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I’ve taken to asking my students to recommend best teaching practices from their experiences to date, Zooming their way to the B.A. So far, I haven’t heard anything that will work for me. A colleague starts class with a 10-minute focused breathing exercise. Another with everyone taking turns sharing what they feel grateful for that day. I am happy that these opening moves help them feel more grounded and present. I just can’t seem to add them to the proverbial toolbelt.
Instead, I started with the approach I used when my students and I were in the same room and modified it for our current situation. Back in the Before Times, my students would spend the first 10 minutes in class responding to five short-answer questions about that day’s reading and an extra-credit question inviting them to share whatever independent research they’d done for that day’s reading. Not exactly stress-free writing, but maybe stress-lite: I never ask trick questions or focus in on obscure details, so the students who’ve done the reading do well and those who haven’t don’t. Once the quizzes are handed in, the students have spent 10 minutes thinking about that day’s reading and we’re all in the same headspace and discussion takes off.
Now, I’m beginning my classes with a writing prompt about the day’s reading. I make the prompt available 10 minutes *before* class starts and have the assignment due 11 minutes *after* class begins. This allows students who have unreliable internet or test anxiety or are composing on a phone extra time; but I let all the students start whenever they choose. I assure them that I’m only assessing their responses on the assumption that they’ve had 10 minutes. So, super long responses aren’t more likely to get better scores than briefer responses.
My LMS has a toggle for a rubric, which I duly completed, but then I discovered that the grading rubrics are not shared with the students! It’s not even an option. The mystification of standards mandated by the digital platform.
I want my students to know how I’m scoring them and I want my scoring system to reflect the kind of thinking I’m looking for in their writing. Here’s the rubric I shared with my 1st year class:
A Mind at Work on a Problem
My prompts are meant to invite you to share your steady engagement with the texts we’re reading. What has the assignment caused you to think about? What independent research has it led you to pursue? What connections have you made--to other parts in the text; to our class discussions; to your other classes; to your own interests?
So, what does that translate to in terms of assessment?
I start at 7 and grade up. When I hit repeated significant grammatical errors, I start to grade down.
7: Did the reading. Tends towards summary and description. Might also have one or two significant grammatical errors.
8: Analytical. Considers what a passage means or might mean. Engages with the text. This can take many forms: evidences meaningful research into a term or phrase; works through a moment of difficulty; makes a connection to class discussion or earlier passages or the student's own earlier writing.
9: Interpretive. Takes on a significant challenge. This can take many forms: unpacks an unfamiliar term or works through a particularly thorny stretch of prose; offers contextual information for the purposes of clarifying or complicating an interpretation; contends with a multiplicity of meanings.
10: Like 9, but the work is more ambitious and/or more consequential. This can mean drawing insights that stretch back to earlier moments in the text or it can mean drilling down into the local complexities of the term or passage or event chosen. Includes evidence of self-initiated research.
Serious grammatical errors will bring down scores, as will failures to spellcheck.
As results come in, I will share responses with you so that we can discuss what writing that demonstrates a mind at work on a problem looks like and does.
I’m happier with this change than I expected to be. So far, the students’ responses to the prompts have been longer, more detailed, and more nuanced than I anticipated them to be at this point in the semester. And the class discussions are, in some ways, even better than they were when we were all meeting in the same space. It’s early days, of course, but it’s clear to me that many of the students feel much more confident speaking via camera in familiar surroundings than they do in class speaking into the back of the heads of the students in front of them.
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