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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 08/17/2012

What schools need: Vigor instead of rigor

This was written by Joanne Yatvin, a vet­eran public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University. A version of this was originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

By Joanne Yatvin

Though my years in the classroom are long past, at heart I am still a cranky old English teacher who bristles at some of the neologisms that have crept into public language. I never tack “ly” onto ordinal number words, or say “myself” when I mean “I” or “me.” I won’t use “access” or “impact” as verbs because I consider them still to be only nouns.

Even so, I remain politely quiet when others commit such grammatical transgressions. But, there is one word I dislike so intensely when used in connection with education that I can’t remain silent under any circumstances. That word is “rigor.”

Part of my reaction is emotional, having so often heard “rigor” paired with “mortis.” The other part is logical, stemming from the literal meanings of rigor: harshness, severity, strictness, inflexibility and immobility. None of these things is what I want for students at any level. And, although I don’t believe that the politicians, scholars or media commentators who use the word so freely really want them, either, I still reproach them for using the wrong word and the wrong concept to characterize educational excellence.

Now, more than ever, “rigor” is being used to promote the idea that American students need advanced course work, complex texts, stricter grading, and longer school days and years in order to be ready for college or the workplace. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) already adopted by 45 states, were designed for rigor and will inexorably lead to it in all forms in almost all classrooms.

Since I believe it is time for a better word and a better concept to drive American education, I recommend “vigor.” Here my dictionary says, “active physical or mental force or strength, healthy growth; intensity, force or energy.” And my mental association is to all the Latin-based words related to life.

How much better our schools would be if they provided students with classes and activities throbbing with energy, growth and life. Although school buildings have walls, there should be no walls separating students from vigorous learning. No ceilings, either.

To learn vigorously, students need more than academic skills and knowledge, more than the generalities and hypotheticals found in textbooks and workbooks. By reading newspapers, magazines, graphic novels, even the daily comics and Internet articles; and by getting to know people of all ages, types of work, and cultural backgrounds they can learn about the real world they live in. Although it is not practical to send hordes of children and teen-agers out into that world to learn all the things they need to know, many more in-school classes and supplemental activities can be vigorous.

Instead of aiming for higher test scores like rigorous schools, a vigorous school would care about what students do with what they have been taught in classrooms. At all levels vigorous schools would foster activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning in real contexts, such as serving in the school lunchroom or assisting in the school library, communicating with students in other parts of the world, proposing changes in student rules to the school board, organizing playground games for younger children or reading to them, making items to sell in a school store, planning Jeopardy-like quiz shows, creating a school garden, painting murals in the halls, producing original plays or making videos, setting up a school art museum.

Vigorous schools would also encourage students to perform in musical groups, clean up the school grounds, adopt a road, publish a student newspaper or a parent newsletter, establish a school post office, run a school recycling program, write to newspapers or public figures, and work with adults on community projects.

As a result of all the vigor these activities exemplify, there would come the intellectual intensity, precision, critical alertness, expertise and integrity that critics of education are really calling for when they misuse the word “rigor.” These habits of mind, body and spirit are the true fruit of educational excellence. In the end, vigor in our schools is the evidence of life, while rigor is the sign of an early death.

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