Rant On Rubrics

“A Rant About Rubrics”
I have a well-used soapbox. I get on it every time certain words come up. I’m on it now, ranting about rubrics. I am absolutely fed up with them. I think they are a waste of time, effort, and money. They stifle originality and creativity. Yet administrators are always asking me for copies of rubrics. Or asking me to conduct workshops on the use of rubrics. I can give them rubrics. I can give them an SAT rubric or an AWPE rubric or an AP rubric. Or I can tell them where to find them. Just go on line where there are pages and pages of links to already-made rubrics, teacher-made rubrics, grids for making rubrics. I’d also like to tell them what to do with them!
Rubrics seemed to pop up in the world of education quite a while ago when I was caught off guard, not looking, probably busy reading a great new novel or an emotion-packed poem, and suddenly rubrics were all over the place, not just for scoring state assessments but in the classroom, in the hands of the students. Rubric. It’s an interesting word from the Latin meaning “red chalk”. That shouldn’t have been a surprise (think ruby) but it was. Buried deep in the “red” definitions are the words “authoritative rule or direction.” Authoritative. And complicated. And, I repeat, stifling. Where is the individual voice, the different approach? Current rubrics have as many as six columns focusing on as many as six traits of writing with as many as four or five comments in each box. Count them up! We are way over 100 here! Enough to overwhelm any writer, particularly a student writer.
Granted, administrators might need these scoring guides to collect scores to prove to whoever is holding the cash for education that their students can perform. In fact, they probably do need them for that purpose. They have to have some kind of measurement, don’t they?
But why should teachers give their students rubrics? Is it logical that if administrators think rubrics are a good thing for finding out how their students stand in relation to other students all over the city, the state, the world, then teachers should also think rubrics are a good thing to put in front of the students in a classroom?
Why, oh why, would I want my students to know what they have to do to get a “1” on an essay? (For the uninitiated, a “1” is as low as it gets.) Or a “2.”? Or a “3”? The writing “includes few, if any, ideas that are related to the topic”; the writing “contains a limited vocabulary”; the writing “contains many errors.” Teachers who like rubrics will argue, “I need to show him why he received a 2.” There are at least 20 reasons on most rubrics in the 2 column. What happened to responding to student writing with a note? “Juan (or Madison or Armen or Jennifer or Sean): You barely touched the topic but wandered all over the place. When you revise this, pick a focus and stick with it.” I want my students to know what they have to do to articulate their thoughts, spin a good story, put forth an argument and do it to the best of their ability.
“What about criteria charts? Do you use criteria charts?” Yes, I do, but again, carefully. Too many teachers create them, or download them, make them permanent. Criteria charts should be a living, organic thing, fluid, used after reading to list, “What did this author do when he wrote?” “How did this writer structure her piece?”
These become guidelines, not laws. Helpful? Yes. As an adult reader, everything I read adds to my repertoire of ways I can write. Used incorrectly, a criteria chart can be just as stifling as a rubric.
The alternative is simple. Read good stuff. Expose students to that good writing I was talking about, preferably writing that doesn’t fit any prescribed rubric. I read an essay by Brian Doyle in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine called “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever.” A friend sent it to me because she thought of me all the time she was reading it. She wasn’t thinking of me because I write like Doyle. I only wish I could write like Doyle. She was thinking of me because she knew how I felt about writing. I would use it when I talk about writing to inspire; use it as I attempt to change attitudes about writing. In writing about the nature essay Doyle says, “The story slips back into view gently, a little shy, holding its hat, nothing melodramatic, in fact it offers a few gnomic questions without answers, and then it gently slides away off the page and off the stage, it almost evanesces or dissolves, and it’s only later after you have read the essay three times with mounting amazement that you see quite how the writer managed the stagecraft there . . . .”
So I read Doyle’s essay three times. In fact, I read it more than three times and I will continue reading it. Each time I see more clearly what his rubric for writing a nature essay is, not for giving the essay a score, but just for inspiration. It’s all there in beautiful language. He describes the beginning of the nature essay: “an image so startling and lovely and wondrous.” The next paragraph, he continues, includes a “nutty everyday story” and suddenly “the essay spins on a dime like a skater.” Instead of Conclusions (with a capital C) and Advice (with a capital A) and Stern Instructions and Directions (note capitals), “there’s only the quiet murmur of the writer tiptoeing back to the story.” At the end “there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed.” The essay ends “with a feeling eerily like a warm hand brushed against your cheek.”
I’m breathless. I’ve climbed down from my soapbox. I know we can’t find inspiration like that from a rubric. We can only find that kind of inspiration by reading. Amos Bronson Alcott wrote, “That is a good book which is opened with expectation and closed in profit.” I read Doyle’s essay with expectation and closed it with profit.