How do we convince students to stretch beyond their comfort zone when writing and speaking in the target language? I believe that teachers have to educate students about proficiency, both on a course level and the task level, so that they are invested in our collective work. Truly, we have a mighty task before us as we lead students on this journey. A standards-based rubric can be a powerful tool for undertaking this work.

This year our department has a new standards-based presentational rubric that a group of us wrote over the summer to help guide our work on specific tasks. We spent four intense days at the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association’s Proficiency Academy with Thomas Sauer and Greg Duncan, and each afternoon (and some evenings after dinner…and some mornings before breakfast…) we gathered to peruse existing rubrics and think about how to craft our own. Our resulting “patchwork” product is most definitely imperfect and a work in progress, but having one common rubric forces us to hash out our questions and disagreements collectively, which has great value. I can talk to a middle school Mandarin colleague just as well as a high school French colleague as we try to decide what we mean, exactly, by “strings of sentences” or “highly practiced words” (oh, and the ACTFL glossary helps too). My dream is that by the end of this year, our department will have developed its own lexicon, where we define all the terms in our rubric with examples in English.

Break in Your Rubric Like a Pair of New Jeans

A new rubric is like a new pair of jeans – you have to break it in to get comfortable. Throughout the first grading quarter this year, I dreaded every presentational assessment because I knew I’d have to face our stiff, unfamiliar rubric again and figure out how to make it fit me. Nothing was as cozy as my old rubric from Terrill & Clementi’s The Keys to Planning for Learning! Working with colleagues who shared my struggle made this work easier, and gave me many new insights into proficiency. At my middle school, teachers of four different world languages spent time rating ELL samples and comparing rubric scores so that we could debate and share our areas of uncertainty. As a result, we’ve got a running list of unanswered questions and an emerging glossary of terms to push our work forward. I also brought work samples and our rubric to my regional middle school French PLC so that I could hear what colleagues from other districts had to say about my students work, too. As a result, we are now piloting a different layout of our rubric to make it more comprehensible to middle schoolers.

Expose the Gaps in Your Instruction & Assessments

A new rubric may also expose some areas where there are gaps in instruction. Our new rubric mentions posing questions in the “text type” category for Novice High and beyond, which presented me with a challenge. Very few of the prompts that I was using gave students the opportunity to ask questions in their writing. To be perfectly honest, my first reaction to this change was a feeling of annoyance. Here’s a brief summary of the internal monolog running through my head, so that you can see what I mean.

Me, looking at the draft rubric: “Why are we including questions as part of text type? Isn’t that the rubric dictating instruction? Well, I guess I know why…asking questions is a hallmark of Intermediate proficiency. But I rarely have my students include questions in their writing. And now we’re saying that can’t even reach Novice High unless they can do that?!”

Me, thinking again: “Ooooh…maybe I need to change my presentational scenarios so that students need to include questions as part of the task. Then the door is open for those who can do it, and they can reach Novice High.”

Me, a few months into this school year: “I really need to give my students more practice with asking original questions. That’s the only way they’re going to start asking non-memorized questions in their presentational work.”

So although I was initially a bit miffed that our rubric was the “tail wagging the dog,” it actually got me to improve my instruction so that I can bring students along the path to proficiency. By committing to a new rubric, we were raising the stakes significantly for ourselves and our students. Having a standards-based rubric obligates teachers to ensure that we are providing students with all the tools they need to “level up.” We have to write prompts that let them shine: that push them to show what they know and can do in the language on many fronts: specifically, comprehensibilityvocabulary, text type, and cultural awareness. It’s the tail wagging the dog, but in a good way: the rubric nudges us toward writing assessments that closely match the standards outlined in the rubric, and ensure that we’re faithful to ACTFL proficiency levels. And when we write assessments that match the standards, our students stretch to match those standards and grow their language proficiency.

To Finish: A Thrilling Plot Twist!

To really put some fire in our bellies, our department head decided that on top of piloting a new rubric we’d also move to standards-based grading this school year. This means that meeting the course’s proficiency target will result in a grade of B, and only exceeding the target will earn an A. In the affluent, highly successful district where I teach, we all felt some butterflies in our stomachs about this transition. Our students want As! Our parents want As! And here we were, ready to mostly offer them Bs, Bs, and more Bs. Here is a rough summary of our (ongoing) debate on this matter in our department:

Ultimately, I was won over by the argument that a B for meeting the target ensures that most students will stretch their skills in language class. What else could we possibly want for our students?  My students received their first report cards of the school year just over a week ago. While only 2% earned Cs in French, just 26% received As. The vast majority of students (72%) met the target and therefore earned Bs of various flavors. I can say with confidence that most of these students are both unsurprised by their grade, and thinking carefully about how they can exceed the target in Term 2. And I haven’t received an angry parent email or phone call yet! My hope is that as we become more familiar with our rubric, I will sharpen my instruction so that it is more effective, and my students will internalize the rubric expectations so that more and more can exceed the course proficiency targets. In this way, our rubric’s “tail” will “wag” us along the path to proficiency.

Published by Rebecca Blouwolff

Rebecca Blouwolff has been a French teacher at Wellesley Middle School in Massachusetts since 1998. Her practice was forever changed by attending a 2014 workshop with Laura Terrill, co-author of ACTFL's The Keys to Planning for Learning. Since then, she has abandoned her previous hobbies in order to rewrite her curriculum, blog about thematic units, participate in #langchat, and provide professional development to colleagues in the Boston area. She holds a B.A. from Brown University and Ed.M. from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, served as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in France, and is a candidate to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

9 replies on “When the Tail Wags the Dog, or How a Standards-Based Rubric May Make Me a More Effective Teacher”

  1. Rebecca, you never cease to amaze me. I love the work that you and your department are doing, and it certainly makes me feel a little better knowing that you and I have had similar inner monologues this year! Thank you for your honesty, words of wisdom, and the links that you included. You rock.

  2. This was a wonderful post and so timely as our district is moving to a common rubric. I feel like your post could be the internal monologue of any of our teachers!
    The link to the rubrics doesn’t seem to work. Is there something I am doing wrong? I would love to see what you all created. We have done such a similar process.

  3. I have to admit to being a long time friend and colleague of Rebecca’s…

    Thank you for the inner monologue: it clearly illuminates the struggles of so many of us and your collective work, in your department and regional PLC, in figuring out how to use the rubric, demonstrates the value of persistence. Many of us are learning from the sharing in this blog -Merci et bonne continuation!

  4. I love and appreciate the grade A vs. B points and see them as strong discussion opportunities for teachers in our schools. I am planning on sharing these with our department chairs and posing the question… What is a grade suppose to define in your school/department? What makes more sense? Thank you.

  5. Hi Rebecca, I echo Timothy’s appreciation of your honesty in sharing your thoughts. I also LOVE the analogy of the pair of jeans… it does take a while. I would be very interested to see how you made your rubrics more accessible to Middle School students. You are a leading light in our field… please keep sharing.

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