Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels,
each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels,
and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What is rigor?

In the October 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, Tony Wagner described the skills students will need to be successful in the 21st century in an article titled “Rigor Redefined.” Here's my response (originally posted over on Tales from a Teacher's Heart) and I offer practical ideas for rigorous projects for your students.

In his article “Rigor Redefined,” Tony Wagner describes the skills students will need in the future in order to have successful careers and be good citizens. The skills move beyond memorization of content for a test and shift the focus to a higher level of learning.

As I reviewed his list, which includes critical thinking, problem solving, initiative, collaboration, adaptability, accessing information, and effective communication, I was reminded of a comment my dad made several years ago. He said, “The purpose of education is for students to be able to figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do.” Most of the skills Dr. Wagner describes are needed to achieve that.

Many teachers I talk with agree with his recommendations. We all know we should not limit our instruction to “the test.” I firmly believe preparation for a standardized test should be the floor of our instruction, not the ceiling. And we can incorporate these skills as we teach content.

As you can see from the sample projects below, these activities provide the opportunity for students to engage in critical thinking and problem solving, to demonstrate collaboration, leadership, initiative, entrepreneurialism, and curiosity, to access and analyze information, and to effectively communicate with others.

Excerpted from Chapter 4 of Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word:

Sample Projects

Language Arts

“Shakespeare Incarnate” Create and perform a skit as a follow-up to a novel or short story. The skit can be an adaptation, a continuation, or written from a different point of view. Each group has to advertise their play, use costumes that the school owns or create their own, and stick to a time limit. Students then perform the play for peers and/or an audience.


Create objects incorporating Pascal’s Triangle or certain shapes (such as a rhombus). As an alternative, create a game that incorporates the use of graphing (such as Battleship).


“Green Plan” Each group must construct a plan to save the environment and live more “green.” Language arts skills are also incorporated as students plan speeches to convince the population that living green is the way to go. Students must decide on recycling programs (keeping in mind effectiveness and cost). Students will create charts and graphic organizers showing the efficiency of their plans.

Social Studies

“Mr./Madam President” Create media campaign for the ideal presidential candidate. Each group is a campaign with one candidate, a campaign manager, etc. The candidate must give speeches, have a plan, take a stand on current issues, and win the votes of the population.


“Music to My Ears” Each person writes their own piece of music, incorporating knowledge gained through their studies. Students can then perform in front of peers in an “American Idol” type of setting.

Career/ Technology

“Future Creations” Students design robots to perform a specific function in the workplace. They draw a draft design and create a model. They also write a resume for their robot, detailing qualifications.

Click here for a printable pdf of this chart.

Dr. Wagner’s list adds to our knowledge base of expectations for success for each student. But I would caution you that rigor is more that what we expect students to do. Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels. Only by creating a culture of high expectations and providing support so students can truly succeed do you have a rigorous classroom.

Click here for more information, sample chapters, and selected templates from Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Promoting Community in the Classroom

-“How should you arrange classroom (ie-teacher’s desk) to promote community…or does it matter?”

I'm not a big believer in "one" right way to do something, but it does make a difference. For example, the standard room with desks in a row and the teacher's desk front and center sends a message that the teacher is in charge, and the students are simply recipients of information. However, I was in a classroom set up like this, and it was a community, mainly because the teacher was never at his desk; he was always in the middle of his students, who also had flexibility to rearrange the desks. That's what is more important--do students feel like they are a part of things, or separate from the teacher? In my classroom, I tend to find that clustering desks/tables works better for me so I can facilitate groups. In my grad classes, though, if I have a small group (8-12), I tend to do a large, square U so everyone is together. In that instance, clusters of tables actually breaks community rather than building it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Encouraging Teachers

This video from Eye on Education shares my story of working with teachers in a high-poverty school. One of my struggles is when I see teachers who feel disheartened and disempowered. Here's what happened during my visit! http://blog.talesfromateachersheart.com/2009/06/09/from-the-archive-season-1-episode-9--their-best-hope.aspx

Friday, November 13, 2009

Any Principals Reading?

My latest book was written with Dr. Ron Williamson of Eastern Michigan University. For resources and a sneak peek, head over to my site.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lots of Resources...

Check out my website (www.barbarablackburnonline.com). In addition to the materials on rigor, you'll find activities related to student motivation and student engagement. Click on each book and look for the activity templates!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Group Work at a Higher Level

A new and higher standard of rigor is emerging that focuses on increasing skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. But when your students do group work, do they work together or just sit together? I use a cooperative learning rubric to help define and assess effective group work. Here's an excerpt from my book Classroom Instruction from A to Z and two printable pdfs of the rubric.

Group work is one of the most effective ways to help students learn. It can increase student motivation and is an important life skill. When I was teaching, some of my students didn’t like to work in groups. They complained every day until I brought in a newspaper article that said the number one reason people were fired from their jobs was that they couldn’t get along with their coworkers. That was an eye-opener for my students.

Recently, I was talking with a project manager, and I asked him about the importance of teamwork. He pointed out that knowing how to work with other people is critical. “The more successful you are, the more important it is to influence, motivate, and work with others. If you think about successful people, working with people becomes your job; that is what you do.”

That’s pretty insightful. For people who have achieved high levels of success in the workplace, no matter what the setting, teamwork isn’t part of their job, it is their job. As a teacher, this reminds me that if I believe I should prepare my students for life after school, then I need to teach them to work together.

Recently, I was in a classroom in which the teacher bragged to me that her students worked in groups all the time. When I asked her students, they told me that the desks are placed in groups, but they just read the book silently and answer questions individually. After thinking for a minute, one student said, “We can ask each other for help if we need to.” That’s not really group work. Effective group activities provide opportunities for your students to work together, either with a partner, a small group, or the entire class, to accomplish a task. In these instances, everyone has a specific role, and there are clear individual and shared responsibilities. Missy Miles uses a rubric for assessing each GROUP in her classroom.

You're a Team Player!
You're Working on It…
You're Flying Solo
Group dedication
The student is totally dedicated to his or her group, offering all of his or her attention by actively listening to peers and responding with ideas.
The student is partially dedicated to his or her group though sometimes becomes distracted by students or issues outside the group.
The student spends most of his or her time focusing on things outside the group; he or she is not available for discussion or group work.
The student shares responsibility equally with other group members and accepts his or her role in the group.
The student takes on responsibility but does not completely fulfill his or her obligations.
The student either tries to take over the group and does not share responsibilities or takes no part at all in the group work assigned.
Open communication
The student gives polite and constructive criticism to group members when necessary, welcomes feedback from peers, resolves conflict peacefully, and asks questions when a group goal is unclear.
The student gives criticism, though often in a blunt manner, reluctantly accepts criticism from peers, and may not resolve conflict peacefully all of the time.
The student is quick to point out the faults of other group members yet is unwilling to take any criticism in return; often, the students argues with peers rather than calmly coming to a consensus.
Utilization of Work Time
The student is always on task, working with group members to achieve goals, objectives, and deadlines.
The student is on task most of the time but occasionally takes time off from working with the group.
The student does not pay attention to the task at hand and frustrates other group members because of his or her inability to complete work in a timely fashion.

The student is observed sharing ideas, reporting research findings to the group, taking notes from other members, and offering assistance to his or her peers as needed.
The student sometimes shares ideas or reports findings openly but rarely takes notes from other group members.
This student does not openly share ideas or findings with the group, nor does he or she take notes on peers'

You can find a PDF of the rubric by visiting   http://www.barbarablackburnonline.com/classroominstruction.htm   and using the drop down menu to choose the rubric.  (Excerpted from Classroom Instruction from A to Z, by Barbara R. Blackburn)

Next, choose the book Literacy from A to Z and use the drop down menu for a student cooperative learning rubric for grades K-2. (Excerpted from Literacy from A to Z, by Barbara R. Blackburn)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Primer of Resources on Rigor

The Hechinger Institute’s report, “Understanding and Reporting on Academic Rigor”was released on June 3, 2009, the 28-page report offers journalists an objective primer on the concept of rigor in education. I'm referenced in several places in the report.

The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media is an effort built out of the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Launched in 1996, the institute has since hosted 63 informational seminars for members of the media who cover educational topics.

Click here to read the full report.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Leading a Book Study of Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word?

If so, there's a free facilitator's guide over on my website. It's filled with engaging activities for you and your faculty!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rigor for All Grade Levels

ACT recently released the report The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School. It is the latest in a series of reports documenting the need for increased rigor. However, this one focuses on a key point: rigor is NOT just for high school. In fact, if we wait until high school to increase rigor for our students, we have failed. The authors of the report are clear: "Our research shows that, under current conditions, the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school."

Most teachers I work with know this already. At the end of one of my workshops on rigor, a first grade teacher in Baltimore shared how she planned to increase rigor when her students read The Three Little Pigs. She said, "After we read the story, I usually mention something about the three types of houses, but now I'm going to have my students do some basic research about houses built of straw, wood, and brick." Now that's the perfect formula for success: high expectations for students plus creative activities.

How are you increasing rigor in your classroom?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Resources for the Classroom

If you are looking for some of the templates from Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, head over to my main website: http://www.barbarablackburnonline.com/rigor.html.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

One of my Favorite Rigorous Activities!

I'm often asked, "With increased accountability, how do you balance the pressure to teach to the test with what you feel is best for your students?"

As I work with teachers, I find there is not a simple answer. More than anything, I see teachers choosing to teach information that is related to the test, but also refusing to be limited by that. Whenever possible, they increase the rigor and engagement of activities that are test-related.

For example, one of my favorite activities is to have students write or explain a new vocabulary term in their own words. I increase rigor and engagement by asking them to write "Who Am I?" or "What Am I" riddles. By composing riddles and trying to solve them, students are excited and don't even realize they are making up original definitions to new vocabulary terms.

Since it's election season, here's a sample from Niko, Amy, Keith, Demetrius, and Cathy at Conway Middle School:

I am a college known as a party school.
My mascot changes all the time.
Popularity does not rule!
What am I?

Answer-- The electoral college!

What are some of your favorite rigorous activities to use in your classroom?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Having a Vision

When I was a young teacher, I was assigned a group of at-risk students...and we plunged into the world of state testing! Head over to my entry at Tales from a Teacher's Heart to see my story!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review of Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word

Featured blog over on the Teacher Leaders Network--very positive review of Rigor!


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why write???

A teacher in one of my workshops asked me why I write books for teachers. Classroom Motivation from A to Z was my first book, and I wrote it because I meet many teachers who feel as though they are fighting a losing battle. Too often, we only focus on what is wrong with schools, and in many cases, the solution is to buy the latest program or product which will “fix” what’s wrong.

As I said in my introduction, “

There is an old saying used in medical schools: "If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras." It was used in response to medical students who looked for exotic diagnoses for basic illnesses. Some teachers fall into the same trap. We look for the latest quick fix to help us deal with the ever-increasing challenges we face with today's students. The solution to many of the challenges you face is not purchasing the latest program; it is a focused effort to provide your students an environment in which they can thrive.”

I’ve worked for three educational publishing companies and know that programs aren’t the solution, they are simply tools that can assist teachers do what they know how to do best, which is reach and help their students. I meet great teachers everyday, and I see example after example of strategies and activities that help students learn. Most of these seem basic, but when used consistently and appropriately, students learn and teachers see the difference. So, my first goal in writing Classroom Motivation was to share some of these strategies with other teachers.

But I also wanted to write a book that reminds teachers of their value. I believe that teachers change the world everyday; but you don’t always see the results. Sam Myers, from Sumter 17 School District in South Carolina says, “On your worst day, you are someone’s best hope.” That’s a strong reminder of the positive power of a teacher.

If you’d like to read an excerpt from the book (chapters A: Achievement is More than a Test Score; E: Engagement Equals Success; and Y: You are the Key), head over to my website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com. You’ll also find downloadable templates from the book and handouts from many of my workshops.

Evaluating Content for Rigor

What does rigor look like in the classroom? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently in an interview with EdWeek, "We want to reward rigor and challenge the status quo." He has said that he would like to use part of a federal incentive-grant fund to reward states, districts, and nonprofit groups that have set rigorous standards for their students and raised student achievement. Here's one idea from Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word to increase rigor in your classroom.

Part of respecting your students is expecting high-quality work from each one, while considering where a student truly is on the learning continuum. The first step this requires is to define high quality. Rubrics are an effective way for you to determine your expectations for quality. However, if you don’t have anything for comparison, you may unknowingly lower your standards.

Try comparing your expectations for students to published national standards from organizations such as the SREB, NCEE, and Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory.

It’s also important to simply sit down with other teachers and discuss what your expectations should be. Choose a standard assignment that students complete, such as writing a short essay. Share copies of the paper with other teachers, and ask everyone to assess it. Since everyone participates, each teacher actually assesses a paper from each of the other teachers. Then come together to discuss what you found. It’s likely that some teachers will be more rigorous, and others less. However, as you talk about how you determine quality, you’ll come to consensus about your expectations.

I recommend that you first meet with other teachers of your same subject and grade level. Over time, meet with teachers one grade level above yours, or if you teach high school, meet with teachers from your local community college or university. Ask questions such as, “What do you expect students to know before they come into your class? From your perspective, what are the overall strengths students bring into your classroom? What are some areas that students struggle with?” Finally, meet with teachers one grade level below yours. You’ll discover new information that will help guide your instruction for the coming year.

Here’s a tool to help you assess your standards and expectations. Choose something from your current lesson or unit. List it in the left column, then compare it as noted in the right column.

Standards or Expectations



Comparison to benchmarks


Comparison of assessment with other teachers


What I learned from teachers a grade higher:


What I learned from teachers a grade lower:

What I want to do with the new information I learned:

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What is your vision for rigor?

At the start of a new school year, what is your vision for you and your students? Would you like your students to become independent learners? Would you like your students to learn at higher levels? Do you want to provide rigorous instruction and still have fun? The first step to a rigorous classroom is setting your vision. Try this activity:

Project that it is the last day of school and write a letter to a colleague or friend. Describe the school year that just happened (remember, you are imagining that the upcoming year has already happened). It was the best year ever....it far exceeded your expectations. What did you do? What happened with your students? How did they learn and grow and change? How did you?

Create your vision..and then strive to live it! Have a great year!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How do students perceive rigorous work?

As I began writing Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, I wanted to hear what students would say, since they are the ones who are most directly impacted by the decision to increase rigor in the classroom. I asked, “How do you feel about rigor, or challenging work in school?” I received over 400 responses from students in grades two through twelve. Their replies reflect the tug-of-war of negative and positive perceptions.

Students’ Responses About Challenging Work

I would want to quit. I would need help. Robert

I really don’t mind it. I prefer to be challenged rather than bored. Tim

I don’t like work like that because if I spend a long time on just one problem and can’t find the answer I get stressed and that just makes it harder to do. Amy

I think it’s okay. I mean, I don’t prefer it, but it’s not as bad as most people think. Sometimes I prefer to have a little bit of a challenge. Kyle

It makes my head and hand hurt. Hayley

I don’t like doing rigor but everything in life isn’t easy so I just try my best to do it. Dominique

I feel that rigorous work needs to be explained better than normal work so I understand the material. Benjamin

I feel that challenging work would be better for people that think their work is too easy. Sumerlyn

OK, but if it’s hard, I want it to be fun too. Keith

I feel that rigorous work is made for some people and some people just might get frustrated and give up. I guess everyone should at least try it and if they can’t do it they don’t have to. Mason

I honestly don’t mind it every once in a while but not every hour of the day. Devon

I guess it’s ok if I’m in the mood for it. Kayla

It makes me feel stupid. I don’t ask anything and I just shake my head like I understand and say yes I get it. Emma

Sometimes I like it….sometimes I don’t. Joseph

Too often, we promote rigor as work that is only for advanced students, or work that is more (doubling the amount of homework) or harder (you already can’t do it, so here’s something that is even harder). That is NOT rigor. I’ve focused my attention on the things any teacher can do to increase the rigor of his or her class–whether it is for honors students or not. My definition of rigor: Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).