How to Earn an F in Art

My students and their parents can barely believe it but, yes, it is possible to earn an F in my art class. I made a poster that lists all the ways that a student can do it. The list is meant to inspire my students and maybe make them laugh. Nonetheless, I am as disappointed as anyone when one of my students actually earns an F.

A bad grade is a failure on my part as much as it is on the part of my students. My goal as an art teacher is to simplify art into sets of skills and ideas that any student can learn. It is my job to make those lessons compelling and comprehensible. An F represents my failure to do that.

Of course, it is my students' job to approach their lessons with a willingness to learn. That means more than just drawing well. It means investigating new ideas. It means struggling with unfamiliar materials. It means practicing something difficult until it becomes easier. Students risk failure in my class by not risking failure in their artwork.

There is a difference between being a good artist and being a good student. Ideally, every art student would be both. In my experience though, good students become rapidly more talented when they are presented with strong lessons. Talented artists don't improve as much until they are challenged to become good students.

Effort isn't enough either. Talent does play a role in the success of our students. But how important is talent if it goes unchallenged? If a student always creates beautiful drawings, does she deserve an A in art? What if she draws all the time to avoid learning how to paint? Does she still deserve the A? Should she earn an A even if she never learns to sculpt? What about the student who doesn't achieve beauty in her work but does rise to the challenge of each lesson?

Art is an amazing subject because there are so many opportunities to succeed. One lesson can challenge a student's drawing ability. The next one can challenge his creativity. The one after that can challenge his grasp of history, his knack for philosophy, or his ability to communicate clearly. Each lesson presents students with a new opportunity to succeed in art. Or to fail.

A grade might motivate some students, but it is not a reward, and it is not a punishment. A grade is a teaching tool. An honest grade starts conversations. They often begin with an exclamation like "I can't get a B in art!" My own students are lucky to have parents who get involved when a grade falls any lower. Which invites questions: What is my child studying in art? Why is that important? What is my child good at? With what does he struggle? How can he improve?

One of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher came from the turn around that I witnessed after discussing a bad grade with one of my students. "I am the worst artist in this class," He told me. "If you really think that you are the worst artist in this class," I responded, "then you need to work harder than everyone here." And he did. In just a few weeks, he became a much better student and a much better artist. Thanks to that one F.

I wrote and illustrated this essay for SchoolArts Magazine. You can read the entire article (including 20 Ways to Earn an F in Art) on their website,

© 2011 rama hughes