Asset-Building Assessment: From Degrading Rubrics to Actionable Feedback Guides

When I was a junior in college, I did some part time work tutoring students in writing through my university’s literacy center. I was working with a ninth grade student, Allan, and he was concerned about how his writing ability was affecting his grade. As we we were getting to know one another, many of my questions focused on what his teacher expected from Allan and his classmates when it came to writing.

Me: So, your classmates are getting high marks, but you’re struggling. Does your teacher go over what he expects on your papers?

Allan: Well, he goes over the rubric and . . .

Me: Hang on. Rubric? What’s that?

Allan: It’s like, a thing… a paper my teacher gives us to tell us how we’re doing with our writing, what he expects, you know?

Me: . . .

That’s right, as a junior in college, this was the first time I was becoming aware of this measuring tool. Now, to be fair to my teachers up until that time, they were using clear assessment tools to evaluate my writing and give me feedback–I remember checklists full of writing features that my teachers would tick off as they each on in my papers, and at the end I would get a certain amount of points based on my performance. But this was the first time I had to pay attention because my student’s grade depended to what extent he could calibrate his writing to the rubric.

I helped Allan work his way to receiving top marks in his class according to the scoring guide his teacher gave the class. It was very satisfying to watch him succeed because of our collaboration, and one of the many formative experiences that lead me to pursuing a career in teaching ELA at the high school level. But, soon after I started teaching, assessing student writing according to rubrics nearly caused me to leave the profession.

Continue reading “Asset-Building Assessment: From Degrading Rubrics to Actionable Feedback Guides”

1 Week, 170 Conversations: What Students Really Say about Learning, Letter Grades, and Anxiety

A coupe of weeks ago, I did something that I have never done before in my classroom: I sacrificed invested a week of instruction to hold a one-on-one conversation with each one of my students. I had always made the excuse that it took up too many instructional minutes, and that I couldn’t sacrifice the time. And after that long-winded week the only regret that I have is that I did not start doing this much, much earlier in my career. That week, was an absolute revelation!

Before I share everything I learned, I need to inform you why I met with all of my students. This year, for many reasons, when it comes to assessing learning, I have decided that I will no longer use points. Instead, I am asking my students to apply the standards through purposeful effort on their assignments, on submitted work I am giving them feedback only (no mark), and I am holding a conference with them at the end of each grading period. They bring a showcase of their learning to the conversation, and together we determine the letter grade we will send home. Continue reading “1 Week, 170 Conversations: What Students Really Say about Learning, Letter Grades, and Anxiety”

What is the Goal of Teaching?

To get students college and career ready?

To help students achieve their highest earning potential?

To get an A?

It might sound a little strange, but I like to think that my goal as a teacher is to work myself out of the job. When I say this, I am picturing the tradition of an apprentice learning from a master in his or her craft. Eventually the apprentice learns enough to take the show on the road alone and no longer needs the instruction of the master. This is how I I would like to view my relationship with my students.

If that’s really the goal of my teaching, then my students need to be ready to do everything that I am teaching them without me. They should not have to constantly run to me for validation, “What do you think? Am I doing this right? How good/bad is this?” Let’s think back to those pre-teaching years of our adult lives, when we first entered the world of work. In our time as employees, imagine if we did what I’m describing with our bosses. Imagine that we constantly knocked on their door to run everything by them. How frustrated would the boss be? And, as bosses, how effective would they be at their job if they had to stop and assess every little task their employees were performing? I imagine that company would go under pretty quick.

But how is grading every little assignment the students turn in any different? Grading each discrete task submitted makes us micro-managers. No wonder we’re frustrated in those seasons when grades are due! Continue reading “What is the Goal of Teaching?”

Why I Almost Quit

In my seventh year of teaching, when I was really hitting my stride as a classroom instructor, I was ready to quit. I didn’t want to. I loved teaching. The best way to put it is that I had hit a crisis. In plainest terms, people experience crisis when their behavior and choice patterns no longer work work for them, requiring some kind of change. Another way to put it is, “What has ‘worked’ up until this point WILL NOT work from here on out.” That was me. I felt stuck in an endless loop that was wearing me down more and more each day.

My crisis centered around guilt. And this was no ordinary guilt, where I found myself going between two sides. This guilt loop had three elements, one for each of my main roles at the time: teacher, spouse, and parent. I had responsibilities for each role, and I wasn’t handling any of them well. Maybe I had people fooled, or maybe they were just being kind to me, but inside I was all tangled up in knots. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next for any of those roles, and felt like I was frantically running from one to the other. That caused a lot of stress, and I was exhausted. I was at quit point. Continue reading “Why I Almost Quit”

Think-Pair-Share Is Overrated!

I have only been teaching at the high school level for 13 years, But when I entered the profession, pretty much every classroom had students sitting in rows while the teacher stood up front and lectured, gave direct instruction, read from PowerPoint slides, whatever you want to call it.

The picture is unmistakable: up front the teacher is active and talking while students passively sit and listen in their desks. Almost all classrooms looked like this, and mine was no exception. To get students more engaged, in the 1990s and 2000s, teachers were trained in different strategies, and Think-Pair-Share (TPS) was ubiquitous.

Before I go on, let me just say this: if a teacher only uses direct instruction, and the next instructional strategy he learns how to use TPS, then that teacher should absolutely use it. But if a teacher has several strategies and some skill for engagement, then it’s time to evolve to the next level. Continue reading “Think-Pair-Share Is Overrated!”

Does Your Rubric Punish Students?

I’m going to make a prediction that you might not like. After reading this post, you’re going to see that you are doing rubrics all wrong.

But that’s okay. I had bad rubrics for years too. In spite of their poor quality, my students were still learning. Yours are too. But maybe our students at that time did not really feel like learners. There was a time when the rubrics I used to score my students’ assignments made them feel like losers. Continue reading “Does Your Rubric Punish Students?”

3 Ways to Wrangle the PIG!

“I have to plan the next unit.”

“What am I going to teach tomorrow? And how am I going to teach it?”

“But I have to grade these papers!”

Planning, instruction, and grading–if you’re like me, these three elements of teaching huddle up and, like specters, follow you around all year long. Each takes its turn whispering in your ear, especially grading.

It seems that right when you get one settled, one of the others crops up, jolting you with guilt, anxiety, or both. It seems never-ending.

Continue reading “3 Ways to Wrangle the PIG!”