Monday, February 14, 2011

Rubrics: Letting the Students Decide

When I began teaching, I decided that I would let my students take the wheel when it comes to designing rubrics. I think that students look to the professor as the container of all knowledge, especially when it comes to writing. Letting them design the rubric helps them to see that I'm not the only one who knows what makes good writing. (Plus, they find it harder to claim they are being graded unfairly when they have chosen the criteria)

To design the rubric, we start early in the semester with George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," which talks about what makes bad writing. That conversation is followed by a discussion about what makes good writing. As students share their thoughts about the elements of good writing, I write their ideas on the whiteboard. Later, I copy these down.

The next step in this process is giving them a voting sheet. I lay out a spreadsheet of their ideas, along with SAT writing standards for a "6" essay, good writing techniques from "The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem" by Hayes and Flower, and my own two-- addressing the assignment, turning work in on time. Next, I have them label the options 1-5. For every #1, I give two tally marks. For every #2, I give one. Then, I pull the top five to create the rubric. I'm sure there are other ways to do this, but this is what has worked for me best so far.

This semester, I think my students did a great job of choosing criteria. They will be graded on the following (listed in order of priority):

  • Effort (addessing the assignment, word count, drafts on time)
  • Create understanding for your reader (logical reasoning, good support, analysis)
  • Flow (organization and transitions)
  • Establishing a relationship with the reader (word choice, tone)
  • Formal/conventional features (format, genre, grammar, spelling)

Last semester, the rubric was different. They wanted to be graded by these criteria:
  • Followed instructions 
  • Affected the reader (strongly supported ideas, deep analysis)
  • Built a coherent network of ideas (well-organized, clearly stated thoughts)
  • Aware of audience (consistent use of tone, word choice, formal/conventional features)
Interestingly enough, though the students in the classes and the dynamics of the classes are completely different, you can see that both classes chose similar goals for their writing. Their objectives are also similarly prioritized. 

I think student-lead evaluation is one of the most effective means of teaching writing. Students are asked to assess themselves and also writing in general. They become more conscious of not only what is wrong in their writing, but also what works. Of course, the rubric is just one way of doing this. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Literacy Narratives: Why I Think They Need to Be in My FYW Syllabus

Literacy narratives are seemingly simple assignments. How hard is it to write the story of how one learned to use language, read, and/or write? I think, however, that the literacy narrative is a crucial part of my first year writing syllabus. There are many benefits to this assignment for both the students and the teacher.

For the students,

the literacy narrative feels like an easy task. They don't feel the pressure of more "serious assignments" and are, therefore, less likely to be hung up on writing perfect sentences or making sure they have hyperintellectual words (incorrectly applied by right-clicking for the thesaurus in word). They are simply more genuine. At the same time, without the pressure to sound academic, students are able to practice necessarily skills like idea development, organization, and using supporting evidence without even realizing it. 

On a mental level, it also amps up the confidence of novice college-level writers. Reflecting back on the hardships that they have overcome to learn to read and write gives them a sense of accomplishment and purpose. It can also remind those who hate writing now of a time back in their youth when perhaps this was not the case. By the time they have come to a final draft, there is usually a well-polished piece that they can be proud of and reflect back on. They may also come to see shifts in the way they thought about writing at the beginning of the semester versus the end of the semester.

I also ask my students to identify the themes they hear in one another's work. I am always interested in the themes I see emerging in my students' narratives, and I think they can learn things about themselves that they did not know before. Last semester, for instance, when I was asked to write my own literacy narrative for a graduate course, I learned that my story about moving from writing lyrics to writing research papers about literature was actually revealing a struggle to find self-confidence and to declare my self a Writer. It made me change the way I thought about writing and how I was writing. I also had students reflect that they didn't realize how far they had come from learning English as a second language to being a college level writer.

For teachers, 

the literacy narrative is a great opportunity to get a feel for the real voice of the student early on, which helps tip them off later if students are confused or (hopefully never the case) plagiarizing.

Knowing about the literacies of the students in a class also helps teachers to teach more effectively. Right from the start, most students will identify if they struggle with writing, if they learned English as a second language, and their views on writing, whether positive or negative. It will also reveal whether students think about writing as a tool for communicating or simply an evaluation method that teacher's use to grade them.

It's also an great way to teach students about developing their ideas, providing necessary detail, and learning to cut out fluff.

I have really only seen positive things emerge from this assignment.

Additionally, reading literacy narratives can be a great way to teach students about the power of language. Some of my favorite pieces to assign are Richard Wright's "The Library Card," David Raymond's "On Being 17, Bright, and Unable to Read," Malcolm X's "Coming to an Awareness of Language," and Fan Shen's "The Classroom and the Wider Culture."

This semester, I will also be including Chimamanda Adichie's "The Danger of a Single Story." It is a beautiful and funny talk about how Adichie learned to read, came into her own as a writer, and about the dangers of tokenism.

For a sample of the literacy narrative assignment I pose, see here: