Episode 195: Drama Teachers! We’re talking rubrics
Drama teacher Lindsay Johnson loves rubrics. And she wants you to love them too! Listen in to learn her process for creating assessments and making them effective for your classroom.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 195 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode195.
I’m excited. This is exciting. I know you’re excited because, today, we are talking about everyone’s favorite topic. I can’t even make it sound good.
We’re talking assessment! Oh, an even better topic – rubrics!
We should have a great big fanfare right there. Assessment and rubrics! I know, and you know, assessment is so tricky in the drama classroom when there are activities that are project-based and process-based and group-based. How do we make it all happen?
Well, we’re here for you. we’ve got a guest today, a drama teacher who loves creating rubrics and she wants you to love them, too. So, let’s get to it!
My guest is Lindsay Johnson.
PRICE: All right. Tell everybody where in the world you are situated right now.
JOHNSON: I am in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
JOHNSON: Teaching at South Minneapolis at a charter school, teaching middle school drama for seventh and eighth grade.
PRICE: Awesome. How long have you been a teacher?
JOHNSON: I’ve been teaching since 2009.
PRICE: Math, everybody! For a while, awesome.
JOHNSON: But I’ve only been teaching theatre for… This is my fourth year teaching theatre.
PRICE: Was the plan to start something else and you ended up in drama? What was your path?
JOHNSON: I started with Teach for America and I was placed in an English reading and writing environment. And so, I did that for the first five years or so. And then, I taught a year of social studies randomly because that’s what they needed at my school. And then, my principal asked what I wanted to teach, and I said drama. So, I’ve been doing that ever since and I’m the founding drama teacher and the only drama teacher in our entire network.
PRICE: Oh, that could probably be a little bit lonely at times, I imagine.
JOHNSON: Yeah, it is, that’s why I love DTA.
PRICE: Ah! That’s awesome! DTA, of course, is the Drama Teacher Academy.
So, what’s your drama background? What was drama like for you in high school and after that?
JOHNSON: I actually really didn’t have a drama program at any school I attended. My drama background is completely in community theatre. I did a ton of community classes and then I was in a bunch of plays at our local community theatre all through school.
In college, I didn’t actually get a degree in theatre, but I took every acting class available at my university for fun. Yeah, I’ve just been really involved in theatre all my life and I did drama club at a school when I was still teaching reading and writing and loved that.
PRICE: So, when the call came, when someone asked you what you wanted to teach, why teach theatre? Why was that the thing that you wanted?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think drama has always been a huge passion of mine. It’s the first thing I really felt like I got and felt like I could do it really, really well from a young age. I mean, from my own perspective, of course. I really enjoyed it and I love acting and I love theatre. And so, the idea of getting to teach that and do that, I think all of my classes incorporated drama even though I wasn’t teaching drama. Even when I was teaching social studies, we were acting out all the wars and everything. It was just fun to make that the focus of my class.
PRICE: Awesome. I love that. I know that there are a lot of folks out there who started on one path and that drama just kind of keeps creeping in and creeping in and then it’s your life!
PRICE: So, the topic of our discussion today is rubrics. I know that that’s something that makes you happy, but I know there’s lots of folks out there for whom rubrics are the bane of their existence and it’s really interesting because it’s something that hasn’t been around that long. This mode of assessment certainly wasn’t around when I was in school.
Do you remember the first time you used a rubric?
JOHNSON: I think I tended to use them for writing more than anything else when I first started teaching because writing was one of those things where it’s kind of more subjective and harder to grade on just like a point-based system. But then, I think most of the rubrics have been around drama. I haven’t had to use them for much else because it’s so performance-based so that’s when I really dove into it.
PRICE: Cool. Why are rubrics useful? I know other people are wary of them. Why do you embrace them?
JOHNSON: I think rubrics are so helpful when you’re trying to assess something that’s subjective, that doesn’t have a clear-cut right answer. And so, with drama, when you’re watching something, there’s not necessarily specific things that are exactly what you have to see. Students can take it in many different directions and still be right. It’s trying to figure out what are the different levels of rightness, in a sense. When you’re watching it later, having a sort of framework for how you want to grade them without it being too rigid. I think rubrics are really great for that.
PRICE: Well, you’ve just hit on a lot of things that I think many drama teachers have difficulty with and that whole notion of subjectivity and that whole notion that a lot of the things that happen in the drama classroom, the right and the wrong, there are none!
PRICE: I always think about this, too. When I think about trying to grade playwriting, we’re not creating playwrights. It’s about what else is happening in the process of it, I guess.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I’ve been lucky to be in a school where there are other specialist teachers who are teaching different specialists but who use rubrics really well and I’ve learned a ton from them and that’s just what’s made me excited about using them myself because I feel like I’ve grown so much in how to do them.
PRICE: What’s the first step? Do you create your own?
JOHNSON: I do, yes. My entire curriculum is from scratch.
PRICE: Of course, it is, because there is no drama curriculum, is there?
PRICE: Not only are you working alone, creating your background on your own, creating your curriculum and assessing on your own. Lindsay Johnson, you deserve a crown or something.
JOHNSON: Well, I also geek out on curriculums. It’s all good.
PRICE: That’s awesome! Perfect.
Creating our own rubrics, where do we start?
JOHNSON: One thing that I actually changed in the last couple of years and it’s been really helpful, I know a lot of people do like, four, three, two, one. I just label it differently and say, “Exceeds, meets, partially meets, does not meet.” In the past, what I always did was fill in the four level or the exceeds level first with what I wanted them to be able to do.
Something that my school has really been pushing me on and I really like is the four level or the highest level was kind of like the A in the grade book, I guess. In our minds, if we want it to be high rigor, then the A should be exceeding what we want them to do, not just baseline what they should be able to do.
I’ve actually started by putting what I want them to do or the baseline in the three level or the meets level – whatever the second level is of achievement. I’ll start by filling in the level of meets and what does it look like to meet this expectation and then I’ll go to, “What does one level above that look like? What does them pushing themselves beyond or really standing out from the others look like?” and that helps me decide what goes in the highest level. And then, I’ll go backwards from there and say, “Okay, what’s one step below that? What’s just not meeting it at all or not getting to where I need them to go?”
PRICE: I really like the dividing it up into exceeding, meets, partially meets, and not meeting as opposed to getting into average or below average or above average because partially meets, someone’s trying to meet something. Even if the don’t get there, it’s not like you suck, but there’s something happening.
I also like the idea of figuring out what meets the standard and then figuring out what’s exceeding the standard and then going in that direction. When I made rubrics, I’m one of those people who starts at the four level or whatever and then works down. But I like that. I like that idea of working on what is meeting the standard or meeting whatever and then going ahead.
How do your students react to rubrics?
JOHNSON: I think they really like them. I think that they’re appreciated having a common language and a common idea of where any performance could fall. One of the things that I was taught by someone at my school – and I won’t word it as eloquently as she did – she basically said that rubrics are ineffective unless a student and a teacher would both grade themselves at the same level using the rubric.
If a student will look at it and give themselves a grade different than a teacher would give them, then the rubric is ineffective because there’s not a common language. It’s like there’s an understanding or a knowledge or a skill gap there where they don’t recognize where they are in the rubrics.
And so, she taught me that teaching rubrics then being really, really explicit and really clear about them is a way to bridge that gap and to make sure that a student could grade themselves and you would completely agree with where they’re grading themselves or appear. That’s when you know that they really get it.
PRICE: That leads to my next question. How do you teach a rubric? Is this something you do at the beginning of the year? Do you use a model? How do you take students through the rubric process?
JOHNSON: When I teach a new skill, or introduce a new level or row of the rubric for the first time, I’ll usually start with a lot of modeling and a lot of what most teachers do of just giving examples either in video or my own examples or having kids come up and showing them. But then, a lot of times, it’s just constant hits with the rubric throughout the entire week or the entire two weeks or whatever or how long it is before you assess it.
Introducing the rubric immediately rather than waiting till a couple of days before the performance and saying, “Oh, by the way, here’s the rubric you’re going to be graded on.” Having it there on day one, showing them what meets or exceeds looks like on day one, and then every single rehearsal of that skill coming back and giving them feedback and saying, “Where do you think that would land on the rubric?” and then constant communication. “Okay, you get this piece of it, but here’s where you’d actually be at partially meets and let me show you why and let’s look at this example,” and having them constantly grading each other.
A lot of times, I’ll have my rehearsals where they’re both working with another group and they both have copies of the rubrics and they need to grade each other as they watch on the rubric and explain using evidence from their rubric and from their performance why they’re giving them that grade. That opens a lot of dialogue between them and then I can come in and correct any misconceptions. They’re just constantly getting interactions with the rubrics so that, by the time they’re actually being assessed, it’s not a surprise to them at all what grade they’re getting and they’re very accurate what they’re grading each other because I always have them grade each other while they’re watching assessments and I find that the grades they’re giving each other reflect very much the grade that I would have given them as well.
PRICE: I think there’s two things in here that you’re hitting home, and I think I want to just reiterate on and I think that notion of surprise is really important, isn’t it? Students shouldn’t be surprised by the grade that they get.
Does it take some stress away from a performance-based rubric if they’ve been using it all along?
JOHNSON: I’m sure there’s a sense of familiarity when I show them the assessment? I remember, a lot of times in school, in any subject, getting that study guide a couple of days before the test and thinking, “Oh, man, I didn’t know that this was going to be on it. I wasn’t prepared for this. I didn’t expect to be graded this way.” I think the fact that, by the time they’re getting to their assessment, there’s nothing new. They’ve seen all of it many, many times before.
I think we just take an element of that anxiety out in the sense of they kind of already know going in probably what they’re going to get for a grade because they’ve been rehearing it so much and they’ve been getting so much feedback that it wouldn’t come as a surprise to them if suddenly they were getting partially meets or does not meet because they will have been getting that feedback and they will have made a choice if they want to work on that skill to improve it or not by that point.
PRICE: That’s right. It’s like, “I’m choosing. I’m choosing only to partial. It’s all in me.”
Well, I wonder, it must take away any of that accusation which happens when you’re dealing with a subjective subject. “You gave me that mark or you gave Jimmy that mark because you like Jimmy better than me. You think Jimmy’s more talented than me. You don’t like me.”
JOHNSON: You can turn around and say, “Look at all your peers who gave you the exact same score that I did.”
PRICE: Also, in a way, it covers your back. It has your back in terms of how you are assessing them. Say, a parent comes in and says that Jimmy’s not being treated fairly. It’s like, “No, it’s all in the rubric.”
JOHNSON: The other thing too is that I require them – for my class anyway – when they grade each other, to provide specific evidence from the performance to back up the rubric score they give. They can’t just circle on and say, “Yeah, you just get meets because I decided you get meets.” They have to actually say what they saw in the performance that indicated that that would be the correct score. Students also have to watch a video of themselves afterwards and grade themselves and list the evidence as well.
I think that I’ve noticed a lot more integrity on the part of the students when they have to actually defend it whereas some students might just go through and circle meets or exceeds for everything when they have to provide evidence. “Okay, well, I guess actually I was here because I can’t think of anything that put me there.” That’s really helpful as well.
PRICE: Now you’re getting into another section which I know that some teachers have some difficulty with.
How do we teach students to give constructive feedback? If you’re using a rubric as your feedback platform and you have to cite evidence for whatever it is you’re saying, I think too you must eliminate a lot of the “well, that sucks!” or “that was great!” without anything in the middle.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I actually have very specific sentence frames that I require students to use when giving each other feedback and it’s all linked to the language in the rubric. It’s like you have to start by telling them which level of the rubric you put them at for that particular skill and then list things from the rubric, from the language of my descriptor of that level that you saw in their performance and link it to that specifically. It no longer becomes a judgment statement of “it was good” or “it was bad” because “it was a meets and here’s my evidence” or “it was an exceeds and here’s my evidence.”
PRICE: Students, particularly in middle school, are very vulnerable to when they do something, if they don’t get a good mark, it equates to them being not good, if that makes sense. I see it in playwriting all the time. “You didn’t like my play” or “You didn’t like me.” It’s because it’s a vulnerable skill. I think all of the stuff that happens in drama class can be very vulnerable. If we can disassociate, allow them to feel but also to go, “This is the way we are assessing,” something like that.
JOHNSON: Yeah. This might be deviating from where you were going but this is the thing I’m most excited bout this year is my school has required the summative assessments views in our class, we now have to have an exemplar for all of our summative assessments which, for most of the other teachers, means filling out the right answers in their tests or making an example essay. But, for drama, it was kind of confused with what that looked like. They said, “Well, you just need to figure out a way to put up an exemplar.”
So, what I did was, under each level of my rubric rows, I decided to just describe what I would be seeing or what I would be hearing from the student that would make me give them that score just as an example performance. What I found was, in forcing myself to do that, it really made me refine the language on my rubric a lot because I found myself not really knowing what I would see differently in exceeds versus meet or not being able to articulate it well to myself. That was a good catch for myself.
If I can’t even say what the difference is in a clear way, I just have a general feeling about it, but don’t have something clearly different I would see, then that rubric is not clear enough, and I need to refine the language of it. That’s been really helpful for me to go through and just change some of the more vague language in my rubrics into much more specific language. That’s been huge for me this year. I’ve just been feeling like I have a much, much clearer idea of what I want my students to be able to do and what I’ll actually see them doing now that I’ve taken the time to go and do that.
PRICE: I think that that’s probably one of the tips of creating your own rubrics is that specificity is king. They have to know and see what’s expected of them.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think a lot of my rubrics used to look like, you know, you take something like pantomiming a setting or something, exceeds level would be like, “I knew exactly where you were, I could tell completely by all of your clues;” and meet is, “I kind of knew where you were;” or partially meets is, “I knew where you were maybe one time.” It just gets very vague in the language and then, when you actually have to go through what that would look like in their bodies and in their acting, it’s like, “Well, what does that actually look like and how would their bodies be different and what would they be pantomiming different for me to say I kind of knew were you were?”
I kind of refine it to there was an exact setting or there was a general setting without the exact location details. I knew you were eating food, but I didn’t know you were in a kitchen as opposed to a cafeteria. And so, going into those specifics for myself was really helpful. I feel like, when I grade them now, it won’t be me like, “Well, I think maybe they’re here, maybe they’re there.” It’s got to be very clear in my mind. “Oh, they’re definite here, they’re definitely there.”
PRICE: How do you assign grades to your rubrics? I’m very familiar with the four, three, two, one. Does it depend on the assignment? Does it depend on the skill? How do you assign a number to what they’re doing?
JOHNSON: I think all of our weights for assignments are already factored in based on how we set up our weights and our grade books. I don’t have to worry about weighting individual assignments a certain way. I use the same basic scoring for every rubric.
What I do is I just figure out what would equal an A and assign that point value to the four level or the highest level – the exceeds – and then what would equal a B and assign that to it. For me, it ends up being really weird, grading 14 points for an A and 12 for a B and 11 for a C. Yeah, it’s just a little math work that you have to do to figure out what would land on those grades that you want them to be getting.
PRICE: Whatever works for you. It’s very independent, right? Whatever works for you is what works for you.
PRICE: What advice would you give to teachers who are struggling creating a rubric? Let’s start with the value of it.
JOHNSON: I would want to know what they’re already using to grade. I know some people are very much knowledge-based graders and so it’s more tests on “Do you know what projection is? Do you know what the word ‘pantomime’ means?” Those kinds of things.
I think, if it’s a very cut and dry answer, then you don’t necessarily need a rubric for that kind of thing. But, I think, when it comes to performance, I’m just not even sure what other method of assessment you would use. Maybe I’m just not aware of a lot of other methods out there. But, to ne, this is one that just makes it so much simpler and so much clearer for something that’s so subjective. I mean, I don’t know how you would assign a score otherwise.
I guess what some people do is they compare it to other students within the class and they’ll say, ‘Compare it to the other students. I think this group is at an A level and this one’s a B level.” But I think that takes the rigor piece out and that allows students to maybe arts doing really well compared to where you want them to be to get graded higher because they’re maybe doing better than other students in the class even though you don’t think they’re actually performing at what you believe an A level is.
If they’re the best of the class, you feel like you have to give them an A because other students are lower than that. And so, I think rubrics helps normalize rigor and makes sure that you’re not following into the trap of, I know, when I was a writing teacher, a lot of times, I would make the A level whatever the highest level of work I was handed was and then kind of just grade based on that when I was doing my grading. I think that was a disservice to students because students were getting A’s who maybe weren’t meeting the right level of rigor but they were just the best in their class. It’s more helpful for me in that way to just normalize rigor level.
PRICE: Oh, I think that’s an excellent point because there’s going to be students who are better at drama than others just because it’s a natural thing. But there’s so much value in a student should be able to get an A not on their talent but, if they can beat the standards or if they can exceed the standards, they should receive the mark as opposed to exactly as you said – the highest level of work that you’re getting in the class. That way, you’re taking the students out of it completely. You’re just using the scale.
PRICE: When you’re putting together a performance rubric, what are some of the criteria that’s important to you that’s on there?
JOHNSON: What I do actually is I am a big proponent of backwards planning. And so, I start my unit, I plan by semester. I start my semester thinking about what are the skills that I think I want them to be able to walk away from the semester having. And so, I’ll list all those skills and I’ll actually just go ahead and create rubrics for all of those right away. Just independent rubrics for each skill.
And then, I go ahead and think about what are some different performances that they could do that would demonstrate these skills and I set those up in the level of difficulty, building up to the highest level of difficulty by the end. Then, I actually just pull whatever rubrics I need that I feel would apply to that particular assessment in the order that I’m teaching the skills in.
I end up using a lot of the same rubrics for every single assessment and then there’ll be some rubrics that just enter in at different points based on what I’m teaching for that particular performance.
I actually don’t do it assessment by assessment; I do it by the skills I want them to have by the end of the semester and then just apply to make sure that they’re getting each rubric multiple times for different assessments throughout the semester.
PRICE: Your semester is pretty much you plan out ahead of time. Everything is in place when you step into the beginning of your year.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I work at a very strict charter school that requires us to have all of our units with all of our assessments and all of our daily measurable objectives submitted before the first day of class even starts so we can get lots of feedback on it and adjust it as we go which, I know, it’s annoying to some people but I actually really think it very much pushes me as a teacher to make sure that I am planning to the highest level and incorporating the most rigor I can.
I think, when I kind of plan on the fly, I can come up with a really fun class that incorporates drama stuff but doesn’t necessarily drive toward specific standards or drive towards specific skills in the best way possible. And so, planning it all out ahead of time takes the stress off me and makes sure I know where I’m going and makes sure the skills are building in a way. I mean, there’s obviously flexibility, too, if you find out students are really struggling with something, then you might decide to put more focus on that and kind of shift around things. But, having a solid plan going into it makes it easier to adapt, knowing that you’re still going to get to where you want to go.
PRICE: Just as we wrap up here, how has rubrics changed you as a teacher?
JOHNSON: Definitely just grown me in my ability to assess well, I think. As someone who didn’t come into drama with a drama education degree, it’s really helped me refine what I think those skills should look like at this level. I know a lot of people are in the same boat as me where they’re creating their own curriculum or they’re starting from scratch or they don’t have things handed to them with specific standards that have made out for them exactly what they want the students to do at each level.
So, for me, this is a huge step in deciding so that I could articulate to my administrators that these are the skills that, “I believe they should have at seventh and eighth grade level. This is exactly what it should look like when they perform, and I have a strong idea of what they’re driving toward.” And so, just planning and everything and how you execute lessons, if you know where you’re going, it makes it so much easier to get there and to articulate to others where you’re going.
PRICE: It certainly sounds like, you know, if somebody is out there and they’re either at the start of their year or they were coming up to starting their schoolyear, that this is the place to start in terms of where do you ground, how do you teach this instead of just sort of diving in. Figure out what are the skills you want them to learn. Figure out what does the rubrics look like and make that happen. And then, you plan everything towards that final piece in a very systematic manner. Structure is good.
JOHNSON: Yeah, and I used to be the teacher who was all about what the final project was. That’s what I cared about and who cares about the standards? It’ll fit in there somewhere. But, I think, the level – again, I keep coming back to rigor – the level of rigor I can get students to is completely altered if I plan it differently where I focus on the rigor and the standards and the rubrics first and then come up with a project that helps drive toward those.
PRICE: I like that. Let’s reiterate that.
Figure out what the rigor is and figure out the project instead of “oh, we’re going to perform something,” and then sort of figure out how to do it against that.
JOHNSON: Just hope the standards get in there somewhere.
PRICE: It’ll all work out. Oh, it’s theatre! Everything works out in theatre. I’ve got a barn. It’ll all be good, you know. It’s all good.
Lindsay, thank you so much for talking to me today and getting your expertise out there.
JOHNSON: Yeah, thanks for inviting me!
PRICE: Thank you, Lindsay!
Oh, that sounds so weird, eh? This is Lindsay thanking Lindsay.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
As always, any links to today’s episode can be found in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode195.
Today, it’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
Let me tell you about a brand-new play in the Theatrefolk catalog – Shreds and Patches by Robert Wing. I love this play which is one of the criteria when we’re choosing plays for the catalog. It has to be good for students, it has to be easy to stage, there’s some criteria in terms of length, and then we also have to love it. We want to be able to talk about it to customers, we want to talk about it to teachers, talk about it to students, and we want to have as much vim and vigor as possible. That’s what I have for this play.
Shreds and Patches is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The location is a “wellness facility” for disturbed teens and Dane, our anti-hero, confronts his bullying stepfather and self-centered mother with the help of his fellow patients and Dr. Osric. Will Dane be able to get through to his mother abut “the king of shreds and patches” or will he be left in the dark?
I guess you’ll have to read it to find out.
But this play plays with language. Oh, it fuses Shakespearean speech with modern dialogue. The teens speak in Shakespeare and the adults speak in modern, reinforcing the notion that teens and adults speak completely different languages. It is easy to stage, great characters for teens, excellent doorway to Shakespeare, the language, the play, the character relationships – everything in one awesome package.
You can find this wonderful piece on Theatrefolk.com where there are sample pages that you can read immediately. You can also find the link in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode195.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast. There are a ton of options! We’re on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. It’s all in one stop.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.