Over the past ten years, I’ve heard the word “Rigor” and the phrase, “We need to increase rigor” time and time again.

What does that mean?

For some of my colleagues, increasing rigor means more homework. For others, it means a faster pace to their lectures and more frequent quizzes and tests. For the School Board back in Oakland where I taught until last year, it meant increasing the high school graduation requirements to match the University of California’s minimum acceptance criteria.

For me, and several of my social studies colleagues, “rigor” has grown to become a process of training our kids to read, write, think, and talk like historians. In this article, split into two parts, I’ll describe what rigor looks like in my classroom. Today, we’ll examine reading and writing. In part two, we’ll cover thinking and talking.

Critical Reading of Rigorous Texts

We don’t use a traditional history book in my class. Instead, we use the Discovering the Past series by Dr. Wheeler and his team. My freshmen back in Oakland read, Discovering the Global Past Part 1. My sophomores read Part 2 in their modern world history class. My juniors here in North Carolina read Discovering the American Past Part 1 last year for early American history, and this year, as seniors, they’re reading Part 2.

Our second project last year was about Anne Hutchinson. My kids were tasked with answering the question of how she was a threat to Massachusetts Bay colony. For the project, they had one primary source: twelve pages of transcript from her trial.

At one point in the trial, the deputy governor said

“…but now it appears by this women’s meeting that Mrs. Hutchinson hath so forestalled the minds of many by their resort to her meeting that now she hath a potent party in the country. Now if all these things have endangered us as from that foundation and if she in particular hath disparaged all our ministers in the land that they have preached a covenant of works, and only Mr. Cotton a covenant of grace, why this is not to be suffered, and therefore being driven to the foundation and it is being found that Mrs. Hutchinson is she that hath depraved all the ministers and hath been the cause of what is falled out, why must we take away the foundation and the building will fall.”

That is some difficult language! Not only were they grappling with archaic words like “hath,” but they had to understand the concepts of the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works so that they could understand how insulted the Massachusetts ministers were when they felt that Mrs. Hutchinson was spreading the idea that only one minister, Mr. Cotton, was preaching the proper Puritan doctrine of Grace.

To understand our documents, my students use Critical Reading Strategies (CRS). I learned this process from an AVID training I went to last year. To do CRS, my students:

  • Read the passage without trying to understand it.
  • Read through the passage a second time, looking for words they don’t understand. When they find these words, they circle them and look up a synonym that they do understand.
  • Read through the passage a third time, underlining key words and phrases and highlighting the main idea of the passage.

When they do this, my students tell me, they understand the passage. “It’s a lot of work,” said one of my kids, “and I don’t always follow all of the steps, but when I do, I feel like I understand what they are saying. Every time I don’t do it, I end up wishing I had, because I end up reading the document again and again anyway, ‘cause I don’t get it.”

Writing like a Historian

In my class, that’s just about all we do. We have a daily “Do Now” (some teachers call it a Warm Up or a Bell Ringer) that kids earn points for. Each week, I check their binders for the graphic organizers or notes that they are doing for their papers, and that’s worth points, too. But ½ of their grade is the 4-5 papers they write for me during the course of the class.

One of the graphic organizers I use to help my students learn how to explain and analyze their evidence/quotes is something we call “Say/Mean/Matter.”[1] I’ve attached it to this blog post, so you can download it to look or use in your classroom. It’s essentially exactly what it sounds like. Students have room to write down their four best quotes that they want to use for one of the points they will make in their paper. For each quote, students explain, in plain English, what the quote says. Then they explain what the quote means. Finally, they explain how the quote supports their argument (why it matters).

It’s a popular tool. Even during their fourth or fifth paper, when I no longer require them to fill out the graphic organizer, I’ll have students ask me if they can have a few of them. This year, even a former student, now taking modern American history with one of my colleagues, visited me at lunch. She asked for a set of the Say/Mean/Matter charts. I asked, “Is Ms. H assigning these to you?”

“No,” she replied, “but they make writing the paper easier.”

I couldn’t ask for a better testimonial!

How about you? What does rigor look like in your classroom?


[1] I have to pause and give respect to two Oakland teachers. First, Ms. Lisa Rothbard who spent hours with me developing the graphic organizer to meet our kids’ needs after I stole the idea from a history teacher (whose name I regretfully have forgotten) at another Oakland school when she presented it at an all-city social studies professional development day.

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