Teacher Blogs

The Power of Dirt!
Posted 11/22/2016 05:24PM

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

November 22, 2016

Ceramics is clay. Clay is dirt. Dirt is dirty. Some students LOVE it and others barely want to touch it.

Since Ceramics is an elective, students choose to get their hands dirty and work with clay for a trimester. Each student creates five ceramic pieces: pinch pot, coil vessel, slab construction, pottery wheel and a final project. In one trimester, students walk away with new knowledge, a review of skills (typically learned in lower school) and a greater appreciation of...DIRT!

A typical schedule for a Ceramics student:

  1. Sketch ideas for a pinch pot creation
  2. Build something using the pinch pot technique
  3. Finish and let it dry
  4. Sketch ideas for a coil vessel
  5. Build something using the coil hand building technique
  6. Finish and let it dry
  7. Ceramics are fired in the kiln
  8. Paint the pinch pot creation
  9. Repeat steps 1-3 for two additional projects
  10. Take a break from hand building and "throw" on the pottery wheel
  11. Repeat step 6-8 for three additional projects

Students work on electric pottery wheels: imagine a spinning metal plate with clay in the middle that is supposed to magically be shaped into a bowl. Some students felt immediately comfortable and within an hour of working on the wheel, they instantly convinced two pounds of clay to move to the center of the wheel, symmetrically and balanced. Other students were frustrated. They struggled for days and threatened to give up. The students overcame these challenges eventually by anchoring their arms, using their whole body (instead of just their hands), and practicing, practicing, practicing.

I love teaching Ceramics because it's a combination of creativity, freedom and lack of control. Clay has a mind of its own and will tell you what it needs or how it feels. If the clay is dry, it will crack. If the clay is too wet, it will not hold shape. Students must communicate with and care for their projects like a living and breathing thing. At the end of each class, the projects must be covered with damp towels and wrapped in a plastic bag to prevent the clay from drying. If this does not occur, the clay hardens and is difficult to work with. Ceramics students learn to take care of their work and listen to what it needs.

I had a sophomore student tell me at the beginning of the trimester that she was not going to do well in Ceramics. She said with complete frustration, "Mrs. Shih-Kahn, you don't understand, my work has to be perfect." Ten weeks later when her final project was drying, the work partially collapsed and broke. She looked at me with a smile and said, "Oh well, I guess I'll just have to put it back together after I paint it." Ceramics has a way of teaching students how to communicate and at times, discover new solutions. Who knew the power of dirt?

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