New Teachers

Can Rubrics Inspire?

Liberating prose while following the rules

January 11, 2012

In a Buick LaCrosse crowded with English teachers on the way to a wine bar in Raleigh, Dr. Lil Brannon explained her trouble with rubrics: "Did you ever watch kids play Dance Dance Revolution, the video game where they put their feet in the right squares drawn on a mat? That doesn't look like real dancing, does it?"

If I understood the wise and prolific author, writing to a rubric can lead to herky-jerky prose.

But what if rubrics didn't trip writers up and manifest bloated, cautious, unreadable prose? Could rubrics launch writers to compose like "radiant eyes hallucinating?"

Defining Rubrics, Considering Their Benefits

In Understanding Rubrics, Heidi Goodrich views the rubric positively as...

Evidence that they enhance writing scores is as easy to find as counter-arguments.

Professor Jason B. Jones uses them when his grading becomes backlogged. "For me," he says, "the main thing is cutting down on interlineal/marginal comments. When things are truly late, it's just a rubric score and a terminal comment." (ProfHacker).

Like Jones, I've relied on rubrics to save time when I was chin deep in novice essays. Each time, I've been discomfited by how the rectangles and 8-point Helvetica suggests authority that I don't feel. Shouldn't grading essays feel like a conversation (Marguerite Helmers) where perspectives shift during the act of communicating?

Rubric-literate students smell my trepidation. They politely challenge essay scores (not surprisingly, no student has ever argued for a lower grade). I try to frame these disputes as evidence of student empowerment -- you really took it to me, Billy! But simultaneously negotiating the paradoxical role of gatekeeper and coach taxes the soul.

Working with Rubrics

Despite these issues and many others, popular rubric activities are dang useful for developing student reflection. For example, before they write a persuasive essay, have students identify characteristics a reader might expect to see in a successful essay of that genre and then boil that list down to essential items. The result is 1) a classroom-grown rubric co-authored by students and their instructor, and 2) a good academic conversation.

To deepen the conversation, I often use a dual-sided rubric to help students critically reflect on their own development.

Because state-mandated rubrics can overwhelm novice writers, I introduce these high stakes assessments by instructing students to use a highlighter to mark specific points of emphasis.

But Can They Inspire?

I had a weird and inspirational composing moment. After putting spouse Randi's ailing English setter down last month, I returned to a house that was as gray and empty as a winter afternoon. Minutes before Randi returned home from school teaching, inspiration struck. I folded 30 index cards nametag style and, after scrawling a happy thing on each, hid them throughout the house like Easter eggs, hoping to ease the hurt that Randi would experience in a home absent one dog. "Matt Damon," "cake (and subsets of cake)," "pizza night," "bowling shoes," "Todd now!," "high thread count sheets," "waffle cones," and "Skinny Elvis/Large Elvis" are samples. Randi toured each room in our small 1950s rambler and laughed. Success!

Could a rubric have inspired a classroom version of this important writing-on-demand event? I think so, if we stopped using the tools like police radar guns at rush hour.

Last month, I charged English education interns with inventing motivational rubric ideas. For example, they could challenge young essayists to engage the pathos of Rembrandt's Lucretia (in person, the painting is staggering) or take audacious rhetorical risks like King Leonidas rallying the troops at the Battle of Thermopylae.

The rebooted rubrics were funny and inspiring. One used nothing but images, like the sublime Irises, to suggest how a reader should feel. Another intern, explaining that practicality motivated him, created a simple checklist of links, similar to the 6+1 Trait Rubric at Education Northwest. Still another student used nothing but Hemingway quotations in her rubric: "Ideas: 'My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.'" Other quotations about narrative essays were used, like Samuel Goldwyn's statement, "What we want is a story that starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax."

A generation of essays has soaked in the antiseptic taste of writing rubrics' viscous marinade. It's time to throw them on the grill, wave our two-pronged spatulas and cheer at the sizzle and smoke.

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