Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Slice #18 of 31- Is It All About the GPA?

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."

Clare shrugged.

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.

Happy Slicing,


  1. I wish I could have been there. To have orchestra as a course in elementary through high school is a huge privilege. There is nothing like that around here. All music is private. Well, there is band which starts at 6th grade. To play the cello or violin would be a dream come true for me. I hope they don't regret their decision.

  2. I wish I could have been there. To have orchestra as a course in elementary through high school is a huge privilege. There is nothing like that around here. All music is private. Well, there is band which starts at 6th grade. To play the cello or violin would be a dream come true for me. I hope they don't regret their decision.

  3. Oh my. I hate grading so much! Honestly, what are we trying to say? At my university, you could choose 3 classes to take pass/fail. I love that idea! Why not let high school kids do it too? And at the elementary level, as a teacher, I'm always wondering why we say kids are "A" students in gym, or "C" students in drama. Why not just let them be? Give them a comment on the report card that explains how they are doing, and let them just enjoy without pressure to have a certain grade. If the kids who are really serious about music need an A, or multiple As to get into a university music program, then let them choose to be marked, while the students who are just playing for personal growth and enjoyment could just "pass" & enjoy their lives.

  4. I love how you showed us the orchestra. In many ways, it was better than a video. Seeing students perform musical pieces always gets me. There is so much concentration and teamwork involved in playing in an orchestra, I'm amazed kids can contain themselves.
    I feel your pain watching Clare make this decision. And the reasons for making it are even more painful. My daughter, Claire, has done similar things all with the eye on that "prize" of college. You hate to watch them change the course of their lives and have them regret it later. As moms all we can do is sit back and offer advice. Hoping they hear it.

  5. You are asking important questions.

  6. Love that you also made us love the music, too. My brother is a former middle school music teacher. He and I have both heard this story from former students who say that taking music and art doesn't "weigh" as much in the GPAs. So sad, such a loss to their talent and to their well-being in my eyes. I hope your daughter will realize what she is losing.

  7. Wow, it really looks like I read this post before writing my own. It looks like we were on the same mind track today. I really hope Clare sticks with it-- after she played the guitar for my piece one of my friends said "Ok, so your sister sings AND plays the guitar? What the hell." And I proceeded to list off all of the amazing musical things they did as they sat there with their mouth open. She has such a talent for music and shouldn't put that away because of something like a GPA.

  8. You set the scene beautifully, Melanie! I could hear the orchestra and see the color guard. I didn't realize that kids were graded on being in the orchestra. The whole idea is bizarre to me. I hope Clare changes her mind, too. Music is about so much more than a grade.

  9. No one will ever ask her what her HS GPA was, but people will enjoy hearing her play forever. (My daughter is a cellist, too.) And she can enjoy her instrument the rest of her life. Don't give up!!!!