Aye, There’s the Rubric

I am not anti-rubric.

In a perfect world they wouldn’t be needed. However, they have their benefits. And I don’t really have a choice, which means, I need to do it the best I can.

rubricBut even when we’re doing our best, when we try to do everything right, there is still sometimes the need for a little damage control. This is a story of trying to do everything right in a world of cracked mirrors.


Students had about twelve minutes to answer a question about the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter and how it relates to the following chapters. I told them their grade would not be tied to the rubric score, that this would be a chance to help us understand the criteria of the rubric better.

Before I read any of the students’ writing, I wrote a paragraph of my own, setting a timer for twelve minutes.

Then I set the stopwatch to monitor my time as I began reading and typing feedback to the roughly sixty student paragraphs. For every minute I spent on each writing, that would be an hour; my goal was to keep it to about three. I type feedback because I can type faster (and more neatly) than I write. Plus, I think students seem to value it more, and that also means I have a copy of the feedback.

The feedback starts to feels a little formulaic (after so many repetitions), but to do it in a short amount of time and to make it meaningful, I follow this general format:

  • Something positive about the writing
  • A detail from the writing that is specific and shows it is individualized
  • A question or wondering about some revision

Before I gave them my feedback or their score, I gave them my example (without telling them it was mine—many assumed, but others didn’t seem to give it a thought). They read it individually and underlined lines from the rubric. Then they discussed in groups and had to come up with a final score. Each group shared, and we discussed the differences of opinions as well as the difficulties in evaluating with a rubric.


It was generally decided upon that my writing was a six. Out of eight. I had generally fallen short on some in-depth analysis. The group scores had ranged from five to eight, but most had said either six or seven. So there seemed to be some general consensus.

I gave them their writings. They had to assign it a rubric score and provide some feedback about what they did well and what could improve. Once they did that, I took their papers back, gave them my typed comments, and wrote my score on their paper.

Several of the students had agreed with me on their score. Others were just one off, sometimes one higher and sometimes one lower. But a surprising number had scored themselves much higher than I had. When I talked with them (as many as I could in the class period), we looked at their own feedback. Some had written that they had done well and just needed to add more detail from the chapter. This was the opportunity to reinforce the point I’d made earlier: a low score on the rubric isn’t necessarily a long ways from a high score, but may just be missing key elements, such as using details and examples to justify thoughts and opinions.

I was feeling pretty good, particularly when one student said, “Your feedback made me happy. Thank you.”

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students' hands.

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students’ hands.


One student, I could tell, was upset by the rubric score.

He had agreed with my feedback and even seemed pleased by it. But when he saw my rubric score, compared with his, his demeanor changed. He is an insightful reader and a hard worker. But this particular writing didn’t score high.

Fortunately, we had a chance to talk. I went through his writing with him to point out the strengths and to discuss what could be improved. I reminded him that there had been little time to write. He was placated mostly, but still troubled.

We talked some more about writing in general and this particular assignment. The main point I tried making clear: I don’t want a rubric to stand between us. He has tremendous potential; I am a guy who can help him become an even better writer.

I don’t doubt that he will do much better. But I worry about what damage has been done. I worry that when he looks at me he will see a scarlet rubric on my chest, that he will forget the helpful feedback and not see me as someone who wants to help.


This was written, primarily, as a chance to process the experience. However, putting myself on display and sharing feedback is more unnerving for me than is sharing my writing. But teachers of writing should write–in ways that make them uncomfortable. So there it is.

Any feedback would be interesting. Rubric scores, however, are optional.

Cracks in the Mirror

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I was reviewing expectations with students and I had this picture on the PowerPoint slide. I told them about how the mirror broke, how we didn’t fix it for months until our daughter cut her finger when she was cleaning the mirror, how it was a pain to replace and how it cost a decent amount of money for a new mirror. In short, broken mirrors suck.

Yet, every time I brushed my teeth and leaned forward over the sink, I saw my comically distorted face and I smiled. It made me happy. Simply and pathetically happy.

It’s a world of broken mirrors, I told them. It’s an imperfect and fallen world where mirrors break, where technology isn’t always available and working, where standardized tests and grades are a necessity, where life intervenes on learning—or at least on getting work done.

They are largely a group of high achievers. They care deeply about their grades. They place a lot of pressure on themselves and have high expectations and standards set before them. I want to see them reach and even surpass those goals, and to help wherever I can. Like me, they have lives that sometime interfere with schooling, lives that seem at times to not want us to learn, lives that make us wish we could just stay in bed all day.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to watch for those moments where the crack in the mirror provides a holy glimpse of hope and humor. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

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