The Rubric Criterion That Changed Everything

If you’re like me, you let stacks of student papers sit for a while before you can bring yourself to respond to them. Once I get into reading and responding to them, it goes well, but there’s just something about diving into the first paper on the stack that isbored teacher surrounded by stacks of papers to grade tremendously foreboding. There have been times I’ve put off responding so long, it’s almost embarrassing.

I know I’m not alone in this.

In past blog posts, I’ve written about the trouble with trying to grade writing objectively and the importance of humility for grading. I’ve also discussed how much we should count effort in student writing (if at all), and I’ve also given advice on managing the grind of responding to student papers. In this post, I suggest something that has truly improved my experience as a reader of student writing. Really.

Creating a Rubric

I use a grading rubric for most writing assignment. This is nothing new, not at all original, and it’s not the thing I’ve done that’s made such a difference. But it’s helpful for telegraphing to students what I’m looking for when I evaluate their work and it helps me translate the grade I’ve given into specific feedback on student writing. In a word, a rubric demystifies the grade I’ve given. If you’d like a primer (or review) on using rubrics to respond to student writing, you could do no better than studying Heidi Andrade’s work. Start with her piece on “Understanding Rubrics.”

Sometimes I give students a rubric. Sometimes–especially for long assignments–I create a rubric with students. This increases students’ buy-in, and they often come up with unexpected and useful criteria for the rubric.

gender nonspecific person holding a blank rubricThe criteria I list on a rubric for a final paper in a course are often fairly standard: Effective Use of Rhetorical Devices, Coherent and Organized, Well Reasoned, Follows Expected Conventions, Makes Effective Use of Outside Sources, etc. But there was one criteria I happened on that made a huge difference.

The Magic Criterion

Once I was reading a stack of papers, and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish these papers were more interesting!” Then it hit me: Students will work on what’s listed on a rubric. In my next paper assignment, I added this to the rubric: “Is Interesting to Read.”Male reader truly excited by what he is reading

That criterion changed everything. Suddenly students were adding more creativity and originality to their papers. They were adding humor or compelling emotional statements, photos, comics, memes, and other creative touches. The students added dialog, quoted from more interesting sources. They discovered that Word has templates that make a paper a more compelling-looking document.

This change didn’t occur simply by adding that criterion. We also talked as a group, and I gave students time to talk in small groups, about what makes papers interesting for readers and what are the available means for interest (to paraphrase Aristotle).

I’ve Got a New Attitude

I almost never give papers now without “Is Interesting to Read” as a criterion for evaluation. And, I cannot tell you how much more I look forward to diving in to student papers. (Not that I don’t still put them off. Hey, I’m a work in progress!) I’m so curious to see what they’ve come up with. The students also seem to enjoy that process more, and they seem to have more fun with it. They also seem to appreciate that being able to genuinely interest a reader is a real-world skill they can use in the future. All these are positives.A one yellow happy face smiles among a bunch of unhappy blue faces

Of course, reader interest is highly subjective, even idiosyncratic. So if objectivity is your goal, that could prove a problem. (Of course, objectivity should NOT be your goal.) And, there are standardized exams for which creativity is explicitly discouraged. So, unfortunately, you should teach your students when interest is warranted (everywhere except standardized exams, perhaps). But your goal should be to educate students to be ready for real-world writing situations, for authentic situations. And in those cases, interesting readers (or listeners) is a tremendously important skill.

Try it out, and please share your experiences below. I’d love to hear about them! I’m interested. Really.


2017: Another Year in the Books!

Today is the last day of 2017, and I decided it might be good to take some time to reflect on what I’ve encountered professionally this year. Warning: it may not make gripping reading, as it’s mostly my own navel-gazing, but perhaps it will inspire you to do some reflecting on your own professional year.

New Position: Moving Full-Time to the Dark Side

On March 1, 2017, I was named Dean of the School of Professional Development (SPD) at Stony Brook University. (It’s important here that I remind readers that everything I say on this blog is my own and does not represent Stony Brook University.) Until then, Darth Vader putting a force choke on someone.I was primarily a teacher with some administrative responsibility. I still teach one class per year (by choice), so I’m not completely out of the light, I’m happy to say. This has been a challenging position, but I’ve learned a lot of important things. Here are some of the big things:

  • The ability to say yes and to support colleagues on projects and in their work can be every bit as affirming as working with students.
  • Middle managers (people who report to a dean, for example) are some of the most important members of an effective school. Teachers can control a classroom. An administrator cannot control a school.
  • Budgeting is an amazingly complicated task. The numbers of accounts, payables, receivables, reports, checking for mistakes, is dizzying.
  • Building new degree and certificate programs is a lot of fun. Finding the right partners is essential.
  • Regular communication with individuals and the full staff is very important to keep things running smoothly.
  • Some people will not do more than they absolutely must, but many more people will do more if they feel appreciated and partake in work they find important and enjoyable.
  • Almost everyone is grateful if you just take a few minutes to hear them out and respond respectfully. Even if you disagree, polite, respectful, open communication is a salve. Many people who complain really just have a reason to want to be heard.
  • There is a tremendous amount to learn. Read books, talk to people (take them out to coffee and ask questions), read reports, find mentors and listen to them. There is always much more to learn. That’s exciting.
  • “I’m sorry” are extremely important words to use when appropriate. It’s ok to be wrong or to make a mistake. It’s not ok not to acknowledge it.
  • Expressing appreciation when it’s deserved is important. Let people know that the good they do is valued.
  • Do what you say you’ll do. Get stuff done.

Learning about New Fields

The school I’m working in is a mix of academic professional programs (human resources, ed tech, etc), teacher education programs, and noncredit professional development programs. The world of professional development is fairly new to me. I’ve learned a lot about it from the UPCEA organization, new colleagues across the SUNY system, and colleagues in SPD.

I’ve also gotten very involved in micro-credentials, especially digital badges, which I’ve presented on at several conferences, symposia, webinars, and colleges. SPD is on the Cartoon person next to stack of booksforefront of this new learning technology, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s more information about our program.

Finally, I took 2.5 courses on Coursera in accounting, an area in which I have very little background. The first two courses were very helpful. The third, is far less interesting, and I’ve struggled to get through it. I keep postponing my deadlines. What I’ve learned has greatly enhanced my ability to manage a budget, especially in a fiscally challenging time. “Fiscally challenging” is a euphemism. 😦  I’ve also taking a significant number of trainings supervising, communication style, diversity awareness, and dealing with difficult people. It’s all been really interesting and helpful. I’ve learned a ton, even in areas I thought I knew a lot about already.


A few years ago, my publication rate increased fairly dramatically. It seems that several doors all opened at once. In 2016, Leila Christenbury and I co-authored the fourth edition of her popular book for new English teachers, Making the Journey. Beginning in 2017, Leila and I contracted with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) for a new, 5-book series for veteran English teachers called Continuing the Journey. The first volume on teaching literary and informational texts came out last November. The next volume, on teaching writing & language will be out in November 2018. I’ve also published more book reviews in English Journal and I collaborated with some colleagues on an article showing that connecting teacher evaluations with test scores is a bad idea (due out this spring).

Service to the Profession

I really like the service work I do for my job. In fact, over the course of my academic career I’ve been told many times that I do “too much service,” which could make it seem like I’m not invested enough in publishing and could damage my reputation. That damage may have occurred, but I don’t worry about it.

In my new role, I am a member of two SUNY Deans’ groups: Deans of Education and Deans of Continuing and Online Education. I’ve been involved with both groups of excellent colleagues. We even hosted the SUNY Deans of Ed at Stony Brook this year, thanks to a great deal of planning work from my SPD colleagues. These groups allow me to communicate with colleagues who share many of the same challenges. We also speakCommunity Service with people linking arms forming hearts in the negative spacewith one voice–when we can–to influence SUNY and New York State Education policy. I did some important advocacy work with the SUNY faculty/staff union (UUP), especially regarding teacher education policy, including the now-required edTPA of which I am not a fan to put it mildly. (Linda Darling-Hammond still has me blocked on Twitter.) And, we continue to fight against a very dangerous new policy that allows some charter schools in NY to train their own teachers to extremely low standards and consider them “certified.” See this letter from the SUNY Deans of Education for more on that. (The policy was since approved, unfortunately.)

I’ve been heavily involved in the Conference on English Education, which is NCTE’s group for teacher educators. I’ve presented and held sessions at several conferences. I’ve been on an active group in the SUNY system on micro-credentials. And, I’ve completed a handful of book/article manuscript reviews, tenure reviews, and letters of recommendation. The latter aren’t really fun, but they are important.

Missed Opportunities: What Will 2018 Bring?

The number one regret I have about 2017 is that I barely blogged. I was so wrapped up in new projects, new jobs, and more, that I didn’t blog about teaching and teacher education much. I am going to change that in 2018. Not all blogs have to be brilliant (this one certainly isn’t), and they don’t need to be long. In fact, 800-1200 words is probably optimal.

I didn’t teach last semester, but I will be teaching in Spring 2018. I’m teaching a new course called “Effective Professional Thinking,” part of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Stony Brook.  I’ll be teaching the course online, which I’m looking forward to. And, I’ll be co-teaching with a colleague I like very much. I asked him to co-teach because I am actually very worried about having enough time to do the class justice.

I’m pretty concerned that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew for 2018. yikesLuckily, I like what I do, so I don’t mind being busy. I may have to learn more about time management, which of course, I’ll have to make time for. Honestly, I’m feeling a bit, well, YIKES!

Goodbye 2017

For many reasons I need not go into, 2017 has been a rough year for many of us. Those of us who are left-oriented politically, who are invested in freedom and social justice, who have taught reason, logic, and literacy, those who are concerns about unfair income inequity, those who have devoted their lives to public education all have reason to wallow in misery. In many ways, I’m not sorry to see 2017 go.

That said, I am looking forward to 2018. There’s a great deal of work to do, and so much more out there to learn. I am lucky that I have work that I love, and I can recommit myself to it. I have so many more people and things to be grateful for. I wake up everyday knowing I have something valuable to do.

Happy New Year to all! Happy.jpg

A Great Take on Language/Grammar Instruction

Future English teacher Aaron DeLay has created this very cool slide about grammar and language instruction, drawing on scholarship by Patricia A Dunn and me. Please check it out, and please credit Aaron if you use this.

Thanks, Aaron! Follow him @adelayedteacher

DeLay Poster

If you’d like to learn more about Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices about Their Writing, and get the first chapter for free, please see this site:

And check out Patricia A. Dunn’s blog post on Writers Who Care, “Does Bad ‘Grammar’ Instruction Make Writing Worse?”

Making It New and Teaching Informational Text

My frequent “partner in ELA crime,” Leila Christenbury, and I presented on some aspects of our work at the 2018 NCTE Convention. If you’d like to see the slides from our presentation, please check them out here. Feedback in the comments section is most welcome.

Stay tuned for Continuing the Journey 2: Becoming a Better Teacher of Writing and Language, due out in November 2018.

Presentation Slides:


Who Helped Me for No Reason

This is a very personal post.

Recently, I have had a number of people I’m close to use me as an example of someone who worked his way up to a successful career “without any help from anyone.” They like to use me as an example of why we should eliminate taxpayer-funded social programs. This argument about me is absolute baloney. I have been helped immeasurably from many people and institutions, including government, private sources, and individuals who didn’t know me.

To counter myself being used as an example in arguments, and to remind myself how lucky I am–to recall the unearned privilege I’ve enjoyed in many cases–I list some of the people and institutions who have helped me get where I’ve gotten. For these reasons and more I support government programs that help people, and I am happy to give back to the next group of people who could use the support to move ahead.

Though I acknowledge them, I do not track here some unearned social privilege I have enjoyed, such as white privilege and male privilege, meaning I was not held back by and was no doubt supported by institutional racism and institutional sexism. Instead I focus on other forms of privilege.

I track only up till the time I secured a job as a college professor. I have 20+ more years of professional experience, and assistance, since then. But I decided I didn’t want this post to go on forever.

The point of this post is not to broadcast my professional accomplishments, but to publicly acknowledge all those who assisted me in completing them. Yes, I worked hard (but not always), and I generally did the right thing (but not always), and I pretty much stayed out of trouble (but not always); however, had I not received ANY ONE of the unearned privileges I list below, I have no idea where I would be.

The number of people and institutions to which I owe my gratitude is huge, and I’m certainly forgetting many of them. Thank you. -KL

1970-1980: Pre-Kindergarten (St. Dominic’s) & Kindergarten to Eighth Grade (St. Helena’s), Bronx. NY

  • My parents paid tuition
  • Members of the local church community greatly subsidized that tuition through charitable giving, such as collections from mass
  • Clergy, especially nuns who took a vow of poverty, taught me for very little salary (if any)
  • Lay teachers, non-clergy, taught me for very small salary with very little (if anything) in the way of healthcare and retirement benefits
  • Public taxpayers supported the schools with free police, fire fighters, water, and other services

1980-1984: High School

  • I paid nothing to attend a public high school with a world-class reputation, which continues to open doors for me. I used a taxpayer-subsidized bus pass to get to school, and I enjoyed a taxpayer-supporter reduced price for lunch for at least part of my high school years.
  • The daughter of a friend of the family suggested I apply for a job at McDonalds and then served as a reference for me for the job. I held that job for 3.5 years and saved good money from it to help me with college.

1984-1988: College, Southampton College, Long Island University

  • The father of my best friend offered me summer and winter work as a custodial worker in a city high school for which I was paid a huge $11/hour) and received paid sick and vacation time. When I left McDonald’s, I made $3.45/hour.
  • I received a work-study job at college, which paid minimum wage and was financed by taxpayers through the federal government. This money helped me buy supplies and enjoy some spending money during all four years of college. I also gained valuable work experience as an admissions aid and campus tour guide.
  • I received very generous financial aid from the federal and the state government through TAP, a Regents scholarship, direct federal aid, and access to federal student loans with very reasonable interest rates. I attended a small, private college. When I graduated, I accrued about $20,000 in loans. I believe I paid about $220/month from 1989 till about 2002, when they were paid off. I could afford this without significant sacrifice, but I knew I could defer these loans if I had financial hardship, which means they didn’t cause me stress (avoidance of stress is another major privilege).
  • In my second year of college, I didn’t submit the federal financial aid form in time, and as a result was not eligible for the generous financial assistance I would have been eligible for. This was entirely my fault. I seriously explored the possibility of quitting college to join the Army. When my professors and the Admissions staff found this out, they worked with the university financial aid office to find enough funding for me to be able to stay, which is what I really wanted to do. Had I gone into the Army, it’s a good bet I’d have been involved in the Persian Gulf War, as my brother, a Marine, was.
  • My college roommates teased me incessantly about my Bronx accent to the point that I basically lost it. That lack of accent has probably given me a great deal of assistance in my profession. I can claim Bronx status without having the completely unfair social stigma that an accent might have inflicted. (This is a situation for another post altogether).
  • I was taught by professors who spent hours with me outside class to assist me in maturing and learning to be a good student (which I was not in high school), and who wrote letters of recommendation for me to get a job.
  • I benefitted from the support of a generous cooperating teacher at East Hampton High School who helped me learn the basics of teaching in a real-live high school.

1988-1992: Columbia High School, East Greenbush, NY/SUNY Albany

  • My first professional position was as a high school English teacher in upstate NY. As a public school teacher, I enjoyed a reasonable salary, job security, health benefits, paid sick time, and a host of other benefits, all courtesy of local, state, and federal taxpayers.
  • I was represented and protected by a union, which was supported by member dues from across the school district, the state (NYSUT), and the AFT.
  • I had a department chair and principal who saw the best in me, excused my many stupid mistakes, and helped me become a successful teacher, launching a career that has fulfilled me ever since.
  • I was part of a union- and taxpayer-supported mentorship program that gave me unbelievably strong support in my first year as a teacher. Yes, I paid dues, but what I received in return was far more than I could have done if I had kept that money. I have no doubt, that mentoring program is a major cause for my success as a teacher.
  • I paid $98/credit for a masters degree in English from SUNY Albany, a terrific school and degree program. Among others, I was taught by Professors Cy Knoblauch and Judith Langer, two giants in the fields of Composition-Rhetoric and English Education, respectively. Their influence continues to pay off in my career. SUNY Albany was funded more generously at that time by NY state taxpayers. This tuition was so reasonable, I was able to pay for it with my salary as a teacher while I was also supporting myself, paying off my student loans, and paying income tax.
  • My college teachers wrote me letters of recommendation that assisted me in getting into the PhD program in English at Syracuse University. Teachers are not required to write such letters, nor are they paid to do so. It’s completely voluntary.

1992-1996: Syracuse University

  • I was offered admission to the Syracuse University PhD program in English.
  • I was offered a 4-year teaching assistantship that came with the following:
    • $9,000/year salary
    • FREE tuition for earning a PhD (FREE TUITION, for simply submitting an application with a small application fee ($100 or less)!)
    • The ability to teach 3 college-level English or Writing courses per year
  • Syracuse is a private school, so the public taxpayer support was likely much lower than at SUNY Albany. So I received a PhD for free (minus fees, books, etc) thanks to the generosity of donors and administrators at Syracuse University. I went through a competitive process to receive this phenomenal opportunity, but I did NOTHING to earn this opportunity. No one got anything out of giving me this opportunity, except me.
  • I earned the PhD in 1996, and it has opened many, exciting professional doors for me. I’d never have guessed years ago what I would be doing today. I am grateful to all those who have helped me, and I will always do my best to pay it forward through my taxes, my votes, my service, and my charitable giving.


A Review of My Summer Reading

I’ve gotten heavily involved in reading social media, primarily Twitter, and the manyImage result for images of reading interesting links to news stories, blogs, and studies I get from those I follow. But I wanted this summer to try to pull back a bit on that and get back to reading more full books. I’m taking a few moments to check back on how I did this summer. Classes begin tomorrow, so I’m counting today as the last day of summer reading.


  • The Ordinary Leader: 10 Key Insights for Building and Leading a Thriving Organization, Randy Grieser (Confession: I’m only about halfway through this.)
  • Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition,  Dennis N.T. Perkins **
  • The Resurrector (4th in the The Dominic Grey Series), Layton Green**
  • The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton**
  • The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, Friedman
  • The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier

Audio Books

  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, JD Vance
  • Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, Al Franken
  • You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, Sherman Alexie
  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah**
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson**

I took on a new administrative role last spring, so much of my reading this summer was about workplace leadership. I also did a lot of driving this summer, so I was able to take advantage of the time for audio books.

I liked all these books. (If I dislike a book, I stop reading it.) If I especially liked it, I put ** after it.


Two Books All (White) English Teachers Should Read

The events in Charlottesville, VA have rightly begun crucially important discussions about politics, race, and racism in the classroom. I am still thinking through my own thoughts about this topic, though I am (and have been) firmly of the opinion that responsible discussion of political issues absolutely must be taken up in English classes. A strong democracy depends upon it.

One useful suggestion I can offer right now is that all teachers, especially white teachers, read the following two books, which I reviewed in the March 2017 in English Journal. (NCTE has granted these review FREE ACCESS to all.) Teachers will find in these books extremely valuable information about teaching language more completely and about developing not just non-racist classrooms, but anti-racist classrooms.

  1. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African
    American Literacy Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy. Teachers College, 2014.
  2. Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education Ali Michael. Teachers College, 2015.

Thank you for reading and for acting on these important issues. English teachers have a significant responsibility in the USA. Ignorance is rising, and we must rise to defeat it. I welcome additional suggestions for reading and more in the comments below.