Friday, February 19, 2010

Still speaking of rubrics

While I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the arguments made by Mabry and Wilson, I still consider rubrics to be a real help to me as a teacher and assessor of student writing. At least, I don't think there's a better alternative. If I had time to sit down with every one of my students each week and conference with them, that would certainly be better, but I have 149 students.

When I was in high school and college, I had never heard of a rubric. The writing process as well as writing assessment -- how teachers assigned grades -- was a mystery to me. I had some good natural tendencies as a writer that were rewarded by good grades, but that was as much as I understood. I think I learned most from the instructors who wrote copious comments on my papers, but overall there wasn't much direct instruction about writing or help with revision.

Now I think writing teachers, including me, have worked hard to de-mystify what good writing is, how to do it, and how it's assessed. And the challenge is how to do that in a way that encourages creativity and voice rather than stifle it. In the past, I have taught AP Lang and Comp students who have formulaic essay writing down cold (and can score 5's easily on the AP test), who are "good writers" in a technical sense, but whose writing is flat and dull and stilted. With those students, I felt like I was trying to help them unlearn what well-meaning writing teachers have taught them so well (like the precise number of supporting examples needed in a paragraph).

I don't think that rubrics have to "strip writing assessment of the complexity that breathes life into good writing," as Wilson says. If a rubric is carefully written, it allows space for this complexity. I think that my best rubrics DO honor complexity. . . but the downside of these very rubrics is that they are not so student-friendly. The language that I try to use in describing student papers needs a whole lot of interpretation from me, and this, I admit, is not good. But the best rubrics give students something to work towards, I think.

I do disagree with one of Mabry's assumptions about writing. She writes that "The standardization of a skill that is fundamentally self-expressive and individualistic obstructs its assessment." I don't consider writing to be "fundamentally self-expressive and individualistic." Certainly some writing, like journal writing, is. But lots of the writing we do in and out of school is for the purpose of communicating clearly, for persuading, for entertaining. For this writing, it makes sense to have objective standards, I think, for what "good writing" is. Let's keep our idea of "good writing" flexible, but let's do have an idea of what we're working towards.

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