Thursday, July 24, 2014

Land of a Thousand Rubrics

I've been attending curriculum development workshops all week. We're looking at Common Core, without which no sentient being can function, and one of our sub-categories is rubrics. Yesterday we created some of our own.

I'll be frank. I have never liked rubrics. The first time I saw them was when a new, two-day, four-composition English Regents exam came out. I read the grading rubrics and got a general idea of what levels 1-4 meant. From then on I marked more or less holistically. I used to know one teacher who treated the rubrics with great reverence and examined them quite thoroughly. It was very rough partnering because by the time you finished a class set of essays this teacher would be on number 2 or 3, if you were lucky.

I've been teaching for 30 years. I'm pretty good about reading papers. I comment on them and offer advice as needed. One of the most frustrating things, to me, is watching a kid look at the paper, or not, and then crumple and toss it away. More motivated kids tend to reflect a little more. My question is this--after I spend time writing a rubric, who's to say kids wont toss them away too?

I kind of understand the thinking. There's got to be a way to get a good grade. What the hell is this teacher looking for? And it's true there are conventions, and mechanics, and standard usage. I like paragraphs and organization, and I like being able to easily understand things. But during the presentation I kept hearing words like "grapple" and "complex." The word "simple" is used as a pejorative. I think Pete Seegar said, of iconic American songwriter Woody Guthrie:

Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes a genius to attain simplicity.

People don't still sing This Land Is Your Land because they want to grapple with complex ideas. They sing it because it's direct and simple, because it hits you like an arrow to your heart. Still, dedicated Gates-o-philes want to measure things with lexiles and make kids read train schedules instead of To Kill a Mockingbird.

If I'm forced to use rubrics to rate my kids' essays I'll do it. I do, after all, get paid for this stuff. But I'm more comfortable issuing general checklists, which kids understand better, and then demanding particular and different things from particular and different kids for rewrites. Isn't that actually the elusive differentiation of instruction we hear about?

And, in fact, the essays and projects are fine, but we still have tests that overshadow and override them. No matter how many projects they do, my students, who don't necessarily know English yet, can't graduate until they pass an English Regents exam that tests very little of what it is they actually need to know. Grappling with complex text is not their first priority, and I'd argue it ought not to be the first priority of native-born kids either. That's what you do way better after you learn to love and appreciate reading, and something you do when you need to. It's not remotely how you teach. 

How can we differentiate instruction if the test is always the same, and the evaluation is always the same? In the quest to quantify everything, we're producing a lot of rules. It's hard for me to see, though, how we're producing critical thinking or better-equipped kids, unless our ultimate goal is to make them take more and more standardized tests.
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