Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Rubric for Happiness

 The impending snowstorm sent the buses to the high school at 10:30 am for an early dismissal.  An hour later I was home, having survived a quick trip to the Country Store (because who is crazy enough to go to the supermarket on a milk and toilet paper run day?) to find this message waiting in my inbox from a colleague:

I am trying something new with my Geometry class -
 something that I think you have done - 
having the class create the rubric for a project.  
Do you have any helpful tips or suggestions?  
THANKS my friend!

It's nice that Lori took the time to give me the opening for a response to today's Te@chthought Blog Challenge:

 How do you design the perfect rubric?

Once again, I'm staring at the list of prompts from Te@chthought, and muttering under my breath.  Who the heck proposed this question?  Oh, yeah, ME.  What the heck was I thinking?  After all, if I'm going to ask a question for people to respond to, AND INTEND to be part of that experience, it would seem that I should have an answer.

To quote my kids, "I GOT NOTHIN".

It's tough for me to sound like a confident teacher when I want to use that as an answer.  To wax philosophically, I could certainly ask "What IS perfect?"  I mean, really.  How can anyone define perfection, especially when designing something that could potentially assess an infinite number of possible responses. 

As a Teacher of the Gifted, (TOG), I struggle with rubrics because they identify "best possible work", when, in reality, I don't know the full capabilities of my students, and by providing rubrics I may actually be stifling them from producing or creating something that is so much more impressive/valuable/intricate/thought-provoking/meaningful  than the expectations I have defined for them.  I've used some Autonomous Learning models with my gifted and talented kids for more abstract projects, but when I'm called upon to define a specific rubric for a more defined project, I rarely design them myself.


Nope.  I let the students design them.   I used to offer rubrics, based upon LDC, or the Student Guide to Written Work, or, or some other online source.  The reality is, the high ability kids did exactly what they needed to do to get exactly the grade they wanted.  Heck, even the lower ability kids did exactly what they needed to do.  For me, it was unfathomable that for some kids, a D+ was "just fine".

I teach a course called Information Literacy.  The students are required to do two short reports and one lengthy research paper over the course of the semester, that satisfy requirements established as part of our graduation project.  The assignments are non-negotiable.  They are required for all students who graduate.

So here's how I design a rubric -- and I will be the first to tell you, it isn't perfect.  But it's the best I've come up with so far.

When I first introduce a new assignment, we chunk it over several days or weeks, but begin with the end in mind.  Students need to have a vision for where they are headed, but they don't need to worry about the specifics until the actual "creative" process is visible.  So when it comes to papers, we define and outline, and then do the following:

1.  Assemble a circle of chairs.  Make sure there is one for EVERYONE, including the teacher (s).
2.  Sit down with your students.  Listen more than you talk.  Ask questions, but give no answers.  The questions go something like this:

What is the most important thing you will be demonstrating with this project?
(students may need prompting, if they've never done this before.  
answers could include things like MLA Formatting, or other specific skills or larger
concepts or ideas, depending on the nature of your course.)

How important is this project for the course?  How many points should it be worth?  
This is always an interesting discussion.  You may need to encourage kids to talk and
to disagree with each other.  It settles out, and the discussion is WELL worth the time.  I usually encourage 40 points for a rough draft, and 100 for a final, but it depends on your class and the amount of time you're spending on the project.

What are the other components that are important to you as a class?
For example, the 2 page informative papers that my students write are usually worth 40 points, 10 points for proper MLA format, header, page number  10 points for sources/citations, and 20 points for content, the first time around.  The points may shift slightly, and the kids may decide that something like "conclusions" is worthy of consideration. 

3.   Appoint a student scribe to create the rubric on the board, so that all have ownership and can see and comprehend it.

4.  Ask for a final vote for consensus.  If someone disagrees, now's the time to voice that.  I've never had to break a tie, so let them talk it out.

What I have found is that the kids who care have a good grasp of what is important, and define those things for the rubric.  Letting the kids do the discussion means that they own the rubric.  Subsequent final drafts, and future papers focus on different skills, with different point values.

Does it work?  In my unscientific study, (aka, I've done it with 3 classes over the last 3 semesters), my students score an average of nearly a full letter grade higher than when I define the rubric.  They aren't looking for "minimum acceptable level" work, but are truly working to prove they can hit their own targets.

**If you haven't done any reading on Socratic discussions, it may be helpful to establish some ground rules.  It helps to have a couple of strong students who will guide (but not seize control of) the conversation.

Happy Students?  Maybe.  Happy Teacher? Definitely.