The curfew is over, but now I’m feeling a little boxed in by curriculum questions and my new responsibilities as a department chair.
In my first year of teaching, I loved having the freedom to teach how and what I wanted to. I spent time exploring great books with students. I listened to them, encouraged them, provoked them. I enjoyed facilitating discussions and writing that was organic, of rather than for the students. Even though I did not sleep very much, I looked forward to class encounters and I hope students did too.
I have bits of tangible evidence that show that students learned and grew from the beginning to the end of the year, but I do not have a document stating which standards were met, when, to what extent, or in which ways. Some people think this sort of document is important…ok, a lot of people in the world of standardized testing and in the world of education I studied as a pre-service teacher think it’s important. I’ve never been a person who looks around for standards and benchmarks, but I understand them. I also understand accountability in education and the service that teachers provide students (and society) by having standards.
This year, the high school I work for has decided to adopt some standards and benchmarks for English. So far it seems like they are moving from “reading and writing” to “reading and writing with a plan.” As a new teacher, it’s still great to have the freedom to explore and listen. As a department chair, democratic citizen, and realist, it is hard to comprehend a school that does not have clear standards.
The result of 50 years of high teacher-turnover, hiring new teachers and a consistent lack of accountability is students who struggle to work within 8 new sets of reading and writing expectations every year of school. If intelligent students can graduate from our school with the communication skills of a 6th grader, the school needs to take responsibility and change.
I was excited when the administration announced that curriculum alignment was a school-wide goal this year. In my naivete, I imagined meetings and conversations about which skills, materials, etc. were appropriate for each grade level. At the very least, I thought the school would use the “copy paste” method from another international school or from a US state (since students receive a US diploma).
Of course, there is no time for meetings and no one was assigned to the task of searching for a curriculum to adopt. Of course (again), aligning curriculum is a huge task that could be a full-time job.
I know that I’m not qualified to develop or choose a set of standards for English at any school (especially not a bilingual school). I do enjoy the research and the email conversations I’ve had on this topic. However, I hope to achieve more than a personal interest in curriculum by the end of the year. Even though I won’t be at this school next year, I would like to leave something for a new teacher to start with. (Some new teachers prefer standards to a blank slate.) I would like to leave the school with something more than another “restart” button. At the same time, sadly, I find myself wondering if “restart” is part of the nature of international schools.
Last week I had to confront the goals of curriculum alignment and improving student writing. “Kimberly, can the English department provide a writing rubric for teachers to use in all subject areas?” My thought bubble in that moment said, “Nope.” My mouth said, “I’ll try.”
For better or worse, the first thing I did was read the EC Ning discussion of Maja Wilson’s book Rethinking Rubrics. I’ve been meaning to read the discussion for a while, but it only confirmed that a standard rubric for all writing in a school is impossible. Furthermore, it confirmed that high school writers are in a complex rhetorical situation.
After much reading and much thought, I decided that I had a choice between something like a traits of writing rubric and something more holistic. A traits of writing rubric would give teachers the option of emphasizing certain areas of composition that pertain to their discipline or to a particular assignment. It would give students a more clear (though not perfect) picture of the different components of their writing. A holistic rubric would take some of the I-am-not-an-English-teacher pressure off and give teachers more flexibility to assign grades that show students whether or not they met the standards of a specific assignment, though maybe not whether they met writing standards. A holistic rubric might mystify students a bit more than a traits of writing rubric.
After talking to as many teachers as possible, I decided that the least-impossible rubric would be something holistic. I looked at holistic rubrics for personal narratives, short stories, research, and analytical writing. Still feeling defeated, I laughed at the criteria that stated “has a plot.” Imagine a plot in a chemistry lab.
Surprisingly, the AP Literature rubric was the most popular. I sent out the link to Dawn Hogue’s AP Scoring Model, because it is not specific to a particular AP essay. Teachers from all subjects liked “responds fully to the question asked,” “support their points with appropriate textual evidence and examples,” and “writing need not be without flaws.” Administrators liked the attention to style and elements of effective writing. (I wonder what AP Literature students would think if they saw this rubric in their philosophy class or chemistry?)
I was initially confused that teachers saw this as a useful rubric for writing in their subject areas, when it is meant for timed writing. It does not recognize the need for revision or audience. Now it is also obvious that a major problem with this rubric is that we haven’t defined “elements of effective writing” for bilingual students in our current system.
The school needs a writing handbook before it can rely exclusively on any rubric.