By Bart Bronk
Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the
University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.
There was a time at University Liggett School when “rigor” was considered a bad word. As the school developed its signature approach, we eschewed the word rigor because it has been associated with so much that is wrong about traditional education: the memorization and regurgitation of content, hours of pointless busy work, practice by rote, learning tired old answers rather than creating new questions. Rigor in the academy has for too long been defined by the questions “how much” and “how fast” rather than “why?”
Recently, though, we’ve repatriated – and redefined – the term. Rigor, in the Liggett approach, reflects depth of understanding, creative expression, intellectual grappling, and original insight – the types of relevant skills that will make our students successful in elite colleges and universities and in careers beyond that may not yet exist.
This new kind of rigor was on display throughout my day with junior Gabby C.
In first-period orchestra, the group performed a full run through of its upcoming winter concert. Well beyond playing the right note at the right time, the practice was focused on nuance, expression of theme, and the interconnection and interplay of the various voices in the group. Ms. Helge frequently sought musician feedback on the expressions of particular motives on a number of pieces. As a group, they weren’t worrying about playing it right, they were focused on playing it well.
Long-period gothic lit comprised a writing session and individual conversations on writing with Dr. Moiles. The students were choosing and expounding on creative prompts to practice writing skills and extend their understanding of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. From a field of creative prompts that included “write a college essay in the voice of a character” to “create a eulogy for a character,” Gabby chose a prompt on narratology and explored how Morrison uses point of view to enhance the rich world she builds. Dr. Moiles conferenced individually with students and also commented in real-time on shared documents, employing Google classroom to provide timely feedback to each individual.
In forensics class with Dr. Muller and Ms. Fugitt, students performed a blood spatter lab, which mimicked the work forensic technicians do trying to recreate information about a crime from blood evidence. In our protective suits, we explored how droplets of blood create different splatter patterns based on height, and the students gained a deeper understanding of the science based on hands-on experimentation than could be achieved in the traditional lecture.
New rigor in the modern language classroom means, among other things, true immersion. University Liggett School’s program aims for 85% of instruction and dialogue to be in the target language. Even in an advanced Chinese class in which Gabby was taking a test, this commitment to immersive rigor was on display. All instructions, a few hints, and even a few student exclamations (about the difficulty of the assessment!) were in Mandarin.
Even in Gabby’s free period I saw evidence of new rigor in the Liggett approach. Gabby spent her free time working on a watercolor painting in the art studio, which represented her understanding of a novel about Malinche from her Latin American studies class. I asked who designed the assessment and she replied “me!” Students in the class were asked to design their own projects and evaluative rubrics to communicate their interpretations of this novel of the Spanish conquest.
My day as a junior ended in algebra II where students built automaticity with radical expressions and operations. Indeed, diligent and repeated practice still has a place in this new model, but only when that practice is necessary to build more complex understandings; the group was preparing to encounter radical equations. Even this exercise of rote was engaging: it was gamified, as students used their answers to compete to decode silly riddles.
Educational traditionalists become nervous when the quality and rigor of an experience can’t be defined by the number of pages covered or the number of hours of homework given or the number of repetitions accomplished. I’d hold my day as a junior as powerful evidence that the true measure of excellence is how deeply students are thinking and how creatively they are expressing their learning and understanding.