Whitefield Academy Blog
Why I Grade Kids’ Art: An Art Teacher’s Perspective
Recently, I saw a conversation play out on social media between two of my real-life friends:
A mom reviewed her elementary school child’s report card. The lowest grade, to her dismay, was in Art.
“How could that be?” Her child was very creative at home. The criteria for the grade read: “Creates personally satisfying projects with a variety of media.”
Another mom commented, “How do you even grade art?”
“I know, right?”
I shared the moms’ indignation…”That’s ridiculous! Art is inscrutably personal – a window to the soul! What right does some random adult, a practical stranger, have to judge a child’s precious artwork?…Wait, isn’t that what I do all day, every day? Judge and grade children’s artwork?”
*cue existential crisis*
It’s true. You know that your kids get a grade from me for Art class. Maybe you feel like those two moms who just don’t think it’s possible to judge a kid’s art. Maybe Art is one of those things that should be an “Easy A.” Or maybe, instead, you still bear some childhood scar from an Art teacher who discouraged you at a tender age.
I didn’t chime in on that exchange between friends. But I did think about how something as simple as a child’s drawing can really reveal what we think about a lot of things and how at Whitefield, our classical education finds itself going against the grain of conventional wisdom.
The Dreaded Red Teacher’s Pen
When I enrolled in college to pursue a degree in Studio Art, I had a lot of preconceived notions. I imagined an eccentric but aggressive professor circling the room to dash student drawings – and dreams – to pieces, or carrying a can of red spray paint with which to apply giant grades – “F” to student canvases.
That didn’t happen. I found a lot more encouragement and less criticism than I expected. At least the professors were still eccentric.
When we start talking about grading kids’ artwork, maybe it’s helpful to say what it’s not. After all, we all take our kids’ artwork pretty personally. It’s not like math fact sheets. We perceive that our kids’ drawings come from their hearts and really are a window to their souls. I bet a lot of you have some drawing your kids made years ago. But probably a lot fewer of us frame and hang a math paper over the mantle for years.
So what is grading not?
Grading kids’ art is not barraging kids with criticism, discouragement or embarrassment (or spray painting red “F’s” on drawings.) I actually do much more encouraging in class than critiquing, lifting up kids who are ready to give up.
The Artist Is His Own Toughest Critic
The funny thing is that our young kids don’t know they are being graded or really even understand grades. I’ve been surprised when I have to tell a third or fourth grade class, “Yes, you get a grade for this.” But by fourth grade, most kids are already grading themselves. I’ve seen this with younger kids too – even my own young boys.
What I mean by that is the reality that everything we imagine in our minds inevitably comes out differently through our fingers. Everything. Sometimes we get a pleasant surprise. Sometimes the translation from brain to hands is frustrating. Kids see it, and it frustrates them too.
I tell them the truth: That’s the way it is with all creative work.
I’ve been practicing art for decades now, and it’s still the truth for me.
Just because something didn’t turn out as you imagined, it doesn’t mean it’s all bad.
We learn something new every time – from successes and struggles.
So kids grow to grade themselves. They can answer questions, like what parts of their work turned out particularly well? What parts were difficult? What parts would they change if they started over?
What If Everything Was Like Art?
There are other distinctives with how we think about Art – and learning in general at Whitefield.
Yes, we believe that Art, like music and language, is intended to be a mode of self-expression. I think a lot of conventional wisdom stops there and it gives the illusion that Art can’t be judged or graded.
But at Whitefield, we don’t believe that all of us come into the world able to perfectly express ourselves through art, music, speech or writing. Most of us need help. Some of us can be presented with a blank paper and a clear vision comes automatically of what to do with it. Those people are gifted. Other people appear to have superhuman powers of creativity. They are called prodigies.
The rest of us muddle somewhere between bewilderment and terror at the sight of a blank page. That’s where teachers come in, on our mission to equip kids with the mental toolbox to make that blank paper not so scary.
Art is a funny thing – what if we treated other things like Art, and just believed that self-expression was the only purpose? What if we sent our kids to piano lessons or a soccer club, and expected them to just plink around on the keys or run circles around the field out of self-expression? Instead, we want experienced adults to help our kids understand the tools, so that one day, with practice, they might express themselves (or as I say, “create at will”) with those tools.
That’s why I also tell kids that although Art class is awesome and we have all these neat supplies, Art class isn’t supposed to be the beginning and end of your creative work. You want to do that project differently? Great! You’ve got all the time in the world at home! I want kids to express themselves through their art. But our class time is the one opportunity each week we have to learn and practice that together.
I Respect Your Kids Enough to Grade Their Work And My Own
Ultimately, grades are a way for us as teachers to summarize our experience with our students. Art class is just a little slice of your child’s week, but I try to describe through grades what that little slice looks like and how it might fit into the rest of your child’s story.
I’ll say it this way – I think what we do in Art class matters. I think it’s important.
If the only criteria for grading was something like, “creates personally satisfying projects,” then, I totally agree, grading would be impossible. Grading how much kids like their own work?
I’m not a mind-reader.
And a criteria like that communicates to me this doesn’t matter.
It’s not important.
If you’re happy with it, that’s all that counts.
But I don’t grade that way. It’s not fair to grade that way. And I respect your kids too much to grade that way.
I grade kids’ art on things I can actually see.
I grade students on how well they followed directions. Directions are about communication. How well can a child understand visual, verbal and written communication?
I grade students on their ability to complete the project with age-appropriate craftsmanship and creativity. How well can students interpret the project parameters and work with their eyes and hands?
Last, I grade students on their in-class interactions, their behavior, their virtue. That is what we’re all about at Whitefield. If we turn out perfect artists who lack Christian virtue, then we’ve all missed the point.
Finally, I grade your child’s artwork, as a way to better understand myself as a teacher. How can I understand my own effectiveness as a teacher, without understanding how successful the kids are in their time with me? How well am I communicating with students? How much do I inspire creative thought and careful work? How well do I set an example of Christian virtue?
How do you grade kids’ artwork? It turns out, it’s pretty difficult!
I’m so proud of our students, and all of the creative work we have done together! I can’t wait to exhibit some of our biggest successes, both on campus and online in our Spring Art Show during the month of April!
While you wait for the 2020/2021 Art Show, check out last year’s Virtual Art Show below!
Interested in a classical Christian education for your student? Come visit us at our next Discover Whitefield on Wednesday, March 10th. Click below to RSVP.