How one high school is constructing their own definition of rigor, in service of developing high expectations and meaningful work for students.
After several years of prolonged uncertainty and hardship, a feeling of normalcy seems to finally be settling in, and schools want to refocus their vision for high expectations and meaningful work for students. As coaches, we’ve noticed that “rigor” has become a topic of particular interest for school leaders this year.
However, not everyone has the most positive associations with the word, and we can’t really blame them (just look at the dictionary definition — yikes!). What we mean by rigor in the educational context is often unclear, and it’s for this reason that we believe in the importance of co-constructing definitions and characteristics of the concept as a school community.
We’ve undertaken this endeavor with the Business Technology Early College High School (BTECH) — one of our wonderful partner schools in Queens, New York — and have been investigating the concept of rigor through a variety of entry points. Our inquiry around rigor began with a tool developed by our colleague, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, who envisions rigor as an odometer, a visual retake on Bloom’s Taxonomy. After working with the “Rigormeter”, the staff at BTECH engaged in inquiry around how to assess and establish criteria for rigorous questions. Here is a snapshot of how we explored this question and a look into the insights that were gleaned.
Assessing for rigor
What makes a rigorous question? The central way that teachers pursued this line of inquiry in our workshop was through a hands-on, minds-on activity. In small heterogeneous groups (mixed in terms of both content areas and experience), teachers were given an envelope of paper strips, each printed with a question inspired by real high school curriculum (How does the greenhouse effect work? What is exponential growth and where do we see it in our everyday lives?). Working collaboratively, teachers were tasked with sorting the questions into categories according to their perceived level of rigor. As we circulated the room, we heard teachers engaged in rich and lively discussion as they made decisions about how to rank questions according to their rigor level, and why.
Establishing criteria for rigor
After teachers spent some time engaging in the question sorting activity, we asked the small groups to reflect and discuss together: What criteria did you use to distinguish more rigorous from less rigorous questions? Then, when we came back together as a whole staff, we asked teachers: so, what does make a rigorous question? Here are some of the defining characteristic they articulated:
A rigorous question...
After teachers generated their own ideas, we as facilitators offered a few additional criteria that worked to amplify and elaborate on the group’s working definition. The criteria we offered were inspired by some of the dispositions of competent readers delineated by Dr. Sheridan Blau in his article Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers (2003) — with the thinking that if these dispositions allow for readers to make meaning of texts and “enable knowledge” (p. 19), then questions that inspire the cultivation of such dispositions will in turn cultivate meaning-making in general.
We proposed that a rigorous question also:
The importance of complexity and flexibility are also explored in Robyn Jackson’s How to Plan Rigorous Instruction (2010).
After generating their own collective definition of a rigorous question and considering the Blau-inspired characteristics as well, teachers were given the opportunity to apply these new insights to an upcoming lesson. Teachers left the session with a new Do Now activity or slightly tweaked questions that asked for justification, for example. Most significantly, they left with clarity on what counts as a rigorous question.
As we continue working with this school, we are designing next steps in the professional learning process. Our upcoming sessions can focus on when and how to use rigorous questions, specifically, at what point of the lesson, and how to assess student response. We can also explore activities or teaching moves that pair well with investigating rigorous questions. We might also reconsider our essential questions and check how they measure against our “rigorous questions” criteria. There are many possibilities for moving forward with our inquiry cycle.
While there are plenty of resources and frameworks out there for teachers on creating compelling and meaningful questions, both facilitators and teachers found great value in doing some first-hand discovery, and in trying to articulate the nuance in what distinguishes rigorous questions from the rest.
Five questions that can help create a foundation for the hard and important work of teaching together.
With each new school year, we wonder with excitement and anticipation: what will this cohort of students be like? What can I teach them? What can they teach me?
And, if you’re a teacher who works predominantly in co-taught classrooms, as I did, the very same questions arise with every new co-teacher: what will they be like? What can I teach them? What can they teach me?
Indeed, co-teaching provides wonderful opportunities for new professional relationships and new professional growth. Over the years, my co- teachers became my de facto mentors, my co-researchers, and also, at my luckiest, my friends. But, at the beginning of each co-teaching relationship, it is always a little overwhelming, with so much to learn about each other and decide together.
There may be some pressure to figure it all out before your students walk through the door, but that’s probably not realistic (especially if you have multiple co-teachers), and often the most valuable discoveries and decisions are made on the job, anyway — through the actual work of planning and caring for students together.
That is not to say that efforts to get to know each other at the beginning of the year are not important. On the contrary, it is always clear to me when walking into a classroom as a coach if a co-teaching team has had the time to invest in their professional relationship.
Given the importance of this work and also the abundance of tasks the beginning of a new school year brings, it can be helpful to consider what insight will be most valuable right away.
Here are five questions that can jumpstart your partnership and spark discussion around core values, collaboration, content, communication, and care with your co-teacher.
What are some of your core values and non-negotiables as a teacher?
This question is often lurking beneath the surface of many co-teacher conversations: how to structure group work, how to designate point values on a rubric, or how to support a student exhibiting challenging behaviors.
Sometimes, making the implicit more explicit at the beginning — naming the key beliefs, values, and theories that inform your practices — helps deepen the partnership and move collaboration forward. Furthermore, there is no denying that co-teaching often requires compromise, as you must integrate two separate visions of the classroom.
Having a brief conversation about core values and non-negotiables will help team members understand where there may be more or less flexibility. If, for example, I know that offering students choice is very important to my co-teacher, I know that preserving the place of book clubs in the curriculum is likely important to them. This will not only support you in respecting your colleague and their teaching identity, but will save time and energy on back-and-forth negotiations.
How would you describe the ideal co-teaching situation?
Just as there is an infinite number of teaching styles — arguably, no two are exactly the same — there are an infinite number of co-teaching styles. While some of the workings of the arrangement might be determined by external factors — schedules, content expertise (see question #3), or school leaders’ visions and expectations — it can still be important to understand your co-teacher's preferences around co-facilitation and collaboration. Ideally, would both teachers contribute to every lesson? Is there a co-teaching model that feels most comfortable? It might also be illuminating to ask about past co-teaching experience: what felt like it worked really well in the collaboration, and what felt like it did not serve the partnership or the students.
What’s your level of comfort and passion with this particular grade level / course / content area?
Not every teacher will be equally well-versed, nor equally passionate, about all the curriculum or content of a given course or grade level, and this can be valuable to understand about your co-teacher. For example, at the high school level, one member of the team might have taught Algebra I for a decade, thus bringing a wealth of knowledge, experience, and resources to the classroom. Or, it may be that it’s one teacher’s first time setting foot in a US History classroom since her own school days, but she’s really looking forward to engaging students in the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. At the elementary school level, a teacher might feel like a rockstar teaching multiplication, but lessons on writing keep them up at night. This information can naturally inform how planning and facilitation responsibilities are delegated, or who will take the lead where.
How do you prefer to communicate between class times?
Ideally, co-teachers will have time set aside to reflect and plan together on a daily or weekly basis, but the need to communicate about particular plans or grading or students will likely spill over. Given the seemingly endless number of channels for that communication, it’s important to understand what works best for each member of the team.
Is it okay to text a question in real time, while grading essays in the evening, or should I put that in an email? Do you prefer lesson plans be sent over the school email, or should we use Google Drive? How should I let you know if I will be out sick? This is important information to glean so that you can respect your co-teacher’s boundaries and also ensure no important communication is missed.
What’s your beverage or treat of choice?
This question is obviously a little more lighthearted than the previous ones, but important nonetheless! In a profession with so many intellectual, physical, and emotional demands, it can be really meaningful to invest in the well-being of our closest colleagues — to gift a little pick-me-up after a tough day, or to celebrate submitting your grades for the marking period. Knowing your co-teacher’s favorite baked food or how they take their coffee allows you to offer that kind of care when the opportunity arises.
Of course, these questions are intended as inspiration; if the exact phrasing doesn’t speak to you, consider other ways to engage with themes of core values, collaboration, content, communication, and care. One option – especially if you are drawn to exploring things visually – is to create and share with each other a co-teaching body biography, as my colleague Laura Rigolosi and I have invited teacher teams to do in our workshops.
Ultimately, the goal is to get to know each other enough so that the gradual establishment of roles, responsibilities and routines — ones that honor individual teaching identities and preferences — over the course of the first few weeks is possible. Such meaningful conversations will create the foundation for hard and important work of teaching (and learning) together.
Three strategies you can offer students of all levels — even when you can only connect virtually.
DR. LAURA RIGOLOSI
Curriculum & Literacy Specialist
What happens when your class is full of 30+ students who have different strengths, different learning styles, and different comfort levels with the English language? We’ve been tackling this question alongside K-12 educators through PD series like Educating ELLs and Including All Learners, where we address the promises and challenges of teaching in heterogeneous classrooms by exploring the principles of differentiation and related research for classroom applications.
When we began another round of Including All Learners sessions last year, we set out to support a new group of educators as they worked toward their differentiation goals. We didn't yet know that we would soon experience social distancing, that toilet paper would become the most coveted household item, or that both teaching and learning would rapidly transition from in-person to online.
During this time of online schooling, we are particularly concerned about students who either do not have online access, or do not have a quiet nook in their homes to learn. A few years ago, one of our students commented that he slept with the English novels from our class under his pillow — it was the safest place in his home, where he didn’t have a workspace of his own.
As we write this from our individual homes and reflect on the recent shift to virtual education, we are focusing on the principles of our Including All Learners series that remain true in any kind of teaching and learning environment. Below, we will outline a few concepts from our workshops and share how they carry over to our online learning experiences.
Disrupt the single story
We begin our sessions with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story. She explains to her audience how all of us, including Adichie herself, have told a singular version of someone’s life story, and have also been victim to a single story about ourselves. She shares how damaging and incorrect these single versions can be.
This concept serves as a reminder that we must disrupt the single stories that are often assigned to our students, particularly those who are ENLs or are students with disabilities. This can be more challenging than it sounds, particularly when students have to be described in IEPs, which do not allow for a more complex telling of their life stories. In our workshops, we challenge ourselves and participating teachers to share other versions of our students’ stories — something you can continue to do in online communication with other adults in your community.
What helps some students can help all
One of the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is that what helps some learners can help all learners. This concept can be illustrated by the design of public spaces — for example, people of all ages and abilities benefit from public bathrooms that are wheelchair accessible; they are wider, are often designed without entry doors, and are therefore easier to navigate and offer fewer opportunities for spreading germs.
One way we try to illustrate this concept in our workshops is by providing all participants with tools that support their learning. For example, while we view the Adichie TED Talk, we offer our participants a simple graphic organizer (like a double entry journal) that allows everyone to listen fully, while also allowing them to recall specific compelling moments in the talk. Our double entry journal includes two components: a column on the left, partially filled out with quotes from the text (in this case, the TED Talk), and a column on the right, which is open for viewers to share their thoughts. Returning to the ideas presented in UDL, a double entry journal that includes specific lines from the text is useful for students who have central executive challenges, but in reality, everyone can benefit from the text references.
The principles of UDL feel particularly important at a time when it is more difficult to ask students where and how they need support. Just as we provided a partially completed double entry journal for all of our participants, consider making your scaffolds accessible to all students on your online platforms. This might look like providing possible sentence starters to all students for written explanations, or providing a series of clues for students solving a math problem.
Show the messiness of thinking
Metacognition expert Dr. Saundra McGuire defines metacognition as simply thinking about your thinking. Being able to think about how you’re making meaning of a piece of writing — as well what you can easily understand and what you can’t — is an important aspect of engaging with complex texts.
One tool we offer educators is a model of a think aloud, where we simply model the messiness of the thinking that goes into making sense of our reading, writing, and problem-solving. The goal is to dispel the idea that a text suddenly and magically makes sense without struggle and hard work, and to show them that everyone relies on thinking moves that help them chip away at difficult texts.
Consider doing this type of think aloud with your students online — either in real time or as a short recorded video. Rather than simply creating a video where you explain the major steps needed for answering a question or solving a problem, try to capture yourself actually doing the work, making even your smallest thinking moves visible — the questioning, rereading, reasoning, and revising that often happens while engaging in higher-order tasks, but that we often do without even realizing. You might also share things like how you knew to begin your answer in a certain way, or what bit of information caused you to stop and double-check your computations. Sharing these micro thinking steps will help students see that there is not a singular way to answer a question or to solve a problem, which may help them become more aware of their own thinking.
As you continue adapting your instruction for remote and blended learning, we hope you will utilize the tools and concepts we have outlined here to ensure you are reaching all learners. While our in-person sessions are on hold, you can continue to participate in professional development on this topic by joining us online.