Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.21.15Rue Ratray Guest Post: On Rigor, Frustration & the Monomyth

mytho horseRue Ratray is one of my heroes. He’s an amazing and inspirational teacher (and now teacher coach) in Lawrence, MA.  I recently asked him to write an occasional guest blog for Field Notes.  This is his latest, on the topic of Rigor and Frustration.  Great ideas throughout for teaching reading, especially.

I don’t think anyone reading this would disagree with any of the following…


  • All students need to do high rigor, high ratio work every day to prepare them for high school, college, and life.
  • All students CAN do high rigor, high ratio work every day to prepare them for high school, college, and life.
  • Students have to believe they can do this work if it’s truly going to move their performance.


These are simple ideas, but we all know how hard doing this is.  Especially that last part.  As I wrote last time, the more time I spend in schools, the more I think that this is the most important job of a teacher.  So why is it so hard?


A lot of the difficulty comes from a basic assumption most of us have about school.  School is a place where you learn things that you don’t know.  On one hand, this is a great way to view school.  It’s like the cartoon in “Waiting for Superman”.  The teacher fills up kid’s heads with knowledge.  What could be wrong with that?


Of course, this is making one really big assumption: students feel okay with the idea of constantly being reminded that they don’t know things.  Some do.  Many (I’d argue, most) don’t.  So is there another way to view school?  What if school was a place where you entered as an expert, and worked to get better and better?


In a minute, I’m going to share with our school’s approach to literacy.  The working name for it is “The Monomyth”, because as you’ll see, it’s a fairly epic journey with narrative structure.  The foundational idea is pretty simple: a text is a series of choices that someone made.  Those are choices that our students already understand.  So our jobs as teachers isn’t to teach them new stuff.  It’s to get them better at stuff they already know.


As humans, we are immersed in narrative structure from the moment we’re born.[1]  I took my daughter to see the Nutcracker a few months ago.  I have a hard time sitting still for more than a minute or two, so I was struggling as the production staggered through Act Two.  In the midst of all this, she turns to me and says, “What’s the problem?”  Oh man!  There were so many.  So I asked, “You mean with me?  Is is that obvious?”  She replied, “Well, yes, but that’s not what I mean.  Why is there no problem in the ballet?”


This is something I had never noticed before.  The second act of the Nutcracker doesn’t really have a conflict.  My daughter is six years old.  She noticed this.  And it bothered her…


This is the basic idea behind the monomyth.  You already know the choices that drive any text forward.  We’re going to remind you of this early and often.  And since you’re already such an expert in this, we’re going to ask you to do some pretty challenging work.  And we’re going to get you to believe that you can do it.


The cycle lasts for a week.  Classes and target tasks are ordered intentionally, to both drive learning and to develop confidence.  There are four basic components of the cycle:


CREATION – Narrative writing.  This always comes first.  This is where we explicitly show students the choices they’ll be working with throughout the week.  Then they practice with them.


THE MACHINE – Literary analysis.  This is a part where we’re asking to kids to make a pretty big leap.  So before we send them off to analyze the text, we do a focused, multiple reads of a key segment of the text.  The first is make sure that everyone understands the basics of what’s happening in the scene.  The second (and maybe third – it varies from text to text and task to task) is to direct them to those components in the text where they see the authors making the same choices they made during Creation.  Then they go off and write.  Head down, paper to pencil for extended periods of time as the teacher circulates and coaches real time.


SEE LIGHT NOT SHADOWS – This is our attempt to break away from the binary nature of many essential questions.  Is it this or this?  Right or wrong?  I’m a big fan of the Problem Solving Task in math, where you throw a tough problem at kids and they need to try it on their own first.  And there multiple valid solutions.  So in SLNS, we throw multiple models at kids with a guiding question.  There isn’t a right answer, but some answers are better than others.  This where we push speaking and listening skills big time.  You can get some help from a discussion.  But you need to figure it out on your own first…


Those are the basic components.  This is how it plays out over the course of a week…


So let’s say we’re reading Lord of the Flies and we’re at the part where Simon meets The Lord of the Flies.  So this is a week where we want to dig really deep into symbolism.  We’re going to work primarily with Lord of the Flies.  But we also want to compare symbolism in other texts.  The texts and tasks are going to change from class to class.  But we’re always driving them back to the choices behind the text.  That’s the engine.  But it’s an engine they already know.  The progression of target tasks would be as follows:


CREATION, pt one: ”Create a first person scene with a dynamic protagonist who is influenced by a symbol.”

MACHINE, pt. one: “Explain how William Golding uses symbolism in Chapter Seven of Lord of the Flies to develop Simon.”

MACHINE, pt. two: “Explain how William Worsdworth uses symbolism to develop the mood of “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold.”

SLNS: “Which of these four examples uses symbolism most effectively?”

CREATION, pt. two: “Revise your scene to make your use of symbolism more subtle.”


So this is the part where I want to explain how all of this connects with rigor and frustration.  That would be a pretty important part of this piece, huh?  So you’re in luck.  I got one of the best teachers I’ve ever met, Sarah Lord, to tie it altogether.


 “As a new teacher planning curriculum, I struggle the most with the following two questions: 


1.       How do I create lessons that productively engage students with rigor?

2.       How do I create lessons that are purposeful?   “Purposeful” here means I know why we’re doing them, my students know why we’re doing them, and we’re all generally on the same page about why the hard work I’m asking us to do day-to-day is important.


In narrative structure, the Monomyth or hero’s journey involves the following:


-an initial “call to adventure”

-a long, arduous journey in which the hero endures countless setbacks and challenges yet still keeps moving forward

-an ultimate victory

-a return home in which the hero has changed—he understands himself, and the world in which he lives, differently


There is nothing easy about the hero’s journey.  Yet, there are enough breakthroughs of light, enough moments when the hero receives help or discovers what he needs within himself, that he is able to continue moving toward his goal.


This is what “productively engaging students with rigor” looks like in the Monomyth Cycle.  Students are presented with the target task they will be working with throughout the week. It is cognitively rigorous. It is often asking them to see a text in a way they haven’t thought about before. But at strategic moments throughout the week, they discover their own capacity to be successful.  They create their own story. They break down the question together as a class. They are guided through the text several times by the teacher before they venture off independently to respond to the task. They see and discuss each other’s work, and have the opportunity to push each other’s thinking. The journey is rigorous, but there are enough opportunities for light to come in that they feel comfortable forging ahead in the darkness.


The Monomyth Cycle is productively rigorous. It is also synchronized rigor. There is nothing we ask students to do that does not somehow support their journey towards the target task. Creation expands their understanding of the kinds of choices they can make as writers. This increases their capacity to notice and understand the choices other writers make. They are then prepared to consider which of the writers they looked at that week (including their classmates!) made the most effective choices. They then return to where they started and revise their own writing based on their newly discovered capacity to notice, understand, and assess writer’s choices. 


Everything students do is connected. Everything students do is linked to the larger purpose. The week is not a string of disconnected tasks and learning objectives. The week is an up-and-down journey from which students emerge more aware of what they are capable of doing.


This brings us back to the most significant question: how do we as teachers motivate students to practice with full faith?   What I see starting to happen in the Monomyth Cycle is the following:


We give them something hard

We give them enough support to keep moving toward a meaningful target task

We give them moments where they discover what they are capable of doing

We give them the opportunity to see their progress: they look back at the end of the week and see that what they can do now is different, better, and more than what they thought they could do on Monday

-They start to believe they can do hard things

  They want to keep doing them.”


See what I mean?


One last idea.  Last time, I said this:


“As teachers, our jobs aren’t complicated. They’re just hard. As a teacher, I see my three main jobs as follows:

  1. Identify what is important for you to practice
  2. Construct the most effective practice possible (including coaching you through this practice)
  3. Motivate you to practice with full faith”


We’ve talked a ton about #1 and #3.  But what about #2?  How do we guide students through the moments of practice that are really hard?  How do we ensure that they don’t give up in these critical moments?  No magic.  Just solid fundamentals.  So next time, part three, using sound fundamentals of teaching to navigate frustration and rigor.





[1] What about informational text?  Yup, it’s harder.  But I’d argue the same basic idea holds true.  The challenge is to get kids to authentically produce informational text as a way to access the choices they are seeing reflected in the informational text they read.  I could go on all day about this, but you’re busy, so I won’t, but you should email me if you’d like to know more.

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