I was excited to write this blog; I woke up early, cozied into the writing spot in my new house with endless energy, and then, like so often happens, I gazed endlessly at the blank screen for what seemed to be an eternity. It wasn’t that I was searching for a topic. In fact, I knew exactly what it was I wanted to share, but I struggled to find the words to do it. Then, like a jackhammer feverishly breaking up concrete (like what is happening on my street as I write this), it hit me: that is the point that I want to share. My struggle to share here what I have learned about the value inherent in the process of writing and revising rubrics is the exact struggle that lies within the process of actually trying to write and revise rubrics: learning from our language and the process.
You see, I started my summer by leading two teams in my district that were charged with revising our current, locally created CCSS Speaking and Listening rubrics and creating our own CCSS argument rubric. While in mid-June and early July, most teachers might rather be sitting on the beach, sipping bottomless refreshments, trying to flush away the chaos of this past school year, I was actually very excited to dive into this work because I enjoy assessment and team work; however, what I didn’t realize was just how much this process of working with a team to revise and write rubrics would teach me about assessment, leadership, professional development, and my own instructional practices. So, I hope that the reflections I share below (in no specific order) might help you learn something about the value of this time-consuming, rather frustrating, and often-times expensive endeavor of writing and revising rubrics for your own department, school, or district. Ultimately, even if we had not walked away from our over 20 hours of work with a finished product, our time would have been hugely beneficial and something that I now believe all teachers should be part of, in some fashion, on a regular basis. So here is what I learned in this process:
- Rubric Writing Actually = PD:
Let me start by asking you when the last time was that you spent over 20 hours in the same room with a small group of teachers, the majority of whom teach a different subject than you, and did nothing but talk about standards, pedagogy, and assessment? If you are like me, probably never; however, these past few weeks gave me this opportunity, and to say it was enlightening would be like saying that Einstein is smart. Hearing the science teacher explain how she asks students to give presentations about lab findings, or the social studies teacher unpack how he gets his students to understand bias within the context of historical writing was a true game changer for me. It would be easy for those who do not see the value in writing rubrics to say, “sure, but how does what they are doing in SS and science really make be a better English teacher; I teach literature?”, and to that I would say, “tell me how it doesn’t.” Honestly, knowing how my students are being taught to think in their other disciplines only helps me better make connections, tap into their way of thinking, reach students who might favor another discipline over English, and just help promote the idea that great learning = great thinking, regardless of the content. So, thank you all other subject areas, you have helped make me a better teacher.
- Annotate Your Rubrics:
I don’t know about you, but I have used a lot of district common rubrics and, regardless of how well they were written, I still had confusion over language within the rubric. Having worked on this project recently, I have learned that not only do the writers of these rubrics not have confusion over the language, but, if they really did their job well in writing them, they can explain all of the differences between levels of performance as outlined by the rubric criteria. If that is the case, why not annotate the rubrics? As we hashed out language for each performance descriptor, we noted our thinking on a separate document, complete with examples for teachers. This document will then be distributed to teachers along with the rubric. Then, when teacher X is looking over the rubric in the fall and is unsure what the difference between a claim that is “effective” and a claim that is “convincing”, he or she can look at this annotation, read an explanation of this difference, and even see an example. If you have any common rubrics in your department, school, or district, I highly encourage you to consider doing this for them: the product is beyond valuable and the process is another form of great PD: teachers working together to explain these differences and create examples.
- Make Rubric Work Fun by Talking About Students:
I have learned one thing over my short ten years: great teachers never get tired of talking about students. Teachers love to share the story about that time when that one student did that one thing (we ALL have that story), or that time when that one student stayed after school for three weeks straight just to turn that paper from good to great. We love to laugh, learn and cry–all about our students. So, when working on this rather frustrating work (rubrics), don’t forget to talk about students. Over the last few weeks working with my team, I heard some of the most fun, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and otherwise amazing stories of students. So, when you have gone around and round for over an hour about one single word in one single descriptor for one single criteria, remember, this is for the students–so talk about your students!
English and Communications Department Chair
Downers Grove North High School, IL