For many years, Americans have jokingly alluded to the 3 R’s when describing the essentials of education. Those 3 R’s are Reading, ’Riting, and ’Rithmetic. Of course the humor is based upon the misspelling of ’Riting and ’Rithmetic when referring to writing and arithmetic.

However, part of the humor also lies in ignoring all of the other subjects that have been taught in schools for many years -- social studies, history, civics, the sciences, music, art, family and consumer sciences, to name a few. It also ignores the many new and cutting-edge courses taught in the modern world such as computer sciences, industrial technology, robotics, Photoshop, broadcasting and information technology. Finally, it leaves out the teaching of character education, social skills and behavioral-emotional regulation.

Schools, in both today’s environment and in yesterday’s nostalgic world, have always taught so much more than the 3 R’s. But, now, we are working on the new 3 R’s. Let me explain. For years, we have acknowledged that students cannot learn when they are hungry, which is why schools work hard to provide healthy breakfasts and lunches. In today’s world, we now must also recognize the need to make sure students feel safe, connected and emotionally secure if we want them to learn. This is where the new 3 R’s come in.

Recently, the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), under the direction of Dr. Bill Daggett, has focused on training educators about the new 3 R’s for the 21st century: Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. Under this new framework, modern-day educators have come to realize that developing meaningful relationships with students and families is the key to motivating students to do their best in schools. Students don’t care how much teachers know until they know how much teachers care. Students learn that we care when we, as adults, take the time and make the effort to build healthy relationships with them. In short, relationships are what make relevance possible.

Why is relevance important in education? Relevance is the magical ingredient that makes it possible for today’s teachers to ask students to apply rigor to their studies. When we leave relevance out of the classroom, students will always ask that age-old question, “Why do we have to learn this 'stuff’?” When we provide real-world application to what students are studying, students will be more likely to be motivated to work hard. Think of concerts and other performances given to real audiences, as opposed to homework handed in only to the teacher. When the real world enters the classroom, and when students have the opportunity to impact a real audience, we will then have students applying truly high rigor to their school work.

Finally, it is rigor itself that leads to the highest levels of integrity in student learning and development in modern schools. It is rigor that makes it possible for students to learn and become prepared for life and work outside of school. I agree with Bill Daggett that relationships make relevance possible; relevance makes rigor possible, and rigor makes success in life possible. When we make schoolwork relevant to the lives and interests of students, they will be more engaged in school, they will behave better, and they will attend school more consistently. Simply stated, students will learn better.

I am very proud of the work our schools are doing in creating environments where students feel welcome, safe and connected to their teachers and other adults in the building. When students feel a part of something healthy and supportive, they learn and grow into the healthy adults we want for our future. Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor are the new three R’s in the 21st century.

Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at