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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Does It Get Better Than This?

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This post is by Barron Steffen, a third-grade teacher at Chautaqua Elementary on Vashon Island, WA, and a former Teacher of the Year for Hawaii.

How do you support students to learn deeply when your 0-2 point rubric reduces student effort to just three options: "good," "pretty good," and "stinky"? This was one of my tough challenges last year.

Last October, I received an invitation to join a grade-level team at my school focused on how to help students meet the new levels of rigor in the Common Core State Standards. Our school was still in transition and working on finding a strong curriculum that would best fit the new standards for literacy. As the only teacher familiar with Expeditionary Learning and their new English Language Arts curriculum for the CCSS, I volunteered to spearhead the work.

Up to this point, my class had been focusing most of its energies on befriending the standard-based learning target: I can use specific evidence and details from the text to support my answer. We were using a 0-2 point rubric to score their response-to-text work, but it was obvious to all that the rubric was insufficient for the task. We knew we needed more than just a score, and we wanted one that could give specific and helpful feedback to the writers.

Wanting to empower the students, I facilitated them in what I consider an essential practice of student-engaged assessment: co-designing our own rubric. The elements would have to be very explicit so that students could identify criteria without my support. So, we began by charting together what we knew should be present in a strong response-to-text answer.

I was delighted to find that from our daily discussions they already knew most of what was needed. For example, students suggested, "You have to underline the part of the question that you use in your answer."  It only took about 20 minutes to come up with all of the criteria for the 10-point rubric we created (see below). Then, I transferred their ideas to a large chart and invited their feedback the following day. As you can see by the rubric, students chose to weight some targets higher than others to emphasize their central importance. For example, I can use specific evidence and details from the text to support my answer, was valued at 3 points.

After that, the ten-point rubric became the anchor for our peer-writing conferences and we chose to carve out more time in our literacy routine to include it. Students gathered in pairs with their responses-to-text and the rubric, and scored their papers as a team. Later, I added my score as well, making any clarifications or comments if needed. Most of my feedback reinforced something that had already been scored low or high in the rubric, so we found that it gave us a common language. Being able to simply say, You forgot to start your answer with part of the question, or, Great job using direct quotations from the text in your evidence, streamlined much of the feedback.

In general, the students' scores and my scores were very close, and got much closer as the year progressed. From snippets of conversations overheard during their scoring conferences such as, "I think this is worth only 1/2 of the point because...", along with the decreasing number of questions seeking my input on a score, students' confidence in their own abilities to create and identify a strong response blossomed.

Once students became able to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, they liberated themselves from relying too heavily on me to be the final authority. Ending lessons knowing with clarity what they needed to continue to do or change in order to improve transformed their work. Discovering that they had the ability and knowledge to accomplish this transformed our classroom. They became leaders of their own learning, as Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning's brilliant book (and my absolute favorite academic text of the last 10 years), Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment, skillfully distinguishes. From then on, whenever they were conferencing in pairs and using the rubric to score each other's work, I felt certain that they were learning at a velocity I could never match.

Rubric for EL DL Steffen Blog.jpg

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