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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Simplifying Rubrics, Checklists, and Feedback

Teaching literature has a slew of challenges, including reading the latest great novels, poems, short stories, plays, films, and essays, attending meetings and responding to emails, and yes … grading essays. Any English teacher will tell you it’s their least favorite part of the job. Imagine that – worse than emails and even meetings after school.

I remember the first time I saw a rubric. I thought, oh no. Oh, no. While I know it makes life easier for many teachers and research has shown its benefits, it just wasn’t for me. I try as hard as I can to make school not feel like, well, school. Rubrics always felt academic to me. I reluctantly created a simple checklist just to try it out. I wasn’t sure if my kids liked it, but one of my students asked me why his essay didn’t have a checklist attached. That surprised me because I didn’t think they actually looked at it. I also ask my students for feedback at the end of the year, and they always say how they like my checklist better than rubrics. I design it so that they don’t feel lost in the boxes, and I give them the same checklist with every essay so they can easily keep track of their progress.

My checklist for essays include three major sections: organization, evidence, and interpretation. Listen to my podcast for more details or download it. I mostly want a simple list of things I want them to think about before writing the essay and to reflect on when I hand the essay back.

The most important thing about a checklist is the way we use it to provide feedback in class when we return the essay. I typically provide feedback incrementally, one topic at a time. After I return the first essay, I will ask students to revise their thesis statements and then use a few as models. When I return the next essay, I might focus on the introduction, the conclusion, or interpreting evidence. It depends on how they perform. I’ll always give students the option to work on revising whatever they think needs work.

I also avoid overwhelming my students with feedback. They can only handle learning one skill at a time and building on the skills they learn as the year moves along. Learning to write is like learning anything else; it happens incrementally, in small steps.

We eventually want our students to revise their own essays, instead of relying on us to correct mistakes. We also want students to prioritize ideas and arguments over conventions; they can learn conventions through close reading passages in literature and interpreting syntax. Let’s not forget that a short conference will do so much more than any rubric or checklist. A real conversation about the ideas in the essay will always help a student with clarity and cohesion more than any commentary or rubric.

Students should be able to quickly glance at a simple checklist and understand what they need to do. It should help students gain confidence from their successes and set goals and plans for the future. But rubrics and checklists should never replace quality instruction and good conversation about ideas. Writing instruction in general is important, but our students should spend much more time listening and reading than writing.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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