Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sticks and Stone May Break My Bones But Words...

If there is one word used often in education that I’d like to deep six, it’s the word “rigor.” It started more than 5 years ago when we found it in announcements from our superintendent. "Your teaching must have rigor! The lesson must have rigor! Your lesson plans must have rigor!"


Rigor? I only ever think of one thing when I hear that word, and that is “rigor mortis.” Believe me, I’d like to kill the word and bury it. I have often wondered why that was a buzzword in the so-called reform movement, so I decided to look into the word a little more deeply. The rigor that the reformers are asking us for makes perfect sense now. This is what I found from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:


1. harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment

2. a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable

3. strict precision

4. rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli


NOW it makes sense. I am sure the so-called reformers meant for it to mean strict precision and not the other definitions, but it means so much more.


1. and 3. Harsh inflexibility certainly goes with the strict precision idea. In order for there to be strict precision in school, things have to work in a lock-step fashion. Curriculum must be delivered in an exact manner in every classroom, at the same time throughout the school district. We called that a pacing schedule when I was teaching in the Philadelphia School District. Pacing schedules are useful when there is a high degree of mobility in the district. During the school year, in my class of 24 students, I typically lost 5-8 kids and gained 5-10 new ones. If some sort of pacing schedule wasn’t followed, you never knew who had been taught what when they crossed your room’s threshold.


That being said, pacing schedules are not all that they are cracked up to be. Depending on your class’ abilities, you may have to spend more time on some standards than the schedule calls for. It’s better to spend that extra time in the beginning than leave it and try to get back to it later. Sometimes, you give an assessment to find out they can perform orally but not on paper. Back to the drawing board and you have to say to heck with moving on.


This idea of inflexibility with strict precision has led to a most unfortunate strategy for teaching, the scripted curriculum. This script is supposed to level the playing field where teachers are concerned and make it so every student hears the same words and ideas as every other student, in the same order, so as to expose every child to the “right” lessons in the “right” way. The reality is that the teacher feels rushed, uncreative, bored, and unable to stop and clear up problems by explaining in another way. The reality is bored kids, boring lessons and test scores not aligning with the sacred script.


2. Rigor as a condition that makes school difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable is not even something I’d like to entertain.  School is supposed to be just as difficult as it needs to be to make the student work a little harder, get more involved in the subject, or realize how much they need to pay attention. School that is challenging will not be easy, but will see each child striving to learn. School that is uncomfortable or too difficult, however, will see pupils staying away in droves, sleeping in class, giving up, and generally causing behavior problems. Not the rigor I want.


4. Rigor as rigidity that prevents response to stimuli has no business in school. But if you make school uniformly the same and never offer the stimulus of creativity in lessons and assessments, then rigor lives. Too many schools have removed any outlet for creativity by replacing art, music, and theatre classes with test prep. Not all kids will be able to score highly on the test no matter how much test prep they have been exposed to. Some kids are on a level that is too far below grade level to perform well. Some children know the material but get frustrated easily on the test and then just give up. Other students just can’t take standardized tests and would be better submitting a portfolio of quality work for assessment. Rigor does not take into account that children learn differently and therefore test differently. We are supposed to differentiate our instruction to “hook” every pupil, but then that means deviating from the scripted lesson. You can’t have it both ways, either we need to differentiate or we use a scripted curriculum and pacing schedule. Back to the definition, if you take away expressions of creativity and quash the ability of the teacher to truly differentiate, then that prevents the stimuli from getting a response. Because there IS no stimuli – school is boring every single day, unrelenting rigor.


I guess by now you can see why I hate that word. There are so many buzzwords in educational circles right now. If I never hear the word “rigor” again, I’ll be deliriously happy.


Can we ban it? Please?

Still learning!

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