Judging and being judged.

So I started thinking, as I reviewed the new descriptive writing rubric that I’d created to meet my mandated professional goal. I looked at the rubric. It was very detailed and very specific.  I have been told that kids need to see very clear guidelines so that they can judge for themselves whether their best efforts have earned a 1, 2, 3 or 4 in organization, word choice, detail and editing.  I was picturing my ten year old students, especially the ones who keep telling me how much they hate to write.  I started imagining myself in their shoes, knowing that every effort I made would be judged in minute detail, first by themselves, and then by me.

I thought about the Science Notebook Rubric that we use, and the Scientific Inquiry Rubric.  I imagined myself as a ten year old, trying to come up with a “focus question” and some “objective data” as I wondered what would happen if I put a bug in a tank with a frog.

That sort of got me thinking about the math open response rubrics.  And the history research paper rubrics.

And, Heaven help me, the “narrative writing rubric” that is in place in my classroom.

I tried to picture myself sitting down to write a story. Or a blog post.  I imagined my excitement as I thought about my wonderful new idea.  I pictured the little zing of adrenaline that I always get when I start to write.  I can just see myself, smiling and nodding as my fingers fly over the keys and one idea slips into the next.

Then I pictured myself being doused in ice cold water as I came to realization that despite my very best efforts, the dialogue between the main characters in my short story “did not move the story arc forward in a meaningful way”.  Would I be able or willing to rewrite, reframe, reshape my story in such a narrow way in order to raise my “2” to a “3”?  Would I ever dare to hit that “publish” button on my blog posts if I didn’t feel sure that my words would be worthy of a solid “4” in all of the rubric categories?

And it suddenly hit me: we keep reading about “education reform” and how the goal of all of this “Common Core” and “21st Century Learning” stuff is supposed to be about encouraging kids to take academic and intellectual leaps. It is supposed to be about freeing them to think in new and exciting way, to ask great questions, to dare to pursue their own answers.


How creative and innovative would YOU be if you thought that every single attempt you made in any area would be judged according to someone else’s idea of “the best” effort?  How many intellectual risks would you take if you knew that your supervisor would be measuring your work on a scale where the expectation is that most people will fail to meet the top score?

I thought about my lovely rubric, all crisp and clean and typed into its little boxes.  Then I thought of JRR Tolkein, and the courage it took to come up with “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

I said a silent prayer of thanks than young JRR never saw a “narrative rubric” in his life.  Then I carefully clicked the button on my computer which placed my lovely rubric into my “professional goals” folder.

Where it will stay, unused, for the remainder of the year.


11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by 2old2tch on October 18, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Hallelujah! You are exactly right. This obsessive scrutiny is stultifying. We are trying to encase learning in a formulaic framework that in kills the excitement and joy of discovery.


    • I am just not going to do it. Not.
      We are about to write a story, a fun, interesting story. I’ll be damned if I give them a “rubric” for it before they jump in.


  2. Posted by Kat on October 18, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Your post has me really thinking! I have taught college composition now for about 20 years, and in the last 5 years I’ve been developing and using rubrics… I thought they were good for two main reasons: They allow the students to see what’s expected of them and what to shoot for in the final draft. It seemed more fair to give them the rubric along w/ the assignment. Also, it covered my behind when I gave them a lower grade than they wanted on their final drafts; after all, I gave them the rubric and a fair chance, right?

    But here’s the problem: I don’t see that the list of criteria on the rubrics is necessarily helping the students become better writers or making them enjoy the writing process any more than before.

    I’m planning to use a “B” Contract (google Peter Elbow for more about this) the next time I teach an essay comp course– where students are not evaluated on every little thing and as long as they complete the required drafts, peer reviews, etc. they are guaranteed no lower than a “B” in the class…and those who want to try for a higher grade will have a few more requirements.

    I would love to see students realize their own potential as writers and actually ENJOY the creativity of writing. They hate writing and have a fear of red ink even when they get to college because of all that scrutiny in K-12. Thank you for your words today.


    • Love this “B” contract idea. Thanks for the tip.


    • Thank you for your supportive words!
      I teach in a school that has traditionally never given grades. We used to talk about what we all liked in a piece of writing, and kids used to write together and make decisions about writing together. They cranked out perfectly disorganized, delightful stories full of adventure and they LOVED it. We figured that there was plenty of time to craft the art of writing later. At ten, we wanted them to discover the joy of writing something funny and watching people laugh.
      What happened to us?
      My students say things like, “I can’t write as well as I can read.” (NO KIDDING! Me, either!!!)
      And “I hate to write. I can never think of what to say.”
      And I still say that Ray Bradbury’s short stories would fail on a lot of rubrics. As would Vonnegut. What “story arc”?


  3. Great post.
    I’m struggling with the rubric thing as well. My students have been writing confidently since Sept and now I have to grade their published work based on a rubric. I don’t want to crush their developing confidence but I have to input a 1,2,3, or 4. grrr…


    • I asked the kids to write a fun, short paragraph the first week of school. It was just to get them excited for the year. It was “Pretend its twenty years from now and I see you. You are doing the coolest thing ever with your life! What is it?” They all asked, “How long does it have to be?” and “Is there a rubric?” A rubric for our dreams? Hell, no!


  4. So glad I’m not a student now. Back in the “olden days,” there was lots of emphasis on imagination and creativity. Maybe it was because during the Cold War, we were so focused on teaching kids about American freedom versus Soviet regimentation.
    That assignment about “twenty years from now” was such a great idea, and the poor little things were stuck worried about a stupid rubric.


  5. Posted by Kat on December 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Hello– I am in the process of preparing to teach an ENGL 101 composition (Freshman English) class that de-emphasizes grades and encourages (in an ideal world) a “love” for learning even at age 17 to 20-something. I found this article from 2011 and thought of you.

    It’s called “A Case Against Grades” at http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm

    Happy holidays!


    • Thank you!!! I am a huge fan of Kohn (always have two of his books on display in my classroom when parents come in!)
      Good luck with your class; it sounds wonderful!


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