Paradoxes of Rigor

by Ruslana Westerlund

I have recently been reflecting on how rigor by itself can really do more harm than good.  I originally titled this blog as “Fed Up with Rigor” but quickly realized (after it started making circles on social media) that it might be sending the wrong message.  Let me make myself clear:  I am all about high expectations for ALL students, especially marginalized students such as culturally and linguistically diverse learners.   However, I am passionate about High Rigor and High Support.  In the US, the buzz word these days is “rigor” which administrators will often swoop in and say, “All kids need more rigorous curriculum!”  “We have to close the achievement gap!”  (A few rare types will actually wake up and realize it’s an opportunity gap).  But the administrators who like to throw the buzz words around without thinking “Oh, wait, what do my teachers need to achieve my lofty goals?” really use rigor as a way to boast about their high and lofty goals which ends up being empty promises.  What about training, resources, space, adequate planning time for all teachers to teach well so that all kids have ACCESS to rigor?  The message of this blog is: Rigor without support is not enough.   Rigor for some and not the others perpetuates inequalities.  Rigor without support sets up more kids to fail.


I have visited schools where some students are working on a project accessing more rigorous curriculum, but the ELLs were in a separate class learning basic English. With appropriate resources (proper staffing for schools, and appropriate scaffolding for ELLs), ELLs can learn English when they are cognitively engaged in meaningful learning or projects.  In some schools, ELLs take an English Language Arts (ELA)-light course from an ESL teacher who is not licensed in ELA, not because it’s teachers’ fault, but it could be positive intentions on behalf of the principal or counselor to “help those ELLs graduate”.  What makes it worse, is that they receive a graduate credit for the ELA-light course taught by a teacher not licensed in the area. Then they graduate thinking their credits are good enough for college. Translation: your white upper middle class son is taking science taught by a teacher not licensed in science – hard to imagine, that will never happen, right?  What will those parents do and say?  The students I’m talking about who are taking ELA-light are not newcomer refugees with interrupted former schooling.  These are English Learners who have been in the ESL program since kindergarten.  Laurie Olsen addressed the causes for the long-term ELLs’ underachievement in her work.

But I have also met teachers from schools where newcomers read George Orwell and discuss such concepts as dystopia.  If you don’t believe me, I have examples of the newcomer student work from Winnipeg right here in front of me on my desk.  Their amazing teacher Val Pierce shared Stories from Room 70, Volume 6 with me.



Often rigor is equated to “a 5-paragraph essay”, in other words, language-heavy product.  Think about the effectiveness of advertisement: is it language heavy?  No, nobody is going to read more than one short sentence.  Do our students have choice in how to they can show what they know?  Do they have a chance to show their personality through art?  Are they given room and space to develop their agency? Can we trust that ELs can create new solutions to problems?   Do we believe and support them to produce websites, create a screencast, blog to reach real audiences, produce bilingual books and become published authors?  Agency doesn’t have to be at an individual student level, but a collaborative, co-constructed endeavor (van Lier, 2008).   The students in groups can debate the nature of language, discuss the language change, debate the role of their vernacular and its place in school and in society, reflect on the rate with which English is taking over the globe and killing other languages, the role of women in the Middle East or comparing George Orwell’s Animal Farm to today’s society.  Many English learners, especially adolescent newcomers, have strong opinions about global issues and maybe in the United States they feel safe for the first time to express their opinions freely.  They don’t have to wait until AP courses to engage in more passionate learning.


Many immigrant families who leave their homelands behind do so mostly for one reason: for a better future for their children.  They don’t do it for themselves because they often cannot practice their profession or continue their career in the United States since their credentials won’t transfer in most cases.  I remember meeting a Somali man in 2007 who spoke five languages and had a Ph.D. in hydro-physics from the University of Moscow (my recollection of the name of the field and the university might not be 100% accurate, but you get the picture).   He is now a paraprofessional helping high school students in science.  His son was so excited to go to an American high school and graduate from it not with watered-down credits but with credits that would prepare him for college.   His son was placed in a series of remedial algebra, remedial English courses without paying any attention to the fact that he could have handled more rigorous math courses.  He was placed in that track just because he had an ESL label.  Being an ESL student is a double-edged sword: yes, ESL status is a protected status which warrants extra language support; however, that often goes down the slippery slope of remediation.   Why is a “rigorous curriculum” a privilege denied to many ESL students?


As an ESL teacher, I remember reading books on every country my students came from.  But you don’t have to be an ESL teacher to know the world’s geography and care about what happens in the world.  Knowing the difference between East and West Africa, versus “Oh, they are from Africa!” shows you have a clue about the world’s geography.  You don’t have to travel all over the world to be knowledgeable (even though nothing can replace experiences one gains from leaving your hometown and finding yourself in a new land). You have to care and you have to be curious.  Being a culturally-responsive teacher means connecting and caring about the student roots, heritage, their “weird” food, and family history.  I read several books on the Hmong people.  Then I read Yasmeen Maxamuud’s Nomad Diaries to learn how not all refugees come from poverty.  Many of them come from wealth to poverty.  This was the story of Nadifo, an upper-class Somali woman who comes to Minneapolis as a refugee in the 1990s.

Reading books opened up a whole new world for me – the world I never knew anything about and yet, this was the world of many of my students.  How careless of me not to care!!!  How can one teach rigor without knowing your students’ experiences, histories, and their worlds?  For me, connecting with my students’ histories happened in conversations with the students themselves or their parents either in school or in their communities.  I studied about countries and languages previously unknown to me (history of Ethiopia, Somalia or the Hmong people are two examples).  Being Ukrainian, it gave me an advantage to have natural connections with people from Ukraine, but also from other former Soviet Union republics that are now independent countries.  I also could connect and strike up a conversation with other Slavic people: Bulgarian, Polish, Slovenian, Serbian, Bosnian and others.  Just studying up on the changes in politics and geography of various countries be it in Southern Europe or East Africa showed my parents and their kids that I knew cared about their place and that I cared about them as people. Eating sambusas or drinking “milk tea”, visiting their malls, being curious about their world – the stuff of their country – that’s what made me a better teacher.  I met many kids who came as refugees who were Somali but never knew Somalia because they were born in a refugee camp in Kenya.  Teaching the kids the “rigorous curriculum” of the American history without ever caring about their history is not connecting with their identity which sends the message to the kids that “I don’t matter. ”  Please don’t take this and interpret as “we don’t have to teach the rigorous American history, just eat their food and create a class recipe book”.  The point I’m making is “rigor without connecting with the student identity leads to disengagement with the curriculum” because the kids who don’t see their place in the history don’t engage well, especially those who are already invisible in the social studies curricula.   Our students need to know enough about the American history so that they question it, problematize the perspectives, critique the interpretation, and contribute their ideas and solutions.  Rigor + identity connections = engagement.  Not the extreme of “pobrecito” – poor little kids who need our rescuing – and not the other extreme of “throwing them to the wolves of new rigorous college and career readiness standards” and not providing cultural and identity validations of who they are and who are becoming.  No.  It’s High Challenge + High Support = High Learning (Gibbons, 2011, adapted).



  1. Olsen, L. (2014) Meeting the Unique Needs of Long Term English Language Learners.  A Guide for Educators.  National Education Association.  
  2. Maxamuud, Y. (2011). Nomad diaries: life, war and America. 

Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D. is fed up with the empty promises of bureaucrats and business-minded reformers who swoop into schools from their ivory towers and wipe out everything in their way and make way for new reforms.  They are here “to raise the bar for all kids!” and yet they miss the basic piece: you can’t tell someone to reach for the stars but take away their ladder.  It goes for both teachers and students.   She blogs to create space for conversations on topics related to inequitable opportunities that are rampant in education systems worldwide, especially the marginalization of culturally and linguistically diverse learners.  These learners are so misunderstood, and, as a result, robbed of opportunities to learn.  If there are success stories, please send them my way.   


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