Digging Deeper into Rigorous, Standards-Aligned Instruction

Last month, I received a phone call inviting me to a fourth-grade classroom. The teacher asked me to come hear the culmination of a project that entailed immense research, reading, and writing by her students regarding a school garden. When I arrived, each student stood up with a microphone and read a portion of their opinion research essay to me in front of the entire class. They then pitched an idea that would take principal, district, and community support to complete: a school and community garden. My visit was not only a celebration of hard work and student engagement, but it was also a demonstration that aligning assignments to the high rigor in the state standards can take students to a deeper level of thinking and learning. 

Before assigning the project, the teacher wanted to brainstorm ways to align writing assignments to the Wyoming Content and Performance Standards while also engaging students in something that would connect them to the community.  During class, the teacher and students began brainstorming topics. The first suggestions were “eliminate homework” and “get better playground equipment.”  Challenging the students, the teacher encouraged them to keep thinking while she taught them about the audience (me, a district administrator). Eventually, the class arrived at the decision that a school garden would be extremely beneficial.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, students read challenging articles, interviewed experts in the community, researched ideas on fundraising, built a platform to explain the benefits of the garden to potential investors, and then wrote individual and class essays. This project aligned to a variety of standards encompassed in the Wyoming Content and Performance Standards including writing, reading, math, science, speaking and listening, and social studies. 

Aligning to the standards can appear simple. The teacher could have simply asked the students to read some information and write an opinion essay about it in order to meet the standards.  Instead, she dug into the rigor of the standards. This is demonstrated by the teacher as she addressed text complexity, multiple contents, and speaking and listening, reading, and writing standards. She helped connect students and standards to the school and community. 

When I sat in the classroom listening to the students read their own portion of the class essay, a mix of nervousness, pride, and enthusiasm permeated the room. In the end, as I asked the class questions ranging from “How will you pay for this?”, “Who will harvest the food and care for the garden over the summer?”, and “How will you distribute the harvest?”, students had answers for everything. They had really engrossed themselves in the learning as well as the final product. They owned the idea. They wanted to make it become a reality. 

This is what we want for our future, students who are fully engaged in their community. We want students who enthusiastically come up with solutions to issues, and who are reading, thinking, learning, and writing at high levels. This project is evidence that when you align assignments to the level of rigor expected in the standards, students will rise to the occasion. 

Amanda McAdams, a former practicing attorney and 2011 Arizona Teacher of the Year, is currently the Director of Elementary Education and K-12 Literacy for Lincoln County School District #2 in Star Valley, Wyoming. Amanda earned her bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College, her Juris Doctorate degree from the J. Reuben Clark School of Law at Brigham Young University, her teaching certificate from Utah State University, and her Doctorate of Education (EDD) from Argosy University. She has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Northern Arizona University. Most importantly, Amanda and her husband Don are the proud parents of three children.