Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In the Name of Rigor

My English department is undergoing quite a bit of change in order to accomodate the reality of state testing in the era of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I was told yesterday our current curriculum overhaul is an attempt to add rigor and help students prepare for the state tests our students will take in their tenth grade year, tests that are now tied to student graduation as well as to my teacher evaluation.  That word rigor has found its way into quite a few of our conversations recently.  And while on its surface, I wholeheartedly agree that our curriculums need to be challenging, need to engage students in higher order thinking skills, and encourage students to think critically about our content areas, I worry at how many are taking up the word "rigor" in light of the CCSS.

Barbara Blackburn knows quite a bit about this.  She's been writing and presenting on ideas of classroom rigor for quite a while.  And in her recent post on the MiddleWeb blog, "Five Myths About Rigor and the Common Core," Blackburn highlights just a few of the ways that idea of rigor has been misused in attempts to prepare students for CCSS realities.

Rigor is not additive.  It is not about adding more books or adding more homework. Instead, Blackburn points out,
"An environment that supports rigor focuses on risk-taking, since working at higher levels requires that students take a risk. How do we do this? By reinforcing progress, effort, and grit, or persistence."
Rigor is not found in State Reading Assessment workbooks.  Rigor lies in creative and critical thinking, in encouraging students to pursue inquiry, in choice and ownership over the learning process.  So why is it that there seems to be such a disconnect between the goals of rigor as presented by CCSS and how it is taken up by districts and departments?

This past Saturday, I helped organize Edcamp Philly, an unconference for teachers that encourages discussions about pedagogy and practice over your typical conference presentations.  It was a whole day filled with collaborations and connections.  I talked with other educators interested in inquiry and passion-based learning.  I learned how a local school has called their inquiry project DaVinci Days.  I met with other teachers interested in flipped learning and teaching for mastery.  All around me were energized teachers talking about the learning happening in their classrooms, talking about that learning in rigorous ways.  And no one was talking about using workbooks to teach students already struggling with reading.  And no one was talking about simply adding more books as a way to add rigor.

It is disheartening to hear rigor being thought of in terms of test preparation. It breaks my heart to hear justification for returning to traditional teaching methods - e.g. workbooks, assigned full class readings, required constructed written responses without audience or purpose - as a way to better prepare students.  But prepare them for what? To take more tests?  Who benefits from this? In the long run, it is not our students.

I am not opposed to the Common Core State Standards. They provide a foundation for teachers to talk about the skills we want to foster in our group of learners. However, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a pedagogy.  The CCSS are not a theory for teaching reading and writing. And the CCSS certainly were not intended to be an assessment strategy. Yet it seems that so much of what we are hearing is about how schools are moving away from the pedagogies and best practices of teaching reading and writing that research has shown to help develop the skills necessary for students to succeed beyond the classroom.  Choice, autonomy, purpose, creativity, inquiry, and reflection are pushed aside to make room for "rigor."

I have spent the last few months researching and presenting on why such inquiry-based teaching in the English classroom does more to grow writing and analytical reading skills than test preparation. In fact, it's what I'll be presenting in Chicago in a few months and at the PCTELA conference in October. It feels a bit of a backwards move to be talking about adding rigor in terms of simply requiring that our students "read more" instead of inspiring true rigor which comes from the student, not forced upon her. As an English teacher, my content is more than books. My content is certainly more than workbooks. It breaks my heart to see all that we know about growing engaged and empowered readers and writers undone by tests.

1 comment:

Judy said...

Love both the post and the new design, Jen.