- 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 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 some of 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? Or do I just remember hilarity, style, personality, classmates? As a teacher, I think about this all the time. What exactly do I want my own students to walk away remembering? That I was the “cool” teacher? Or that I was the teacher from whom they learned more than they thought possible?
I will argue the later 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 the English 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 and practiced every year from kindergarten through twelfth grade. But many adults who lived through these painful worksheets themselves will argue they struggle with writing today. Businesses and hiring managers of the 21st century will 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?
However, is it important 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?
Grammar plays a role in voice, style and fluency. However, grammar worksheets take grammar and teach it in isolation. Rather, a teacher who wants to teach an element of grammar needs to do so in conjunction with a rigorous writing curriculum. Let's take a look at one simple example. Instead of grammar worksheets to combine pairs of 40 simple sentences to create compound sentences, how about that same teacher:
- give students a writing model about a page long that includes sentence variety,
- ask the students to identify the compound sentences based on samples,
- give students a few minutes to discuss in pairs to identify the components of a compound sentence,
- require the students to annotate on the model the effect of each sentence type,
- tell them to take out the draft of a paper or essay they've started previously,
- require them to now color-code their paper based on sentence type and annotate for effect,
- require them to revise their piece for sentence variety, and then
- ask the students, in a formative assessment Exit Ticket from class, to give one example of a compound sentence as could be written for an argument paper in history and explain how using sentence variety can be more effective than not.
This is just a simple example, but in it you’ll see that the student will have had to learn parallelism, coordinating conjunctions, sentence types, audience and purpose.
Rigor requires not only content mastery as listed above, 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.
It’s time for a change.