Academic Skills, Grading, Rubrics, teaching

“Gettin’ ‘Bric-y Wit It”

If this post’s title made you think of the canonical Will Smith song, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” then congratulations, you got my terrible allusion! You now likely have that song stuck in your head. As recompense for suffering that indignity, you might just find an exciting surprise if you read through this post to the end.

But Will Smith isn’t really the point of this post. Rubrics are! (That’s the cruelest bait-and-switch of all time; I’m sorry).


“Rubrics, you say? Now I feel like this!” – via GIPHY

In my last post, I wrote about using a learning goal-based rubric as a formative assessment technique. In that case, I used a rubric focused on five writing skills to first evaluate sample essays with my students; then I used it evaluate my students’ own writing on a similar prompt.

That process worked pretty successfully, I think. Although I’ve not had a ton of follow-up conversations with students about that first assignment, those few chats that I have had focused on how the student did in terms of those specific learning goals. Furthermore, we ended those conversations with the student have clear and specific ideas about how to improve on those skills moving forward. In other words, they weren’t just “bottom line” conversations about the grade on the assignment, which is what I’d hope to achieve.

As a way to carry this momentum forward, I wanted to make a rubric for one of the types of assessments I use most frequently in my history classes: ID Terms.



“…and I’m historically significant because:”


I remember ID terms as a central feature of my own history classes in high school and college. The guidance I received about how best to approach these terms remained pretty consistent both in my own education and I’ve carried those guidelines into my own teaching. For over a decade now, I’ve explained that good ID term responses should do two things:

  1. Explain WHAT the term is.
  2. Explain WHY that term is significant.

However, I’ve always verbally articulated those expectations to my students. After that discussion, I’ve then given students practice in writing IDs, using their sample IDs as fodder for feedback about the ways in which their responses are strong and how they could improve.

However, in the hopes of providing students with something more codified to use in the process of studying and writing ID terms, I thought I should put those general expectations into a rubric framed around what I perceive to be the main learning goals of historical ID terms.

So, below is my first draft at a rubric that captures the two key elements of ID terms, puts my expectations into (hopefully) clear language, and gives students clear guidance on what they’re striving for when writing ID terms and conducting historical analysis in general.


As you can perhaps tell from the screenshot, I’ve built this rubric in Canvas with the hopes of using it frequently to give students feedback on practice ID terms they write and submit digitally. As of yet, I’ve not figured out how to use multiple versions of this rubric on a single assessment, which would be helpful, for instance, if an online quiz or test included multiple ID terms.

That issue, however, is a problem for another day, so in the meantime, I’ll leave with a request for feedback and suggestions:

  • What language am I missing in this rubric?
  • How could I reframe these criteria differently or more effectively for students?
  • Are the distinctions between the various levels of mastery clear enough in the language?
  • Any other thoughts?

And now, I’ll really leave you with what you’ve been hoping to get to this whole post!

Grading, Rubrics, teaching, Writing

Formative Assessment, Rubrics, and (that pesky ol’ issue of) Grades

In the week before our school year started, our in-service professional development days focused on the topic of formative assessment and what techniques and strategies make for the most effective types of formative assessment. (If you’d like a more thorough recap of those sessions, check out the write up in Fine Print, one of my school’s online publications).


Leading us through these sessions was Jan Chappuis, who has written a number of books on formative assessment. Her presentation focused on her Seven Strategies book and the ways we could both implement these techniques and use them to help improve student learning and foster a “learning orientation” within students.


Jan’s day-and-a-half presentation was really dense and filled with more specific suggestions and ideas about restructuring classroom activities than one could possibly hope to implement in a single year (let alone in the last few days before a new school year). She did, however, note at the end of her presentation that the best approach for integrating formative assessment into one’s classroom is to “start small and keep going.”

With that admonition to adopt and work to implement something from her presentation, I gravitated toward her suggestions to use rubrics (framed around specific learning goals rather than check-list, task-completion goals) and sample student work (of both excellent and not so excellent quality) as a way to help students understand both what they’re supposed to be learning and how they can become more adept at self-assessment.

Rubrics of Yesteryear

My interest in using more effective rubrics, however, was spurred entirely by this presentation. Last year my colleague Kate and I experimented with using the “single-point rubric” as a way to get away from the overwhelming check-box features of traditional rubrics. This change had the benefit of pushing me to explicitly articulate (and visually center) the major learning goals for a particular assignment.



Sample “Single-Point” Rubric via the Cult of Pedagogy. The “Breakfast in Bed” assignment is obviously one of the most important encapsulations of learning in any history course.

I used the “single-point” rubric for a seminar on disability history that I taught last fall and found it a useful framework for explaining to students how they were doing on the various learning goals of the assignment. I even wrote a whole post for my students about my rationale for using this rubric and what I hoped they’d gain from it. The labor involved in articulating the positive and not so positive aspects of each piece of student work, however, ended up being pretty overwhelming by the end of the semester.

I ended the term feeling unsure about the net benefit of this framework. Yes, it gave a lot of feedback, but how effective was it when I shared both positive and negative aspects for a single learning goal? Did it always give students a clear sense of what to work on to improve? Unfortunately, I didn’t survey my students about their reactions to this rubric format, so I don’t have a clear idea about how well it worked. Missed opportunity [sigh].

Everything Old (or at least rubrics) Is New Again

So, when Jan Chappuis made learning goal-centered rubrics a centerpiece of her presentation as a way to do less grading and commenting while also providing more effective and punctual feedback, I was intrigued.

Jan recommended that rubrics should be written in student-friendly language (often using the first person—a stylistic choice that makes the learning goals more accessible and thereby helps students self-assess more readily) and only include as many different tiers/levels as there are gradations of mastery. In other words, if you only see four different levels of student skill for a learning goal, there should only be four potential outcomes on that rubric.

These guidelines ultimately recommended (and many of Jan’s models confirmed) using a more traditional-looking rubric with lots of boxes and descriptions of performance at various levels.

With our shift to Canvas this year, those recommendations ended up being good news because (at present) Canvas’ rubric creation tool doesn’t allow one to create a single-point rubric. Instead, the tool creates the fairly traditional rubrics with lots of boxes and descriptors—essentially the kind Jan recommended using with students.


“I call this one, ‘Rubrique Vintage‘”

I used this style of rubric for the first time this year for a comparative writing assignment about our summer reading books for AP European History: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and Joyce Appleby’s Shores of Knowledge. Because I use this introductory writing assignment to get a sense of students’ ability to structure an argument, use evidence, and offer analytical commentary, I only have them write a two paragraph response—an introduction with a thesis and one body paragraph. Given this narrow focus, I similarly made my rubric focus only on the learning/writing goals that apply to those part of an essay. Here’s what I’ve developed/adapted from an excellent writing rubric created by my colleague Kate:


I spent a day walking students through the rubric and reading two sample essays, which gave them the opportunity to put the rubric into action. By working with the students through one strong and one weak example, I hoped to both give them a sense of what I’m looking for in this assignment and give them some practice at identifying those characteristics in anonymous student work. By the end of that day, students had become pretty adept at evaluating these elements in sample work and grounding their assessments in the particular language of the rubric.

Although this marks a good start for me in terms of using rubrics and sample student work more extensively this year, it nevertheless leaves me with the remaining challenge of figuring out how to translate those “learning goal”-based rubrics into grades that are recognizable on the traditional grading scale. In experimenting with this task, I was heartened by a comment Jan made during her visit: (I’m paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect of) “it doesn’t matter what type of grading system you have so long as those grades are based on the learning goals of the course.”

But how do you grade it?

Good question, Italicized Header 3! Before creating this rubric, I did some research into how others have gone about translating learning goal or standards-based grades into a more traditional format. Here are a few links that I found useful in explaining potential solutions for that process:

Of all the systems explained in those posts (and others I haven’t linked to), I found the “Logic” or “Piecewise Function” for converting learning goal-based grades into traditional grades (explained in the Always Formative post above) the most compelling and adaptable. With that inspiration, I went about drafting, getting feedback on, and revising my own “Piecewise Function” for this particular assignment. Here’s what I settled on:


At present, I’ve only used this translation table for 11 essays, but I think it’s leaving me with predictable (and similar) results to what I’ve gotten in previous years when using a more holistic approach to evaluating assignments like this one. My hope, however, is that this rubric provides students with clear feedback that will help them see where they should focus their attention on upcoming writing assignments. I’ll certainly have more to say on all those topics once I’ve finished grading all the essays and get some feedback from the students.

I’d love to hear how others have used systems like this one and what advice they have. Given that math and science teachers wrote those blog posts from which I drew my inspiration and models, I’d love to hear insights from humanities (and especially history) teachers who have used a similar model. What types of scales have others used? How have students reacted to the feedback from the rubrics versus the translated grade? How has this system worked when the learning goals aren’t as explicitly skill-based but are more focused on content?

Nota Bene

There’s a whole boatload of material online about what formative assessment is and how best to implement it in the classroom, but I’ll leave that to your Google or YouTube searching. Here’s just one example of the sort of tutorial/instructional materials that you can find (thanks to my colleague, Wendell, for passing along the following video) that addresses the benefits and best methods for implementing formative assessment:


Non-Teaching, Social Media, Technology

Fun with Dumb Memes

Last spring while teaching about World War I and the Russian Revolution, I was struck by a phonetic similarity between the term for the leaders of pre-Bolshevik Russia and a song that was particularly popular from mid-2015 through early-2016.


For the song in question (which had the chart trajectory depicted above), click here at your own peril.

With this inspiration, I quickly went to one of the internet’s many meme generators, plunked in some pictures, typed up a dopey pun in 72 pt. Impact font, et voila!

And now (in order to delete this silly file off my desktop), I present to you the fruits of that very poorly expended labor:



Documenting Nice Things

This past February I defended my dissertation at the University of Texas at Arlington. My defense took place on a Monday, which is when my school has one of its weekly Morning Meetings.

On the day I was in Texas for my defense, my friend and colleague, Kate, made an announcement/call for participation in a Congratulatory Mind-Map to celebrate my successful defense. It was a super-sweet and kind gesture — especially given my love of all things “Mind-Map.” (Further evidence of that interest is also here, and here, and here).

Lots of students (both current and former) came by my room and signed or added interconnected thought bubbles to my Mind-Map, so that when I returned on Tuesday, I was greeted by this:

PhD MindMap

As I tidied my classroom today in preparation for the first day of classes tomorrow, I thought I’d document and work to preserve this wonderful gift from my school community by posting it here. Thanks again friends, and here’s to another wonderful school year!

Pedagogy, teaching, Technology

Reconceptualizing Course Planning with Canvas, Part II: “The New Single-Site Paradigm”

In my last post, I outlined some of the major challenges of and problems created by the LMS that I’ve used for the past four years. However, as a means to work around some of these problems, I had created a series of “Cycle Schedules” in Google Docs that I could embed into the LMS. These documents essentially served as my lesson plans and were much more detailed and robust than anything I’d created in my first eight years of teaching.

In the course of piloting Canvas in some limited ways last school year, one feature that quickly became apparent to me as a major improvement over the status quo was the way that it integrated assignments into an actual calendar.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.25.50 PM

Rather than having two separate places to post and track assignments—1) in my Cycle Schedules and 2) in the grade book (only for those assignments that got graded)—Canvas instead attaches each assignment to a specific date on the calendar. From my experience thus far, it’s clear that the calendar occupies a central place within Canvas.

As a result, when assignments are clearly anchored to the calendar, it clearly communicates what will happen when and saves students the work of transferring assignments and homework from the Cycle Schedule onto an actual calendar. In fact, Canvas will automatically push upcoming assignments with a due date onto students’ (and faculty’s) “To Do” lists on the Dashboard.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.36.01 PM

Moreover, the interface for scheduling these assignments makes it very easy to create different due dates for the same assignment to different sections of the same class. And even better still, I can easily select to have these assignments not count toward the final grade, which would keep my grade book free of “actively read pp. xx-yy” detritus.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.27.45 PM

So, having explored these features last spring, it quickly became clear that my old system of embedding Google Docs into the LMS wouldn’t take advantage of Canvas’s powers to communicate assignments and their due dates clearly to students in one centralized location. Yet, I had made all these really detailed (and useful for me) Cycle Schedules that included embedded links to readings, video clips, study guides, and other resources that I hope are helpful for my students.

All of these facts meant that as I sat down this summer to rethink how I wanted to structure my courses on Canvas, I realized that the time-unit of the “Cycle” would no longer be helpful. I had adopted that system as a way to deal with my school’s rotating schedule and the fact that I didn’t see every class on every day and it was easier to communicate what would happen for all students within that seven-day rotation. But with Canvas’s more powerful and convenient calendaring features, it now seemed a hassle to preserve that system that I’d used over the past few years. You know, one of these deals:


Instead, I began exploring Canvas’s “Modules” section and thinking about how to divide my class into Units based not on the time-unit of the Cycle but around the content that I’d cover. I had, in fact, always had some of my materials organized into these pretty traditional content-focused “Units”; that remains how I organize all my files on Google Drive, for example:


Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.50.09 PM

Over the past few years, I’ve taken to printing off my Cycle Schedules so that I could make notes on them about adjustments, how lessons went, things to change, etc. This resource proved immensely helpful this summer as I worked through last year’s classes and re-divided them according to “Unit,” deciding what days that used to fit into the different “Cycles” should now be grouped according to “Module.”


With these notes in hand, I was able to sketch out the trajectory of the year, figuring out how many days I spent on each unit and what content that I’d previously put into all of my Cycle Schedules could now fit into individual assignments. I always find that this type of large-scale rethinking happens best when done by hand, so I went full-Moleskine-hipster and did it!


Then, once I’d sketched out the year, named all of the different class days, and determined the dividing points between different Units/Modules, I built out that same framework within Canvas.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.59.07 PM

As I did this, I also figured out when I wanted to have various formative and graded assignments and used the “indent” feature within the Modules to visually indicate when a particular day also included a separate quiz, discussion, or practice AP activity. Building out these “Units” in the Modules page was especially convenient because I could include assignments, quizzes, discussions, external URLs, etc. within the Module and have them conveniently grouped in one place.

So, once I’d built out the framework of for each of the days in the year, I began going into these individual assignments and copying-and-pasting material I’d previously had in a Cycle Schedule day into a new Canvas assignment.

For example, here’s my day on the “Varieties of Protestantism” that previously looked like this within my Cycle Schedule:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.07.23 PM

Now it looked like this within Canvas:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.07.34 PM

With the exception of re-embedding the video using Canvas’s YouTube integration tool, I more or less copy-and-pasted the material that I previously had included in the old Google Doc. The links—and most of the formatting—transferred pretty cleanly. (Though, as my friend and colleague (hereafter “friendleague”), Kate, and I were discussing, we wished that Canvas would use proper Harvard outline format to vary the symbols at the different levels of indentation. Sigh.)

After I’d created the assignment and included all the details, I then figured out where that day fit on the actual calendar by manually scheduling it in the Cycle Calendar Book that the school provides to faculty (and freshmen…for what that’s worth).

IMG_2693 2

I then included the appropriate dates for each class section on each assignment and voila! I’ve now got my schedule, homework, and grade book filled (with only the material that needs grading) in one fell swoop. (I’ll concede that it’s a pretty involved swoop, but at least Canvas won’t delete all this work at the end of the school year!)

You may perhaps have noticed that I added one new section to the top of each day’s assignment: the “Due Today” section. For that section, I’ve simply copied and pasted the prior day’s homework (in this case, 2.1 – “Foundations of the Protestant Reformation”).

This solution, devised by my friendleague (ugh…that neologism is awful. Sorry about that), Kody, helps address the one major shortcoming of having each day be a separate assignment: it’s no longer possible to scroll up and down the Google Doc and easily see what the prior day’s homework assignment was.

So, while including this info does require some extra copying-and-pasting, and requires changing two different assignments if you decide to change the homework for a particular day, I nevertheless think that it removes potential confusion for students about when something is due.

Finally, I’m hopeful that this new structure for communicating assignments will also prove superior because it makes the same content accessible in some many different places. If need be, students can find the information about “Day 2.2 – Varieties of Protestantism” in the Module [see above], on the calendar, in the Assignments section, on Canvas’s auto-generated Syllabus [see below], or on the “Upcoming” section of the Dashboard [see above].

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.19.49 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.24.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.24.46 PM

In contrast to the isolated location of assignments under the old LMS’s paradigm, I’m hopeful that students will find the multiple means of accessing assignments within Canvas and seeing them all at a glance through the calendar to be much simpler and ultimately a time-saver.

My school year starts this Wednesday, so we’ll find out how good a soothsayer I am soon enough!


teaching, Technology

Reconceptualizing Course Planning with Canvas, Part I: “The Old Paradigm”

Late last school year (and after a series of meetings and trial investigations of different Learning Management Systems), my school decided to shift from our previous LMS (which, in classic Voldemortian fashion, I shall not name) to Canvas.


In my experience of using the previous LMS, there were two major problems:

  1. At the end of a school year, all the work you’d put into the LMS (uploaded assignments, files, pages, resources, etc.) were all purged and deleted. This functionally (or lack thereof) meant that you had to recreate work you’d already done every single year.I learned about this “feature” from a former colleague, who had spent countless hours building out her class only to discover in July that all that work had gone down a series of tubes (or was it a dump truck?), thereby spurring very understandable and appropriate Sturm und Drang.
  2. To get something to appear on the calendar for students to see, you had to create that item as an assignment, which would then appear in the grade book. In practice, this might not sound like such a big deal, but as a history teacher who assigns mostly reading, having a bunch of “Actively read pages 332-339 in McKay and annotate for …” assignments appear in the grade book (and which didn’t need grading) was a big pain in le derrière.

On the positive side, however, this LMS had the ability to easily create Pages where one could embed HTML code.

So, as a workaround for the first problem, I decided to create all of my lesson plans/student schedules in Google Docs, where I (or, more accurately, our benevolent overlords in Mountain View, CA) maintained control of the material from year to year. So instead of recreating all this material anew on Voldemort LMS each year, I could instead just re-create Pages and then embed my lightly updated schedule of class assignments, homework, and useful resources.

Essentially, students logged in, navigated to my class page, then navigated to a page (which I organized by Cycle [see more on that below] and titled after whatever material we were working on and where that fell in the schedule) that had the in-class schedule, homework, etc. Here’s what those pages looked like:

While this method worked well in terms of allowing me to preserve my work from year-to-year, update it in one place and have those changes pushed to the students, and easily embed that material on the LMS, it created some new problems:

  1. None of the material that I included on that Google Docs was pushed to the calendar on the LMS itself. If I wanted something (usually something that was graded) on the LMS, then I had to go back and create that as a specific assignment in the LMS’s grade book.
  2. Students had to figure out when a particular day would take place. Because we have a rotating schedule (see snapshot below and try to keep the gray matter in your head within the confines of your ears), not all classes have the same in-class assignment or homework due on the same calendar day.
    Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.17.08 PM
    My Cycle Schedules gave them all the details for my class (and on what day of a Cycle it would take place), but students then had to map that information into their own schedules/planners to determine when it would actually occur and where it would fit with their other work. While I’m not opposed to having students do this organizational work, it was unfortunate that my solution to solve one problem created superfluous additional work for them.
  3. My colleagues and I often devised separate solutions for how we communicated work within the LMS. Some folks adopted the system that I was using by embedding Google Docs into the LMS. Others included links to their class pages on Google Classroom. Others used the calendaring features within the LMS.In practice, this meant that students couldn’t gain access to all their work in a single place and had to navigate to each individual teacher’s class page to get resources, information about their assignments, etc. and then transfer this information to a calendar where all the information would show them exactly when in the real world all this work would be due.
    lms_disconnects (2)
    Again: redundant (and superfluous) work for students.

Now that I’ve outlined the array of problems and challenges posed by the old system, in my next post I’ll talk about how Canvas addresses those with its more robust calendaring feature and how I’ve gone about transferring my old Cycle Schedule into the Canvas’s “Modules” feature.


Presentations, Publications, Research, Writing

Benjamin Lay article published! (but read on here for a “tl;dr”)

Shortly after I’d passed my comprehensive exams and begun working on my dissertation in earnest in the Fall of 2012, one of my committee members suggested that I look into the early Quaker abolitionist, Benjamin Lay, as a potential subject for one of my chapters.

At that point, I had the outlines of the dissertation and its focus: Quakers, their ideas about disability, and how those ideas influenced their reform activities. However, beyond a seminar paper I’d written about the Quakers’ Retreat at York—a groundbreaking insane asylum that used “moral treatment” and other more humane methods to treat those perceived as “insane”—I didn’t have a lot of clear areas for focus.

To help remedy this problem and gain some wider context about Quaker humanitarians in the eighteenth century, my advisor, Sarah Rose, suggested that I talk with one of her former graduate student colleagues who had studied Quakers of this era and who might have some good leads.

Lo and behold, that conversation with Michael Goode, yielded what became two conference presentations, two dissertation chapters, and now a published article in the Disability Studies Quarterly.

If you didn’t want to click that “published article” link above, let me entice you with a teaser image (courtesy the lovely and helpful archivists from the Smithsonian Institution) from the article below:


Benjamin Lay, Artist: William Williams, Sr., c. 1750-1758, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society.


(Now that you’ve seen that, let me spam you with many more links to that very same article…pretty annoying, huh?)

Part of what made researching Benjamin Lay so fun and so much of a challenge was that Michael Goode first presented him to me as an individual whose disability left some scholars skeptical. Because Lay served on a sailing vessel, those skeptics argued, he couldn’t have been disabled because such a job in the eighteenth century wouldn’t have been possible for an individual with such a striking bodily aberration (and its perceived limitations) as you see in the image above.

So, as I learned about Lay’s life in the eighteenth century and about how later abolitionists perceived and presented him in the nineteenth century, I was on a quest to piece together (from varied and fragmentary evidence) how disability, in fact, was present in (spoiler alert!!!if not central to) Lay’s life, his advocacy, and his legacy.

My argument acquired a bit more intrigue when, in the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of presenting a focused version of my argument at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists where one of the skeptics was in the audience! After my talk, that scholar asked a number of good questions and seemed persuaded by my overall assertion that Benjamin Lay did, in fact, make his disabled body a crucial part of his abolitionist advocacy. I got further feedback and support for my developing argument from Caleb McDaniel, a terrific historian of slavery and abolition at Rice University, when I presented my Benjamin Lay talk as a Pecha Kucha presentation at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conference later that same summer.

With those votes of confidence, I continued my revisions and work on these chapters about Benjamin Lay, submitting the one that was just published to the Disability Studies Quarterly journal shortly after passing my dissertation defense in February of this year.

So, feel free to click on to read the whole thing, or, as I promised, here’s the “tl; dr”:

Benjamin Lay was disabled and his disability proved central to his abolitionist advocacy during his lifetime in the eighteenth century. Lay actively used his non-conforming body to challenge the Quaker community to give up slaveholding and the slave trade and acknowledged how his aberrant body helped lead to him to his abolitionist views in his 1737 publication, All Slave-Keepers, Apostates. After his death, Lay’s disability became inextricably connected to his abolitionist work both in visual and written representations of Lay, his body, and his unconventional advocacy.

Now that this article has made it out into the world, I’d like to thank all those who’ve provided feedback, guidance, support, and encouragement over these past four-plus years as I’ve worked on this Benjamin Lay research and the rest of my dissertation. We’ll see where this work goes next, but in the meantime, it’s quite gratifying to send part of it out into the world.

If anyone does opt to read the non-“tl;dr” version of the article, I’d love to hear what you think!