Advancing Rigor Since 1878 – My Day as a Junior

By Bart Bronk

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the

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.

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.

Advancing Flexible Thinking Since 1878 – My Day as a Senior

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.

I found my guide, senior Maria P., in second period yearbook class in the school’s Mac Lab. She and her classmates dove right into the work, each finalizing a set of pages for the first submission of this student-produced annual publication, which was due in a few days.

As the advisor, Mr. Pangrazzi and the editor, Maria, checked in, team members were engaged in a variety of tasks, including writing, editing, photography and graphic design. I was struck both by how independent –and yet interdependent, as students sought feedback from peers throughout –their work was, and how the class demanded flexible thinking and problem solving in the pursuit of a tangible outcome in ways that mimicked the real world.   I could have just as easily found myself in a newsroom on deadline or corporate marketing department and seen the same traits and skills displayed.

Intellectual flexibility and dexterity were indeed the themes for the day. After community time, we attended ARP in which seniors worked on their individual projects. Maria benefitted from an extended dialogue with her instructor Dr. Larson in choosing which path her project on the role of neuroscience plays in criminal behavior and the criminal justice and corrections systems might take.

Mr. Butzu’s Shakespeare class featured an engrossing discussion on the motivations of Polonius related to his daughter Ophelia, her relationship with Prince Hamlet, and his own standing with King Claudius in which students capably drew support for their interpretations from two texts – the Bard’s original play and Kenneth Brannagh’s filmic interpretation. So compelling and well supported were their arguments that Mr. Butzu confessed to having his “weekend plans ruined” by the students’ challenging of his own longstanding interpretations of the play.

The power of student voice and intellectual risk-taking were equally amplified in Dr. Lam’s Eagle and the Bear course on U.S.-Russian relations. Student presentations on Russian’s information warfare tactics and recent aggressions against Ukraine in the Sea of Amoz were followed by team meetings on group research projects; Maria’s group is investigating the role of the Space Race in the 1960s as a proxy front for the Cold War.

The day ended with a standard deviation scavenger hunt in Mrs. Harris’s probability and statistics class, in which student teams of two (selected via random probability, of course) encountered and solved real world problems related to standard distribution. The level of movement – and enthusiasm – was certainly unlike the math classes I remember!

I ended my day as a senior heartened by Maria’s estimation that it was a “pretty typical day at Liggett.” If “pretty typical” means intellectually energizing, student-centered, and dynamic, we have a lot to be proud of.