The Trouble With Rubrics

I used to be a practioner of Standards Based Grading (SBG). It was a step away from traditional grades and an important move as it helped signal to me the meaninglessness of traditional grading systems. In the midst of this, one of my colleagues would often talk about “Heberts effrots to rubricize the world.” At the time, I took it as a badge of honor: “That’s right. Everything in my course exists on a rubric. Students know exactly where they stand in each of the areas I deem important.”

Over time, however, I came to realize two things:

1. Standards Based Grading was still an attempt to quantify student learning. At the end of the day, I’m unconvinced that something as complicated as “learning” can be quantified. If it can be done, I’m pretty sure it’s not something that can be easily done, and I need someone to teach me this advanced skill.

2. That final phrase of my “badge of honor” statement above really began to bother me: “…the areas I deem important.” To be sure, I’m the expert in my classroom, but when we’re talking about textual interpretation why should we only focus on what the teacher deems important? Shouldn’t we consider what the students deem important?

These two insights caused the demise of rubrics in my classroom. First, I was still finding it difficult to assign some kind of point value to something like “Creativity.” How do I measure that? Once measured, how do I determine how that measurement should fit into the student’s overall grade for the assignment? For the grading period? For the year?

Second, I really want my classroom to be open to new possibilities. This is where rubrics really let me down. If all that matters on a given assignment are the things that I deem important, then I’m squashing the creativity and intellectual firepower of my students. I’m not giving them the option to color outside the lines. I hate that!

When we give a student a rubric, what we are saying is: “These are the things that matter. Only pay attention to them. Please and thank you.”

How awful is that?

That’s certainly not how I want to be treated! I want my independent thoughts to be valued. I want others to see what I think is important. Surely, my students feel the same way.

Rubrics work like a box. The things that go inside the box are valuable; the things that don’t are not. If we want to inspire creativity and outside-the-box thinking, then we shouldn’t trap students by putting them inside the box that they are supposed to get out of!

Rather than providing rubrics for the class or for individual assignments, I now give students prompts for assignments and then make comments on their work to let them know what I felt was effective and what wasn’t. I want students to enter into a conversation with me about this. Why did I think it was effective? Why not? Why did you, student, think it would be effective?

If we’re going to encourage students to be independent thinkers, then we need to encourage them to think independently and this includes allowing them to explore what they think is valuable.

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Gaming Grades and Grading Games

As a teacher, I’ve often been frustrated with the issue of grades and grading. Here are a couple of observations and a couple of ideas for solutions:

1. Gaming Grades
Students often seem far more interested in playing what many teachers call “The Grade Game.” Rather than being interested in learning, students seem only interested in how they can get a better grade. This is most observable in those students deemed “grade grubbers”—e.g., the student who makes a 99 on a quiz and wants to quibble about that 1 point. Here are some questions that are frequently asked by the grade gamers:

  • What do I need to do to raise my grade?
  • Is there any extra credit I can do? (Typically asked at the end of a grading period.)
  • Is this for a grade?
  • How will this affect my grade?

You get the idea…

2. Grading Games
Grading games is sort of the reverse. This is where I, as a teacher, experience the agony of having to put grades on items that I don’t really want to put grades on. When a student turns in an essay or a piece of art or a short story, I might go through various hoops to try and figure out how I assess this thing.

You might be inclined to say that a rubric helps, but in my experience that only multiplies the problem. If the rubric has six categories on it, now I’ve got to find a way to put SIX different grades on this thing and then do some mathematical wizardry to produce a SINGLE grade for the gradebook. (At least Standards-Based Grading solves the second problem by allowing me to dispense with this single grade business.)

With or without a rubric, if you give a dozen teachers the same exact submission to grade, it’s very likely that you’re going to get a dozen different outcomes. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that grades are standardized and that an A to you is the same as an A to me.

How do we solve these problems?

First, we have to recognize that excellent and inspiring teaching which is student-centered and empowering (e.g., Rhizomatic Learning) tends to help alleviate the Grading Game. Not completely, however. These students have grown up in performance-centered cultures and they are addicted to these grades.

Second, we need to seriously consider getting rid of grades or finding some alternative. Currently, I’m most interested in Mark Barnes’s narrative feedback system (SE2R) and hope to find a way to implement it in my classroom this Fall.

parenting in the present

I just spent five days in Vermont with the wife and the kiddo. I’m extremely thankful to get this week in Vermont each summer—a gift from a colleague and mentor—because it offers me an opportunity to completely disrupt my schedule and practice what I call: “Parenting in the Present.” (Alternatively, my wife calls this “Living in a House of Yes.”)

For me, “Parenting in the Present” means making a serious (and often painstaking) effort to forget about my wants and desires and to just be with my son, Gus. This means saying “yes” to what he wants to do.

“Dad, will you come outside with me and play ‘Pretend Baseball’?”

“Yes.”

“Dad, can we make a fire inside the fireplace and roast marshmallows?”

“Yes.”

The more I say “yes” to the things that he wants to do, the more it feels like he says “yes” to the things that I want to do. The key is to simply be in the moment with him. Whatever is going on, let’s do it. No time like the present. Mindfulness in action, really.

Of course, it takes me sometime to get into this mindfulness parenting mode. When we initially arrived, Gus asked if we could go immediately to the private beach where the canoes and kayaks are to be found. Knowing that I prefer to parent in the present, I said: “Sure!” We went down to the beach and played with the kayaks and splashed around in the water a bit. After about 45 minutes, however, I was tired of this and ready for dinner as it was getting late. I also knew that if we didn’t get to the house to make dinner, we’d disrupt his sleeping schedule and I may lose my opportunity to play games (e.g., Hive) with my wife. Gus agreeably got out of the water but was not all interested in heading up the stairs and toward the house. This led to quite a scene on the beach and me feeling like a terrible padre.

Of course, I know that if I’d just played another 10 minutes or so, Gus would’ve realized he was ready for dinner and he would’ve agreeably marched up the steps. In order for me to do that though, I’ve got to get rid of my own desires and be willing to just be in the moment.

This moment is the only one that I have, so why waste it pining for another?

What makes you think Paul is writing to you?

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I’ve spent several hours tonight reading posts about Christianity on a variety of Google+ Communities. One question keeps springing to mind:

“What makes you think Paul is writing to you?”

It is very tempting to pick up the Bible, especially the letters of Paul, and assume that Paul is writing to us. When he uses second person pronouns, we get excited because he’s talking to us. We feel the same way when he uses first person pronouns, as if we are part of Paul’s club.

Here’s the thing:
When reading the Bible and arguing for some sort of “authorial intent” or “original meaning,” we should pay attention to context. Paul’s letters are occasional; they are written to a certain group of people at a certain place and time. No one living is part of that group. Therefore, we need to be careful about universalizing what Paul says. Simply because Paul says something about “you” or “we” doesn’t mean that he is referring to a 21st century Christian.

To be sure, much of what Paul writes is applicable to a modern Christian. I’m not saying none of it is about us. BUT, if we’re going to argue that it is indeed about us, then we need to be prepared to answer this question:

“What makes you think Paul is writing to you?”

Raised on the Last Day: a short argument against the idea that we go to Heaven when we die

Ladder of Divine Ascent (12th century)

In certain settings, I’ve been a bit notorious for arguing that Heaven isn’t a place populated by the souls of the righteous dead. This, of course, is the classic picture which has been handed down to us for roughly a millennium or more and has been most prevalent since the days of Dante. A full explanation of why I have difficulty buying into this picture would take a long time to explain, but this morning I was reminded of it as I read John 6.

To set the stage, John 6 contains the “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” followed by Jesus walking on water, and then the famous “Bread of Life” discourse which is found only in John. During this last section, Jesus repeatedly describes himself as the bread descending from Heaven, given by the Father, for the purpose of bringing eternal life to those who are willing to eat his flesh and drink his blood. (No wonder early Christians were considered cannibals by outsiders!)

The picture that Jesus presents doesn’t sound like we are living souls, as per Greek dualism, but that we are human beings who will die and will await our resurrection on the last day. Based on other New Testament texts, this resurrection is a whole body experience: We’ll be given a new, incorruptible body that will not perish, just like Jesus’s resurrection body as he is the firstborn of that resurrection.

So, what do you think? Do we possess eternal souls that wait in Heaven for the resurrection, perhaps looking down upon the living? Or are we fundamentally flesh, bodies lying dormant, waiting for the resurrection?

“Blood from Turnips” OR “A Thought on John 1.29”

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Recently, I acquired a copy of the UBS Greek New Testament Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes. (I hope to review it at some point, but with respect to that I’ll just say that I’m enjoying it!) I decided to start my adventures with it by reading the Gospel of John.

As I read the first chapter, something struck me that I know I’ve seen/read before, but hadn’t really thought about. John 1.29 goes like this (my translation):

On the next day, [John] saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Look! The lamb of God, the one taking the sin of the world!”

This, of course, is an interesting announcement. John has pointed out Jesus and designated him as the “lamb of God.” Then, John tells us that Jesus is taking away “the sin of the world.” I have two thoughts about this latter statement. [A quick caveat: As I do this, I’m simply interpreting on-the-go, trying to read John in an insular fashion without respect for other texts. I want to read John on his own terms. Consequently, this may not be the “best” or “most Biblical” interpretation.]

First, it is interesting to me that the participle airōn (above translated “taking”) is a present participle. As such, it maintains the tense of the verb of the sentence, ide (“Look!). Jesus is presently taking away the sin of the world. This is not something that happens only at the crucifixion and resurrection. Instead, Jesus’s presence in the world, his very existence, inaugurates the removal of sin.

Second, it is interesting to note that John does not say “sins of the world” are being taken away, but rather “sin” in the singular: hamartian. We often tend to think in more individualistic terms: I have done X, Y, and even Z; therefore, I have committed sins and I require a savior to purge me of those sins. There is nothing particularly wrong with this view, but John seems to see the situation from a different angle. It is not our individual sins that need purging, but rather this sort of corporate sin in which the whole of humanity may have taken part. Taking the Hebrew Bible as the relevant background for the Gospel of John, we might assume that this corporate sin can be summed up in the idea of prideful disobedience or rebellion as represented in various stories in Genesis (e.g., the disobedience of Adam and Eve in eating the fruit, the pride exhibited by Cain in his slaying Abel, the arrogance of the people in Babel who decided to build their tower to touch the heavens, etc.)

Bringing these ideas together, here’s what I come up with —

In John 1, we learn that Jesus is God and that he takes an extraordinary step in becoming human. His purpose, the mission which begins as soon as he comes into the world, is to take away human disobedience and rebellion, both of which have their roots in one common sin: pride or arrogance. (I can’t help but think of C.S. Lewis’s chapter called “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity.) This mission is not something that is accomplished only by his death and resurrection (as perhaps certain proponents of substitutionary atonement would argue), but happens in the presence of Jesus.

This all leads me to one final question:
If Jesus is taking away the sin of the world, and if Jesus is successful, then how can a human stand condemned?

Race, Class, and Gender in American History

Carson posted an interesting article the other day about a study that recommends that Texas A&M and the University of Texas pay less attention to the themes of race, class, and gender in their American history curricula. If you want to read me gagging legibly, check out my lengthy comment to his article.

The Professor

I first encountered this subject while reading an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In sense, it states that:

The report by the National Association of Scholars and its affiliate, the Texas Association of Scholars, examined the textbooks and other readings for 85 sections of lower-division American history courses at the two schools in fall 2010. All too often, the report concluded, the readings gave students “a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history,” with the situation “far more problematic” at UT than at A&M.

The article goes on and contends that:

At UT, 78 percent of the faculty members who taught the freshman and sophomore classes were deemed “high assigners” of race, class and gender readings, meaning that more than half of the content had such a focus. At A&M, 50 percent of faculty members were deemed high assigners of such material.

This topic is problematic it that it is…

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