I always attend conferences to try to improve myself as a teacher, and sometimes I come away exceptionally motivated. This was the case a few years ago when I attended a great session on rubric creation. At the time I was working in a private language school and also doing some part-time LINC teaching. I kept wondering how I could mark student writing in a way that was useful to the students but also less time-consuming for me. This session seemed to be the answer to my prayers.
Experimenting and Tweaking
I went home, fully motivated, and started looking at my classes to see where I could apply rubrics. At first, it was definitely challenging – trying to come up with criteria, trying to distill it down to a summary that would be captured in a few short lines plus be understood by the students when I gave it back to them. I struggled with it for a little bit, and then felt I had a good product.
I started using the rubrics for writing in all of my classes. I also tasked the students to give me open and honest feedback about the rubrics and how they liked them. I’ve always encouraged my students to give feedback right away and to question things they don’t understand. After the first few weeks, the class gave me some feedback, and I made a few tweaks and revisions – gone was the single rubric for all types of writing, instead a new rubric was made for each week which pinpointed specific learning outcomes and goals. Sure this sounds like a lot of work, but once you have the basic premise down, it’s only a matter of a few minutes to make the necessary changes.
And the most amazing thing was how it affected my time management and feedback! I was able to mark work faster (granted, it was a little bit faster, but enough to notice), and since I was using a set criteria that the students saw, my written comments now could be focused on specific errors the students kept repeating. I felt like I could actually affect change in my students.
However, the truly inspirational part came when an older, Spanish-speaking student joined my class – let’s call him John. At first, I thought he was going to be a challenge and worried about fossilized errors. I wasn’t sure how much he would retain nor how motivated he would be to try. However, he was a wonderful man and participated in all the class activities, but when I spoke to him about his goals, he didn’t have anything concrete that he wanted focus on. He figured he would improve his speaking a bit and see where that took him.
When I assigned the writing assignment, I followed my usual process of explaining the rubric and how they would receive marks – at this point, the rubric was part of the assignment page so that students could use it as a checklist. John looked at the rubric and assignment and put it in his bag.
Fast forward a few days, and I’m returning the assignments to the class. John looked his over, and I could see his eyes getting wider and wider. He spent the rest of class looking at the assignment between tasks. At the end of class, John came up to me and said with a laugh, “teacher, this rubric is so useful! I can see where all of my mistakes are, and boy, there are a lot of mistakes!”
Something in that rubric clicked for him. He stayed in my class for the full cycle and at the end, he approached me, shook my hand, and said “Thank you. You have awoken in me something I didn’t even know was there!”
John then went on to take every writing class the school offered and, eventually, ended up in our pathways program and graduated. He then continued on to college where he’s still applying his fantastic work ethic.
Every now and then, he stops by the school, and I feel so privileged for being able to help him find the spark that motivated him. All from trying something new.
Chris Smrke has been teaching for close to a decade in both the settlement and private sector. He currently teaches at a private language school and is on the TESL Toronto board. He always looks forward to learning new things and trying them in his classes.