Swirling in the Polar Vortex

Since returning from Winter Break in January, the Montello School District had had 9 weather cancellations and 5 late starts. (Note: I had to update this count twice in the course of writing the post!) Our daily schedule and calendar have been modified twice, extending the start and end time of our day and removing all early release and in-service time for professional development for the remainder of the year. All of which is to say, it’s been a rough couple of months. I’m behind on writing blog posts, I haven’t seen the Teacher Inquiry and Writing (TIWI) group since December, and — as a teacher friend recently put it — all these snow days make returning to school like “a week full of Mondays”.

Can you spot the metaphor in this picture?

Even so, I’ve been engaged in plenty of professional learning on my own time. In Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, Elena Aguilar reminds us that February can be a time for curiosity and learning, and I have tried to take that to heart. This post, then, is a summary of what I’ve been learning lately.

First, I devoured Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. This book has been on my radar for years and years, but it was expensive, and I guess I just didn’t think it was worth it, especially since I don’t really do a lot of writing assessment anyway. I am so grateful that the GMWP TIWI got me onto this assessment kick and questioning the use of rubrics. (And I’m also grateful that they already had a copy that I could borrow and mark the heck out of!) The book is brilliant, even though a lot of my experience reading it simply involved nodding along.

Wilson’s exploration of the birth of rubrics as a “scientific” method for “fairly” assessing writing in a standardized way was both interesting and depressing, and it’s therefore no wonder that “[r]ubrics encourage us to read and our students to write on autopilot” (39). I would argue that this is true of rubrics in general — they encourage all student work and teacher assessment away from creativity and toward conformity. Later, Wilson proposes five “Writing Assessment Principles Grounded in Contextual and Constructivist Paradigms,” and I was especially drawn to the idea that “[a]ssessment should be responsive and encourage new insights” (64). I strive to be responsive to student needs and development in my teaching and relationships, so shouldn’t my assessments be responsive, as well?

Then, I found my way to the blog of Professor Jennifer Hurley, an English professor at Ohlone College. Her specific thoughts on ditching rubrics and lesson plans, as well more broadly about assessment and grading, resonated professionally and dovetailed nicely with my TIWI work. Over time, Hurley observed that her writing rubric, which she had developed and honed with the best of intentions over a decade, effectively killed the motivation of struggling students, while simultaneously encouraging successful students to coast with no room or reason for growth. She has since settled on an assessment policy of giving feedback to elicit dialogue with her students in place of rubrics, which shut down any conversation between the assessor and assessed. In her terms, she’s now acting as a “reader” for her students, rather than a “judge” or “critic”.

Some of Hurley’s other posts connected with me on a personal level and left me feeling even more trusting and invested in her work on teaching and assessment. First, she wrote about the benefits of mindful breathing before class, something I try to do every day by taking advantage of a parking spot at the far end of the lot. Then, she wrote bravely and movingly about her depression (and tattoo), which I could relate to on many levels.

It’s particularly exciting to me that some of the progressive ideas about assessment and grading that we’ve been exploring through TIWI seem to be making their way into higher education through individuals like Professor Hurley. How often have you heard testing, inflexible deadlines, and GPAs justified as preparation for college? I’ve long thought that colleges needed to catch up with us, not vice versa. I hope that this is a sign of things to come.

I’ve long thought that colleges needed to catch up with us, not vice versa.

My next steps are: (1) start reading Mindful Assessment, and (2) try desperately to find my rhythm again in the classroom after all these abnormal weeks (and the extended school days that still feel exhausting) so that I can start thinking again about how I assess my students and what I can do to make those assessments better moving forward. (Perhaps I’ll even find some time to relax during Spring Break, as well!)

GMWP: Greater Madison Writing Project

Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as…

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