Contributed by Melissa Black
It was the third day of kindergarten, and there I was standing amidst twenty-one four- and five-year-olds; showing my students how to “mingle,” a type of standing turn and talk. The children were so eager to share any morsel about their lives during those first days, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to show them how to chat amongst themselves in the “kindergarten way.” I modeled how to find a buddy, make eye contact, initiate a conversation. “What are you most excited to do today at school?” they asked their buddies and patiently awaited a response. Naturally, their conversations didn’t last more than 30 seconds, but then again they did not know that this noisy introduction to this mingling ritual would serve as a bedrock to our class community. Little did they know that what they were doing was rigorous.
Rigor has many associations, some regarding difficulty, control, and strictness. Of the word’s many associations “the quality of being extremely thorough or accurate” seems to best define the ways in which rigor actually appears in primary grade classrooms. And what education leaders tend to forget is that rigor or any display of skill or expertise doesn’t appear fully wrought in an instant; it begins with intentional trial and error—just like our first “mingle” in early September. Noisy, new, executed by children with open hearts and curious minds, and guided by a teacher who did it with intentionality. It wasn’t just a cute ice breaker—instead, it was based on a theory of teaching and learning that students learn best when they know that their opinion and “voice” is valued in the classroom.
So rigor for me is often synonymous with intentional teaching, in that I need to be “extremely thorough and accurate” in my planning so that each day in the classroom reflects my vision. My vision is to utilize responsive teaching practices that adapt to meet the needs of students, while carefully releasing responsibilities to them; by encouraging independence and an intrinsic excitement for learning. And if I were to teach first and second grade, my approach would be the same.
One of the ways in which my vision plays out in my classroom is by honoring conversation. For example, last fall, the students became fast friends through our earliest mingles, and together we created a safe space in which to respect one another’s voices. By building upon their “voice” I wanted to teach them the value of using their observations and noticings to influence their work, particularly their writing. Ron Berger’s Austin’s Butterfly video, strongly impacted my goal for helping kindergarten students create quality work; as Berger’s work demonstrated the power of critique, careful observations, and revision.
In mid-October, I taught students how to give specific feedback to one another using a simple rubric. During an alphabet book study in writing, we utilized various mentor texts to create our own alphabet books with detailed illustrations and labels. The rubric supported students in their ability to determine whether or not they had completed their best work, which required them to include 1. an illustration and 2. a label for the letter represented. The students spent several days working, and reworking, just one page of their books. At the close of each writing workshop, they took turns receiving feedback and encouragement from their classmates.
From the start of school, I model the characteristics of productive feedback; I confer with students individually as often as possible (usually 4-5 students per workshop). Each student and I determine what they’ve done well in their writing, and what needs improvement. These notes are carefully documented in a special journal that they keep close by when they work independently. I’m always transparent with my students about expectations so they can be held accountable for their effort.
What does this transparency lead to? Take my student Richard, for example. I asked Richard (the strongest writer in class) if he was ready to meet, and he politely said, “Ms. Black, I’m not ready to meet yet because this isn’t my best work. I’m going to start again on another paper. Can we meet later on?” I was so impressed by Richard’s ability to voice his demand for quality work. His request was exactly in tune with my vision for all of my students, and it exemplifies how rigor is achieved gradually, layered like shells and sand upon a beach rather than poured like concrete all at once.
My students enjoy writing, but they enjoy sharing their completed work just as much. We embarked upon a pattern book unit in November. We began by simply figuring out what made something a pattern; and from there we learned about simple ABAB patterns, surprise endings, question and answer, and many others.
From the beginning of November to the day before December break, the class collectively wrote well over 500 pattern books. How did these kindergarteners write this many pattern books? Practice and time. We practiced writing pattern books every day. The noisy “mingle” from the first days to independent writing time, these rituals created a culture of rigor.
A lot can happen in the life of a young student when rigor is embedded in the foundation of the school year. So many teachers work tirelessly to maximize each moment in the increasingly long school days, at times too focused on the “difficult and strict” nature of rigor. I think rigor is potentially useless, unless it’s embraced in a teacher’s love for teaching; and it resides in her deep connection to a carefully thought-out vision for success. Each morning students trickle into the classroom and unload their belongings, and greet their classmates. “What are you most excited to do today?” they ask each other while peering at the day’s schedule, with rumbling excitement about what they will learn.
Rigor is a way of being, in which a teacher skillfully guides students with reflection, intentionality, and accuracy. Rituals and responsive teaching practices in grades K-2 develop over the long term into “rigor.” In order for rigor to grow, students need to own the learning and work independently. Through clear expectations and open dialogue, students become able to self-monitor and develop accountability for their work.
Melissa J. Black
Melissa Black is a founding kindergarten teacher at Harlem Village Academies (HVA) in New York City. She has been an early childhood educator for 8 years, including Head Start and primary grades. Most recently, she presented at the 2014 National Council for Teachers of English on developing classroom culture and literacy through storytelling, entitled Making Stories Count in the Harlem Community.