Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I just finished Rigor Made Easy: Getting Started by Barbara R. Blackburn. The book is an easy read with lots of good information and examples of the application of her ideas. Throughout the book are "points to ponder" that encourage self-reflection. There does seem to be an over reliance on acrostics, but if that is the worst you can say about something, you've got it made.

Some things that were particularly thoughtful to me.

Barbara defines rigor using the concept that it is dependant on the environment. Teachers must create an environment in which each student is supported to achieve at expected high levels. Teachers create a rigorous place. Each student achieves at a high level. It is not doing more, it is doing different. When I hear this, I think about gifted learners. One of the commonly utilized, but poor ways of "meeting" the needs of gifted and high ability students is to assign extra pages to write or problems to solve, or pull them for class for something "fun" and when they return to class they need to make up the work. As we approach rigor, we need to be to avoid this pitfall.

Similarly, we cannot spend September and October and November reteaching what we did last year. Nor can we spend May and June reviewing the same stuff, the same way. Math cannot continue to be 5 lessons of review and 2-3 lessons of new material per unit. Coach G, a blogger who is a teacher trainer, addressed this issue in his blog:
We need to spiral the material up. Marzano addressed the idea in relation to vocabulary instruction by recommending teach the vocabulary, engage in activities with the vocabulary that deepen their understanding of the words, discuss the words, and review the vocabulary with games ( It is never a constant barrage of repeat after me, repeat after me, repeat after me. There are things kids needs to memorize: the alphabet, math facts, basic sight words, ... but even then we introduce, provide intense practice and then move on to practice that material while learning new material. When we take the introduce, do something with it, then combine it with other things approach, we add rigor.

A key point made by Barbara is that Common Core State Standards, in spite of their insistence that they are an inch wide and a mile deep, remain too broad to teach in their entirety, and require prioritization of standards. This begs the question, when are state departments of education and now national boards going to get it: too much content means surface coverage or holes.

So how do we implement rigor?

In regards to reading, we cannot just teach with "hard" readings or nonfiction. We need to balance independent reading at the child's independent reading level with challenging reading. Independent reading builds fluency. This is one of the critical skills of reading. Challenging reading on the other hand, allows them to develop strategies to approach difficult readings, an essential skill if they are going to be successful beyond high school. The material students read, therefore, must be at a variety of levels, perspectives and depths. I like introducing with low reading level material. It is less intimidating, helps build background knowledge and springboards vocabulary activities. Then they can approach more challenging material.  Bloom acknowledges that the foundation is knowledge but then you need to build on and with the information.

Activities that you do may be modified to increase rigor. Make grading reflect the rigor you want. When color, pictures and the placement of the heading are going to carry significant weight- it does not matter what the task is, rigor is not necessary for success. Switch the grading to be about the content, not the compliance, and you automatically add rigor. Take your fact based questions and ask students to do things with the facts- for example compare different sources of information and evaluate which is the best source, or identify the bias within them.

Discussion and questions are good ways to add rigor. High quality questions are important. I like the modified Socratic circle idea Barbara highlighted as grand conversations. In a group have one student speak. The next student must either comment on the first statement, question the first statement or make connections to the first statement. Giving them the guidelines helps build better discussions. This guideline could be used in whole class group discussion and anything down to partner work.

Engagement is critical to achievement. I am cautious about Barbara's statement that "the more creative you are with your activities the more engaged they are in learning" (p. 32). My concern stems from my son who is on the autism spectrum. He hates creative activities. They need to be carefully planned, scaffolded and if possible repeated so they are not novel. I know he is the exception, but we need to be aware that there are kids who are creative adverse.

Likewise I am wary about metacognition. Asking metacognition questions- how do you know, what did you do,... is a good way push up the level of rigor. NYS math tests require students to explain how they arrived at their answers. For some students, however, they do not know how to explain their thinking. They may have executive function disabilities, a common feature in ASD. These students need you to teach them how to explain their thinking. Things are intuitively obvious to them, an inappropriate answer for state tests. The comfort for some people is that in the business world, it is often not very important to explain how you got the answer, as long as the answer is the correct answer.

Some of the supports that Barbara encourages are the use of think alouds, modeling and video replay. Developing routines and procedures to support Independence is important. Ask three and then me is a common one. Acknowledge that students try to give you what they think you want, therefore, provide models and exemplars. Struggling students are the most likely to misinterpret your expectations, give them an leg up with a sample, all kids will benefit. Encourage an internal locus of control- your effort, not your genetic make up or the ease of the task led to success. Legitimizing failure is also important. It is expected and not the end but the beginning. Toward this end she supports the switching to a mastery grading system where the grade of Not Yet is given.

Supports need to be structured, personalized, beyond the "classwork" and timely. RTI seems to fit this bill perfectly. When students are not successful, they move up a tier to receive additional supports. Robyn Jackson talks about establishing red flags that trigger support. For example, a grade falling below an 80 might move homework from the optional column to the mandatory column, require the completion of a review packet before a test or require attendance at a tutoring sessions. Using red flags is a good way to implement interventions at the secondary level.

Barbara acknowledges that moving to incorporate more rigor is challenging in its own right. She recommends that teachers develop a vision letter. Describe three steps of how you want to try to add rigor; describe what you want your classroom to look like in  a year. Revisit the letter often: see how you are doing, remind yourself of what you want to change. Every long journey begins with one step.

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