Chalk Talk with Sarah Banning: Reimagining rigor in education


Published: 1/20/2022 2:31:11 PM
Modified: 1/20/2022 2:30:06 PM

“When students say a class was ‘hard,’ they often mean ‘confusing’ or ‘arbitrary,’ rather than stimulating and challenging.” — John Warner, “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”

Rigor has become a popular term within education circles to describe the degree of challenge teachers should be creating for their students. It is a term I have a complicated relationship with. On one hand, I want to challenge my students and ensure the texts and tasks I give them are meaningful and push them to ask questions and gain new insights. On the other hand, rigor is often wielded against teachers and students in harmful ways that disregard students’ varying academic, social, and emotional needs.

Teachers are given overwhelming and unmanageable curricula that must be rushed through, standardized tests feel nearly constant, and countless think pieces bemoan U.S. students’ PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores and inability to compete in the global marketplace.

By centering rigor in our schools we are championing a system that prizes individualism, competition and stress above collaboration, joy, learning and curiosity.

So why not reimagine our concept of rigor? We can have classrooms that simultaneously open academic and scholarly doors for students, while also centering criticality, choice, rest, collaboration, and joy. In her book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” Zaretta Hammond emphasizes that stressed brains can’t learn, and Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” showcases that learning occurs when students feel challenged, have the core skills, and sense of self-efficacy to face the challenge.

These are just a couple of ideas that I think about when I create lessons, and I have found them far more conducive to driving student engagement. This also helps me challenge myself as an educator to try new things in the classroom and see how students respond.

Before this year, I had never used a film in my curriculum. However, I considered how the pandemic has exacerbated reading challenges in some of my students, and I decided that an engaging and accessible text would allow me to better push my students’ analysis writing. With my students’ input, we chose “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Even after what I felt was a thoughtful decision, part of me still wondered about the “rigor” of a unit centered around an animated, superhero film. Despite my reservations, this unit was a success.

By focusing on student interests and needs, the unit created a space for students to write and think critically about elements of the film that resonated with them without feeling intimidated. They did not need extra background information, nor did they get discouraged by overly difficult concepts. The short length allowed students to quickly review scenes. There were fewer language barriers for my English as a second language students. Students who may struggle with reading grade-level texts due to frequent unfamiliar words face less of a barrier due to both the visuals and the informal language of the film.

After watching the film, I circulated around the room, and saw students’ pencils moving furiously over the pages. I sat down with one of my students for a conference. She chose to write about the portrayal of policing in the film, and she was considering incorporating poetry into her essay.

I asked her questions about how she envisioned using poetry, and we explored why the portrayal of policing in the film matters. She remarked that the scene where Miles (the new Spider-Man and a young man of color) is chased through a cemetery “feels fake.” She said, “There is no way if that happened in real life that he would have made it out alive.” The student paused for a minute to think, and continued, “It is like they [the film’s creators] want us to end the film with a positive view of police even when police brutality is happening all around us.”

We returned to talking about how her poetry could help strengthen her essay by entwining her analysis with her own experiences as a Black girl in America. I left this student to continue her writing, and moved on to my next conference.

Rigor cannot merely be a relentless march toward disconnected pieces of knowledge through assignments and lessons that are inaccessible to many students. Rigor cannot be work that is difficult for the sake of difficulty. I hope that we can push ourselves to see that high expectations for students can be melded with pedagogical approaches that recognize students as whole, complex human beings.

Sarah Banning (she/her) teaches 10th grade English at the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield. She is a teacher consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and an adjunct professor at Mount Holyoke College.


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