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Lori Ungemah Headshot

What is Academic Rigor?!

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My years in the classroom were filled with educational jargon. When you work in a failing school, educational reform movements and their key words are birthed into your classroom after gestating in what I imagine to be windowless rooms where policymakers stare at data. One hot term that circulated was academic rigor. Upon being observed, you were told that your lesson wasn't rigorous enough. You asked what exactly your administrator meant by "rigor," and s/he would say something vague like, "It needs more academic rigor." You asked what s/he meant by academic rigor, and there was no definitive answer, maybe something like, "Make it more rigorous." It was like a bad comedy routine.

I left that year with a vague idea that rigor is pushing the students *just* to the brink of the work being too hard, but not over the brink because then the students would get discouraged and give up, and definitely not under the brink, because -- duh -- that's not rigorous. Not a very clear working definition.

Last Friday I went to my first intermediate/advanced yoga class in over five years. All through this class my mind kept thinking, This is rigorous! This is rigor! and I started to get, perhaps in a third eye moment of yogic clarity, what academic rigor can and/or should be in the classroom. I had three clear strands of thought about rigor during and after this class.

Thought #1: Rigor is pushing yourself beyond what is easy. We push ourselves beyond our individual limits in order to get better at something. No, that is not a brilliant definition, but I think it's worth explaining this clearly and often to our students. Sports, reading, math, anger management, dieting -- to make progress in anything there has to be an element of rigor. Plain and simple.

For example: I had not gone to an intermediate/advanced yoga class in f-i-v-e years, and I went to this because I was getting bored in the Basics classes and didn't want to pay $18 for no challenge. But I was apprehensive. I put my mat in the back corner of the room, hoping nobody would see my post-baby flabby, unflexible self, and I checked out each person who walked in, rating them on a fit scale in my head. (How un-yoga-like is that? Sheesh...) I was nervous, scared, and a little embarrassed; it felt like everyone who walked in knew through some strange yoga ESP that I didn't really belong in this class. However, I also knew it was time to try something different and to move out of the comfort of my Basics class. There was this tension.

I think a lot of students feel the same way when they are presented with a text, task, or class that is challenging for them: they are nervous, scared, embarrassed. We have seen this as we teach: the kids who sit in the back with their hoodies over their heads; the student who comes in alert and once the lesson starts develops a mysterious headache and needs to go to the nurse; the girl in the front who looks at you nodding and smiling as you teach, but when it's time to start independent practice is frozen -- the list goes on. The students are apprehensive of an academic challenge because they do not want to struggle or fail when they try something new, harder, and more rigorous. The fear of public and personal humiliation is strong and paralyzing which is why we need to talk about rigor in our classrooms, at all levels of teaching.

Education -- from kindergarten through college -- should push students to move beyond who and where they were when they entered the classroom. Students need to know that explicitly. They need to know our job is to push them, and their job is to be pushed. Talk about this.

Thought #2: How can we get them unstuck? How can we get them to engage in the challenge? To be scared, but to sit in that fear and still try? Students need to understand that we all struggle and fail when we try something new therefore we learn ways to modify what we are doing until we can do it fully and with success.

In this yoga class, I was far from being able to do all the poses the teacher called out. Maybe I could do about 60% of them, but I also knew how to modify the poses so that I wouldn't end up a crumpled -- or worse, injured -- heap on my mat. I knew how to modify the poses because 1.) I had been taught how to modify the poses by past yoga teachers, and 2.) I had practiced yoga for many years and figured out how to modify some of the poses on my own. With this in mind, students not only need both direct instruction on how to modify/differentiate a text or task to meet their individual definitions of rigor, but they also need to experiment and develop personal strategies to help them cope with academic rigor. These two go hand in hand.

Build opportunities into your lessons for students to work at different levels and explain where these opportunities are clearly. Tell your students how they can modify your lesson to meet their levels. Give them examples of how they can differentiate to push themselves: Write more than I have asked it you can! Or, if you're struggling to write a paragraph, give me a few sentences, but don't freeze up and write nothing! Tell them to be honest with themselves. Talk generally about what it means to push yourself academically, and then confer with individual students about their levels, what they can do easily and what's hard for them, and explain to them the purpose of trying hard texts, tasks, and classes. Let them experiment within your lesson, to develop their own ways to doing what you have asked, even if it's not the way you anticipated. Encourage experimentation and explain that this is how we grow and become smarter. Uniformity is out the window -- each kid's process and product might look slightly different, and that should be okay. That's differentiation.

Thought #3: Every minute of every class cannot and should not be rigorous. Learning can't be all rigor, all the time. There has to be time to step back, pause, reflect on learning, have some fun, gather strength, and then -- BAM! -- another rigorous text, task, or class. Too much rigor will stifle the learning process.

I'd love to say that this yoga class left me full of energy, and I did have that post-class afterglow for a couple of hours, but after that initial yoga high I was exhausted and felt drained of all energy. I kept drinking water thinking I was dehydrated, then I ate some protein, and then I went straight for coffee and sugar. I was toast. I remained totally spaced out through daycamp pickup, dinner, baths, and I crashed on the couch after I put the kids to bed. When something is truly rigorous, it exhausts you. There was no way I could have gone back for another class of similar rigor that afternoon, or the next day. I was spent.

I remember my Assistant Principal saying, "The kids should be exhausted because they're working so hard in your class!" Yes and no. Plan your lessons so that some days are truly exhausting, some days build on that exhausting text or task you introduced yesterday, and then give the kids time to process and reflect on what they learned, and then -- and only then -- hit them with rigor again. But not every day. What does this mean for your observations and for administration? In order to fully understand a teacher's curriculum and pedagogy, s/he needs multiple observations, preferably in a sequence of days. If a teacher's lessons are all fun and low level for days in a row, there's a problem. Conversely, if a teacher kills her kids day after day with no time for the students to master a rigorous skill or to fully grapple with a rigorous text, there's a problem. Academic rigor is about introducing a text, task, or idea that is so complex that it should take days to dissect, and then it should be re-introduced again, later in a unit of study, until the students can independently master it. It takes time. Lots of time.

And while the recursiveness of learning and the time it takes is an unpopular sentiment in an era of educational reform that demands accountability, data, and assessments now we, as educators, need to advocate for the time our students need to learn and grow through rigorous academic lessons and classes. I didn't grow up in the era of testing; I was given time to learn. I can't imagine how it feels to be a student in a classroom today. It gives me shivers to think about it.

I'm going back to that yoga class tomorrow. It has been one week and my body has recovered, I know what to expect, and I feel more confident that I can go to this class, use modifications in order to be successful (by my own definition of success) and begin to move into a more intermediate practice. And I am looking forward to it, even though I know that my Friday afternoon will mostly likely include me walking around my apartment in a catatonic state from the rigor of the class.

I hope the students feel the same way when they walk through our doors in August/September.