First year guitar students practice with their beginning music book. Teacher Austin Gaesser believes that a mix of technique and artistry is necessary to develop mastery in music. Beginning students utilize their theory books to learn the more technical elements of music that later allow them to advance to more complicated material. ((MEGAN HUBER / EYE OF THE TIGER) )
First year guitar students practice with their beginning music book. Teacher Austin Gaesser believes that a mix of technique and artistry is necessary to develop mastery in music. Beginning students utilize their theory books to learn the more technical elements of music that later allow them to advance to more complicated material.


A for effort, F for artistry

The stroke of a brush, the click of a shutter, or the strum of the guitar. When rules and restrictions meet the rebellious nature art inherently possesses, even Leonardo DaVinci can’t survive the ruthlessness of rubrics.

May 23, 2019

Two plus two equals four. In every city, state, and country across the planet, math teachers have come to the consensus that any answer other than four is wrong. Objectively. There’s no debate to be had between teacher and student on whether putting three or five would suffice.

Pairing the subject ‘I’ with the verb ‘is’ will result in the harsh mark of red pen from English teachers everywhere. ‘I is running,’ ‘I is excited’ and ‘I is a good writer’ are all, objectively, wrong.

The line is clear. The grades are simple. The distinction between right and wrong is black and white.

But wander through any museum, attend any concert, or observe any photograph, and the distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, aren’t black and white. They are gray.

At Roseville High School, and at high schools throughout America, Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) teachers are tasked with the daunting responsibility of putting an objective grade on subjective pieces of art. While educators of the more traditional classes enjoy the simplicity of right and wrong, VAPA teachers aren’t as lucky.

Art, photography, dance, drama, and guitar are just a few of many VAPAs offered at Roseville High School. Grading varies from class to class, as the criteria each teacher finds necessary to reflect improvement and eventually mastery is different.

In classes like guitar, the content (and gradebook) is split, with half of student’s grades focusing on music theory, and the other half geared towards the actual playing of the instrument.

According to Roseville High School guitar teacher Austin Gaesser, while music theory is a necessary part to instrumental mastery, the musicality needed to be a good musician is what moves a student from good to great.

“The hardest part above all of that, the umbrella above theory and learning the music part of it is performing,” Gaesser said. “It’s getting people to understand…most music has a message. It needs to be believed in.”

An art student begins to work on a piece.

The challenge for Gaesser, and all VAPA teachers, emerges when the artistic message comes into play. What is their place in dictating how much value and how much artistry each piece their students presents has?

“[Music] needs to be believed in. Not just kind of graded basically on,” Gaesser said. “If you’re performing, do I believe what you’re doing? Do I believe that you enjoy what you’re doing?”

While Gaesser does have a portion of his gradebook doled out for the artistry his students bring to the table, other VAPA teachers view their responsibility differently.

According to photography teacher Steve Fischer, the responsibility of art teachers isn’t to reward artistry, but to teach mechanics.

“This is school,” Fischer said. “Our job here is to teach you, to give you a foundation to build upon, so that down the road, you can create good art.”

The idea of grading specifically on the technical elements of each photograph is one way to ensure scores are as black and white as possible, and can keep students from being confused about why

they earned the grade that they did. However, this meticulous style of grading has the potential to punish not only students, but the greats for demonstrations of artistic brilliance.

“Twenty years ago…we were starting to write up rubrics for art, across painting, ceramics, music and all different things… And then what we did is we took our rubric and we went back and judged what we felt were great pieces of art over the centuries,” Fischer said. “We gave the Mona Lisa a B minus.”

The Mona Lisa took Leonardo DaVinci roughly four years to create, and his efforts scraped him by to barely above average.

What took DaVinci four years, students are expected to do in a matter of weeks.

According to art and ceramics teacher Joyce Henry, this is an issue her students face that she attempts to combat with ample time.

“Great art takes a long time to make,” Henry said. “I build in a lot of extra time for students…and that’s just because some people are perfectionists, and they want every little part of [their paintings] exactly the way they envisioned it. And that should be rewarded. That shouldn’t be penalized.”


But deadlines are deadlines, at the end of the day. Like any math, English, or science class, things have to be complete at a certain date. Though VAPA classes have incredible differences from the traditional subjects, their gradebooks are nearly identical.

Except for effort.

In math, students don’t receive points for how hard they ‘tried’ on a test. English students aren’t rewarded for the effort put into their essays. In math, if an answer is wrong, it’s wrong. In English, if an essay is bad, it’s bad. Hard work isn’t exchangeable for points in these classroom settings.

But in Henry’s classes, the energy put forth for each assignment, regardless of artistic excellence, does warrant a point or two.

“I do have a score in my rubric that includes effort, and how much time in class I saw you working. If you were working one hundred percent of the time, it’ll be a hundred percent score in there,” Henry said. “But it’s not enough to get the grade. Nobody gets a passing grade just from effort.”

In classes like dance and drama, where the performances are fleeting, rather than the permanence that art and photography enjoy, the ability to grade artistry gets even harder.

Dance teacher Pilar Steiner, similar to Fischer, finds that grading mechanics can aid the process in making scores more black and white.

“In each class there are skill tests that start out relatively easy and get more and more complicated. We have certain markers we look for in these skill tests that help us with grading,” Steiner said.

According to Steiner, the skill in dance can vary greatly due to the discrepancy in training prior to high school.

“In public school, we are blessed with some dance studio kids who have been dancing from a very young age. But we also have kids that have never danced before,” Steiner said. “We start everyone from the very beginning regardless of experience and then through the first year of Dance 1 and Dance 2, I am able to observe how well they take to the art form.”

In Jennifer Dithridge-Saigeon’s gradebook for drama and musical theatre, one can expect to find objective grading categories like blocking, line memorization, vocal articulation and modulation, as well as the subjective category of energy.

“I use two major resources when grading: a rubric and my experience. The first guides me objectively and allows for an even playing field as far as the requirements for the assignments,” Saigeon said. “The second is my experience both as a performer and a teacher. I can empathize with the challenges that face an actor when preparing to perform because I have been there.”

According to Saigeon, though assigning point values to students’ art can be difficult, it allows them to gain perspective on what they are presenting and why they earned the score they did.

“Points are necessary to provide feedback to students, but those points are not the only important marker in a VAPA class,” Saigeon said. “Self reflection is very important, too.”

According to Saigeon, the ‘spark’ of a performer typically comes through dedication to the material.

“I think in performing arts as well as fine arts, committing to the details of a piece is where its strength is found,” Saigeon said. “A performer’s absolute commitment is much more engaging than a lack thereof.”

While Steiner also recognizes the importance of commitment and confidence to elevate a performer’s artistry, according to Steiner, this can be difficult for high school students to master.

Dance students perform in the dance show.

“They struggle with anything outside the peer group. Individuality is scary,” Steiner said. “Once they get over the fear, they turn into very good dancers.”

Ultimately, the work and grading criteria in VAPA courses are unique from teacher to teacher, and class to class. Though the simplicity of right and wrong isn’t there for teachers to lean on, it allows them to factor in another category that traditional subject teachers aren’t as lucky to find a place for: growth.

If a student scores a forty percent on their first math exam, and by the end of the semester is up to scoring an average of sixty five percent, though they may be the most improved in the class, the gradebook won’t reflect that. The gradebook will show a failing score in both circumstances.

But in art, whether it be guitar, photography, art, dance, or drama, trial and error as well as failure and frustration are necessary to finally find success. In short, excellence in the arts requires work different than that expected of a student in a typical academic class. And a gradebook that doesn’t reflect that in a VAPA class simply doesn’t reflect art.

“Some people have an affinity for certain things, but just because someone is given a gift, that [usually] only gets [them] to good,” Saigeon said. “Those who become great do so through a lot of work.”

About the Contributors
Photo of AJ WELKER

AJ Welker is the arts editor and anchor at Eye of the Tiger.
This is Welker's second year in the program.
Welker started as a reporter and anchor in her junior year.
In her free time Welker enjoys the theatre arts, writing, as well as spending time with her friends and family.
Welker has an immense...

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