I think I’m officially back from my little hiatus. We’re putting the final touches on I’m Happy For You (Sort of … not really), so I’m starting to breathe a bit more freely. I’ve been drowning in words and just couldn’t subject you guys to more. Of course, get a little burr under my saddle – and she’s back (eek!)

“Do you remember ever having rubrics in school?” I asked a friend this morning on the phone. “I’m not sure I completely agree with their use … or at least exclusively. What do you think?

“What’s a rubric?” she asked.

I was surprised she asked. She has kids in college. I know she’s had to bump up against these things.

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“You know, those guidelines they give the kids to follow when writing a paper or doing a project. It tells them exactly what they have to do in order to get certain grades.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied.

“I bumped into one last night that reminded me how I just might fundamentally disagree with their prolific use these days.”

Normally I don’t see my kids’ assignments. Right or wrong, I really do let them navigate that road themselves. I make sure they know I’m here to help. But they rarely ask. They for sure never want my help in math – in fact they run screaming if I offer. But, sometimes in English – they’ll take their chances.

Before Christmas, I wasn’t asked – but I did help one of the kids type his assignment. I really did it as a surprise. He’s so diligent in everything he does and I thought I could lighten his load by simply typing a portion of what he had already hand written.

I loved his story. Though peppered with spelling issues and grammatical missteps, it was clever with quippy anecdotes and interesting use of quotes that seemed to me a terrific start at learning how to write. I mean, he’s a youngster – far from being able to transfer grammar-rule knowledge to smooth use. I even went so far as to think – wow, this one could be a writer. Anyway, I typed exactly what he wrote, not correcting it. I thought I was doing the right thing.

Until he got in the car yesterday.

“I’m so stupid,” he said as he sank into the front passenger seat. “I’m dumb. I’m a failure.”

Okay – he’s prone to drama; so I rarely allow those types of announcements to mean more than what is usually the case: life-frustration. And I did what I do, told him to snap out of it. (so tender and loving)

Still he was down, I couldn’t help wondering what happened. Apparently – that paper happened – and a rotten grade. He bombed – despite a valiant effort. And when he handed me the paper for my signature the next morning, I saw why he was SO down. The red pen had bled on his paper and its accompanying rubric.

The rubric outlined in detail each requirement and corresponding point assessment according to each checked – or in his case, unchecked – box. The rubric detailed pretty much every step – even tiny details. It dictated his actions as well as the actions of his teacher (whom I adore), who is doing her job. A job that required her, according to the rubric, to prolifically use her pen that was in major need of a tourniquet by then end of his paper.

And I was reminded of my tense relationship with rubrics.

They’re everywhere – not only in all of my kids’ classrooms in each of their different schools, but also in countless other areas of life. They come in the form of boxes that need to be checked in order to assess/grade achievement.

In theory, the rubric offers guidelines – guidelines that are good and helpful and necessary. But in practice, rubrics often go beyond good-intention guidelines to promoting the letter of the law rather than intent. And in doing so, they can serve as a gateway to performance and – I’m afraid – a deterrent to exploration, to experimenting, to creativity and to learning.

I find a significant portion of learning occurs during the prone-to-mistakes process. So, can learning/life be quantified in a rubric?

“I’m not sure about our reliance on rubrics,” I told my friend. “They add fuel to culture’s trend toward performance. We so desperately long for there to be a right way for everything – quantifiable rules to follow so that results are guaranteed. And it just doesn’t work that way.”

“I watched every bit of air being sucked out of the wind of that boy’s sails,” I added. “And, I couldn’t help but think, what a shame. The rubric convinced him of something that is not true. (He isn’t stupid.) And yet thanks to the rubric, he can prove to me that I’m (the one telling him – you’re a good writer, you can work on the grammar and spelling, creativity counts for something) wrong.

Though education related rubrics are tangible, many of life’s rubrics aren’t.

Pinterest might lead me to believe that my kitchen needs to be updated to a certain standard in order to be able to invite people over for dinner (stainless steel appliances: check, paper plates: 30 points off!, slightly charred pork tenderloin cooked in a needs-calibration-oven: gross, no one wants to come to your house!!)

Facebook healthy-living posts (veggies from my organic garden: where are they?! Kay walked 6000 steps today: – not!) might hold out some standard that leads me to think I need to be at a certain fitness level in order to even consider working-out. And no need to go down the road of religion and all its temptations to make a relationship with God about performance. Or parenting that never ceases to herald all the boxes that need checking in order be a considered a good one.

It’s such a fine line. Can the rubric and hands-on, creative, failure-laden learning co-exist? I think it can. At least I sure hope so. But I think it takes a lot of time, patience and trust. I need to remember that as I’m faced with life’s rubrics… especially in this parenting stage.

I hope I can remember that along with the boxes that beg to be checked, I also have tender hearts that need room to navigate life outside of them. I could probably offer some help on the front end as they learn (my word :).

Rubrics – inspiring or debilitating. You tell me

Thanks for walking the road with me.

– Kay

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