Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

Academic Rigor – Transcript of Live Chat with Barbara Blackburn

By Teachers.Net News Desk

Transcript of a Teachers.Net live event:

Live Chat with Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word,

Moderator is  Jan Fisher for Teachers.Net.

Following is the transcript of the chat with Barbara Blackburn, moderated by Jan Fisher.


Jan – – Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to Teacher’s.Net. I am Jan Fisher, a teacher and staff development consultant from Southern California, but more importantly, I have been a Teachers-Net ‘regular’ since 1998. This is my first time moderating a chat, though, and I’m especially excited to do this one because of this important, but very elusive topic of RIGOR.

Jan – – Dr. Blackburn, former teacher and professor, currently a consultant and author of ten books, including “RIGOR IS NOT A FOUR-LETTER WORD,” for teachers, and “RIGOROUS SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS:LEADING THE WAY,” is here to talk with us this afternoon. Good afternoon, Barbara, and welcome to
Barbara – Thanks Jan, glad to be here!

Jan – – We had a discussion some time ago on Teachers.Net about this topic, and Kathleen quickly picked up on the idea that we were unable to discuss whether we taught with rigor or whether we had it in our lessons because none of us were sure what it IS. Barbara knows. In fact, Barbara is the expert on rigor. I read her book and it answered not only the question about what rigor is, but all the other questions I had, as well. So, Barbara, let’s start right out with the really BIG question: WHAT IS RIGOR?

Jan – – One thing that surprised in Barbara’s book, is the complex and complete definition of rigor. Barbara, it must have taken a while to figure it out and write about it so clearly.
Jan – – “Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word, Barbara Blackburn”

Barbara – Jan, I worked about five years with teachers to develop it. There are so many definitions about rigor, but none that were classroom-friendly.I believe rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels. And there’s four key aspects of that,¦all classroom based. The overall environment which weaves together expectations, support, and demonstration of learning.
Barbara P – I first heard about the book from an interview conducted in Houston TX for a principal preparation program. I am not that familiar with it but my primary area of interest is in making sure we do not shortchange students with special needs and that we honor all students in unique ways for learning. I like the idea of “support” and “demonstration of learning”
Jan – – It’s all-encompassing, isn’t it?
Barbara – Interesting you mention that. One of the responses from teachers is that my perspective is all-encompassing.
Barbara – I just developed a handout with five specific classroom strategies for English Language Learners, although they are also very useful with any at-risk students. My publisher should be posting it Monday, so I’ll put that link up in my blog as soon as I have it. The blog is I’ll also post answers to any questions we don’t answer here on my blog.

Jan – – Barbara P, I agree. I especially liked the idea of support. Rigor is not the Oliver Twist strategy that many of us thought it might be.
Barbara – My perspective is built on why I went into teaching. To help students learn. That’s really all it is, and I think we forget that in today’s culture of test preparation. I tell the story of a student I met several years ago. When I asked her what she would change about her school, she said, “For people who don’t understand as much…[they should]be in higher level classes to understand more [because] if they already don’t know much, you don’t want to teach them to not know much over and over.”  So, I stress quality over quantity. Giving students more rote questions is not as rigorous as giving them one question that requires them to analyze that rote information and apply it. And Gabi’s point is that rigor is for everyone, not just AP students, or honor roll students. You can create rigorous lessons for Pre-K and Kindergarten students, for Second Language Learners, for Students with Special Needs. I think some of the ways we approach rigor, even with teachers, leads to the conclusion that rigor is punishment, And it’s not. It is absolutely about student learning. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Jan – – Barbara, how did you get interested in rigor in the first place? Was it a concern of yours?
Barbara P – To be honest, as a special education teacher and music teacher at the high school levels, these students are chomping at the bit to be challenged. Why we think otherwise regarding their desires and expectations is beyond me. That is why the title and intent of the book caused me to come to the chat. I hope to read it in the next semester and incorporate it into my research. Like the focus on other aspects of higher learning: how do we get these students into those classes?
Jan – – Barbara talks in her book about talking with kids and their telling her that school was often boring to them. I agree that they like challenges.

Barbara – I think that is really hard at times. I taught in a school where we tracked students. After one year, I was assigned the “developmental” classes…not special ed, but reading 3-4 grade levels below. It was very difficult to get students out of that track. I believe so much of it relates to our overall expectations of students.
Jan – – You talk a lot about high expectations. What specifically do you mean?

Barbara – One recommendation I give administrators to raise expectations schoolwide is regularly telling success stories of students who have exceeded our expectations. So often, we just tell the negative stories.

Barbara – Jan, let me give one example with high expectations. Higher-level questioning is an integral part of a rigorous classroom–especially those at the higher end of Bloom’s Taxonomy. But it’s also important to look at how teachers respond to student questions. I found that sometimes I was so focused on asking higher-level questions, that I forgot to pay attention to the answers. I see this all the time, where we ask higher order thinking questions, but accept very low level responses from students. In rigorous classrooms teachers push students to respond at high levels. They ask extending questions. If a student does not know the answer, the teacher continues to probe and guide the student to an appropriate answer, rather than moving on to the next student.
Jan – – Oh, yes…negative stories. That rings a bell!

Susan – Does the concept of “rigor” work well for the youngest students? “Rigor” sounds so, well, stern and rigid. I guess the question is: Is rigor rigid?
Barbara – Doesn’t have to be. A kindergarten teacher I know uses a great rigorous activity. Instead of showing students a picture, she puts the picture inside a folder. On the front of the folder, two eyes and a smiley face are cut out. The students have to guess the picture without seeing it, before she opens the folder to show them the picture. That is rigor, and it’s really fun. A great guessing game.
Lark – I can be more rigorous when I go outside my classroom. I feel inside my classroom I’m stifiled by conformity.
Barbara – Instead of telling them what the lesson is about, have them guess. Give them a set of examples, with one that doesn’t belong. They have to figure out what doesn’t belong, and what the topic is. For example, North Carolina, California, Dallas, Wisconsin. Of course, we are talking states and Dallas is a city instead. Anytime you can ask a question instead of giving the answer first is a good choice.
Jan – – I think so many of us had the same idea that Susan has: rigor sounds so stern and mean.
Lark – I think rigor needs to start with young students, kinder etc…
Nancy – that’s why I like “vigor” better than “rigor”
Barbara P – Susan, I really like your question, “Is rigor rigid?” In addition, Barbara, I like the example and asking students to guess what the lesson is about. How do you do a set for that type of lesson introduction?Do you believe that rigor starts with the individual teacher? How can individuals in teacher education programs and administrative preparation programs help support teachers when they go into the classroom and hit the real world of reality? They have so many things to learn: culture of school, how to navigate: how can we provide support? Where do we start?
Lark – Kids should always have the idea tht the expectation is that they think at a more complex level.
Barbara – Lark, I understand that. For me, rigor is all about exploring and pushing students to learn something new. And it does start young. When my nephew was five, He was always asking me to tell him if he was right or wrong. Instead, I said, what do you think. That’s also rigor.
Barbara – Nancy, I do think there are many other words that are better…but I also know that rigor is THE word these days. And rather than fighting the word, I’m trying to reclaim it in a positive way for students and teachers.
Lark – Exactly Barbara and I think we need to do more of that with younger children.
Jan – – Nancy, I’m not sure that vigor has the same connotation as rigor. Vigor, to me, leaves out the idea of hard work. And rigor is hard work! Kids should know that going in.
Susan – Is there one source of the term or concept of academic “rigor” in education? Is it a new term?
Nancy – perhaps the two words should be used together.
Nancy – did you see Todd Nelson’s article [Rigor vs. Vigor] in the Teachers.Net Gazette this month?
Barbara – Barbara P, let me see…I do think it starts with the individual teacher. And just modeling rigor (which I did in my teacher prep classes) is a great start. But just showing them activities that are naturally rigorous (most really good practices are) is a start.
Jan – – I agree with that, Nancy. Like vigor/rigor!
Barbara – Nancy, I did see the article, and I like the word, I just continue to find I can make more of a difference working with it.
Barbara P – When I think of “rigor” I think of a dog grabbing a bone and not letting go. When we try to take it way, they see it as “play” and the challenge is on. In that regard, the “rigor” is the digging in that students do to discover and delve into the details of learning. It’s not “surface” learning.

Lark – I think about Haggith Gor-Ziv who is the head of the Center of Critical Pedagogy at Kibbutzim College of Education in Israel. I saw a video of her speaking.
Barbara – There are probably 50 definitions of rigor out there…I summarized them in a chart in the book (and I think that excerpt is available on my publisher’s site…let me check).
Nancy – Here’s some definitions of vigor that I used in a letter to the editor a few years ago:VIGOR (active strength of body or mind; an imaginative, lively style; great energy) to our schools. We need VIGOROUS (strong, dynamic, enterprising, red-blooded, take-charge, tough, effective, powerful) standards so that our children can develop lively, creative, imaginative, active minds and strong, energetic bodies ready to lead this country & the world.
Lark – She was relaying a story how she was teaching about tolerance i.e. sexism, nationalism at the preschool and kinder level and how kids rose to the occassion.
Jan – – A chat with Barbara Blackburn Ph.D., Professor at Winthrop University. Author of Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word
Nancy – you’re likely right, Barbara. The people in power like rigor better, so changing the perception of it is a good idea
Barbara – I do love the vigor example. With the definition I use, it weaves together high expectations (which we know are important), support (which is always critical), and the demonstration of learning (student learning as the end result). Many of the others are more limiting.
Lark – I’m going to check out your definitions Barbara, when I do make fun of rigor it’s because I at times thinks it’s very vague.
Nancy – gazette article:
Barbara – Jan, will you repost the definition?
Jan – – Lark, I think that is possibly the most important thing that Barbara has done. She has clarified that elusive term of rigor. She has taken the vagueness out of it.
Barbara – Here’s my publisher’s page..two chapters are free to read, including the research piece (very concise and organized…not too hard).

Jan – – BARBARA’S DEFINITION OF RIGOR: Creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.

Lark – Rigor needs to be clarified, though we’ll lose lots of jokes if it is.
Barbara – Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels
Barbara – Lark, a friend of mine says if you look up rigor in the dictionary, it comes between rigor mortis and rigamarole. He’s right!
Jan – – Barbara’s definition is very specific. It covers curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Nancy – this is the person cited in the gazette article. too bad this article isn’t available online.

Gregg Rabenold – What does “demonstration of learning” actually look like in the classroom?

Susan – Barbara, was there a period earlier in our history when RIGOR was applied more effectively, or have we refined educational practice in a way that makes RIGOR a new and more effective technique?

Jan – – Barbara, talk to us a bit about the support that students must have in order to be successful in a rigorous classroom.
Barbara – Rigor means so many different things to many people. I do think it has always symbolized some type of academic growth/excellence. And it certainly is in vogue these days. In the past, it has meant a classical education, Advanced Placement, etc.
Barbara – High expectations are important but they must be accompanied by high levels of support. Teachers who design lessons that move students to more challenging work while simultaneously providing ongoing scaffolding to support students learning as they those higher levels are the most effective. Anytime we move to new levels of learning, we need support. That can include guiding questions, chunking information, breaking down steps in a project, using graphic organizers…anything that helps students organize and understand the new learning. One example of support is a math graphic organizer. You can preview it at Often students can do computations problems, but word problems are another matter! For struggling students, the words get in the way of the math. I worked with one school to develop a graphic organizer to help students break down the steps of the problem in order to solve it. I forgot to let you know that any of the templates I talk about today (and more) are on my website No registration, but you do need to allow popups. Just choose a book, then look for the list of templates in a drop down menu. They are all in PDF.
Susan –  I wonder whether RIGOR was more in style during an earlier period

Barbara – I don’t think so..I never found any evidence of that. I think there were periods where people just focused on it without using the word. And it’s always been a focus in certain areas..for example, Catholic Schools and private schools have said they were rigorous.

Susan – There are others lurking without logging on and one of them emailed to ask me to post this question: Can a project based curriculum work with your concept of RIGOR?

Jan – – Barbara has a great website and blog!

Lark – I think project based learning has the potential to be more rigorous than individual type learning, potential, it can also go horribly wrong…
Barbara – Absolutely…project based curriculum work is one of the examples I use in the book and it’s a fabulous way to increase rigor.
Barbara – I think sometimes we make rigor too hard. For example, One of my favorite examples involves vocabulary. Whenever I asked my students to write a definition in their own words, they took the dictionary definition and rearranged the words…not what I wanted! So now, as a review or way they can show they understand concepts I have taught, I ask them to write riddles instead. Riddles are short (no more than 5 lines), they are true, and they don’t have to rhyme. The last sentence is What Am I? or Who Am I? if you are reviewing historical figures or characters from a book. I love watching a class write them (sometimes they turn them into raps instead) and try to stump their classmates.
Jan – – One word that we hear daily in teaching is assessment. I notice, it is part of rigor as well. Can you explain how we assess rigor? What do the students need to do for us to assess accurately?
Barbara – Lark, I agree, and it’s important to balance individual vs. group work…another entire topic we could talk about. If you go to my website ( choose Classroom INstruction from A to Z and there is a great rubric for assessing group work.
Barbara – Assessment..another topic we could spend hours on. First, I ask myself does this challenge students? If not, can I adjust it to ask students to think more? For example, many teachers use true false tests. If you want to use that, then add a step. Require students to take false statements and rewrite them as true. That requires a true understanding, rather than a guess.

Barbara – Another part of assessment is that EACH student needs to demonstrate understanding. Someone told me the other day, “If teachers provide more challenging lessons that include extra support, then learning will happen.” But if we want students to show us they understand what they learned at a high level, we also need to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate they have truly mastered that learning. One way to accomplish that is through increased student engagement. Here’s what I look for… Low levels of engagement: One student responds, two or three students discuss content, students are asked if they understand, with a simple yes or no and no probing. High levels of engagement: All students respond (pair-share, white boards, clickers) , all students discuss content in small groups, all students write a response in a journal or exit slip.
Susan – I like this, we’re not limited to 140 characters! LOL
Jan – – Right on, Susan!

Susan – Here’s another question I was asked to post: Are there demonstration schools where RIGOR is applied and can be observed? Perhaps videos online, either showing teachers offering a rigorous lesson, and-or a lecture about the topic?

Barbara – Susan, I have schools I’ve worked with (and districts)…as with any thing, some classrooms are more rigorous than others; some lessons more rigorous than others. Pasadena, TX overall is one of the strongest districts I’ve seen, and they have lots of at-risk students. I’m actually working on a video project right now, trying to find a few teacher-volunteers who will video a rigorous lesson, then I want to write narrative to accompany it so people understand what makes the lesson rigorous.
Jan – – You talk about the importance of holding kids accountable for learning at high levels. I know teachers are thinking, TESTING, but you say something that makes my heart sing…you say “it is possible to negotiate the path between accountability and authentic teaching and learning.” This is every teacher’s dream. Please tell us about this.

Gregg Rabenold – SUSAN, being new to education, one of the things that I enjoyed about Barbara’s book “Rigor is not a 4 Letter Word” is that there are numerous classroom activities that can be used. It seems like being rigorous is really a lot more about being creative about how I can get the kids “involved” in the process and “coach” them vs “teach” them.
Susan – Jan, remember, that includes for too many, scripted lessons. Hard to negotiate the path when you must do scriped teaching, or am I wrong?
Barbara – I had to walk that tightrope, and the best advice I can give you is that, despite the pressure, the one thing you control is your attitude. And I view “THE TEST” as the floor, not the ceiling. I think we sometimes let it limit us. I work with lots of great teachers who are able to teach the standards, do a reasonable amount of test prep, and still build in some authentic activities.

Barbara – Susan, it’s much harder with scripted lessons. I taught grad students, full time teachers who had scripts and were “audited” to make sure they were following them. That is much more difficult. My only advice there is to stay as positive as you can, because it’s not the students’ fault!
Jan – – Susan, one thing that Barbara talks about in her book is that teachers DO have control. Not over everything, but we have enough control that students will be successful in rigorous classrooms.
Barbara – Oh, and my favorite, favorite book about testing is Testing Miss Malarkey by Judy FInchler. It is a picture book but a HILARIOUS take on testing.
Susan – Barbara, some are constrained though by strict curriculum maps, being held to being on the same page as everyone else on any day, and those scripted lessons. Makes it difficult.

Barbara – Yes, it does Susan. Those were my grad students. There are some small things you can try. One of my favorite examples involves vocabulary. Whenever I asked my students to write a definition in their own words, they took the dictionary definition and rearranged the words…not what I wanted! So now, as a review or way they can show they understand concepts I have taught, I ask them to write riddles instead. Riddles are short (no more than 5 lines), they are true, and they don’t have to rhyme. The last sentence is What Am I? or Who Am I? if you are reviewing historical figures or characters from a book. I love watching a class write them (sometimes they turn them into raps instead) and try to stump their classmates. [continued on pg. 2]



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