hear different ideas for writing topics. They get to hear the way other writers chose to organize their ideas and the word choices they made. The student who reads his/her writing has the opportunity to find out what effect their writing has on the listener and whether the listener understands each part of their writing. The writer has the opportunity to get feedback from listeners, while the listener has the opportunity to give valuable advice.” [http://curriculum.austinisd.org/la/resources/documents/1st20Days_WTG_Intermed_1314.pdf]

TOTAL PARTICIPATION TECHNIQUES - Students love to share their work and often the class can, through good classroom management techniques, be taught to dutifully listen to their peers. What is better, however, is for students to be intellectually engaged with the work their classmate is presenting. When students are sharing a poster report, what are the other students doing? What have they been asked to do?

Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele wrote a book, Total Participation Techniques, which provides ideas for engaging students during different points of a lesson, including those times when other students are sharing their work. The big idea of the book is that teachers need to plan for specific strategies that result in total participation and cognitive engagement. The authors stress that active engagement must be combined with higher order thinking. They provide a “cognitive engagement model” that teachers can use to plan instruction and administrators or coaches can use to observe instruction. The quadrant scales range from high participation to low participation and from high cognition to low cognition. The authors write, “a total participation mindset is essential for ensuring active participation and cognitive engagement by all of your learners … students are not allowed to passively hide behind the others who are always raising their hands… by the time many students hit middle school, disengagement has become a learned behavior --- not for all, but for some.” (pages 7-8).

A presentation of the same name, available at the following link, provides other ideas.

http://pamsinstructionaltraining.wikispaces.com/file/view/Total+Participation+Techniques+PowerPoint.pdf. I especially like the “splash” whereby students, all at once, if possible, share their work on the board. This is good for short pieces, like lists of descriptive words or ways to represent a number. After this quick “splash,” students can sit back and look at the work to find particularly interesting responses or errors.

While my visits to classrooms always makes me long for my days in the classroom, it’s never because I think that it would be easy… au contraire.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 12:38 PM|0 comments

Blog: Friday, August 30, 2013

Welcome Back!

Educators get to enjoy two “new years” each year – one at the start of the school year and another on January 1st. Each of these new starts brings a renewed sense of hope for success and happiness. New Year's resolutions, whether they are made on January 1st or in August, allow us to go beyond hope to proactively change the factors that contribute to our success.


Our teachers have begun to make changes to instruction and assessments to meet the more rigorous Common Core State Standards. While some might think that this change is insignificant, for the United States, this is the first foray to a national set of standards, which some consider revolutionary. Massachusetts has led the nation with a rigorous Curriculum Framework and now the incorporation of the Common Core Standards will enable the development of higher level thinking skills, increased instructional rigor, and better prepared students for higher education and success in an increasingly global work environment. We must resolve to continue the work we have begun, as these changes, if done well, will require a considerable amount of time and effort.

Out of both necessity and a respect for Leicester taxpayers, another resolution for FY13 will be to continue to find ways to operate our schools more efficiently. We began the school year operating under a temporary budget that required us to move essential supplies and services to our School Choice fund so that we could operate under a 0% local budget increase while maintaining the current level of programming. After the October 1st override vote, we will move these budget lines back to the local budget and either eliminate 7 additional positions (6 were already eliminated this year) or employ a school psychologist and technology integration specialist for improved operations. School budgets are complicated under the best of circumstances; expenses are pulled from Federal grant accounts, revolving accounts, as well as the local budget. This year it is especially complicated but we will do our best to explain our budget decisions as they are made.

Since the start of the recession we have lost federal and state aid while experiencing increased costs for salaries, energy and tuitions. In 2009, at a time when the local budget was greater than the current level, special education tuitions totaled $846,227. In FY13 this value was $2,061,551. Circuit Breaker, a state grant, prodes only about a third of these costs. Also in 2009, vocational tuitions totaled $466,470 while in FY13 they totaled $848,052. Here in Leicester, we do not use federal aid for extras; federal special education funds cover special education staff and Title I allows for tutors for support to students performing below grade level in reading and math. We cannot assume that the burden of both making up a state and federal funding reductions as well as covering increases in tuition, salaries, benefits, energy, and other school expenses can be easily borne by local taxpayers. We will be working hard to find areas for improved efficiencies so that we can maintain programming in a way that is as fiscally conservative as possible.

Another important resolution is to work smarter. The district strategic plan provides a clear direction for district goals, individual school improvement goals, and educator goals as required by the new Massachusetts Educator Evaluation System. We cannot afford nor have the time to expend effort on initiatives that will not help us to achieve the community's vision for its schools. Both the strategic plan and my goals for this school year will be presented to the School Committee at its September 10th meeting.

I hope that many of you will consider making activism in the Leicester schools a resolution for the 2013-2014 school year. School Committee meetings are often unattended or poorly attended. The School Committee needs to know what all stakeholders – students, parents, taxpayers, and staff - want for our schools in order for them to serve you well. John Carver (2006, Boards That Make a Difference), an expert on effective board operations, explains that although boards act as trustees on the “owners’” behalf, board business often “pull the board staffward.” The Future Search, which brought together a variety of stakeholders for a conversation about our district's future, provided an opportunity to hear from the “owners” of Leicester schools. There are many opportunities, such as School Committee and town meetings and participation on School Councils, for this voice to be heard into the future.

Happy New School Year!

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

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