Former principal of North Central High School C.E. Quandt used to say often in faculty meetings that the high tide floats all boats. By this he meant that raising the academic bar helps all students. I am proud to say that the academic culture at NCHS has remained amazingly high for many, many years.
His comment reminds me of something said by my freshman science teacher at Hazelwood Junior High (now Hazelwood Middle School) in New Albany, Indiana, Mr. Keith Hofmeister. He told us one day of being on a committee to review science textbooks and questioning one publishing representative why his company had watered down a previously rigorous textbook. The rep quickly tried to deny that anything of the sort had taken place, but Mr. Hofmeister pointed out numerous examples of omitted terminology and the absence of important mathematical components. His telling of the story made me feel proud that I was in a class that was not watered down, but grappled directly with the challenging aspects of science.
This has been a guiding principle for me in every level I have taught, from middle school through undergraduate. Students are usually quite capable of handling considerable depth and rigor. Subjects need to be presented in a way they can grasp, but there is no need to water things down.
I remember once leading a group of middle school boys at a church retreat. We all decorated our water bottles with markers, and I had written on mine in Greek a phrase from the Nicene Creed......ομοουσιος τω πατρι. One of the boys asked about it, and I was confronted with the challenge of how to explain to an 8th grader one of the most challenging theological concepts of the Christian faith, the belief that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father. I reached for the example that just as he was made of the same stuff...skin, hair, bones...as his parents, he was yet distinct from them, his own person. Now, the theologians out there will quickly point out that this is a horribly imprecise comparison, one that, at its deepest level, may actually be inaccurate. My point here is not to engage in theological discussion, but merely to say the boy left with a bit better understanding of a vast and challenging point of theology. To have brought out all the Aristotelian and Thomistic notions of essence and form would have been going too far. Yet to have brushed the young man off and said, "This is too complicated for you" would have been an equal dereliction of duty.
What challenges do you face in keeping the rigor without watering down your content? How do you handle those challenges?