Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nothing More At Thanksgiving!

We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
                                                                                                   —The Alternate Routes Band 

How is your endurance these days? Less than a week until Thanksgiving! Yikes! Are you ready? I bet you are. I know I am. I need a break from the intensity and the pace of events this fall as the 2014-2015 school season unfolds, and I need some down time with my family too.

As I have written before, this is my favorite holiday. For educators it seems to come at just the right time of the year, when we become just a bit edgy and weary from the pace, the life, the energy required to be a great teacher, social worker, counselor, administrator, nurse, school board member, coach – whatever your school role may be.

And it gives us a brief moment in our lives to stop, reflect on how we are actually “doing’ in this 2014-2015 season, and to notice and give thanks to those we love, to the grace of life, to the opportunities (won and lost) in our path, and to join the table of joy and sorrow in our personal journey with others this year.   

It is no secret: Teaching and leading and educating children well, is not an easy task.

At a gathering of neighbors and friends last night, a teaching colleague (who teaches 2nd grade in a low poverty neighborhood) mentioned to me how some days have been good and some not so much. There have been victories with the students, and there have been setbacks too. Some days, the students just do not treat each other very well.

Since I spend the majority of my days helping teachers learn math content to teach students, I asked her what she thought really mattered in her class. She said: “To accomplish anything, they just need to experience being loved. In the end if I can get them to learn how to treat each other with dignity, then deep learning can take place and it has been a good day”. As she shared her classroom experiences, she seemed really tired to me, and ready for that break next week. 

Her comments reminded me of a song originally written in 2012 by the group Alternate Routes in response to the school tragedy at Sandy Hook. The song went viral this past February when NBC played the song as part of their opening ceremony at the Socchi Olympics. The TV show NCIS also used it to end one of their episodes last season. The song, Nothing More has a simple message. As we reflect this Thanksgiving, as we take a close look at all the people in our influence circle, our lives boil down to:

We are how we treat each other, nothing more”

No matter how good or bad our teaching and leading story is today, we will be judged down the road, we will be remembered 5 or 10 years from now by how we treated our students and each other. We will be remembered by how we chose to impact others – for good or for bad. By how we worked to get better in our relationships with others – in order to learn and develop our knowledge together, despite the pain that it can cause sometimes.

Expect nothing more from your collaborative team

The paradigm of engaging interdependently with other adults around issues of improved student learning is not easy. I know. I have loved my colleagues and my students, and I have been at odds with them at times. In the end though, how we treat the others in our personal and professional lives is what really matters if as the song says we hope to achieve deep learning with endless possibilities. No acadmic ceilings for ourselves, our students or our colleagues.  

You can see and hear the song on utube and I have also listed the words here.

To be humble, to be kind.
It is the giving of the peace in your mind.
To a stranger, To a friend
To give in such a way that has no end.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
To be bold, to be brave.
It is the thinking that the heart can still be saved
And the darkness can come quick
The Dangers in the Anger and the hanging on to it.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
Tell me what it is that you see
A world that’s filled with endless possibilities?
Heroes don’t look like they used to, they look like you do.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More

Long ago, my mentor, friend and colleague, Rick DuFour, taught me the importance of the ARTS for students and for our work with each other. Over the years, at the holiday season, I have placed together pictures and video from family events through that year. I usually set the “presentation” to a song that seems to create some emotions – laughter and tears - for our family, as we view the presentation. 

This year. I am choosing the song Nothing More (Because it is a surprise, I am hoping my family doesn't read this blog!). You should try it too. I dare you! Download the song (iTunes or some other place), get together 30-40 of your best pictures and then let the slideshow roll. See how it goes! If you are not sure how to do this on your computer, enlist a family member under the age of 30. They will know! Then play it for your family and friends and remind them of what is really important this holiday season…their heart! 

Happy Thanksgiving

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Integrating My Way Through The High School Mathematics Curriculum!

I suppose this blog entry is not for everyone. Yet, it is time for me to write it.

It is about mathematics. Moreover it is about High School mathematics. More moreover, it is about a fundamental scope and sequence shift in the high school mathematics curriculum caused by the natural shift of state expectations for a college and career ready high school curriculum. Super moreover, it is about teaching an integrated high school college prep mathematics curriculum for all students!

If you are still interested at this point, then read on!  Otherwise you might just want to wait for the next blog!

AGA or IMP? 

It has been tradition in the United States, to teach the expected standards of the high school mathematics curriculum via courses named Algebra, Geometry and Advanced Algebra (or sometimes named Algebra 2). Often referenced as the AGA sequence of courses, there was an aura and perception that the AGA sequence of isolated topics resulted in a lack of rigor in student learning, with an inappropriate emphasis on low level procedural knowledge and fluency (or computational fluency and drill), using memorized
algorithms for finding a “Math” problem answer (cross multiply and divide anyone?)

During the 1990’s (and a bit before) there was a niche middle school U.S. market referenced as Integrated Mathematics that had a few in-roads into high school math curricula, but not significant or widespread implementation success nationally. These programs were perceived to be better at increasing student conceptual understanding, but were often criticized for deserting computational fluency.

AGA was criticized as a curriculum that was a mile wide and an inch deep, with not much application or understanding. Integrated mathematics was criticized as a curriculum that was too deep, based on nice “Math” problems with not much connection to student proficiency on actual standards.

Of course neither extreme painting of these two seemingly opposite course pathways for the high school standards was completely accurate. There were many successful AGA and Integrated programs, and there were of course many non-successful examples as well. In reality much of the “success” of these programs – from a student learning point of view  - were not so much about the scope and sequence of topics within the program per se, as much as it was about the teacher or teacher team using the program.

In pursuit of AND

I have always thought that either of these extremes was not best. Why couldn’t students benefit from a high school mathematics curriculum – a teaching and assessing program- that was both? Why not have fewer standards, taught at a deeper level of complex reasoning for student understanding, AND develop the essential procedural knowledge and skills needed to demonstrate student learning via the route of higher-level cognitive demand tasks (Thus redefining what is meant by mathematical fluency)?

This was the real gift to the high school mathematics standards offered up by the CCSSM. And the efforts made by states such as Texas and Virginia to intentionally blend conceptual understanding standards with procedural fluency standards AND allow the former to influence student learning of the latter via a set of mathematical practice and process standards.

The CCSSM Conceptual Categories of standards in high school created the potential for an integrated theme around:   
            Number and Quantity
            Statistics and Probability
            With Modeling

These big idea categories and the 138 or so corresponding standards were not designed to be about any course per se. They were designed to help the reader understand the nature of the Coherence (Sense –making), Rigor (a balanced approach to understanding, procedural fluency, complexity of reasoning and applications) and Focus (Fewer standards).

 Just as Number and Quantity, Functions, and Modeling are not separate courses students take, neither should the Algebra standards, Geometry standards or Statistics standards be thought of as completely separate courses that isolate topics and standards within a given year.

We can call the courses students are to take in their first three years of high school mathematics whatever we want, but even if you chose to call it algebra – it has been forever changed for 2015 and beyond.


First, we don't really write mathematics textbooks anymore. We write mathematics content for which the textbook is just one format. Students and teachers can access the content online, on their ipad, or iphone or other web-sourced/app device, and they can “experience” the content in a more dynamic way via video resources, games, and other forms of digital intervention and formative support.

Second, the modern day high school Algebra 1 course and all high school courses are now more integrated, regardless of the course title. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year of high school mathematics a college and career ready student learns is now built on a foundation of progressions and themes within each course and across the three courses.  So, which is better for high school students? An AGA sequence or an Integrated sequence? I am asked this question almost every week!

The answer is

It is not the names of the high school courses that ultimately will impact student learning. It is not whether you call a high school math course Algebra 1 or Mathematics I.  Geometry or Mathematics II. What matters above all else, are the quality, design and nature of your lessons and assessments every day.  

And yet, there are some great benefits to teaching these high school standards within a scope and sequence that takes advantage of expanded ways of student thinking, if the content progressions are to adhere to certain rhythms for student learning. These choices though are not dependent on the claim of AGA or IMP. These scope and sequence integrated shifts should occur no matter what you choose to call your courses as student learning experiences are based on a natural progression of topics. As one example, consider the role of:

Functions: Notice that in this more modern day view of the high school curriculum, students do not write a linear equation, rather they build a linear function, an exponential function, a quadratic function, a logarithmic function, etc… Building functions, interpreting functions, and analyzing functions are a major aspect of the high school curriculum now - generated from within and by a modeling context. This work, from a standards progression point of view should  be placed in advance of the equation solving aspect of the curriculum.

At the risk of getting just a bit specific in a blog entry, imagine a yearlong progression for the standard: I can build a function that models a relationship between two quantities.

This progression would begin with arithmetic sequences (constant rate of change) in Unit 2, move to linear functions (Unit 3) and then linear statistics (Unit 4), followed later by geometric sequences (constant percent rate of change) and more statistics in Unit 6, exponential functions (Unit 6 or 7) and eventually quadratic and polynomial functions  (Units 9 and 10). Thus, the standard has a logical progression for student learning built within the course – across multiple conceptual categories.

Equations:  A correct sequence to follow out of the building and interpreting of functions is to extend function development to include the topic of equations as the equivalence of two functions. This opens the door for students to solve linear, exponential, quadratic and other types of equations using three representations: Numerical (or table), visual (or graphical) and analytical (algebraic). What happens in your class, when students are asked to demonstrate fluency on a mathematical task such as:  

                                                Solve: x^2 + 2x = -3x -7 
If students have first experienced standards on how to build and interpret linear and quadratic functions, then multiple solution pathways become available or a lower level cognitive demand task such as this. In an AGA course sequence this standard would be taught in the spring of ninth grade. In an Integrated course sequence this standard would occur sometime in the fall of tenth grade, but the progression for building functions, then equations would still hold true. 

In this simple example, it is not about the course, as much as it is about your commitment to integrate student work with functions as a precursor to equation solving, and of course choosing a balance of higher and lower cognitive demand tasks in the process of building student fluency and understanding.

There are many more integrated topics and progression of standards to explore and discuss..., but not in this blog. However, one of the more elegant aspects of the geometry clusters is the use of transformations  (functions) as one of three ways to explore, justify and reason within the geometry standards. Thus, functions play a deeply embedded role throughout all three years of high school mathematics. 

For deeper insight I invite you examine our recently released high school mathematics series. We have also given the integrated question and series a lot of deep thought over the past 2.5 years as well.  We hope this will help you in your high school standard mapping journey - whatever integrated path you might choose! 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Embracing the Privilege of Another Season!

I met with all of the grades 6-12 mathematics teachers in Elk Grove Unified (CA) this morning, while on my way to Grand Rapids to meet up with some great folks in Michigan.

Opening day for the Elk Grove teachers is this Thursday. Another season is beginning. The kids are coming, ready or not! And then, in the blink of an eye, it will be May 2015 and this season will end. And I wondered what kind of season would it be for them?

I do not pretend to know these educators very well, really. This was my first opportunity to work with them. I know we love the same job – teaching kids math in grades 7-12. But at this stage that is all we have in common. And they do not know me either, anything I had to say would only make a difference if they chose to embrace the ideas I shared - every day, week, month and season.

 So, I gave them my best Mary Layco message I could give them.

The essences of my opening comments were as follows.

Our lives, our careers, revolve around one “season” after another. 2013-2014 just finished a few short months ago, and 2014- 2015 is about to start. A new season! Will it be a good one or not?

Then, 2015-2016 will be here before you know it, followed by the 2016-2017 season, and all of sudden here comes 2025-2026 and for some of you sitting in this room, that will be it. Your final season! No more chances to get it really right! Right?  

Only one problem, we don’t always get to name when our seasons will end. The greatest math teacher I ever knew, Mary Layco, died suddenly and unexpectedly last December and perhaps in one of the greater tragedies of this coming 2014-2015 season, she won’t be in it. She doesn’t get to open the season next week at Stevenson.  

She doesn’t get to name her final season. This teacher - who loved students beyond reason, does not get to open up a new season. And all who knew her suffer for it.

So, my challenge to the Elk Grove Unified teachers and to all of you who read this blog is simple. Are you willing to make this a great season, before it is too late? A great season for your students, and for you? Are you more than willing to be more like Mary?

Who is Mary Layco you wonder? 

When I got to Stevenson HSD 125 in Suburban Chicago in 1986 Mary was already on the staff, and I was her “boss” as the Director of Mathematics and Science. Mary was passionate about making every season of her teaching career really count. She believed in PMA - Positive Mental Attitude - and thought everyone of her colleagues and students should exhibit PMA every day. 

Of course in 1986 we did not have the research we have today, that informs us about how the choices Mary was making would result in great levels of student learning, but intuitively she knew.
In honor of Mary’s life, I offer three commitments necessary to ensure you will have a great 2014-2015 season. These worked for Mary, and they will for you too!

1. Eliminate The Use of Rows

Thanks to Mary, we destroyed the idea of students learning mathematics while sitting in rows and respectfully watching the teacher do mathematics. In 1994 we moved to a “teams of 4” model, and never looked backed. Mary was the architect of high levels of student peer communication. Twenty years later we have the highest performing students ever. And, Mary led the way for showing us how to manage that small group discourse effectively by engaging students in deep meaningful peer-to-peer discourse. In her soulful way Mary wanted to see and hear what her students understood during class.  

I do not know if the Elk Grove Teachers really believe if they can do this or not… but I hope they do. I hope that every one of them will work together to destroy the use of teaching in rows in their middle school and high school classroom structures.

2. Eliminate The Privacy of Scoring (Grading) Exams

 Score your Chapter or Unit exams (or some student samples from them) together. Mary was a master at creating and designing tests with her colleagues, and then double scoring those tests with them at the end of a unit as they calibrated their results and developed more accurate scoring of student work on those assessments. Those discussions often led to a more raucous debate about how to best teach concepts for deep understanding. Her unit-in and unit-out commitment to do this with her team, resulted in a much more accurate scoring of student work in our mathematics program.

3. Eliminate the Use of Lower-Level Cognitive Demand Math Tasks Only

Balance the rigor of your lessons with high and low cognitive demand tasks. If you worked on Mary’s team, you knew that you would be expected to “Up your game” and make sure that students had the benefit of developing deep understanding of the curriculum and standards for that course. She refused – refused to allow anyone on her team to make excuses for why kids could not learn. Mary’s mantra was not “How good do we have to be?” But rather, “How good can we be?” And she pushed everyone to rise up to that challenge. To reach for the sky of great results.

So, what will 2014-2015 be like for you? Will you have the courage to make this season of your life, of your career, really matter? Can you eliminate rows? Really? Go for it! Can you score/grade stuff together and ensure better accuracy to your grades you assign kids? Go for it? Why wait? Can you make sure you teach by raising your cognitive demand task expectations of what all kids can do? Go for it!

As I walked out of the session this morning at Elk Grove Unified, a veteran teacher and someone I suspect has worked hard for a long time to be more like Mary, stopped me to say thanks. His words did give me pause a bit though, as he said, “It was so great for you to be honest with us, and not give a “*!#” about our reaction – good or bad. Thank you for saying what we needed to hear.”

You know, I thought a lot about what he said when I got into my car. I sat there for just a few minutes with my quiet tears. The tears were for Mary. She doesn’t get to start on Thursday. The tears were for my own inability to deeply impact those that get the privilege of another season. I think too the tears were for the students who deserve for their teachers to have great seasons just like Mary, every year.

And, the tears were for knowing and understanding, just how hard that request is for any of us that call ourselves "teacher".

May you find your inner Mary and go for it in this season. Work together, learn from one another and give it everything you got. There really is nothing to lose – other than the privilege of that next season.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Exercising my self-control muscle this summer!

July is one of those strange, yet beloved months for those of us in education. It is that month where we are no longer on a tight schedule controlled by the school calendar, the daily bell schedule, the controlled rhythm of the start and end of the school day, each and every day.

In July, we are between “seasons” so to speak.

It is our time for reflection, freedom from the daily routine, vacationing and recovering and so much more. No fixed routines! I love July!

We have chosen a work life that imposes a schedule upon us for 10-11 months of the year. If we do not exercise the self-control to follow that schedule day in and day out a lot of people in our school community are affected by our action (or inaction). And so, we adjust our lives to follow the routine of each and every day without reservation or question.

For many years, I so loved this routine. There was something in my hardwiring that needed the structure of every day, the movement of the bell schedule, and the consistency that followed one season after another. Lunch at 11:42AM every day. Perfect.

Then July would appear, and I could sleep in until 9:00AM, wear my jammies until noon, and maybe (get ready for this) not even shave until tomorrow! I could work out at 1:00pm, take a nap at 2:00pm and go to a movie during the week at 11:00pm! What freedom!

Only, after 10 months (or more) of tight daily schedules and a work rhythm I depended on to keep me under control, I really did not know how to manage that free time! How do other people do it I wondered? There are so many professions, so many jobs, where you can just break the routine, exercise your own self-control muscle and make your own decisions for how your work schedule today will be different tomorrow.

And then a few weeks ago, while drifting around the internet on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I ran across an article from the Harvard Business review: “In the Afternoon, the Moral Slope Gets Slipperier” by Harvard professor Maryam Kouchaki.

Hmm, in the afternoon, I thought: “What about all of July?  In this Harvard Business Review interview, Kouchaki reveals that workers are 20-50 percent more likely to be dishonest in mid-to late-afternoon than in the morning and are less likely to exercise self-control after lunch. There is a “psychological depletion” of the resources needed for self-control as the day wears on resulting in poorer moral choices, she indicates. 

Ahh, now I get it! July is not about freedom from the daily grind! July is our month to re-build the mental resource muscles necessary to maintain self-control in order to stick to more moral behavior when the next season begins a month from now. Whew! 

Seems like a lot of responsibility is placed on the month of July if you ask me. Next October, when I am worn down by fatigue or discouraging events, will my self-control muscle exercises from July be enough to save me from the natural drift to unethical behavior? Probably not. July may be too far away to touch. 

Here are some suggestions from Kouchaki: Breaks from the routine of your day can serve the valuable purpose of restoring your depleted energy, positioning you to make better choices in the afternoon. She indicates that self-control is like a muscle – we need to restore its strength after use through an afternoon nap, rest, yoga, meditation, prayer, or an energy filled snack  (See my blog entry a few years ago on the need for Quadrant II time built into your day) all those things can help restore us back to more ethical behavior late in the day, week, month, or even  - the 2014-2015 season.  

Well, I am off to work out, and relax, so this blog entry must end. Gotta go get that ethical muscle exercised and renewed. August is just around the corner and my kids and colleagues are going to need me to be in shape!