Rigor is not what you think it is

An English vocabulary word tossed around education today is “rigor”. As the Common Core standards became de rigueur, teachers were told to teach with rigor. We’ve been encouraged to raise our expectations of our students by raising the “rigor”.

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“Rigor.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.

I’m not sure edu-experts know exactly what rigor is. Harsh inflexibility, strict precision, rigidity, severity? These words are not what I would want to guide my own child’s education, and they are certainly not something I feel comfortable aspiring to as an educator.

If the standards call for inflexibility then how can we, as educators, say we meet our students where they are and move forward? Some child is getting left behind.

What would I want? I would want a standard that allows me to differentiate for students who are challenged linguistically, intellectually, and experientially. I would like those same standards to be appropriate to the development of a child. Perhaps in place of teaching for rigor, we should aspire to teaching for responsiveness to how our children learn? Or flexibility of thought? Or inclusiveness?

How about trusting the professional judgement of educators and allowing teachers who know their students best determine how and when to push children up to and beyond what is expected?


Blaming the Common Core?

This morning’s Washington Post carried an Op-Ed piece by Deborah Kenney, founder of Harlem Village Academies. Unlike many charter schools run by large (overseas) conglomerates trying to turn education into cash cows, this charter appears to have pedagogy and students at the center.

The question Ms. Kenny poses? Is the Common Core causing school experiences to become rigid, developmentally inappropriate, prison-like experiences? Or is it poor pedagogy? Or is it something else?

I started examining the Core when it first came out – partially because of my interest in mathematics curriculum development.  I do believe having the road map for instruction that comes out of the Core is beneficial. I know I may be lulled into subtly lowering expectations for my students because the topic is difficult or because there is some roadblock to students’ learning. Checking adherence to the rigor that is expected of most students at grade level serves as a reminder of the goal and expectations.

The contrasting examples Ms. Kenny cites – a Kindergarten class learning about verbs through interactive and directed play and the class where students didn’t speak except for a rote response to a drill activity on the same topic – point to what I believe is the giant release the core gives teachers. Or at least what it should give us: we are free to address the standards in whatever way our students need. This is the aspect of the Common Core that excites me, the potential to address the curriculum as creatively as I want.

Instead of relying on a textbook, series, or program, what if we plan collaboratively with our colleagues for the students we have in front of us without fear of reprimand for not using some mandated materials? Instead of using a textbook as a Bible, use it as a resource — go to it when necessary? Unpack those standards, understand what happens vertically as well as in our own grade level.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen large textbook publishers “correlations” to state or Common Core standards. Did they make sense to you? Well, most of the time they didn’t to me either.  It seems as if those correlations are marketing materials aimed at purchasing agents within districts. The connections to what we are teaching seem truly fuzzy. Okay, I’ll say it….. they are bogus. A lot of the time.

As one of a team of teachers aligning our available materials to Common Core math standards, I frequently hear teachers complain that they have to go looking for materials. That’s a fact, but it is a fact by design. There are many inventive teachers out there who relish the chance to tap into their creativity and deliver meaningful and memorable lessons.

Our students deserve a rigorous education. They deserve one that is not stifling, or rigid, or devoid of the joy of learning. What we need is time to collaborate, time to research best practice, time to unpack standards.



Raising Rigor in Readers’ Notebooks

I used to look with envy at those spiffy Readers’ Notebooks available through a nationally known publisher.  In fact I envied them so much, I figured out how to customize a similar notebook for my students to use.

And while they seemed to work pretty well, I’ve come to realize that maybe the beautifully GBC-bound notebooks and forms I’d created were not all that.

Asking my students to write a weekly response in the form of a letter to which I would write back produced writing about reading. But what I mostly got was a retelling (plot) or even worse, an “I like this book….” without a “because”.

I’m reading Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Connections and discovering something about what has passed for a reader’s response in my classroom. Because my students were so wrapped up in writing a letter to the teacher – and maybe even in getting it done over revealing something they were thinking – the thoughts about reading and literacy were pretty much on the surface.

I want my students to learn to do more than that! Upping the rigor of a response means that I will need to teach students to first notice their thinking and then record it.  And then dive deeper into what the author chooses to do when writing; it’s all interconnected.

So I’m no longer envying teachers who can purchase those fancy Readers’ Notebooks for kids. I want to raise the rigor on what students write in reading responses. I want them to think in depth about a text and wonder. I want them to notice an author’s craft and how it impacts a reader.

What I am thinking about for next year is a much more simple tool for holding ideas than the fill-in the form I’ve grown comfortable with over the last 2 years.  Students need a space to record a year’s growth in becoming literate, a place to keep track of genres and kinds of books (given the opportunity, some of my kids would only read Arthur books!), and a place to record and notice not only their own thoughts as they read but how an author crafts writing.

It’s a tall order with many opportunities for missteps on my part. By breaking down the Readers’ Notebook to what is essential, I hope for depth in thinking. A spiral notebook and some self-sticking tabs should do the trick.


Common Core and Clarity

The Massachusetts Common Core Curriculum implementation starts this coming school year.  As a District Team, we’ve looked at how the standards are expressed with increased attention to Focus, Coherence, Clarity and Rigor.  In Lowell, we began our look at the new standards by defining exactly what these four terms mean. One idea that has stuck with me as we work on preparing materials for our colleagues is that  the standards are not “intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step….”

Where this becomes apparent is in looking at clarity as applied to the Common Core. I’ve been taking these standards apart since early June now, and each time it amazes me at how clearly each grade levels’ responsibilities for student learning is spelled out.

As a Third Grade example, our former Frameworks (2000, 2004) 3.N.10 asks students to “Add and subtract (up to four-digit numbers) and multiply (up to t2o-digit numbers by a one-digit number) accurately and efficiently”.  This standard corresponds to the Common Core 3.NBT.2, “Fluently add and subtract within 1,000 using strategies and algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.”

For me the new standard is truly packed with specifics. Fluently add should mean that no matter what the strategy, students can perform the operation without hesitation.

Using strategies and algorithms based on place value does not mean the standard algorithm — in fact the standard algorithm does not become specified until later grade levels (Grades 4 & 5).  What this standards tells us – clearly – is that all students need to be able to perform addition and subtraction within the thousands place using relationships – such as friendly number strategies – or using a process reliant on place value (decomposing and then adding partial sums for instance).

While we may have students who are ready to record these problems using a standard algorithm, unless the student thoroughly understands and can explain the use of the standard algorithm – thereby demonstrating that the student is ready to use a standard algorithm – the student should use some other process for computation. Blindly applying a process without the knowledge of the what and why is no longer accepted.

To me, this is refreshing – a recognition that understanding and comprehending a mathematical topic with depth, and rigor is of importance.  The wording itself of the standard is clear and direct.

As we explore the Common Core, we discover that there is much more clarity about the level, or depth of thinking, to which we need to bring our students. And that is a good thing.