Monthly Archives: October 2014

Rubrics and Reason: Lost in Spaces

Vietnamese adoption, single mother


Rose is learning how to sew on buttons in school. If you’re even close to my age, you’re wondering why this skill isn’t known by the age of 12. I had sewn on hundreds of buttons by then, including those teeny, tiny ones that  for Barbie doll clothes. My mother got me started by giving me projects like burst buttons on my father’s shirts, first showing me the steps from how to thread a needle to…..huh…let’s just get past the part about why my daughter can’t do it yet. But at least I could give her a reason to practice at home last night. We had been looking at Halloween costumes in Marshalls and I might have been a little too eager to be done because I ripped off a button trying to get a glittery gold cape from the hanger. When Rose stated it was “the best costume ever”  and she could wear Helen’s winter formal dress under it (I suggested she not mention this to her sister), I pocketed the button and checked out.  It got reattached after three attempts and much frustration on Rose’s part and finally me saying, “Well, let me just do it if you’re going to get so upset about it.”

Later Rose pulled out a stack of school papers, including a yellow sheet labeled “Sewing on a Button Rubric”. I saw that she’d gotten 9 ½ out of ten, giving me hope that the cape experience was only due to adolescence grumpiness or knowing I’d do it for her in the end. I had almost deposited it with the rest of her school papers (to be sorted “later” which meant some time next summer) when a shock went through me. A rubric for sewing on buttons? Was this some kind of joke? Could it be one of those tricks to see if the parents really looked at their kids’ papers?

I wish I could say yes to that last question and then be so pleased that I had passed the good parenting test. But it was real—a rubric for sewing on buttons. To clarify, I’m not criticizing the teacher, who is no doubt following what’s expected of her and may be young enough to think this is perfectly normal. You get points from four to zero on things like “All stitches are neat and free of any loops. The needle consistently went in and out of the same holes”.  My teacher in 7th grade home economics would have just looked over my shoulder and said, “You missed the hole. Try again!”

It seems that nothing can be taught now without it being assessed (and reassessed), often in the form  of these crazy little boxes filled with text. I used to be the teacher trainer in an ESL program. One of my jobs was to observe new teachers and give them feedback. I would watch the class and take notes on what I thought worked and what didn’t work so well. Later we met to discuss it. We used our own words and I didn’t need to give numbers that placed her above or below her fellow workmates. The goal was to help make more effective teachers. But these days, following the national trend, observers in this program arrive with, you guessed it, a rubric.  You can get a four, for example, if the lesson plan is “clear” and a three if the lesson plan is “obvious”. No, I’m not making this up.


When Rose was in the 4th grade, I wrote about something that happened in her classroom:

My younger daughter likes school but has problems with math, especially memorizing her times tables, and this fall that often seemed to her focus. A typical after-school-car-conversation went something like this:

A:   How was school today?

R:    O.K.

A:   What all did you do?

R:   We had tacos for lunch.

A:   Sounds good.  How was math?

R:    I’m terrible.   I couldn’t do my 8’s.

A:    Huh……….

Not the most inspiring conversation. But, recently the class has started on a board game version of the computer game The Oregon Trail. The class divides into families complete with b/w photos where they’re all looking quite sober and dressed in suitable 1800s attire. They draw cards to tell them the weather conditions and problems/successes they are having as they make their way westward.  At the end of each daily session, the teacher switches off the lights, lowers the blinds, and turns on battery operated candles. All the “pioneers” then write in their journals.

Now our conversations go more like this:

 A:  So what happened today?

R:  I had scarlet fever and three of our oxen died from drinking bad creek water.

A:  Oh, no!  How are you going to pull the wagon without the oxen??? (notice I wasn’t concerned about the illness—the teacher told me they keep everyone alive as long as possible).

R:  Well….we still have one more ox and we bought another from the Smith family—because they were out of money.  But we have 67 dollars left.  Oh, and another family got bit by rattlesnakes and the next fort is soon but we’re hoping we don’t run out of flour before then. 



There were never any rubrics for this but I suppose there could have been. For example, taking a spare axle along seemed to be essential. (Note:  I couldn’t seem to get actual boxes into this post–maybe a sign?)

Spare axle work:

4 points–clearly showed the need to take along a spare axle

3 points–obviously showed the need to take along a spare axle

2 points–didn’t show any interest in a spare axle until stranded somewhere in western Nebraska

1 points–gave extra axle to that darn Smith family who never got anything right

n0 points–misspelled “axle” in journal

There were many other things she learned from this activity that never got boxed or numbered—-whether you can give or sell some of your flour to a family that used theirs up, while knowing you might be without before you get to the next fort, or taking on a stranger who’s lost his way, or figuring out what’s most important for the family to buy with limited funds—a dog or some extra rations (you know what I’d say—I remember Jack in Little House on the Prairie).  And now that I look back at that axle rubric, I wonder if she might have learned more by getting stranded—the 2 point score.  And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about?  Learning?

Rose is learning how to sew on buttons and I sincerely appreciate her teacher for that–it’s really a pretty basic skill and I have to say one we all should have. But I don’t need a rubric about it.  I’ll test her out on the next button I pull off.  And she doesn’t need a rubric either.  She really, really doesn’t need any formal assessment on how well she can sew on a button. She just needs a teacher (may she be blessed with more patience than me on this matter) to show her how to do it and then help her practice until she gets better. Like sewing on a button, it’s a pretty basic concept and one we desperately need to remember.