As an academic institution, the term academic rigor is used quite often. We communicate to parents and students that our program has academic rigor, but what exactly is academic rigor and why is it important? Academic rigor, as we use the term, refers to an academic program that has critical components that interact together on a daily basis. Academic rigor is the combination of a student-centered, challenging academic curriculum with long-term goals and opportunities for improvement. One without the other creates an empty academic program; it’s the interfacing of these aspects that creates academic rigor.
A traditional education program is teacher-centered. The teacher is the center of the physical space with the desks lined up in rows facing the center of the room. The teacher delivers an assignment, the students all complete the same assignment and they are all measured on whether the answers are right or wrong. Rarely is the student encouraged to reflect on mistakes and asked to correct the errors. A student-centered classroom encourages group work and has flexible seating. Throughout the week the desks will move in different configurations all designed to allow for students to work either independently or in groups. The teacher delivers assignments with choice. There is an opportunity to correct mistakes, and checkpoints for achievement are built into the assignment. Student-centered classrooms create a higher level of student engagement. It is human nature that a student will work harder on a task they choose because there exists a higher level of interest in the assignment. It is also human nature, although individual personalities vary to a degree, that if mistakes are allowed, and there exists an environment that provides an opportunity to correct mistakes, greater risks will be taken. Research shows that with choice there is higher student engagement and higher student engagement produces high achievement.
Any curriculum has common key parts. All schools teach the core subjects and core content. Each course has fundamental skills that need to be taught. The distinguishing parts of a curriculum are not what is taught but how it is taught. The classroom must be an environment that encourages students to take risks, to reach beyond where they currently are performing. The classroom must have a growth mindset where the conclusion is not that the student cannot do the work but just not yet. When the classroom pushes the student outside of their comfort zone, growth in ability occurs. Today we live in a world whereby we avoid anything that feels negative, parents want to protect their children from failure, but rigor comes through overcoming the failure. Creating a classroom environment whereby students are allowed to fail and successfully overcomes the failure creates rigor. The process of taking a risk stretches a student, and it is the “stretch” that strengthens the learning environment. The IB grading program allows for students to take risks and overcome failure. The process of overcoming failure creates resilience that produces long-term success.
An integral part of the International Baccalaureate ( IB) Program is long-term assignments. At the end of fifth grade, the final grade of the Primary Years Program (PYP), the students complete an Exhibition project whereby students conduct personal and group inquiries into an area of their own choosing. The project spans over several weeks. At the end of tenth grade, the final grade of the Middle Years Program (MYP), the students complete a Personal project. The Personal project is a student-centered practical exploration of a topic of choice. The goal of each of these projects is to have the students participate in sustained, self-directed inquiry. The rigor of the project is the ability to persevere for an extended period of time. In a world where everything is instant, the ability to focus on a sustained task over a period of weeks creates rigor.
Academic rigor is an important distinguishing part of an academic program. For long-term success, there are key outcomes from an academic program with rigor. With rigor, students are taught grit. Angela Duckworth has researched the power of grit. She left a consulting job to teach seventh-grade math. While in the classroom, she was struck by the fact that intellectual ability did not necessarily equate to high performance. She went on to become a psychologist and has dedicated herself to understanding what key factors determine success in life. While her conclusions are somewhat controversial, my teaching experience aligns with her conclusions; success in life is not based on good looks, great personality, intellectual ability, etc. Success in life is determined by stamina, the ability to work hard and approach life as a marathon. A student who engages daily in academic rigor learns how to persevere. The student learns that while he or she might not understand the concept now, it is possible to learn the concept with time. Dr. Duckworth defines this as grit “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long-term goals.” The academic program at Notre Dame Academy has academic rigor because the program offers a combination of student-centered environment, high academic standards with long-term goals and opportunities for improvement. Our desired outcome from this rigor is to produce students who develop grit and become successful, productive citizens.
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The Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America) released their 2016 Shape of the Nation report, their first report since 2012, last year. The disappointing news is that in this country only Oregon and the District of Columbia require the minimum amount of physical education (PE) recommended by national experts. More than 62% of the states permit school districts to substitute other activities for their required physical education credit.
Unfortunately, this is not news. We have known for years that there is a direct correlation between the amount of physical activity a student receives and his or her ability to focus and achieve in the classroom. This study confirmed what we know:
1) when students participate in daily physical education there is an immediate benefit to their ability to learn,
2) students who participate in daily physical education achieve higher test scores,
3) students who have a daily opportunity to run around have improved classroom behavior, and
4) daily physical exercise lays a foundation for a lifetime of fitness.
One of the injustices in schools has been that those students who need to go outside and run around are often the very students whose PE and/or recess is taken away as punishment. As Head of School, I have always had one steadfast rule - a teacher is NEVER allowed to use PE or recess as a form of punishment.
The current recommendations are 150 minutes per week of physical activity for elementary school students and 225 minutes per week for middle and upper school students. At Notre Dame Academy, we exceed the requirements in elementary school by offering 225 minutes of physical education every week and 75 minutes of recess. In the middle and upper school, physical education is an elective for students. Those who select PE as an elective receive an average of 225 minutes per week.
Offering daily physical education is a burden on schools. Daily physical education naturally requires more PE teachers, and this additional personnel is a burden on a school budget. Daily PE is also a complication to a school schedule. Despite these complications, the results are worth far more than the burden. As Head of School, I will always remain committed to daily PE and the belief that children benefit academically from having time outside “running around.” As educators, it is not an option to choose between PE and strong academics; we must remain committed to daily PE in order to achieve our academic goals.
Debra M. Orr
Head of School
I was working at my desk one afternoon when I heard the sweet sound of laughter outside my door. When you work in a school, you learn to recognize the emotion in the sounds children make. The noise outside my door was full of enthusiasm, excitement, and joy. When I walked outside, I found three fifth grade students taping construction paper to the wall. It was clear that the students had a vision for the brown paper being placed on the wall. I stood and watched with admiration at how well these three students were working collaboratively on this wall design.
As I watched the piece take shape, the brown paper morphed into the trunk and branches of a tree, and the word KINDNESS in bold white letters was added to the middle of the tree trunk. At this point, my curiosity took over, and I had to ask the students what they were doing. With great pride, one of the students shared with me that this was a Kindness Tree. Another student explained that he had chosen the subject of bullying as the topic of his 5th grade Exhibition project.
5th grade Exhibition is an end of the year project that requires students to complete an extended, in-depth, collaborative project. Following a key International Baccalaureate (IB) principal, the project is student-driven. The student synthesizes all of the essential elements of the Primary Years Program (PreK-5th grade) in a way that can be shared with the entire community. At Notre Dame Academy, we celebrate Exhibition with an evening exhibit attended by students, parents, faculty, and staff.
The final part of the Exhibition project is action - thus the creation of the Kindness Tree. In response to the young man’s project on bullying, he learned that focusing on kindness could change the world. This amazing young man created the idea for a Kindness Tree. Each class received red hearts, and every time a teacher saw a student demonstrating kindness, their name was written on the heart which then became a leaf on the Kindness Tree.
As the day went on, I watched the Kindness Tree grow. I watched our students focus on kindness instead of bullying. I cannot help but think that our country could benefit from a Kindness Tree. Many adults in this world could learn from this ND Academy fifth grader.
What is the value of an IB education? I don’t know the value of kindness, but I would think it is priceless. If so, an IB education is priceless.
It is hard to believe that we are halfway through the first semester of the 2017-18 school year. It's incredible to look back and see all that we have accomplished since Notre Dame Academy first opened its doors in 2005. In just a few short years, we have opened the George Student Center and Kavanaugh Hall, become an International Baccalaureate (IB) continuum school and established the Father Colin Program. Through it all, we have remained true to our foundation of faith, knowledge, service, fitness, and technology.
It has been a blessing to witness our school community grow and thrive over the years. We have many milestones to look forward to in the coming years, one of which is the graduation of our very first high school class in May of 2019!
I intend to use this forum to offer insightful perspectives about Notre Dame Academy’s mission, programs, community, and future, and I hope you will join me.
Debra M. Orr
Head of School
A look at the first year of the Father Colin Program at Notre Dame Academy.
What exactly is academic rigor and why is it important?
There is a direct correlation between the amount of physical activity a student receives and their ability to focus and achieve in the classroom.
What is the value of an International Baccalaureate Education?
Welcome to Notre Dame Academy's Head of School Blog.