Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
Originally published February 16, 2008 http://artid.com/members/mize/blog/
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.