Mr. Didier taught middle school French, and he had us engaged in the language by listening, speaking, writing, and reading on day one in seventh grade. By the end of eighth grade, I could carry on a pretty decent conversation in French.
Mr. Bickel was my Geometry teacher. Every day we took notes, discussed solutions and dissected triangles without fail. He was tough, but he had a way of engaging each of us. We were responsible for mastering the strategy, maintaining our knowledge, and performing every skill with precision.
Mr. Howard taught science. I can still remember the content we explored that year, and I’m sure it’s because the science class was taught through experimentation and questioning. In fact, he had a bulletin board on his wall all year with one simple quote: “Always wonder why.” I’m convinced that bulletin board influences my life every day.
I could mention a few others, but I think you get my point. We all have these: the teachers who inspire us to be better, teach us ideas and concepts that stay with us for a lifetime, and make us believe we are invincible.
But were these classes rigorous? As a teacher, I think about this all the time. What exactly do I want my own students to walk away remembering? How to identify a preposition? The names of the types of conjunctions? Or that I was the teacher from whom they were most inspired to think, perform, aspire, create and write at a level never before believed possible?
I will argue the last without question. And I'm convinced my own experiences with Mr. Didier, Mr. Bickel and Mr. Howard prove just that. But how is something like this accomplished?
Rigor is more than content and standards. Rigor is the why, the how and the “so what” – the ability to take the strategies, knowledge and skills and apply them in areas outside of one in-class assignment.
Let me give you an example near and dear to my heart – grammar.
Grammar worksheets make me crazy. I don’t use them in my English composition classroom, and I go ballistic when I see or hear of my own children doing them. Our educational system has decided that the eight parts of speech need to be taught, reviewed, practiced, and tested incessantly every year from kindergarten through twelfth grade. To what end?
Adults who lived through these painful worksheets themselves will argue they struggle with writing today. Businesses and hiring managers of the 21st century argue that high school graduates don’t know how to write a memo, business proposal, marketing brochure or simple email. So do grammar worksheets equate to good writing?
Is it important, however, to know how to write a complex sentence? Is it important to use introductory phrases for style? Can short and long sentences used in combination make a point more effectively than a report written without? Can one apostrophe or comma change meaning completely?
Grammar does play a role in voice, style, communication and fluency. But teaching grammar through drill-and-kill worksheets in isolation doesn’t transfer to the quality of writing and composition. In fact, “research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students” (Hillocks & Smith, 1991). I recently revisited the Hillocks & Smith research from 1986, Research on written composition: New directions for teaching. With every one of their findings, I am reminded about how valuable-little time we have with our students in a classroom and how frustrating it is, after almost a century of research, that English classrooms continue to spend time on the teaching of grammar in isolation.
Instead of completing five pages of grammar worksheets wherein students “circle the noun” and “underline the verb,” let’s teach parallelism, sentence combining, audience, organization, and purpose through actual student writing, writing models and mentor texts.
So what is rigor then?
Rigor is not only content mastery, but also the ability to engage in that content, apply the strategies and skills, transfer the knowledge and show accountability for learning. Rigor is a shift in teaching philosophy. It doesn't mean more. It means different. And I see no excuse for rigor not being the standard in all classrooms. No longer can we be content with seeing the same worksheets and projects year-after-year.
Grammar didn’t make me believe I was invincible or teach me how to communicate effectively – rigor did.
And it can for our kids, too.