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February 7, 2023

Rigor in the Classroom for Grades 9-12: What It Looks Like

Note: This is the fourth in a series of four grade-level articles on rigor.


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Are you trying to increase rigor in your grades 9-12 classroom? Perhaps you aren’t sure what rigor is or what it looks like. It isn’t doing more work; it’s about incorporating challenging, appropriate instruction in your classroom.

Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels; each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels; and each students demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2018).

Let’s look at several examples.

Close Reading, Research and Writing

Read Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Analyze the stylistic decisions she made when writing it. Consider her purpose, the varied syntax, connotative diction, imagery, personal testimonies and the choice to switch from first- to second-person point of view. How do these decisions impact the overall tone and delivery of her speech?

Now read the article “In Pakistan, A Self-Styled Teacher Holds Class for 150 in a Cowshed” by Philip Reeves. How are the dreams and aspirations of Malala justified after reading about the reality of girls’ education in Pakistan today? How do these differ from and compare to inequalities in American history with minority groups (African Americans, women, immigrant children)? In addition to using evidence from the texts, provide real-life examples to support your thesis.

In this example, two accessible texts are being paired, requiring a more complex level of analysis and evaluation. Not only do students need to evaluate the author’s craft in the first piece, they must also establish connections between the two seemingly unrelated pieces and consider how the same concept applies to other social groups in our country. This type of assignment could easily apply to any social studies reading as well.

Create a Utopia

We have been reading dystopian novels. You have been given the opportunity to start a new society on a deserted island that is fully equipped with all needed amenities and modern technology. The island is not owned or under the influence of any nation. It is the responsibility of your group to inhabit the island in any manner you choose. By completing the following assignments and working cooperatively, your group will build the perfect society and will introduce your society to the class.

  • Note characteristics of healthy societies and governments (past and present) through online research.
  • Note the pitfalls of unhealthy societies and governments (past and present) through online research.
  • Determine the criteria you think would make the perfect society (type of government, freedoms, laws, technology available, etc.).
  • Create a multimedia campaign advertising your community to the rest of the world. Use persuasive appeals, but justify your choices with evidence from research you conducted and the books we have read in book clubs.

In this particular example, students have just completed reading various dystopian novels in a book club format. In mixed groups, they will share what worked or didn’t work in the book they read before researching societies and governments from the past and present together. The goal here is to discern the qualities that allow a society to thrive versus those that seem to indicate flaws in infrastructure of the government. Afterward, they will self-select qualities and norms from the various governments researched to establish the criteria for a perfect society from their perspective. Students will use research-based evidence to produce a campaign using various forms of media (e.g., short video, blog, visual advertisement, interview, audio, etc.) that will attract people to their community.

Pythagorean Theorem: What Is That?

Thanks to Pythagoras, we have a great equation we can use to find the length of the sides of a right triangle. The theorem is used in architecture, navigation and surveying, which are important parts of our lives, but what if Pythagoras had never come up with the theorem? Sure, you could use measurement of a tool, but some things may be impossible to measure such as if you are trying to find distances between long navigation points. For instance, a plane can use its height above the ground and its distance from the destination airport to find the correct place to begin a descent to that airport. It seems like something is left out. Your charge is to come up with a replacement equation that will assist you with the following problem. You should be able to explain how you came up with the new equation and also include the drawbacks of using this equation. Pythagoras can’t be replaced, but I bet you can come close.

Your grandmother is moving in with you and needs wheel access to your home. The height of your current porch steps are 4.5 ft. Your dad said that he thinks the ramp needs to be 10 ft. long. Based on your dad’s guess, would you be able to build the ramp to meet these specifications? Explain how you came up with a new equation instead of the Pythagorean theorem to solve this equation. Include the drawbacks of using this equation.

In this example, students are given a situation, and are expected to develop a new solution, one that is an alternative to the Pythagorean theorem. Depending on the complexity of the situation, you might adapt this so that students are formulating a mathematical model.


Scientists are currently researching new aspects of immunobiology, with particular attention to innate immunity and adaptive immunity. Research at least three investigations related to a particular area of immunobiology. Formulate a specific research question related to immunobiology and design a new investigation that would allow you to find a solution to the question. Present your information to your group, providing a valid argument as to why your investigation would benefit society. You must cite specific evidence to support your claim.

In this project related to immunobiology, students must describe, as well as compare and contrast, methods other scientists are using to investigate immunobiology, which also provides an opportunity for students to synthesize and connect information. Students then formulate an original problem, given a situation. Finally, students are developing a logical argument while citing supporting evidence.

A Final Note

Incorporating rigor in your classroom does not mean simply doubling the amount of problems you give students. Rather, you incorporate specific aspects of higher-order thinking into engaging activities to give students opportunities to rise to the challenge.

More from Barbara: Let's Up the Rigor: K-12 Instructional Strategies

Looking for how to apply these strategies? Register now for Barb Blackburn’s 2023 Virtual Conference free webinar, Let's Up the Rigor: K-12 Instructional Strategies. Learn about a variety of instructional strategies for all grade levels and subject areas that will help you adapt what you are doing to incorporate more rigor!

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Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 30 best-selling books.

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