For the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the community of writers at Two Writing Teachers. Many of my slices are at my personal blog, Just Write, Melanie, but ones that deal specifically with education appear here. All are welcome to join the slicing party by reading and commenting. People write amazing posts.
Every three years, our district has a town-wide orchestra festival where students from all grades, 3-12, play together in the gymnasium. Because I only videoed, and I did not take pictures, I am gong to "write without sight" (thank you, Dana Murphy. If you missed this post, I highly recommend reading it!). Picture this. Five orchestras sitting in folding chairs where the basketball teams usually play. At center court and spreading out is the high school orchestra, all students dressed in white and black, playing the violins, violas, cellos, and basses. A few drums are on the back sideline. To the left and in front are three elementary orchestras, each with about fifty musicians, and to the right is the middle school orchestra. Every student is in white and black. Only one of the music directors varies from the black and white with the splash of green from his St Patrick Day's vest, cumberbund, and bow tie. The bleachers are packed with parents cameras, and video devices.
Listening to the progression of the orchestras is impressive, but the highlight is when all of the orchestras play together. Tonight, after This Land is Your Land, they played Oh Beautiful as the Color Guard surprised us, marching in with flags and full uniform. Add some tears to the parents, cameras and video devices.
But here's the rub. Both my daughters are planning to quit this year. Clare plays the cello beautifully, and is in the high level orchestra as a sophomore. Cecily plays violin and struggles through it, but has worked hard to stay with the program for almost six years.
"Are you sure that you really want to quit?" I asked, as we sat in the parking lot. "It's so beautiful."
I seized the opportunity. Maybe she's changing her mind. Maybe she'll keep playing. She loves music--plays the piano, sings, is learning the guitar.
Then she stuns me.
"It brings down my GPA," she said.
In the gridlock of the parking lot, I thought about this sentence and the thinking behind it. What if she could take orchestra pass/fail? What if it wasn't graded? What if her teacher knew that the grading policies and the emphasis on assessment was pushing her to quit making beautiful music?
And then, some bigger questions. What is the purpose of grading? When we teach optional courses, like art and music, what happens when the grades are low? Will we weed out the kids who aren't musical? Will we drive out the kids who love music, but won't be music majors? And, what do we want to have happen? If we grade hard, will it lift the level of the work? And what do we really want kids to get out of a music program?
And maybe, even bigger questions... Why does my daughter care more about her GPA than about doing something she enjoys? And should she?
Frank Bruni wrote a wonderful piece in Sunday's New York Times about college admissions. One of my take-aways was to help my girls see that there are many colleges and universities that offer pathways to happy, productive lives, but wow, in the part of the pathway that goes through high school, the GPA pressures are intense.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Clare changes her mind, and I watch her perform for two more years.