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Michael Mize Art Blog

Making the Grade

by mize , February 16, 2008—12:00 AM

Topics: art education, grading art, teaching art

I love teaching kids art. There are so many aspects about it that give me a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction. I simply adore art, and the opportunity to get to talk about it everyday is ideal for me. I really enjoy teenagers and the challenge of inspiring and exciting them about my subject. Much of the philosophy of teaching continues to fascinate me. And I still get excited about constantly updating, changing, and improvising my curriculum with each new semester. However, as much as there is to love about my vocation, there is one chore that time and time again fills my soul with a sense of dread and injustice: Grading.

I really, really hate grading art projects. Don__™t get me wrong, spending time looking at and discussing student artwork is something I thoroughly enjoy. However, being required to assign something as objective as a numerical percent to something as subjective as a painting is truly an exercise in futility. How can I legitimately say that one student__™s painting is 93% successful, whereas her peer__™s is only 78% good. I can__™t! There is absolutely no way to do it fairly, in fact, the act itself often makes me feel like I__™m undoing any progress I might have otherwise made with the students. Thus, having to repeatedly engage in this imperfect practice is a constant source of frustration.

Regardless of my feelings, this is the situation in which I find myself. So my task then becomes, how can I make this deplorable duty as fair an unbiased as possible? The current solution our art department employs is content specific rubric. Each of the art teachers at my school uses this in a slightly different fashion, but we do have a common rubric for the purposes of consistency. The rubric focuses on five components: Assignment Goals, Craftsmanship, Originality, Aesthetics, and Use of Class Time. It__™s worth noting, that no where in this rubric do we assess a student__™s ability or talent. I evaluate a student__™s performance in each of the areas on scale from A to C. And then, in all honesty, I pluck a number out of thin air. I very literally, make the grade up. The rubric at least guides my thinking and attempts to keep me impartial, but then the act of randomly selecting a number immediately returns me to the realm of bias. I will often factor in other variables that are personally specific to each student, but when all is said and done, I'm still inventing a grade. How is this beneficial? Why can't we allow a system that is based solely on an individual's progress?

My only way to combat the imperfection inherent in this archaic and unnecessary system of assessment is to leave comments. I have vivid memories from my own high school art experiences in which I spent several weeks pouring my juvenile heart and soul into a project, only to have it returned to me with an ambiguous number hastily scratched on the back. No explanation, no justification, no learning.

So for each of my 120 students every semester, I try my best to leave a small paragraph of thoughts and reflections for every assignment they submit to me. Sometimes it__™s observations about what worked and what didn__™t. It might be suggestions of things to focus on in future projects, or open ended questions that hopefully challenge their thinking and motivations. Often times it__™s personal encouragement that a student might otherwise be embarrassed to receive in front of their peers. Whatever form it takes, it__™s genuine feedback, and in my book, it means far more to me than the number that I reluctantly place beneath it. It__™s my sincere hope that the same is true for the students, but often times, it__™s not. The idea of grades equaling success has been so entrenched in their understanding of themselves, and thus their self-esteem, that many students seem blind to any other form of evaluation. But that__™s another blog.

The other truly difficult aspect to this form of grading, is trying to clearly explain the process, and its obvious flaws, to the students. I have each of my classes fill out teacher evaluation forms at the end of the semester, and there has always been a trend of students not understanding the grading system. To try and address this, I__™ve begun having students, in groups, grade art projects early on in each new semester. This has proven to have a number of unexpected benefits in addition to just explaining how I grade. On the second day of class the students are interacting and getting to know each other while they look at, discuss, and evaluate works of art! How cool is that?

Like I said though, in the end, it__™s an imperfect method. And I continue to make small adjustments here and there in an effort to refine or improve it. But until some philosophical miracle convinces the bureaucratic educational machine that standardized grading might not be the most accurate reflection of student learning, you__™ll find me hanging out with the teens, blathering on about art, and cantankerously making the grades.




  Ellen Sullivan Farley ( homepage )

03/30/2008 * 14:24:25

It was truly inspiring to me to read this article as I too am a High School Art teacher. I came from a background of Fine Arts and not as an Educator so I have been struggling with the "marking monster". Recently, I have made a dossier on each student (I only have 47 as it is a small HS). I am going to add your assessment scale to my dossiers. I was going on 3 areas - class performance, sketchbook assignments, and class projects. I think your evaluation is so much better and this will be new to my dossiers. Thanks.


  Dai Wynn ( homepage )

02/21/2008 * 17:18:37

Another inspiring article to uplift the soul, Michael. There is nothing quite so heart-warming as reading about a luminary who not only has the talent to create, but is enthused by the process of encouraging others to discover and exercise their creative genes.

I have an old Artnet mouse-pad which declares "Art is Everywhere". Art is not just something one does within the confines of a high school class. In this instance, art exists within the beautifully crafted prose of a weblog article, particularly when the unbounded enthusiasm of the writer permeates the carefully chosen words. As Mary Lawler would attest, words and images are merely vehicles to facilitate communication between the artist and his audience.

The word which comes readily to mind when I read "Tales from the Art Side" is 'kaleidoscope' which my computer dictionary defines as 'a complex, colourful or shifting pattern or scene'. It also evokes a feeling of well-being, of a bright future, of prosperity.


  Michael Mize ( homepage )

02/18/2008 * 18:25:37

Small world, Maureen. I just stumbled upon your studio website about an hour ago while browsing the newer artwork. I actually use a method similar to yours prior to grading the projects and just didn't mention it because the blog was already getting a little lengthy. But I first do a "pre-sort" and based on my first impressions group the works into A, B, and C piles. Often times, once I get in there and really study the piece and reflect on the student, those original groupings will vary to some degree.


  Maureen McDonald ( homepage )

02/18/2008 * 15:04:38

Dear Michael,
I,too, have spent my life teaching art to High School Students.I have tried all sorts of grading procedures and have found, as you did, its a real bugaboo.Since we teach in an area that does not have a right answer but many shades and nuances of answers,we are on our own.I have settled on a simple process.Get all the pieces from one assignment, spread them on a long table and just as if you are jurying a show, pick up the ones with the best answer and continue to sort and rearrange until you can see the pattern of the grades.
I have often involved the students from another course in evaluating the work of the course that you are grading.Good luck with your year . Its a great way to spend an artistic life

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