As a writer and Language Arts teacher, I've been trained to believe that each word we write, or speak, is significant. Each word choice conveys a depth of meaning beyond its denotation, and therefore should be sought after, pondered, swirled about, revised, reinvented, and given gently, yet confidently, to the world in order to craft an intentional understanding.
Six years ago I facilitated a group of K-12 educators creating a vertically aligned, cross-curricular writing resource. We kept getting stuck in the gap between what we thought students should be able to do as writers at various levels and what our experience had shown us was possible. After months of discussion and activities, a simple breakdown in semantics revealed itself as villain. We had been using words like thesis and essay as if each person in the collaborative shared our personal definition of the words, because that was all we had, our own personal definitions. These words had become so common in education and writing, no one saw the possibility of vastly different understandings, and therefore, a need to clarify. And to be honest, each definition was different, but I would not qualify such differences as "vast". The variations were simply enough to cause a divide between where we were and where we needed to be.
Last week, at the NAGC conference in Indianapolis, I attended a session about failure and resiliency. The audience, a mix of educators and parents. The presenter had a background in counseling, and offered great resources in this domain. The lecture shifted into discussion, and the presenter made an off-hand comment about how rubrics are bad for kids. As my work in the standards-based movement focused heavily on effective use of mastery or performance level rubrics, I followed this strand with rapt attention. It became apparent quickly that what she was repeatedly calling a rubric was really a product descriptor, scoring guide, or checklist indicating for the student what elements, like a title page or number of paragraph and resources, needed to be included in an assignment in order to meet the requirements. As she spoke of the evils of rubrics on a student's motivation, heads were nodding in agreement. I imagined the fuel gathering in each to combat those crazy teachers and administrators who are not doing it like my teachers did, and felt the misunderstanding spread without clarification of what a rubric is.
I opted to clarify. "What you're describing isn't a rubric as currently defined. It's a product descriptor. These are two different things with different purposes. An evaluation or expectation of product quality, detailed in a product descriptor, should be separate from an assessment of the performance level or mastery of standards, described in a rubric." Silence was followed by a very brief acknowledgement by the presenter, "Oh my gosh, you are so right," and then a complete change in topic. Two different understandings of rubrics probably walked out of that session: fellow educators who recognized the distinction between rubrics and other scoring guides, and parents now more confused about what a rubric is and is not than before. I can only hope all present feel a stronger conviction to seek clarification of word meaning in the future.
When we encounter words we don't completely understand, a surface application of context clues without critical reading/analysis leaves us content to think we know enough of what a word means by way of applied synonyms. In reality, the subtle relationship of language and audience and purpose means we often know just enough to not know anything at all, but believe there is nothing further to understand.