The grade book is a monster that needs to be fed.

Artwork by Sarah Anderson

So, I have spent the majority of this blog arguing for letting the students take control of their art making by getting rid of practices that prevent students from being authentic art makers. And after every presentation I give, someone asks me, “Well, how do you handle grade book?” Of course, almost every district I have heard of has some sort of policy regarding the amount of grades you must have during each term. My district’s policy basically boils down to three formative (daily) and one summative (test) grade per 3 weeks. It’s not unwieldy, but there are times when I think to myself, “We really didn’t do anything for the last three weeks that I could call an assignment.” Sometimes there is nothing to label. I never gave them a specific task to do and show me. There was no sketchbook assignment, no specific reading, and no universal task that everyone had to complete, so how can I put in a specific grade?

Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that I believe grades are rather pointless. A single, numeric value placed on a student for a year’s worth of work will never adequately communicate to the world, or the student, what exactly that student accomplished. I’ve discussed it before in detail if you’re interested (here). But the system needs metrics that are clear and concise, administrators love metrics, and we are the ones who have to deliver them. We’ve got to feed the monster.

So what to do? Well, in my advanced classes, I have no deadlines. The students set their goals and make the work they want to make. For example, I had two female students who were tablemates, co-workers, and best friends. They were completely inseparable. They even looked alike. If you weren’t careful, you could lose track of who was who. One of them made gigantic paintings, only limited by the size of the surfaces she could find. The other made paintings about the size of playing cards. There is no way I could expect these students to complete the same amount of paintings in a given period without asking one or both of them to change their way of making. And they were having so much fun, bopping their heads in unison to whatever pop song they were listening to from a shared set of ear-buds and painting away. Why would I want to risk changing a variable in whatever balance they had found to be happy, enthusiastic, productive painters? Why, it could cause a downward spiral that leads to them trying to strangle each other with those aforementioned ear-buds. I would ruin the class and their sibling-like friendship. How would I sleep at night? Ok, so it probably wouldn’t be that bad, but if they’re artistically happy, I see no need to interfere.

There are many solutions, but the best I have found is by switching to a critique based system. Every three weeks, we have a critique. I divide the class into smaller groups so we can really dig into each critique. In a big class, it really takes almost a week. The students lay out everything they have done since the last critique and we discuss it in depth. “What are you doing, how’s it going, what’s next?” And from that critique, I can take a major grade on whether they have spent the last week challenging themselves and doing great work, or if they’ve been “phoning it in.” Voila, you have a summative (test) grade.

Now, formative (daily) grades are a little trickier at times. Some times they just happen. If we spend the day talking about an artist or technique and my students are engaged and conversing with me, I will take a grade for it. Sometimes I’ll ask my students as a whole to look at a concept and decide if they want to incorporate it into their work. I allow them the option to ignore it, but either way, they have participated in receiving the information and contemplating whether or not it had value to them. If I see everyone is doing preliminary sketches, or practicing a technique before using it in a larger work, I take a grade. Most of the time they don’t even know they’re being graded. I’m like an assessment ninja. But whatever you do, don’t be they guy (or gal) who assigns some pointless writing assignment just so you can have a grade in the grade book. Your students can sense that from a mile away. You don’t put much effort into making it applicable to the course, they don’t put much effort into doing it, and in the end, everyone’s time is wasted and everyone suffers.

Really, at the end of the day, do what you want your students to do: be creative; think outside the box. Yes, the grade book is a monster, but that monster will eat almost anything you give it. Don’t let the monster dictate your course. Don’t change what you are doing simply to fill a box. It’s much better to change how you define that box to begin with. If you have a good class, if your students are engaged, they are doing the work. Don’t interrupt their doing the work so you can create a task that proves they are doing the work. That’s silly. Create an assessment that is as authentic as the work they are doing.




P.S. Never collect their sketchbooks. An artist should always have their sketchbooks on them, not sitting in a towering pile at the edge of a teacher’s desk.

3 thoughts on “The grade book is a monster that needs to be fed.

  1. Concerning grading, how do you see and assess all of the students’ posts to different media like Facebook, Tumblr, etc.? I love the practice of showing finished and in progress artwork. Do you have links to every student? Do you get email notifications? Thanks.


    1. I will usually have them show me what they’re up to when walking around the room. I’ll just ask them to show me what they’ve been posting. I am not allowed to follow students on social media per district policy, and I like to try to do as much grading as possible in the room. It keeps my evenings free for my own kiddos.

      Liked by 1 person

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