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).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rigor and Student Engagement

In my last blog, I touched upon the relationship between rigor, motivation, and engagement, and the critical nature of that relationship for supporting students to learn at high levels. In this entry, I’d like to shift the focus to engagement.

What do you consider to be student engagement? Perhaps, in order to paint a clear picture of what student engagement is, we should first consider what it is NOT, thereby ruling out learning strategies that often are mistakenly labeled as engaging. What better way to reflect on student engagement than by placing ourselves back in the role of student? Personally, and I’m betting that you agree, having someone talk at me, or explain things to me does not engage me as an active learner. I do not feel in control of my own learning when I am merely a passive recipient of information. Nor do I feel in control of (or, for that matter, interested in) my own learning when I am given questions to answer, or every single time I am given the opportunity to work in a small group. So often the questions do not challenge my thinking, and equally often the objectives for small group work do not place high expectations on each individual. Rather than facilitating highly interactive and productive dialogue between group members, what frequently results from group work activities is that a few group members take on all of the responsibilities, while the rest are just along for the ride, so to speak.

Seemingly then, student engagement is determined by the nature of the lesson or activity. Does the lesson or activity involve all students such that they are actively participating in the learning process? When I am engaged in learning, I do not require prodding from anyone to take notes on what is being discussed or read; rather, I am thinking about big ideas, making connections, and writing down important points and/or questions I may have. Furthermore, I partake in a mutual exchange of information and ideas between the person instructing and myself. The foundation of instructional engagement is involvement by both the teacher and the student.

Now, reflect on a lesson you have taught. What was the level of engagement? What, if anything, could you have done to increase student engagement?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Grading Parents?

Have you read this story?  Lawmakers in Florida are considering a bill that would ask teachers to grade parents.  It's an interesting thought, and one that brought a smile to my face.  I can still remember the parents I would have graded as "uninvolved" or "too involved--back off".  Realistically, though, I believe that this would undermine our partnerships with parents.  It's true that we all deal with parents that don't do what we would like them to.  But I believe that most of them truly want their children to be successful...they just may not know how to do that.  My husband and I approach homework differently with our son.  He wants to rush, finish, then ask us if it's right so he can go outside and skateboard.  My husband would tell him yes or no, but I always ask, "What do you think?  Why do you think it's right/wrong?"  He doesn't like that, because it makes him think and justify his answer...which is exactly why I do it!  My husband realized what I was doing, and has followed suit.  He said he didn't even realize he should be doing it.  That has helped me understand the importance of helping parents help their children. 

Rigor and Motivation

My definition of 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. Focus, if you will, on the second part of this definition: each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels. This is a critical component of the definition of rigor because it relies on an interdependent relationship between rigor, motivation, and engagement.

While students can be motivated by external rewards, that motivation is temporary and will not last once the novelty has worn off. Therefore, as teachers, we should work to help our students become intrinsically motivated, such that the “rewards” they expect are personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Intrinsic motivation necessitates that students value the content, and believe that they can successfully learn and apply it. In order for students to value content, they must be able to recognize its worth in their lives. Why is learning the given material beneficial to them? Or, as I like to refer to it, WII-FM (the radio station that plays in their heads): What’s In It For Me?

In other words, learning must be meaningful, with clearly evident real-world applicability. Motivation is stifled if students believe that they are just going “through the motions,” and if they view school as sort of a dress rehearsal, rather than something with immediate impact over them and their lives. We want our students to desire positive impacts through valuing what we are teaching, believing in their own potential for success, and then making that success a reality. Success leads to success, and the achievements of small goals or tasks are the building blocks to larger ones.

Keep in mind that when students’ motivation and success is increasing, their desire to take on more challenging work also increases. Two common misconceptions that abound are that students cannot do harder work, and that they do not like harder work. These are only true when that harder work is perceived as having little to no value, and any attempts to understand or complete it will be met with failure. If we develop lessons that provide adequate support through scaffolding and differentiated instruction, and that offer real value, students will experience success, and will become intrinsically motivated to seek further challenges—to learn at high levels.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Differentiated Instruction and Multiple Intelligences

Your students will bring their personal experiences, backgrounds, and distinct personalities with them every day of the school year. This means that in one classroom, you will be trying to meet a broad range of learning needs, and to successfully integrate individuals within one collective unit. Talk about rigor! Understanding the meaning and implications of Differentiated Instruction can serve you extremely well as you seek and utilize ways to incorporate it. In Differentiated Instruction, a teacher varies the content (what), process (how), or product (demonstration of learning) of instruction to enhance student understanding.

So, when we introduce content to our students, we provide the same information, but we then vary the methods and tools for building students’ understanding based on what we know about their personal experiences, backgrounds, and personalities. We want to reach each learner in the most effective manner possible. This does not mean that we deny anyone the opportunity to see something a certain way; rather, we use what they already know and in what they are interested as starting blocks for engaging learners and encouraging their growth.

One way to differentiate instruction is by incorporating Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences within planning, instruction, and assessment. Gardner’s theory essentially suggests that everyone has given strengths pertaining to how they function most successfully as learners. These strengths may be a result of prior experiences, background knowledge, or interests—further supporting the importance of getting to know each one of your students well. By creating lessons that touch upon diverse learning styles, you make material more accessible to all of your students.

This doesn't mean you have to create 36 different lessons for 36 students. One of my favorite strategies is to use a tic-tac-toe grid for an instructional unit. I create a variety of activities geared toward multiple intelligences, and students choose three to create tic-tac-toe. Instant differentiation and the personal choice builds ownership!

Were you already familiar with this information? What do you think about it? Do you ever use it in your classroom? If this information is new to you, what are your thoughts, based upon your experiences and your students?

Friday, January 21, 2011

School Schedules

Are you planning next year's schedule? My friend and co-author Ron Williamson wrote a great article on scheduling. Take a look!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Questioning Levels

In my last blog, we discussed the relationship of rigor and CIA (curriculum, instruction, and assessment). Now, we will delve a bit more into how to approach instruction. Research has suggested three key areas to consider: Levels of Questioning, Differentiated Instruction, and Multiple Intelligences. We’ll focus first on Levels of Questioning.

Levels of Questioning

How do you think that Levels of Questioning either enhances or detracts from instruction? What purpose do Levels of Questioning serve throughout instruction? When you are learning about a new concept or even learning how to physically do something, asking and being asked certain kinds of questions can help you to more efficiently and accurately acquire the given knowledge or skill. The ultimate goal is to develop and build understanding. Questions—the right kinds of questions in the proper sequence—are crucial for getting a firm grasp of something, for monitoring one’s progression, and for becoming more adept at further inquiry.

In Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, I compare understanding to climbing a mountain. You may have to start at the bottom, but to get the full view (the rigorous view), you have to make it to the top. You climb to the top one step at a time; the steps become increasingly more difficult as you go, but the view is worth it.

One model I like is Ciardello's four types of questions ("Did You Ask a Good Question Today?" Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 42, no. 3, November, 1998):

Memory Questions.

Focus on: identifying, naming, defining, identifying, designating, yes or no responses

Keywords: who, what, where, when

Convergent Thinking

Focus on: explaining, stating relationships, comparing and contrasting

Keywords: why, how, in what way


bulletExplaining: What were some reasons for the US Civil War?
bulletStating relationships: How does the enforcement of intellectual property rights encourage technological development?
bulletComparing and contrasting: In what ways are spreadsheets and databases alike? In what ways do they differ?

Divergent Thinking

Focus on: predicting, hypothesizing, inferring, reconstruction

Keywords: imagine, suppose, predict, if... then..., how might... can you create..., what are some possible consequences...


bulletPredicting: What predictions can you make if the population continues to grow and less land is devoted to agriculture?
bulletHypothesizing: If the Axis forces had won World War II, how might the world be different?
bulletInferring: What would you expect to happen if intellectual property rights were all repealed?
bulletReconstruction: What would you suggest to increase recreational opportunities in Wisconsin's traditional resort and vacation industries?

Evaluative Thinking

Focus on: valuing, judging, defending, justifying choices

Keywords: defend, judge, justify, what do you think..., what is your opinion...


bulletValuing: How do you feel about the role of competition in the US marketplace?
bulletJudging: What do you think of relaxing of immigration laws and amnesty for illegal immigrants?
bulletDefending: Why do you oppose the construction of a nuclear power plant in our community?
bulletJustifying choices: Why would you prefer to attend a private college?

Do you have a method for developing questions during your instruction? If so, what is it? Which of the three models do you think would most benefit you in terms of improving the kinds of questions you develop, and your ability to do so?

Monday, January 17, 2011

C. I. A. and Rigor

Rigor- Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment

C.I.A. Not the Central Intelligence Agency, although I’m sure that as teachers, the task of implementing rigor can often seem as challenging as taking on a mission for the C.I.A. In this case, however, these three letters represent three components that must be present and working together in a fluid and balanced manner in order for true rigor to be present. Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. What one teaches, how one engages students as active learners, and the methods one uses to determine how well students can apply that which they have learned. Despite their individual meanings, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment are like three parts of one whole, all necessary and all creating a sort of cyclical yet non-directional system in order for the whole to function as intended.

How can the relationship between Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment be both cyclical and non-directional?

Let’s look first at the non-directional nature: Often, while one is instructing, one realizes that a key piece of information must be revisited, and therefore switches back to determining content and order (i.e., curriculum) of instruction. Furthermore, perhaps an assessment has played a pivotal role in one’s decision to revisit the content matter and order. Certainly, as part of instruction, teachers must provide authentic, specific, and ongoing assessments in order to inform instructional methods and content matter, including order, pacing, grouping, etc. If our assessment(s) reveal(s) gaps in students’ understanding, we may have to revisit the Instruction phase, or even the Curriculum phase.

Now, the cyclical nature seems quite logical: Determine what to teach and in what order (Curriculum), develop how to teach the content so that students are active and involved participants rather than passive recipients (Instruction), and continually monitor how well students understand and apply the information and ideas (Assessment). THEN, use data compiled from assessment to restart the process of determining what to teach next, how to teach it, how to assess, and so on and so on.

Finally, within this interwoven C.I.A. relationship, high expectations must be consistently upheld. Learners thrive under challenging conditions in which they have access to the tools, strategies, and skills to manage content matter. Additionally, they thrive when the person guiding their learning expresses sincere belief in their abilities to succeed.

Because I am a firm believer in the effectiveness of graphic organizers, I want to challenge you now to develop a graphic organizer that models the relationship between high expectations, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Remember that this relationship results in and from the key element for which we are striving: Rigor.

A special thank you to Ginny Ramirez Del-Toro for her thoughts that led to this blog!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Does Classroom Arrangement Matter?

From one of my workshop participants, Kate: “How should you arrange the 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 had a small group (8-12), I tended to do a large, square U so everyone is together. In that instance, clusters of tables actually breaks community rather than building it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Great Resource!

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Foundational Beliefs about Teaching

Try to think of a time when you or someone you knew, or about whom you read, thrived under conditions that did not challenge them. The two ideas essentially negate each other because in order to thrive, people must be challenged. In addition, however, they must have the necessary skills and belief in their abilities to use those skills in order to thrive. This is the idea behind rigor in the classroom. When teachers combine high expectations with genuine belief and solid instruction, students perceive that they are capable of excelling and achieving, and they readily welcome rigor. Throughout my experiences as en educator, I have learned countless valuable lessons, among them:
- An individual teacher can exert immense influence over students just by holding them to high standards, and believing in them.
- Students reflect our perspectives of them. Much like the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies, students will attain success at whatever levels they perceive that others—particularly their teachers—believe they are capable of doing so.
- As teachers, we must focus on what we can control. By virtue of our humanity, this tends to be a difficult frame of mind to adopt. However, it is vastly wise in its simplicity. Avoid becoming a victim to circumstances beyond your reach or control. Instead, learn how to seek and create alternate options and possibilities. This kind of level-headed persistence and determination can help you meet your students’ needs, your students’ parents’ needs, and you own needs.