One of my favorite teachable moments is a scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Jedi Master Yoda orders his young student Luke Skywalker to “use the force” to lift his X-wing fighter out of the swamps of Dagobah. After unsuccessfully freeing his spaceship, Luke says in exasperation “you want the impossible.” Then, the pint-sized Yoda does what Luke believes is unachievable – he lifts the X-wing out of the water. “I don’t believe it!” Luke says in shock. Yoda sternly replies, “That, is why you fail.”
When I saw this scene as a kid I was in awe of Yoda. How could such a little guy lift something so massive? But, now as a seasoned educator, my gaze focuses on Luke’s reaction. Why does he fail? Was the task too difficult, or was he unprepared for the rigor that Yoda expected of him?
This scene crossed my mind while I attended a recent Common Core training in my district. The trainer, 2014 PSESD Regional Teacher of the Year Amy Abrams, made a differentiation between why something is “difficult” for students vs. how teachers make content “rigorous” for their learners. Abrams said “difficult” was an idea or concept that is way beyond the comprehension or the developmental level of students. “Rigor,” on the other hand, is laying the foundation for students to tackle challenging work that is a step beyond their intellectual level. Perhaps my co-worker Hilari Anderson summed it up best, “rigor is invigorating, while hard is debilitating.”
Reflecting on Abrams point, I have come up with five ways teachers can make content rigorous without debilitating their students’ learning:
1. Start Where They’re At, To Bring Them Where You Want Them To Be: When presenting a foreign idea or a complex concept it is important to activate your students’ schema to make the concept accessible to them. When I teach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to my sophomores, I begin having them draw pictures of their concept of Frankenstein. Shelley’s text is a challenging work that is structured with many stories within stories. In addition, Shelley’s archaic diction is difficult for students to comprehend. However, by asking them to demonstrate what they know, their gateway into the novel begins with their background. I show them lots of movie clips of the various versions of Frankenstein and compare Hollywood’s representation of the story vs. Shelley’s. My students want to read the novel in order to compare what they think they know about Frankenstein with what is actually written in the novel.
2. Give Them the Proper Utensils, So They Can Come To The Table: Before I ask my students to dissect Lincoln’s hallowed words in “The Gettysburg Address” in a close reading, I give them the historical context about the speech so they understand why many historians consider Lincoln’s short address the high water mark of American rhetoric. We investigate the Battle of Gettysburg. We discuss all the things Lincoln DIDN’T say in his speech. We read the long-winded speech by Edward Everett who was the main speaker at the memorial as a means of comparison. Then, we read “The Gettysburg Address” and my students are dazzled by Lincoln’s masterwork of brevity. I can’t assume my students will think Lincoln’s speech is great because I tell them that it’s great. They need the background knowledge so I can guide them to the same conclusion.
3. Connect the Past to the Present, by Connecting the Present to the Past: Essayist George Santayana is attributed to saying the famous axiom: “Those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it.” I keep this axiom in mind when I want my students to engage in pre-20th century challenging informational texts. I tell my students Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” is actually a break-up letter with England. Then we compare Jefferson’s words with Taylor Swift’s lyrics for “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to demonstrate how both authors are making the same point in different eras, through different mediums. I also have students read The Occupy Wall Street Manifesto to show how Jefferson’s rhetorical echo is still with us today. By accessing my students’ world in the present, I am able to give them the courage to face the challenging texts of the past.
4. To Run A Lab, You Must Be Willing To Conduct Experiments: As a teacher I pride myself for trying new types of pedagogy or experimenting with new types of assessments. I try to be plain with my students that they are my guinea pigs and that every new idea may not be successful. Generally, I find my students embrace experimentation as long as my projected outcome is made clear to them. As a way of to help my students comprehend the AP Language and Composition Writing Rubric, I made a lesson from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In a famous scene, Chua makes her daughters re-do birthday cards they drew for her on the author’s fortieth birthday. I have the students work in groups and develop birthday card rubrics for each other following the 1-9 scale. The students revel in tearing apart their peers’ work and we have a meaningful discussion about the challenges of scoring writing following the rubric. After I graded their first summative essay, the conversation was more about how they could improve their writing to meet to the requirements of the rubric, not why they got the score they earned.
5. Be The Riskiest Risk-Taker In The Room: I try a few times a year to complete some of the same assignments I ask of my students. I ask my 11th graders to write a persuasive speech on a subject they feel passionate about. I embrace this opportunity as an annual forum to write an editorial. Once they see I am willing to take a risk and share my ideas with them, they feel more comfortable expressing their ideas with themselves. The classroom becomes an environment of shared risk, not a forum for possible ridicule.
After attending Abrams’ training I re-watched The Empire Strikes Back. I realized Yoda needed Luke to fail. Luke had to face failure in order to complete the rigorous work of becoming a Jedi. Something that may have seemed like an impossible dream to him at first, but only attainable after he learned even the smallest creature can invigorate you to be successful.