Sunday, January 31, 2016

DigiLit Sunday - Balancing Rubrics

I love that Margaret Simon has started a Sunday Link Up for posts about digital literacy at her blog to challenge us to share our technology journeys.
Credit for photo goes to The Inspired Classroom blog
Margaret chose BALANCE as the theme topic for today's DigiLit Sunday posts.  I almost skipped writing today because I didn't have an idea for BALANCE right away, but then I thought of an experience with my 6th graders this week and a dinner conversation with teacher friends.  The experience and discussion revolved around rubrics.
I teach gifted 5th and 6th grade ELA.   I'm the teacher of record, and I have the same group (give or take a couple of newly identified kids, move-ins, or opt outs) for two years.  This is a wonderful thing because I can see amazing growth and can build on skills I've taught.  I know my students well and can plan accordingly.  One of the things I consistently do is provide rubrics for all our papers and projects. Some of these rubrics I make myself, while others are written by district teachers from Common Core guidelines.   I post them on Google Classroom along with examples or patterns for the kids to consult when they do an assignment.  They've become very efficient at using these guidelines and expect them for everything we do.  They certainly make writing and grading easier.
Earlier this week, I posed two questions over a play and an article we read.  They were to synthesize the texts and compare the subjects of both in order to answer the questions.  Right away, one of my brightest and best writers asked, "Where is the rubric for this?"  I responded that there wasn't a rubric.  They needed to make their own decisions on structure and content.  I told them they know a lot as writers by now, so they can pull from their experiences and answer the questions effectively and thoroughly.  They could pull from past rubrics and patterns.  Twenty faces looked back at me blankly.  They started protesting and arguing.  I had a mutiny on my hands (I'm exaggerating, of course)!  They were at a loss and very uncomfortable.
Uh oh.  What had I done?  Had I created automatons?  Were they so conditioned to write and "create" within boundaries and expectations that they didn't know what to do when left to their own devices?
Not long ago, my friend who works in higher education posted this commentary, "Resolving to Be Better (Rated)", by a professor, Rob Jenkins.  In it, he remarked, "I do give credence to a few reviews that made a related complaint: I’m not always as clear as I could be about my expectations. While I explain my grading standards and process early in the semester, I’ve never been a big fan of rubrics, which I find limiting and artificial. However, I see now that I probably need an actual document, something rubric-like that I can share with students to help them understand what’s expected of them and how they will be evaluated."  This sparked a reaction by an art teacher friend who is frustrated by the lack of rubrics at her daughter's university.   At dinner on Friday, we talked about how kids need/want to have clear expectations, so rubrics are necessary and good.  However, I told my friends about my 6th graders' reactions when not provided with a rubric and said it was good for them to have to figure out what to do on their own once in a while - for the exact reason that, in the future, they won't always have specific guidelines for assignments and projects.  They don't always provide rubrics or frameworks in business, either.
I talked to my daughter and husband about this - they're both business people - and asked their opinions.  Libby said she loved rubrics in school because she didn't like being docked for things that weren't explicitly called out.  Understandable.  However, she said experiences with more ambiguous assignments would have been good because that's how real jobs are.  Ed shared that successful businesses value people who can be given a project and construct their own "road maps" on how to accomplish the task.  Collaboration is accepted and encouraged during that process, but ultimately, businesses want people who can move forward based on past experiences and knowledge without specific, step-by-step guidelines. 
Through these conversations, I conclude we need a balance.  When something new is given to kids, they need specific guidelines.  We're teaching in an outcome-based educational system right now, so we have to give kids specific steps to reach those outcomes, but that is not necessarily all good - it's possibly stifling creativity and critical thinking.  With such specific outcomes, we're not encouraging kids' own thinking.  In the beginning of teaching a new kind of structure or format, we need to be specific and provide rubrics.  After that, however, we need to be encouraging kids to construct their own plans and rubrics - they could collaborate on that kind of activity.  Put the learning and outcomes in THEIR hands.  Jason Augustowski, a teacher I heard speak at NCTE in November, talked about that (his students were part of the panel, and they were awesome).  He shows his kids the Common Core standards, has them break down what the standards mean, and then leaves it up to them to design how they'll show mastery.  Wow. 
You may already be doing these kinds of things with your students.  What are your thoughts on balancing rubrics and ambiguous assignments?  How do you use rubrics in the classroom?  Who writes them?  How are they written? Do your kids write their own rubrics?   I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I am so glad you chose to write today, even though I didn't give you a rubric. I was recently evaluated by an administrator who asked where the rubric was. I had been specific about planning and talking with one group, but not with the second group (which she observed). Most times the students and I create the rubric together. On some assignments the rubric stays the same every week. (Reader response, for example) But like you, I would really like my kids to move forward without formal expectations. It's almost as though the rubric becomes a crutch to their own possibilities. Hm. Lots to think about.

  2. I go back and forth about using rubrics for the reasons you mentioned. I've often wondered what would happen if I showed kids the standards and asked them how they wanted to show their learning. I'm going to check out your link to Jason.

  3. I have finally resolved myself to having my students help me create every rubric. What I haven't figured out yet is timing..before (love because they know expectations) during (because they have more knowledge of project) after (because they totally understand the end result) I have to admit I have tried all three this year and still up in the air.

  4. Holly,
    Fascinating post! I view rubrics as a scaffolded mentor text. They spell out what we need to do. Or how it should look. What it should contain. Students and parents love seeing what they need to do to succeed. Considering the high stakes world we live in, I don't blame them. But, just like your husband and daughter noted, life and work don't have rubrics. There isn't a road map and it isn't fair. We do need to teach our students how to operate on their own. I suppose if we do this in low stakes or no stakes environments the anxiety will lessen, giving them permission to fail. Hmm, thinking about this further, is taking away rubrics inviting the opportunity to meet with failure or self generated success? Interesting. Thanks for making me think!