In this One Thing You Might Try . . . blog post, elementary educator, Raven Compton, invites us to redefine rigor in writing workshop and offers us three critical questions we can ask ourselves when planning for rigorous instruction in any content area.
After years as a teacher, this fall I am preparing a bit differently. This year, my baby is five, and she will be starting kindergarten. This new beginning for my daughter has forced me to think of school in entirely new ways. As a mom, naturally, I am enamored by her smarts, her wit, the way she processes her world. Recently, we were reading The Little Red Hen before bed, and while the story suggests that the lazy friends get what they deserve, she looked up at me and said, “When people are hungry, we feed them. The Little Red Hen made the wrong choice.” I was blown away at her interpretation, the way in which she was openly disagreeing with the author’s message. She was subverting the power of the text and critiquing the moral of the story. She seems like such a natural learner in the world, but are schools set up to see her in this way? These questions have led me to rethinking what rigor looks like in the classroom.
What is Rigor?
I once saw rigor as synonymous with challenge, or extension. I thought of rigor as something students might get access to once they have “mastered the basics” or jumped through my proverbial hoops to prove themselves worthy. These days, as I envision the kind of classroom I want for my daughter, I have some new thinking about rigor. I now hope for a more equitable classroom in which all kids have access to rigorous instruction--regardless of their race, previous educational experiences, immigration status, or religion. I dream of classrooms where all students have access to rigor from day one, simply because they are present, without the need to prove anything to anyone.
As a teacher, I aim to create this space. When I think about a rigorous learning experience for all students, I envision learning that is contextualized, that recognizes and honors the funds of knowledge that each student shows up with. I think of learning that is critical, beyond memorization and basic recall. I think of processes that are transferrable, learning that can be used in many capacities throughout the school day, and in students’ lives.
Rigor in the Writing Classroom
One of my favorite things as a teacher is to sit beside a young writer, and chat. Let’s take a look at a conversation with a six-year-old seasoned intellectual.
The conversation could sound something like:
Me: Talk to me about your work.
Maryam: I am writing a story about getting ice cream with my dad.
Me: Great, keep working!
This conversation is about accountability, making sure that the student is on task, and requiring that the student recounts their idea for approval. For quite some time, this is what writing conferences sounded like for me. In doing so, I communicated to students that their writing was for solely me, forsaking a rich sense of audience. Writing was about compliance. My students’ writing workshop time was not about navigating and reflecting on their writing process, but about attaining my approval for each move.
Without knowing, I was withholding rigorous instruction.
Reimagining Rigor in the Writing Classroom
But as I have worked to reimagine rigor, conversations sound more like this:
Me: Talk to me about your work
Portia: I want my readers to know how upset I was when we had to wait for my sister before we could get ice cream.
Me: You are thinking of your audience. How might you show them you were upset?
Portia: I can write dialogue that shows me going ‘uhhhhhhh’ right when my dad said we have to wait, and I think I want my picture to show me putting my hands on my face because I always do that when I get upset.
This is a conversation with a writer who was taught how to talk about their writing- not just the content, but the process. It might be tempting to think that Portia was just more sophisticated than the student in the previous conversation, but I have found again and again that all kids can do this work. It’s up to us as teachers to provide spaces where they can.
In the second story my students were the same as they had always been, but as a teacher I have reconsidered the role of rigor in my instruction. When I began to position all students as able, this shift allowed me to change my expectation of the writing conference. Over time it became less about making sure students were working and more about coaching kids to try out new learning that was responsive to them in the moment.
In this conversation with Portia, I named a skill that I noticed her using. I noticed that she was thinking about her audience. I explicitly affirmed this consideration as it is a meaningful practice for writers. In this way the learning was contextualized--I was responding to her brilliance in the moment and strengthening a useful skill.
You see that Portia’s initial response in this second conversation was altogether different from the first conversation. This is because I invited the students to be critical participants from day one. When students would simply state their topic, I pushed back: “I want to know, as a writer, what are you considering as you work on this piece?” Inviting students to engage in talk about their metacognition was a central part of reframing rigorous instruction.
In this second conversation I took my noticing and encouraged Portia to think through how she might further leverage this skill. In this way, our conference became transferable. My teaching was not specific to this story, but rather something the writer could think about at any point, in any piece of writing throughout the year.
Access to Rigor
Asking more sophisticated questions isn’t the end of the road toward rigor. In our work to get there, we must provide teaching and scaffolds for all students to access rigor. If we simply ask more sophisticated questions, or expect students to reflect on their thought processes just because we say so, we will miss the mark. A rigorous classroom teaches students how to engage in writing conferences that are reflective and critical. A rigorous classroom models sophisticated thinking and notices it enthusiastically when students show up in these ways. A rigorous classroom believes that all students are brilliant learners and provides opportunities for all kids to succeed. A rigorous class is one in which all students have access.
Give it a Go
The good news is that rigor isn’t anything new, and it doesn’t require any specialized training or materials. We can start right where we are at. So, the next time you revisit your lesson planning or meet with your team try asking:
- Is it contextualized?
- Is this skill or knowledge contextualized to my students’ worlds?
- Is it critical?
- Have I created the chance for students to engage critically, and reflect on their own thinking?
- Is it transferrable?
- Will students be able to use this across the school day, and in their personal lives?
As I send my baby to school for the first time, I hope the teacher waiting for her sees her brilliance. I hope the school community that receives her will believe that she is capable of incredible things. I hope that rigorous instruction awaits her, and every single child returning to school this fall.
About the author
Raven Compton is a Resource Teacher for Equity & Cultural Responsiveness in Northern Virginia. She has spent most of her career as an elementary educator and literacy coach. She is passionate about advancing access and opportunity for all kids. You can connect with Raven on Twitter @RavenACompton.
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