When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS – Guest Post by Julie Swinehart

My fourteen-year-old son surprises me with some of the things that come out of his mouth. I won’t repeat them all here (you’re welcome), because sometimes I’m astounded in a way that makes me laugh, but doesn’t necessarily make me think.

But the other day, he did make me think.

We were at the kitchen table. I was reading my students’ online readers notebooks while he was working on homework. Responsibly, he checked the rubric that accompanied the assignment he was working on, but by doing so, he seemed to get more frustrated instead of finding clarity.

I looked over at him, eyebrows raised in silent question. His response was, “This rubric is more of a brick than a help!” and he went on to explain that it felt like he was weighed down by the rubric rather than feeling like it provided guidance.

I immediately understood his comparison. Rubrics as bricks, hobbling students,


“This rubric is more of a brick than a help!”

confining them to strict definitions and requirements, weighing them down instead of allowing them to soar.

Rubrics as brick walls on paper, wordy, unclear, sometimes too demanding, confining creativity instead of providing a place from which to let creativity flow.

I then turned my thoughts to my own teaching and to my own students. Have I unintentionally weighed down my students with a brick of a rubric?

Have the rubrics I’ve attached to my class assignments served as brick walls, stifling creativity, rather than as foundations that my students could use as guides for demonstrating what they know and what they can do?

Have the rubrics I’ve provided my students allowed them to show that they can exceed and see things in a way that I, as the teacher, never imagined?

During this school year my thinking and teaching style has evolved dramatically. I’ve moved away from a more traditional method, in which my students read the same texts, responded to the same writing prompts, learned the same skills, and turned in the same assignments, all at the same time. I used rubrics for most of their assessments, and while my students demonstrated their learning, I inadvertently didn’t really allow for a ton of creativity.

This year, my students are reading different texts, sometimes have individualize due dates that they have chosen, and are turning in very different assignments from each other.

This year, I’ve also still used some rubrics, and I think there are some good ones out there. But in response to the advice of one my colleagues, I started the slow move to a more holistic approach to scoring guides.

I still include the standards and learning targets for students on the task sheet, and I describe what an exemplary, middle, and poor quality product will look like, include, or omit. But I find that the more holistic scoring guide approach allows for the student choice and creativity that is essential in the workshop model.

It’s not as prescriptive as a rubric can be, and instead of being a document made of bricks that build walls around and confine creativity, it serves more as foundation of sorts, something students can build from, and also demonstrate their learning through their own creative ideas.

A holistic scoring guide does not provide all of the answers that a rubric holds. There aren’t as many words on the paper, which means that students have to think about what they are going to do, rather than simply tick some boxes of requirements in order to get the grade.

I’m enjoying the holistic scoring guide approach, and my students are still doing well with the change. They demonstrate creativity, they show their learning, and they allow their personalities to shine through in their work.

Workshop is about student choice, and I think some rubrics unintentionally stifle the choice that we are so eager and willing to provide.

I’m going to be careful from now one, doing my best to ensure that the assignments I give allow for student agency, and doing my best to ensure that my students aren’t weighed down or walled in by unnecessary bricks.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for eighteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last three in Amman, Jordan. A recent convert to the workshop model, she likes to blog about and share her learning and experience with others.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Follow her blog https://adventuresinhighschoolworkshop.wordpress.com/

iconCare to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.


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5 thoughts on “When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS – Guest Post by Julie Swinehart

  1. […] published as a guest post on blog Three Teachers Talk  Follow Julie on twitter […]


  2. Amy Rasmussen May 9, 2017 at 8:49 pm Reply

    My experience with rubrics is brick-like, too. For one thing, few students actually read the rubric. I find a list of focused skills we’ve worked on to craft our work a better option. I keep a running list of the targets of our mini-lessons taped to one of the cabinets in my room. Then when we review our work (and usually color-code) prior to polishing our writing, we go through the checklist. This has worked much better than traditional rubrics.

    I’m thinking, and researching, about taking the leap to gradeless, feedback focused assessments. I’m pretty sure this is the next step in giving my students even more freedom in their writing — and getting them to focus more on the learning than a grade.

    Thank you for this insightful post, Julie. Please write with us again soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Karen Hames May 9, 2017 at 9:55 am Reply

    In middle school, a rubric at the beginning of the year gives them guidance on my expectations. Most students are not confident enough to even begin writing without guidelines. If I’m introducing a new style of writing or we’re mimic writing, analysis of examples is a good form of a rubric. It allows them to make their own judgments on what they are seeing and then use that information. When possible I taper off by the end of the year.


  4. Amy Estersohn May 9, 2017 at 8:57 am Reply

    Would it be worthwhile for students to develop their own rubrics and score themselves?

    I don’t do this, (I tried it once) but it’s a thought about how students can take more ownership over stating the purpose of their writing and measuring their writing against their purposes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • adventuresinhighschoolworkshop May 9, 2017 at 9:33 am Reply

      I think you are right that it’s about students taking ownership of their individual and class goals – maybe creating rubrics can be linked to some deliberate individual goal setting?

      Good thing teaching and learning is a work in progress so we can always try new ideas!


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