Are Rubrics Really Good for Me?

Anyone else stumble across the feeling, every once in a while, that your carefully crafted Rubric, so precise and efficient, so clear in its expectations, just turned your entire assignment into ice?

I get this a lot:  ‘Is that a 4?’  And you look at the work, and it kind of is a 4.  (We’re on the 1 to 4 scale here.  4 is an A.)  Kind of, because they have the rubric next to the assignment and technically everything has been done as described.  There are no mechanical errors, so 4 on Mechanics.  The sentences are clear, and the paragraph has support, so a 4 on Informative Writing.  But something about the writing is flat and sterile.  It’s a paragraph that goes through mechanical motions like a machine and you just know, reading it, that the paragraph is really ABOUT getting a 4 and nothing else.  If there is any joy at all in the assignment, it is only the joy the kid feels at getting the 4.

When we had mere grades, in all their arbitrary looseness and vague indecision, one was allowed to recognize that so much of what we do is rarely simply about going through motions like a machine.  It’s impossible to truly rubricize the magic and mystery of purpose.  Rubrics mechanize skill, and dehumanize effort, which is half of a good thing. We want kids to have clear skill sets, and we want to be able to define those skills down to clear and precise actions.  We want to take out the arbitrary value judgments that muddy the cold window of mechanical action.  And yet, the closer we get to that precision, the further we get from those fuzzier Emotions that make the job worth doing in the first place.

I don’t mind using Rubrics.  They make my assignments efficient; they clarify purpose; and they make most things a hell of a lot easier to grade.  I used to spend too much time writing all over a kid’s essay.  Now I just look for whatever it was I put on this particular rubric and circle the right box.  Takes me less than a minute to grade an essay.  And if the kid doesn’t have to invest very much in the assignment – other than some attention to expectations, some alignment of their action with the definition on the scale – neither do I. You can’t rubricize emotion, which is the point, I suppose, to the things in the first place.

Still, there are times when I tire of being so cold all the time, even if it does make the classroom cool and clear and efficient.

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