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.