One of the biggest words in education theory today is rigor. According to the Rigor/Relevance Framework established by the International Center for Leadership in Education, academic rigor refers to “learning in which students demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem-solving, evaluation, or creativity.” This expectation, that teachers will demonstrate a curriculum that not only covers the basics, but also challenges each student to the utmost of his or her ability, can leave already overburdened or disenfranchised educators feeling pressured. We might find ourselves asking things like, “How am I supposed to show rigor when some of my students can’t even read up to grade level?” There’s no magical potion to turn struggling students into savants, this much is true. But I’d like to posit that boosting the rigor of our courses, rather than something to shrink from, is something that we should be applying with a vengeance.

On the curricular level, standards are set by the nation, the state, and the district. For those of us working with the Common Core State Standards, we’ve noticed the rigor ramping up. But really, when you walk into a real world classroom, it’s not the state of Wisconsin that’s setting the bar for the students’ performance. The person setting that bar is the person standing at the front of the room. We all know about The Standards, but what about our standards? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got them. Go ahead, say it with me:

“I have standards!”

This is what I tell my students when they ask me why something is so hard, or why they are expected to do something in such a particular way. It’s because I have standards–for them, for my classroom, for myself as a professional. And they are rigorous standards, because I know my students will reach toward what I expect for them. And I expect excellence! As my hideously wonderful tie-dye classroom poster proclaims, excellence is the goal. No matter where we fall, we are better when we aim for superior performance. And my daily demand for a higher standard from my students is far more immediate and powerful than the CCSS binder sitting sagely on my bookshelf. It makes them want to be better. That desire is fuel for a fire that can equate to greater achievement, even in the most unexpected places.

Concrete and Realistic Ways to Implement Greater Rigor in the High School Classroom

Communicate Effectively and Often: Students really do want to please, despite how much they may sometimes protest. And that’s a lot easier to do when they know what is expected. Create challenging, but very clear learning targets and explain them often, in different ways. As students begin work, engage the lost and distracted in an open conversation–“do you know what we’re doing right now?” Many times, the answer is “no,” but quickly becomes “ok!” after a personal connection. You can also recruit more with-it students to explain classroom processes to a nearby classmate. Take the time to verbally monitor success (it’s a great way to formatively assess on the spot). It only takes a moment to say, “This part that you wrote is really strong because…” or “What did you think of the way the author comes across in this paragraph?” The more acquainted we can be with our students’ current performance, the better we learn how to appropriately challenge and support them next.

Dare to Demand Amazing Things: Wish your students could do something like… perform a scene from Twelfth Night for a live audience? Or market and sell a unique product? Or have professional conversations with local community members? Or design a school vegetable garden? They can. If you need someone to say it, I’m saying it: They Absolutely Can. They need resources and guidance, and may have some failures along the way, but young people are unbelievably capable. Society doesn’t always view teenagers for the wonders they are. Especially if they know that an adult believes that they can do something, they will rise to the occasion. Try to implement one amazing thing per year–something that expects students to reach beyond their normal capabilities for a classroom cause.

Accept that there Is Such a Thing as “Unacceptable” Part of rigor is making a clear statement that mediocrity is not enough. Resist the fear of the irritated parent phone call and draw a bold line that defines unacceptable performance. If a student falls short of expectations, it’s ok to hand work right back to them and say, “This is not acceptable.” Paired with an understanding ear, a re-clarification of expectations, and an opportunity for another try, this is an important moment for teacher and student. Struggling students in this scenario are able to express their areas of struggle, while the lazy or line-pushing students get the message that… well… we have standards! I also try to mirror society’s expectations by defining unacceptable social actions (such as trash-talking anyone in my presence), and even unacceptable grammar mistakes (papers with instances of the wrong “there/their/they’re” get harshly downgraded or, on occasion, handed back without a grade)!

Research Your Own Practicum and Content  Students can tell when their teacher is working hard to provide quality instruction. Consider doing a bit of new reading on something you’ve taught many times before. If we want our students to respect the idea of lifelong learning, we need to model it! High standards for our teaching translate to rigor in expectations… because when our passion overflows, we want our students to understand the subject with the same intriguing complexity that we do.

Celebrate Hard Work  Through your classroom actions and outright statements, communicate the value of hard work. Help students understand that the immediate gratification of Google searches will only go so far in building true knowledge. Help them build reading stamina. Rejoice in the painfully slow but successful interpretation of a 17th century text. Share the deliciously frustrating reality of the writing and research process that makes the payoff that much sweeter. When students know that success doesn’t just descend from above onto the “A” students, they start to make a connection between industriousness and achievement.

Be a Cheerleader  Be vocal when students do well. Write proud comments on their work. Brag about them in the announcements. Post their work in the display case. Write an article about them in the school newspaper. One honest, affirming comment can inspire a student to work twice as hard. Yesterday, after my students finished reading their original poems for the class, I said, “These were so good! You guys make me want to stand up and cheer!” It was true! Every kid deserves to hear something like that once in a while. And don’t reserve praise just for overachievers–when a D average student pulls out a B- performance, it is just as much cause for affirmation and validation.

Create a Culture of Team Achievement The broken record classroom management philosophy that I’ve had since day one has been “We’re all in this together.” Friendly competition can be stimulating, but at the end of the day, students need to understand that the classroom is a community. Make them aware of the fact that their actions, words, and attitude have real power over those in their vicinity. Encourage them to encourage each other, and they’ll want to do well–not just for themselves, but for each other.