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FallOut Trips and Rephrasing "Academic Rigor" 

Academic rigor: it’s de rigueur. “Rigor” is a fashionable, nearly inescapable buzzword in independent schools, but what, exactly, does it mean at Head-Royce, where “scholarship” is upheld, in our mission, as equal to “diversity” and “citizenship”? This fall, as we orient new and returning students to our culture and curricular expectations, we’ll continue to question how we can best help parents raise happy, healthy young people, equipped with the knowledge and skills they need in this ever-changing world.  

Our language teachers will remind us that “rigor” comes to English by way of Old French, from the Latin root “rigorem,” meaning "numbness, stiffness, hardness, firmness; roughness, rudeness"––a list, we can all agree, that doesn’t call to mind the ideal learner, nor does it align with our School’s focus on whole-child and experiential learning. 

In February 2020, we announced we were phasing-out Advanced Placement courses in favor of honors classes that promote in-depth intellectual inquiry, creative collaboration, and equitable pedagogy, with room for more than one way of thinking. This choice was the culmination of ten years of research; it became clear we could no longer ask our students and teachers to keep up with the rote memorization, excessive homework, and relentless pace demanded by the College Board. 

Weeks later, when the pandemic spread to Oakland, we took a deep breath and put our own creative thinking to the test: convening a medical advisory board and pivoting 900 students to distance learning. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all been forced to sit in uncertainty and fear, to see change as the only constant, and to value flexibility above perfection.  

“Distance Learning was humanizing,” says Tory Mathieson, Upper School English teacher and 9th Grade Dean. She had to become comfortable making mistakes in front of her virtual class, letting fourteen-year-olds teach her the Zoom controls––“They’re the tech experts.”––and rethinking her understanding of work-life boundaries. “I have to be Tory on the weekends,” she says, smiling, “so I can be Ms. Math on Monday.”

As an English teacher, Ms. Math notes that our language choices are an important marker of our community’s shared values. “Whenever I hear a student say, ‘I didn’t have time to do that homework,’ I think, well, we all have the same number of hours in a day, what we do with them is about priorities, so I’m getting into the practice of using that language.” She’s also encouraging her students to understand and use this language: “If a student says, ‘I prioritized sleep over homework last night,’ I can pause and think, Yes, I’m glad you’re rested and can now participate in class, with your full attention.”  

“For too many of our students, academic rigor in college-prep high schools amounts to suffering,” write Olaf Jorgenson and Percy L. Abram for Independent Magazine, the publication of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Rigor leaves no room for sleep, for downtime, for mistakes that lead to growth. Rigor requires all-nighters, spent cramming for exams, a process that proves ineffective for learning and is obviously unhealthy.  

Academic stress, and its accompanying suffering, is especially potent for seniors. “This year is a little daunting, because we have school on top of college applications,” says Mari M. ’22. “It’s more high stakes.”  

“Thursday was stressful,” says Sofia A. ’22. “We worked on college applications all day, so on Friday it was good to have the chance to relax, to be with our friends, and have no worries for one day.” On Friday, Seniors went to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a last-minute adjustment when the Caldor Fire spiked the AQI to unhealthy levels and forced us to cancel the FallOut rafting trip. 

Seniors spent the day riding roller coasters, playing arcade games, and soaking in the sun. “We thought Santa Cruz was really fun, really cool,” says Della R. ’22, “and for lack of a better word: lit.” Let this be another reminder of how important it is to stay flexible––that change doesn’t need to be upsetting or stressful. 

Back on campus, they met as a full class and reflected on how a beach trip might, in turn, affect their learning environment. Comfort, ease, familiarity, and confidence were recurring words heard around the tennis courts, where they sat talking in small groups. “Sometimes I get really shy asking questions in class, because I’m worried people will judge me,” admits Annatie M. ’22, “but bonding with my grade, and getting to know people better makes me feel more comfortable.”

“I have to agree with that,” says Téa V. ’22, “especially after we were in quarantine and distance learning for so long.” 

This comfort extends beyond the classroom, too. Audrey H. ’22, who’s taking Dr. Brakeman’s neurobiology class, mentioned a surprising conversation she had on the golf course where she works, when one of the regulars asked her what she was reading. “The book’s about how morality developed as an evolutionary advantage,” she explains, “and we ended up having this whole debate about god. A bunch of other people joined in.” As seniors prepare for college and beyond, the ability to talk to people with differing perspectives is vital. Audrey feels her senior elective offers “niche perspectives that you can talk about, that will come up, and that are relevant outside of ‘getting an A in physics,’ which is so specific to high school.” 

These anecdotes also echo research on the correlation between a student’s mindset and academic achievement. “The more they are flourishing and happy, the better, on average, students are doing academically,” writes Chelsea Hinton, Ed.D, founder and CEO of Research Schools International. 

As the second week of classes gets under way, we must take these lessons to heart, and put systems in place so we won’t slip into the outdated, inflexible expectation that prizes achievement above wellness. “Academics don’t exist in a vacuum,” Tory Mathieson reminds us.  

One such system in the Upper School is using shared Division Meeting time to rethink homework practices. Upper School Head Ricky Lapidus has asked teachers to reflect on how much homework they assign each night. “What’s necessary,” he asked and “what might you challenge?” 

Perhaps, for our own homework, we can practice using the language of values and priorities. If we value flexibility, creative thinking, and diverse perspectives, perhaps, it’s time to retire the phrase “academic rigor” from our shared vocabulary.


Further Reading: 

Harvard Ed Magazine Happy Students Are Motivated Students” 

Harvard Ed Magazine My Get Up and Go Got Up and Went” 

Independent School The Dark Side of Rigor” 

Independent SchoolFaculty and Student Wellness: Embracing the Interdependence

The Atlantic Our Kids Are Not Broken”