Rethinking Rubrics

In our Google+ Community on digital portfolios for students, we have been discussing the pros and cons of rubrics. Yes, they spell out what is expected regarding a summative assessment for a unit of study. Differentiating between levels of understanding can help teachers more efficiently assess assigned performance tasks of student learning. For teachers who are now evaluated within the Danielson Framework for Instruction, the focus is on a rubric.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what’s the problem? Clear expectations and easy-to-apply assessment tools can make the learning lives of students and teachers more manageable.

This may be exactly why there is a problem. Assessment is not an easy practice to apply. Expectations for what excellence looks like for student learning can become more confusing when we parse out an understanding of mastery in the name of efficiency. Plus, there is the debate about defining poor performance. How much attention should a “1” really be given? Why is a “1” (see: failure) even an option offered to our students?

In this post, I propose three alternatives to rubrics when designing units of study. I am not anti-rubric; rather, we should consider the possibilities when designing instruction for deep student understanding and strong skill development.

Possibility #1: Analyzing Exemplary Pieces of Student Work

This approach works really well with skill-focused learning, such as writing. Showing students what is expected to achieve excellence with examples from past learners can have a better impact.

Below is an example: A mastery wall of student writing, compiled by grade level teams as a mid-year informative writing check.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 10.43.28 PM

How might sharing and analyzing exemplary student work be an improvement over rubrics?

Possibility #2: Standards of Excellence

I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Common Core State Standards, especially the literacy anchor standards, read like a rubric. Each phrase within the standard addresses a specific understanding or skill. Standards of excellence are paragraph-length descriptions of what a student should know and be able to do after a progression of learning activities. What is described is what is expected. Anything less is scored below a “4”, largely at the discretion of the student + teacher discussing the work.

Here is an example I created for a unit of study on narrative writing:

As an author, craft an original story, real or imagined, that has a beginning, middle, and end. This story shall have an attention-grabbing lead, rising action that keeps the reader going, and a satisfying conclusion. It shall be free of confusing language and grammatical errors. In addition, your story shall be both entertaining and informative.

How might crafting a standard of excellence be an improvement over rubrics?

Possibility #3: Novice vs. Expert Understanding

If the concept of a rubric is hard to depart from, consider this alternative. It comes from the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The teacher determine what is a basic understanding derived from a unit of study, and contrasts that with a deep understanding which warrants a high level of recognition. Here is an example from a 4th grade unit on state history and geography:

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 11.11.20 PM

Both effort and skill development are recognized within this assessment.

How might differentiating between novice and expert understanding be an improvement over rubrics?

What are your thoughts on this topic of rubrics and alternative assessments? Please share your thinking in the comments.

Update from readingbyexample.com: An article, a post, an opportunity, and a reading celebration

Having trouble navigating Twitter? Check out an article I wrote for EdTech K-12, on how to use this social media tool for better professional learning:

How Twitter Can Power Your Professional Learning

Continue reading “Update from readingbyexample.com: An article, a post, an opportunity, and a reading celebration”

Recommended Chapter Book Series for Early Readers (by our two kids)

Freddie Fernortner: Fearless First Grader by Johnathan Rand (Audio Craft Pr Inc)

I like this series because it’s mostly fiction, but kind of realistic. In the first book, The Fantastic Flying Bicycle, has wooden wings attached to it with fabric. A fan in the back pushes the away from the rider. If you paddled really hard, it might happen.

– Our 8 year old son

Greetings from Somewhere by Harper Paris (Simon & Schuster)

This is about two kids who are going on a trip around the world to see different places. At almost everywhere they go, there is a mystery to solve.

– Our 6 year old daughter

Magic Animals Friends by Daisy Meadows (Scholastic)

It’s about two girls named Jess and Lily. There’s this cat named Goldie who always visits them, in case they are in trouble. The evil witch name Grizelda who tries to stop their fun.

– Daughter

My Weird School by Dan Gutman (HarperCollins)

These books are some of my favorites from 2nd grade. When you first read one book, you can’t stop reading the whole series. Each one is about a specific teacher and how they are weird. There are sequels to this series. Mr. Jack is a Maniac is one of my favorites. The school gets a wrestling teacher who is chased away by a bear. The two main characters, A.J. and Andrea, have to use what they learning from Mr. Jack to be beat the bear off.

– Son

Looniverse by David Lubar (Scholastic)

This series is about a kid who is walking home from school, but accidently lands on the curb. He finds a coin with the letter “S” on both sides with “Strange, Stranger, Strangest” on both sides. Strange things start to happen to his friends, such as drinking two sodas and becoming a human floatie.

– Son

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter (Knopf)

It’s about a girl how has a fairy tree in her front yard. That means that she puts stuff in it, and the next day, she gets something in return from the fairies. Piper put a strawberry in it, and she got an earring.

– Daughter

The Critter Club by Callie Barkley (Little Simon)

The Critter Club is about four girls who run an animal shelter. They help hurt animals, and sometimes the animals stay there a long time. I want to read this next book, #11.

– Daughter

Horrible Harry by Suzy Kline (Puffin)

This kid likes all sorts of horrible things, such as slime and bugs. He has a crush on this girl in class named Song Lee. My favorite is Horrible Harry On the Ropes. In gym class, he makes a bunch of excuses not to climb the rope because he is afraid of heights.

– Son

What are some of your favorite chapter book series? Please share in the comments.

Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.

3953233580_4e8d9a55b7

photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.reading.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.readwritethink.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Beyond the Screen: Osmo for the iPad 

We checked this iPad accessory out at our local library. The company describes their product as “a kid’s technology system that brings the physical and digital worlds together.” The kit comes with an iPad stand, reflector, tans, and letter tiles. 

My kids tried out the Words app first. It would display an image and a blank set of letter spaces. You place a tile and it will “speak” with the iPad app. They had to first determine what the item was (lizard, iguana?), and then try to spell it. 

 

Blank spaces on the top were for incorrect letter guesses. They would take turns offering letters to the front of the iPad, with a little guidance from their dad :-). The game was a digital cross between hangman and Wheel of Fortune. Possible literacy center?

Next, my son started Masterpiece, an app that reflects your drawing on paper to the outline on the screen. Whatever he drew, a virtual hand and pencil drew a line on the app. 


He also enjoyed Newton. This creativity game requires you to draw or create borders in order to get the dropping spheres to hit the targets. They used pencils, drawn lines, and the edge of the paper to complete the levels.


The final of the four Osmo apps is Tangram. It works like the materials you might see in a math kit, except the app provides guidance on shape placement by reflecting what you have created so far. For example, a hand pops up and models for you how to flip or rotate the tan to match the image. Tangram uses math terms accurately.

I looked online and found the Osmo kit for $80. The apps are free. This is definitely technology to consider for primary literacy and numeracy centers in a classroom, as well as for any learner wanting to enhance their drawing and creativity skills.

Close Reading is a Conversation

I cannot proclaim to be an expert on close reading, nor would I want to. Although the skill/strategy/idea (?) of close reading is only briefly mentioned in the Common Core State Standards, it has become a staple in discussions among educators. It is listed first in the anchor standards for reading, if that counts for anything:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

I explored this concept of close reading a couple of years ago in ASCD Express, titled “Reading Like a Leader”. You can see from the image shared within the article that what our leadership team read was covered in highlights and annotations. This worked for us, because we passed around one article and relied on asynchronous dialogue for learning.

But what about when it is just you and the author, mano a mano? Should learners highlight anything and everything relevant to their purpose for reading?

This has been a very ineffective strategy for me. When gathering information for my first book, there wasn’t a detail that I did not like. There are entire pages in some of the resources I explored where there is literally more text highlighted and annotated on a page than text left alone. Yet when I tried to apply said knowledge to my book, I found myself going back to those same passages I had so diligently marked up and ended up more confused. My additions to the text were really subtractions to my understanding. I was distracted by my contributions, because they interfered with my comprehension.

I have learned my lesson, so to speak. In my current writing project, I am eschewing all of my previous attempts to “cite specific textual evidence” and to “determine what the text says explicitly”. Instead, I am trying to have a conversation with the author as I read. One thing that has helped me is using Thin Strip Post-it G18044_7675notes. If I find a passage in a text I want to remember, I place the note next to the passage and write either a question or a statement on it. The question is sincere; it is more of a wondering than anything. When writing a statement, I am trying to come up with a sentence that could surround that passage or quote, as a way to summarize it or transition toward it within my own writing.

Below is an example of what I am talking about, from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011):

We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask, Does it serve our human purpose? – a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction. (19)

Here is my annotation on the Post-it Thin Strip attached to this passage:

Whenever we add something to our plates, something else is pushed off.

I cannot say for certain if this passage from the text will be a part of the final draft for my project. What Turkle shares is profound, but it may not be applicable. This is one of the challenges of close reading – learners assume that whatever they highlight and annotate must be regurgitated verbatim in their written responses to the text. I know this, because it took me a whole book to realize it. I hope today’s students are faster learners than I am.

What I am doing with the above example is not documenting my learning, but rather holding on to a new idea. By responding to the text in my own words, I think I am more likely to come back to the reading and response as I am writing. This is how a conversation works: A back-and-forth discussion around topics that are important to both the author and the reader. I have devoted meaning to my responses, instead of assuming that the text will just naturally mean something to me. I am reading this book because I care about the topics and find the text both informative and entertaining.

There is purpose in my Post-its that extends beyond the room to write my thoughts down. By not highlighting and annotating the text itself, I am not smothering the author’s writing with potential distractions for me as the reader. If I want to reread the passage that I responded to, I am now forced to reading a paragraph or two to locate it. Subsequently, I am revisiting the context in which I found the original passage that struck me as important. In other books I have read for informational purposes, I have been gone as far as simply leaving an asterisk next to the passage I found important, with no response. My thinking might change when I came back to it.

As the title states, close reading is a conversation. It is not extracting every essential bit of information from a text, like you were squeezing a lemon to make lemonade. Reading a text closely is about determining why you want to read a text, evaluating whether the text before you is worth your time, and then finding evidence within the text to hold onto for future reference. It is a partnership in understanding and appreciation between the writer and the reader. Anything less is a recipe for reducing engagement in meaningful inquiries.

Recommended Series: Tom Gates by Liz Pichon

This review is by Brendan and Finn, 2nd grade students in Mrs. Akey’s classroom at Howe Elementary School, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.

logo-homeThe Tom Gates series is totally amazing. It is one of our favorites. The drawings are good and there are tons of funny parts.

The books were amazing because there were many things that happened to Tom Gates that seemed unbelievable.  For example, he saw his teacher, Mr. Fullerman, outside of school at a concert … and he was wearing LEATHER pants!  Wow!!!

The books were full of funny events, like the time Tom had to wear his friend, Derek’s, swimming trunks.  The funny thing was that the swimming trunks had teddy bears on them, and they looked like Derek had worn them when he was four years old!  Way too small!!!

The drawings in the books are great!  We liked that they are pictures that we could draw ourselves.  It actually looked like a kid drew them!  There are also A LOT of drawings on each page.  Most of them have some sort of label, and that makes the books easier to understand.

154679-ml-1173225