Grading is something I’ve always hated. How can teachers be asked to determine what’s meaningful about a child’s academic journey, then rate it and rank it? Of course, the realities of teaching dictate that all teachers are asked to do just this, daily. Grades, in theory, should capture what a student knows and can do and communicate that information to interested parties. The reality of grading often falls quite short of this ideal and frequently serves much less noble purposes. All too often we use grades to encourage compliance.
We use grades to punish, taking off points when work is late or when students’ leave off their names or, god forbid, vear from our project’s intended direction.
Because we have to quantify our teaching, we base grades on arbitrary requirements, defining what “good” application of technique looks like, when the one thing that art history tell us is that “good” is a moving target that’s always in flux.
Grading like this seems at best a waste of time and at worst lacking the moral compass that should govern our interactions with children. Instead, we need to develop grading systems that reflect our values as educators.
What are those values? I'll start with my goals:
I want students who make decisions instead of following the steps I sent.
I want students who experiment, take risks and grow into independent artists.
For me, a grading system that reflects these goals and values looks like, in part giving students a weekly grade that reinforces their use of the Artistic Thinking Process as they create original art during class.
I've been capturing grades like this, along with grades at the end of units and a final portfolio grade the the end of the course, for a year at this point. I've found that grading this way aligns with my value system and reinforces the artistic behaviors I want to foster in my students.
Drawing people is hard. It's so easy to skew proportions and one little mistake throws off the whole effect, leaving the work looking silly instead of representational. Kids feel real pressure from portraits, but mastering the figure opens up a world of potential material for art. In planning for this semester I knew I wanted my Art 3 students to leave the class with the ability to use the figure in personally meaningful, self directed work, so I planned to get them there in the best way I knew: a Bootcamp.
Formulating a Bootcamp for this group was a challenge - they'd learned different things in previous classes, about a third had taken an additional drawing class and, for four of the students, this was their first high school art class. To plan something that would meet everyone's needs, I started by collecting some data.
"Draw a face or a person" I said. "You have half an hour."
As they drew, I look for ability to plan out the face, knowledge about drawing features and use of proportion. From my observations, and from what the group told me about what they wanted to learn, I planned an investigation of figurative work.
We started with some optional small group lessons - reviewing (or learning for the first time) how to draw facial features, facial proportions and how to approach drawing the face from the front. The whole class worked on drawing the face from the side and from an angle.
Next we moved onto the figure, learning body proportions, then spending a few days on a combination of gesture drawings of different lengths and longer drawings. For gesture drawings, I took their pencils, asking them to try pen or marker or charcoal instead. This was terrifying for many, but the loss of the ability to erase freed them from obsessing about mistakes.
To finish the unit I asked them to complete a figurative work, in any media, that did two things:
- Showed what they'd learned.
- Used the face or figure expressively.
And they did!
This student did a series of portraits on sticky notes, with the goal of drawing the face from different angles and the body in challenging positions.
Realistic proportions were a struggle for this kid (who's never taken a high school art class until now), but he was able to wonderfully blend what he learned about realism with his anime inspired style.
Megan painted on plexiglass, so these images show the two sides of her piece about anxiety.
I'm an high school art teacher who's really interested in student choice and creating opportunities for self expression. I'm also a writer for The Art of Education and co-author of The Open Art Room.