Is "Rigor" Sucking the Life Out of Teaching and Learning?

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A musing following a conversation with a colleague:

My colleague was feeling guilty because she had promised to show one of her classes pictures and mementos from a trip to the Holy Land, but she never found time. Somehow, the immediate curricular demands of the year never allowed for that presentation. At year’s end, one student expressed his disappointment, reminding her of the unkept promise.

My last school has banned all parties. They take time away from instruction, after all. We must never waste time nowadays on material that does not affect testing or curricular requirements.

But I will freely confess the curricular train derailed a few times in my Spanish 2 class this year — and I think we were all the better for it. I doubt many of my Spanish 1 students want to go on to Spanish 2. I kept the train rolling in those classes, aware that students needed to cover this year’s material to get ready for next year. We were supposed to do eight chapters and I endlessly pushed onward in an attempt to get through those 307 pages.

I suspect that if some of those Spanish 2 students get stuck with Spanish 3 as one of their few elective options, they may well continue on in Spanish. A number have told me enjoyed the class despite their lack of interest in Spanish itself.

In contrast, I can’t imagine why my Spanish 1 students would want to take Spanish 2. A total of 307 pages represents drudgery in its purest form, an example of rigor run amuck. Most highly motivated students can barely hit that target. Since the large majority of students taking the class only wanted to fulfill a graduation requirement known to be useful for college applications, those 307 pages proved an unrelenting grind for the majority. We ended up glossing over many topics since we had no time to go into depth.

Spanish provides students with future employment opportunities and, more importantly, a bridge to other countries and worlds. Will my Spanish 1 students see benefit from their language studies? In spite of my best efforts (or worse, because of them), I doubt they will benefit. It’s very difficult to learn a language in four years and some students in those classes were already sophomores. To gain fluency in Spanish, those students will have to pursue language learning independently as well as take classes. But the district curriculum and book made Spanish wretchedly rigorous.

Eduhonesty: Student motivation remains a mysterious topic. I’m sure of one thing, though. When the work is too laborious, when the classes are too unrelentingly demanding, students become demotivated. If that second year of Spanish were not nearly a requirement, I think many of those Spanish 1 students would head for ceramics like desperate lemmings in search of a sea.

We spent a school year sucking the life out of a subject that ought be fun. Because the class midterm and final are created in a district office, I had to prepare them for tests I would not create and could not adapt. This meant I could not abandon the Curriculum Death March or my students would not be ready for their summative tests.