Numbers Game

Yesterday, a bright, accomplished junior who had just completed my upper-level Ceramics class stopped by the studio to talk. This student worked consistently and thoughtfully throughout the class. His technical skill improved a great deal, and we are both quite proud of this fact. The work he presented in the art show, although not large or flashy, was sensitive, quiet, and mature – much like its creator.

Over the three semesters I’ve taught him, it has been a pleasure to have him in class every single day. He asks great questions, politely challenges me on occasion, and is always thorough in his work.

So I was happy to see him, a few days after the class has formally ended.

He sat down across from me, and asked with a smile, “Miss P, any chance of my grade going up to an A+?”

My heart sank.

Awhile back, I said I would explain why I don’t typically give out the sought-after A+. It’s usually not even an issue, as I explain this policy with my syllabus. The stated reason? In a math class, or a test-based class, a perfect grade would represent a perfect score. In a project-based class, however, a perfect grade would represent mastery, with nothing more to learn about the concepts at hand. I wouldn’t give myself an A+ in the subjects I teach. I have more to learn, and could always improve my own techniques and concepts. I want my students to come away from an arts class with a sense of potential to learn more, grow more, master more – in the way that assessment that is not fill-in-the-bubble allows for this possibility.

The unstated reason? Many of them come into an arts class expecting that mastery is going to be easy, and that just by having fun and participating they deserve a great grade. Maybe at the elementary or middle school levels, this should be the case. But I see high school students as citizens just on the brink of adulthood. And my collegial circle includes too many artists who are hardworking professionals. Artists have no guarantees of success if they are having fun and participating. Maybe creativity and play are part of the lifestyle at times, but their work requires discipline and persistence – just like any of the other professions these adults-on-the-cusp are beginning to consider. To reward an approach that does not support the development of solid work habits and follow-through seems a disservice to artists, and even ethically irresponsible.

Over time, I’ve strategized a few ways that my students can earn the holy grail of the perfect score in ceramics. One is the puzzle jug – which must be created independently, outside of class requirements. Another is the twelve-inch, one-pound cylinder – a challenge which I have yet to accomplish, and my potter friends tell me is foolish or even impossible, but which I witnessed Paul Bernhardt demonstrate repeatedly even with hopelessly arthritic hands. I’ve negotiated other targets with students, too – such as the off-site thesis show, or the summer workshop on scholarship with Chris Staley. But the A+ only goes to the way-over-and-above, the almost outlandish accomplishment that really does represent mastery and passion.

Or – at least that was my theory until yesterday.

“Listen, you know my policy on the A+. You did great in this class! But…”

He gently but firmly interrupted me. “Did you know that it would have been better for my GPA for me to take a study hall?”

“What?”

“It’s true. That’s the way the math works out. It’s a difference of .04 points. If I had taken a study hall – and worked independently in here, whenever I could, I would have been more ahead. That is…” He paused.

I must have looked astonished. “I feel bad, Ms. P, even asking. You know that I’m not… what’s the phrase? A grade grubber. But all of this college stuff is tough. I feel like those points might make a difference.”

He went on to explain that he had been planning to consider his studies in Ceramics next year, but was now probably going to take a study hall for the GPA bump.

I sat back on my stool, stunned. What my student had just described is a system that makes it preferential for a student to not try at all, or learn at all, rather than try and get less than a perfect score.

I would like to think that studying an area of interest in depth has its intrinsic rewards, and that my student – who has demonstrated persistence and talent in ceramics – is a better and more well-rounded person for his time in the studio. But I empathized with him. He works within a system in which those numbers count – “a competitive market,” a guidance counselor recently told me.

The question is – do the numbers count more than anything else about learning?

The numbers are a visible, demonstrable outcome. So is my student’s artwork, with its quiet elegance. But colleges don’t see the artwork of the majority of my students, for whom art is part of their well-rounded education, not the focus of their post-secondary studies. For their adolescent futures, the numbers do seem to be what count.

I’m editing this piece on break from proctoring the SAT on a Saturday morning. Rows of students glance up nervously at the clock (numbers), tap in numbers on their calculators (more numbers), and aim to bump their scores up a few more points from the last round of tests, because they have been told that these numbers Matter, Make a Difference, are Worth the test-prep classes and for-profit services that support them. I’d argue that, for the majority of them, this test does not measure their aptitude for the focus of their college studies, any more than the artwork colleges don’t see. It measures how well they can take a test. But somehow, the reasoning scores and the GPA hundredths have asserted great systemic importance.

When the system leads my student to the unarguable conclusion that he would be more ahead in the all-important numbers if he doesn’t try – is this a system that is preparing him for things that matter?

Or is my A+ policy just too counterculture, and in need of revision?

After a few quiet moments, I asked my student if he would have taken the class anyhow, knowing what he knows now about the numbers. He said yes, he would have, it had been a great class and he had learned a lot. This gave me an idea.

How we left the conversation: My student has the challenge to articulate the reasons why the class is or is not worth the time, even if he doesn’t get the extra .04 points. We are meeting again on Monday, and after our meeting, I’m sending him to talk to a sage guidance counselor who might be able to reassure him about the numbers game. I have given myself a similar challenge. By Monday, I’m going to reassess my A+ policy – both in general, and as it applies to this individual student who advocated for himself with insight and maturity.

He wrapped up a few pieces that had come out of the most recent firing. I shook his hand and thanked him for the conversation. He looked a little surprised. Maybe the numbers matter, but so does this handshake, and the young adult who will soon be determining for himself what matters.

I am grateful that he chose to spend part of that journey in a studio.

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4 thoughts on “Numbers Game

  1. I continue to be impressed, Kate. A well considered general policy and a thoughtful response to your specific student’s request. No easy call, of course (as you are painfully aware), but trust in your judgement. I would (selfishly) urge you to stick with the clearly stated A+ policy, even in this instance. I think your student will lose more than he can hope to gain by your caving to his request, as gently worded as that request may have been.

    • Thanks, Stu. Means a lot.

      Thanks, also, for being one of the teachers who taught ME that the numbers game was a manipulative scam. Look what happened. I never worked so hard for an A as I did in your class. I came in wanting the number, knowing by reputation that you didn’t give it freely or often… and by the end of it, I didn’t care *what* grade I was going to get, the medium had worked its way into my blood.

      Ah, the good old days…

  2. I’m glad you actually took the time to listen to your student.

    I wouldn’t want to take a class with that A+ policy either. Knowing that no matter how much effort I put out I can never be recognized for that effort is frustrating. Yes, the students are on their way to becoming adults, but they’re not there just yet. It isn’t reasonable for them to meet the standards that you say many long-term professionals can’t achieve. It seems to me that the extra effort is what matters. This kid has put his heart and soul into your class and by not giving him the A+ because he hasn’t reached an almost unattainable goal just isn’t fair. It seems to me that the granting of the “+” should be based on the level of effort, rather than the skill attained. Nobody is going to be able to reach the level of a master in a few short years, but recognizing them for their passion, zeal, talent and dedication might be the push to get them to push on through the many years until they DO reach that level.

    That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t set high standards. Just make sure the standards are reasonably achievable by your students.

    Kudos for being a teacher that inspires the kids and makes them truly WANT to learn. There are a lot of teachers that kids wouldn’t even consider talking to about anything, let alone something important to them. *high five*

  3. I’m reading course evaluations this morning, and I just reviewed this sophomore’s statement:
    “Overall a great class. I like that it is treated as a real class rather than an elective. This school costs too much to have any class a guaranteed A+.”

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