Redefining “Rigor:” Trust, Choice + Inclusion

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As the director of a secondary school writing center, I’m used to the skeptical questions about the rigor of our program from colleagues, from students outside of the writing center, and even from college admissions officers who question the value and the difficulty of our work despite having six years of quantitative and qualitative data that suggests we’re having a real-deal impact on narrowing existing achievement gaps in our school and preventing ones from opening.  Much of the skepticism about the rigor of a class called “Writing Center” stems from the way it calls into question traditional educational models that rely on direct instruction; there’s no teacher giving lectures, and there aren’t worksheets to do, but, instead, students go through a training process that engages them in thinking about how to use their role as a peer to honor their classmates’ literacies and funds of knowledge, promote growth-oriented thinking that moves away from education’s infamous deficit models, build relationships with classmates through writing by sharing their own vulnerability, do community-facing work with local universities and organizations that promote K-8 literacy, where achievement gaps begin, and engage in meaningful reflection about themselves as tutors using their own experiences with writing and substantive writing center pedagogy.  This is all while trying to navigate complex peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-teacher relationships over writing, peer-to-writing relationships, and structural and institutional inequities within our community in order to make lasting, positive change.  This work, while learner-centered and learner-led, seems legitimately rigorous to me even without an Advanced Placement designation or its standardized test at the end; students are using the collective knowledges and resources in an effort to solve pressing real-world, real-time educational issues impacting their friends, their school, and their community.

Narrow definitions of what constitutes rigor in schools extend beyond the Writing Center.  Notions of rigor are frequently discussed when we discussing issues of making space for more choice reading in classes, as there’s an intractable belief that students will scam the system, taking the easy way out.  Indeed, this belief is so pervasive that a recent conversation with a colleague revealed that they were reticent to share their amazing choice reading practices because of negative optics; it simply doesn’t seem hard enough.  However, we know that choice in the classroom promotes high levels of student engagement, and high levels of student engagement encourage students to persist through learning obstacles by thinking metacognitively to find solutions.  We also know that students have an exceptional degree of pride when finishing tasks that they’ve chosen, making them deeply invested in both the process and the product.  The belief that students will somehow scam a system in which they have choice is not only unhelpfully distrustful, but it also further ensconces the idea that we need to force students to learn in spite of their unwillingness to do so.  This hasn’t been my experience; students are deeply passionate and want to expand their literacies in areas that are relevant and meaningful to them.

When given the opportunities to make choices about their learning and their educational process, there’s a palpable energy.  If that feels too anecdotal, then there’s a proverbial boatload of research that there’s a direct relationship between literacy growth and reading volume: an hour of independent reading a day gives students access to 4.3 million new words each year.  Additionally, Judy Willis finds that:

“The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

There are hosts of examples like this one highlighting the ways in which independent reading is both purposeful and rigorous when implemented with fidelity to researched practices.

Here’s the rub: when we anoint ourselves as keepers of rigor, beholden to traditional academic models of what that word means, my fear is that we’re creating more walls than doors, especially for students already on the outside looking in. All students deserve access to lessons that meaningfully challenges them within their zone of proximal development, but rigor doesn’t have to have an AP designation, take the form of standardized test preparation, or be completely teacher-centered. These practices measure exceptionality by exception; the gatekeepers are effective enough without legions of allies. Instead, rigor should—even must—engage our sense of curiosity, the imagination of solving relevant, real-world issues, and the deep metacognition that comes from reflection. As Peter Rorabaugh, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel write in “Beyond Rigor:”

“We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor.”

Like school itself, traditional notions of rigor work for a very small subset of folks whose funds of knowledge and literacies tend to be highly valued. These funds of knowledge and literacies generally tend to be those possessed by white, middle-and-upper class, cishet males, which sends strong messages of exclusion to those who don’t share those literacies or the values, beliefs, and ideals inherent in them. As Rorabaugh, Morris, and Stommel argue, we need to shift our definition of rigor away from reading really long books that are assessed with really hard multiple-choice questions to finding ways to get students to use their funds of knowledge to imagine, explore, and maybe most of all, create. This new notion of rigor requires rethinking power asymmetry in school and empowering learners to use their agency to seek their rigor and relevance in forms and content central to their interests and assets using inquiry, play, and metacognitive reflection, and we have to trust our students—all of our students—to do the learning that they want to do. It’s here where we can begin measure exceptionality by inclusion rather than exclusion.

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