Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 28, 2014

213. Anecdote of the Jar: Wallace Stevens

Last week I spent two days at a conference on standards based learning, hosted by the New England League of Middle Schools and run by Rick Wormelli.

Wormelli’s writings are well known, but his live show is just that–a show. If you liked Robin Williams in “Aladdin” or “Dead Poets Society”, this is two days of that. A tad distracting from the main ideas, with lots of 80’s references (his analysis of a clip from “Song of Music”, though, is priceless). This is not to take away from the content or ideas, but know that if you get a chance to see Wormelli you’ll a) be subjected to that type of performance, b) if you have a decent background in standards based teaching and grading much of it will be review. So, be prepared before you sign up.

It got me thinking, though, about the use of rubrics and our system of instructing and assessing rubrics. One of the exercises I do with kids–and adults–is something called “Clapping University”. Here’s the procedure, and I think you’ll see the point:

  • Welcome your students to “Clapping University” where the outcome to produce quality clappers.
  • Ask for three volunteers. They will be “judges” and have them sit in a prominent place at the front of the room. Each will have a marker and four pieces of paper.
  • As for four more volunteers–students at Clapping University. Have them leave the room, where they cannot see or hear what the previous student does when called in.
  • Tell the judges that they are to say nothing, and to follow your directions and your directions only.
  • Call the first student in. Tell them to clap. They’ll seek direction, but give them none. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student (A, B, C, D…. or whatever your grading system is) and keep it to themselves. That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Call the second student in. Tell them to clap. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student. This time, they are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Now, ask the class what makes for good clapping. Pick two characteristics (pace, volume, enthusiasm, etc.). Tell the class and the judges, “When the next student comes in, you will judge them only on those characteristics.” This is your rubric.
  • Call in the third student. Tell them to clap. Again, no one should say anything and wait for your cue. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Finally, call in the fourth student. Share the rubric with the student. Have them clap. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.

The point?

  • In the first case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and never give feedback.
  • In the second case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and share. But the feedback is useless because, from the varied grades, it’s clear no one has defined success prior to the performance.
  • In the third case, the judges have a common rubric. The student claps and the assessment is uniform. And, the student gets feedback. Except, because the student did not know the standard beforehand, the grade is unfair with regard to what they could have done.
  • In the last case, the student knows what’s being judged. And they do it. And they get a universally good grade. Having a clear expectation, sharing it and providing feedback works.

You can talk to your students about their experiences with each kind of teacher (judge); they love to share their horror stories.

But what of Stevens?

There are, apparently, a host of interpretations of this poem. You can read them here, at Wikipedia.

But I like to imagine, and my students come to this conclusion year after year, that placing the jar down creates order to the wilderness. It becomes a fixed point–made by man–that all else relates to. Much like creating a rubric and taming the wild that is student work.

There is probably more there, but I would recommend going outside and placing a jar in the field or wild near your school. Read the poem. Ask, “What’s with the jar?” Have them defend it.

Anecdote of the Jar
Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

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