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 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.
Rigor has been used to promote the idea that American students need advanced course work, complex texts, and longer school days and years in order to be ready for college or the workplace. But, so far, the rigorous practices put in place under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and various school reform plans have not raised test scores or improved high school graduation rates.
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 student activities throbbing with energy, growth and life. Although school buildings happen to have walls, there should be no walls separating students from vigorous learning. No ceilings, either. To learn, students need first-hand experiences with real-world problems — not only in math and science, but also in civics and nutrition; knowledge garnered from multiple sources, not only from textbooks and the internet, but also from talking to people of all ages and from different backgrounds. They also need a variety of skills: the traditional school ones plus at least a taste of the skills of gardeners, craftsmen, mechanics, athletes and sales people.
Instead of aiming for higher test scores, a vigorous school would care more about what students do with what they have been taught. At all levels such schools would foster activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning in real contexts, such as serving in the school lunchroom or checking out books in the library, organizing playground games for younger children or reading to them, making items to sell in a school store, creating a school garden, painting murals in the halls or producing original plays.
Schools could also encourage performing in a musical group, organizing Jeopardy-like quiz shows, cleaning up the school grounds, adopting a road, publishing a student newspaper or a parent newsletter, establishing a school post office, making informational or artistic videos, running a school recycling program, writing to the local newspaper or public figures and working with adults on community projects.
As a result of the vigor that these activities exemplify, there will come the intellectual intensity, precision, critical alertness, expertise and integrity that the 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.
Joanne Yatvin is formerly a public school teacher, elementary principal, superintendent, president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of three books for teachers.