Sunday, March 6, 2016

Spoon Feeding Children Their Castor Oil

Lining Up
Photo by Fox Photos on Getty Images
Yesterday, during the continuity session with the writing project, a colleague shared a developing situation at a school. During some training, a clear division arose over the scoring of a student writing sample.

Nothing new, right? These exercises are extremely valuable for the conversation alone. It is one way to draw colleagues into comfortable conversations about writing. By comfortable, I mean everyone is happy to offer an opinion about student writing. Often, teachers come at it from differing angles. At times, teachers focus on the mistakes in the writing. Regrettably, we can grind kids' noses in the elements needing correction.

It is more challenging to find colleagues willing to write and/or share their own writing. So, until the day when the unicorns deliver us to that end of the rainbow, we can settle on discussing the writing of children.

In this specific case, the teacher and trainer (both of whom write) scored the student work at a 5 or a 6 in one specific category. The teacher's colleagues (including an administrator) scored the writing sample at a 3. None are writers.

A few universally accepted truths bubbled up as I listened to my writing project colleagues discuss the situation:
  1. Writing is becoming a stronger emphasis in schools.
  2. All stakeholders in schools want consistent experiences for students.
  3. Consistent assessment is a challenge.

I walked away from our continuity session chewing on the conversation. More truths surfaced, but these are not universally acknowledged by the actions of enough teachers:
  1. Teachers who do write understand writing, and the rubrics for writing, differently. 
  2. Teachers who do write can identify the moves that young writers are attempting (successful and unsuccessful) and see these moves as progressive and ongoing.
  3. Teachers who do not write tend to interpret writer's moves as outcomes, as final evidence, as endpoints. 
  4. Teachers who do not write tend to match the evidence in the writing to the surface meaning of the imperfect language on the rubric. 
I can say this with confidence because I was once a teacher who did not write...and one who kept trying to write the perfect rubric.

I struggled with understanding the language on rubrics for a couple of reasons.

First, writing a rubric is brutal. We tend to overwrite them to the extent that our kids have no idea what they mean...let alone the adults. We perseverate over the specific words. We try for accuracy. And we get well that when considered from a distance we end up asking ourselves, what the hell does proficient mean? what is the difference between effectively supports and sufficiently supports?

Can you imagine a room full of non-writers trying to ascertain how to explicate those concepts for our students? Wouldn't we be better served by actually doing what we ask our kids to do? Wouldn't we be better served by being writers? Writers understand writing. Scorers think they understand rubrics.

[setting soapbox aside]

Second, I misinterpreted many rubrics because I did not write. I was a scorekeeper. I took on the roll of torchbearer of the state rubric, holding it high, jogging it through the community, through the halls, and into my classroom where I tacked it proudly on the wall like a Presidential portrait...because I was supposed to. Because this was the standard of good writing. Not because I understood it. I treated the teaching of writing (to borrow a metaphor I heard on Friday...thank you, Bill!) as if I were spoon feeding children their castor oil: You will be good writing citizens. The state knows all. Just follow the rubric and you too can find a life of proficient writing. I'm only doing this because it is good for you! You need to learn to be better! Look to the poster! Look to the rubric.

Please do not be offended if you interpret this as being directed at you. I truly am writing about me. My experience. And the connections I made and internalized yesterday in a roomful of teachers (from all over several counties) who are teachers who write.

By the way, we all saw the child's writing in question as a 5 or a 6. We shared no stake in it or that school or staff. But we do share a common lens--the lens of being writers.

I can't make an impassioned plea to schools hard enough. If writing is to be emphasized, if we truly want consistency, if we want to be better at assessing writing, then become teachers who write. There is no magic pill or no magic rubric.

The real magic is in writing.


  1. Loved this post, Brian. I, too, went away thinking about rubrics and their value - what good to have them if we have not had the PD, the conversations, and the gentle nudge ti be writers ourselves? I loved Bill's metaphor - wish I could have been a fly on the wall listening in to that great conversation! Can't wait to hear more from you!

  2. Brilliant post. I've never been a fan of rubrics and felt freed when I read "Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction" by Maja Wilson. Rubrics didn't exist when I was in high school or college. They rose to power in the 1980s.

    I love the image of rubrics as the Olympic torch and the metaphor of castor oil.

    Yes, teachers need to write, especially those who teach and assess writing.

  3. Brian, I love, love, love these pics. What a slice of history. About the writing - I know you were writing about your own experience but it also resonates with me. I started writing so that I could help my students grow as writers.

  4. Reach you hand down
    into the hat ...
    Point your wand out
    into the world ...
    Let the words flow
    as the magic of writing
    unfolds ....

    Close your eyes
    and imagine the stories:


    send the ideas in motion forward
    knowing that where you lead
    is where they might eventually go ...

    ... first, you need to find your compass ...

    -- Kevin (OK, so no idea how your post led to this poem but there you go .. I did have the image of your running down the hallways, if that helps ... )

  5. So you are saying " write..." to do right?

    Very eloquent piece. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Interpreting writing in an assessing way is extremely difficult (in my opinion)! Because I don't want to undermine the process! But do we need those elements to be assessed. But... I can vacillate all day!

  7. This is gold. I may have to share this with the next group of teachers I work with who are stuck on using rubrics. I tire of the battle over giving writing a number. What does the number mean? This is a great conversation starter, and I connect to your reflection...thank you.

  8. Brian, you are so right. If we are writers we understand the complexities, the nuances, the urgings of the heart to write or not write. I encourage teachers to be writers, to let the voices fly, and build the foundation for their learners to let go and write.

  9. I love the message in this post and I completely agree! This is why I started blogging and encourage my peers to write as well.

    Thank you for sharing!

  10. Yes! I'm sharing this post on Twitter. Teaching writing has been on my mind all day. I work with some colleagues who actually are writers, but they take those hats off and have different expectations for students. I have trouble with that one and can't figure it out.

  11. Your style speaks so smoothly to the page. I feel like we had this conversation aloud and I appreciate that you are so firm in your stance. It comes through loud and clear in your writing. It is something I strive for in my own writing: craft and clarity. Well done!

  12. Brian, I really appreciate what you said here! (And it was great being part of the actual conversation! Look forward to seeing you on 4/2!)