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Life is Not a Rubric

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Supposedly, Einstein wrote this on a blackboard, although others credit William Bruce Cameron instead of Einstein. Regardless of the source, I have always liked to view life through this lens. In my experience, many things are subjective and difficult to quantify. I found this to be especially true in evaluating my students’ essay writing when I taught high school English.

Back in that era, reading and discussing quality literature was essential to being able to write well. Student assignments focused on topics related to what we were reading, and we were required to assign one essay per week. In addition, I had my students write in journals, which were not graded or corrected. This was a way for me to know them as individuals and for them to write without fear of receiving a poor grade. Taking an English class meant combining the skills of reading and writing.

Somewhere along the way, writing became an afterthought, separated from reading. By the time my children entered elementary school in the late 70s and early 80s, reading was ability grouped with little emphasis on language structure or phonics. No more diagramming sentences. I’m not sure that was especially helpful to creating good writers, but it might have been nice to learn what a sentence was; where to put commas and periods rather than the long run-ons that seemed to be good enough; and how to construct a good paragraph. I remember getting into a disagreement with a third-grade science teacher who assigned a report when the students did not know how to write a paragraph, let alone an essay. He assured me they would learn these things in language arts at some future time. His subject was science and he still expected his students to write a report.

Not being able to buck the system, I took it upon myself to teach my kids how to write. We made outlines, talked about introductions, conclusions, topic sentences, punctuation — you get the picture. They wrote first drafts by themselves and then we talked about how they could be improved. I don’t remember any of them complaining about this bit of home schooling. In fact, all three of them have told me how much they appreciated it as they went off to college and careers.

Fast forward to my grandchildren’s generation and I am even more disappointed about the low status of writing in their educations. Instead of learning to write a proper essay, they get rubrics. I suspect the standards movement and focus on standardized test scores (No Child Left Behind under Bush and Race to the Top under Obama) made writing less important as part of language arts instruction because it couldn’t be measured as easily as reading or math.

There has been a recent focus on the science of teaching reading, which is a good thing. Best educational practice is now being used more often. Unfortunately, writing instruction has yet to be given the attention it deserves. According to an article in Education Week:

“Writing is intrinsically important for all students to learn—after all, it is the primary way beyond speech that humans communicate. But more than that, research suggests that teaching students to write in an integrated fashion with reading is not only efficient, it’s effective. Finally, beyond the English/language arts block, kids often aren’t asked to do much writing in early grades.”

By the time students are in high school, many do not know how to write well. Essay rubrics like the one below are often used in place of actual instruction and personalized teacher corrections and comments on student writing (remember that old red pen?).

Theoretically, rubrics enable teachers to assess student writing more objectively by sharing specific criteria for the assignment. Essay rubrics also save teachers’ time because all of the criteria are listed and a number can be assigned to each aspect of a student’s essay, depending on how well they meet the criteria. They also decrease the likelihood that students will challenge the grade they receive, as the points they receive for work are based solely on the rubric.

As a former English teacher, I can see why method of teaching writing has its appeal. No more corrections and comments in red ink. No more personalized responses to the work geared to students as individual and unique learners. Everything is reduced to a number. Using the rubric example, a student will receive this type of feedback instead: Focus and detail = 9, Organization = 8, Voice = 7, Word choice = 7, Sentence structure, etc. = 8 for a grand total of 39/50. What does that mean to the student? How would I, as a teacher, determine what number to assign? And isn’t the decision to give the student an 8 out of 10 subjective?

To the extent it is formally taught to elementary school students, writing skills, both analytical and creative, do not receive much attention. Opportunities to write narrative, persuasive, analytical, and creative essays are limited. Perhaps our emphasis on standardized, testable skills has led us down this path, but if the future holds AI generated writing for students, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” *

*From the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke

by Laurie Levy
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