Working with Clay…No Guarantees
Sandy Nickerson, Head of School
Ok, full disclosure. When I was in college, I took a clay class. I worked very hard in that class. I just knew I could impress myself and my professor while I was at it. I wedged, slabbed, coiled, pinched, threw, and created all kinds of glaze concoctions. I spent hours perfecting each technique. And no matter what I did, how I did it, or how long I did it, the results were always the same oddly familiar shapes. Dare I call them vessels? I guess they were vessels, each with a unique likeness to my childhood mud pies. Needless to say, I achieved a ‘C’ in that course. I considered myself lucky…considering the hauntingly nostalgic repeated forms.
About 25 years later, as an Art teacher at Bridgeview Montessori School, I very much wanted our school to have a kiln. I knew our art curriculum would not be complete without our students experiencing the process of bringing a clay piece to its completed glazed finish. The Bridgeview Parent Association jumped aboard and raised money to pay for a new kiln and the kiln shed. The goal was reached, and the kiln and shed were installed. At last, there I stood, a ‘C’ clay student in charge of the new clay curriculum. I took a deep breath and contacted Kim, a local potter, and a parent at our school and pleaded for her guidance. As a parent volunteer, she helped me choose the most appropriate clay and glaze to use with children. She reminded me of all the steps involved in bringing a clay piece to its finish. We started by offering an After School Clay Class that Kim helped me teach. At home, I studied my clay vocabulary words.
Our clay adventure was underway, our students and their ‘C’ clay teacher were ready to explore, make mistakes, discover, make mistakes, and create three dimensional art pieces, some beautiful, some not. Each step in the process provided opportunity for great success and undeniable failure. Working hard did not factor into guaranteed successful outcomes. As the teacher, I could only guarantee the full process… celebrate the student successes and help students endure the failures, and continue on to the next work.
Here’s the full process. Wedge your clay to make sure there are no air pockets. Build your piece and make sure all added pieces are scratched and slipped, being sure not to create any air pockets. Allow piece to dry until leather hard with no moisture left. Bisque fire. Glaze piece making sure to layer every glaze color at least three times. Glaze fire. Bring completed pieces home without breaking them.
Air pockets will cause your piece, no matter how beautifully built, to explode in the kiln. Not scratching and slipping properly will cause your piece to break during the leather-drying phase. Little bits and pieces that managed to stay connected in drying may still fall off during the bisque firing. Failure to layer the glaze at least three times will lead to a “watery” layer of color that is bound to disappoint. I am sure we all understand the consequences of breaking clay pieces on the way home.
As a teacher, the stressful part of teaching clay is that I cannot assure my hard working students that they will not make a fatal mistake along the way. I can’t see air pockets or incorrect scratching and slipping technique or that a leather hard piece won’t slip out of my hands and fall crashing to the floor. All I can do is be a good role model for picking myself up, dusting off, and trying again when something disastrous happens to my demonstration pieces. My students and I have worked and grown together. They have encouraged me through my trials, as I have encouraged them through theirs. I start each clay lesson with the words, “There are no guarantees.”
Why all this trouble anyway? First of all, everyone should experience working three dimensionally. Most importantly, all learners need to experience the excitement of working hard even though they know from the start there will be no guaranteed success. Yet my belief is that the lesson is not as important as the attribute that can be gained… that attribute is true grit. Handling success is wonderful, but the real challenge is handling it when the going gets tough. I am proud that this ‘C’ clay student did not use her ‘C’ as an excuse to never teach clay. I am very proud of our clay students who continue to exclaim, ”Yeah, its clay time!” even though each of them has experienced disappointment while working with clay. I am equally proud of our cumulative successes and disappointments. Together, they have led to growth and grit.
Oh, and those annoying mud pie forms previously mentioned, they are fewer and farther between. Phew!
Bridgeview Montessori School
885 Sandwich Road
P.O. Box 270
Sagamore, MA 02561
Director of Admission: Suzanne Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Serving ages 2.9 to 12 years, Bridgeview Montessori School, guided by the educational philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, provides a child-centered learning environment in which students develop a love of learning that will sustain them throughout their lives. Our goals include: the development of the whole child, emotionally, physically and intellectually; academic excellence gained through independent and critical thinking; inspired learning through creativity, courage, passion, personal responsibility and respect for self, others, and the world in which we live. We encourage our students to approach their work and their world with a sense of wonder, curiosity and the excitement of discovery. We value diversity and, above all, we value a compassionate and peaceful community. Bridgeview Montessori School awards upwards of $70,000 in need-based financial aid annually! Our school is allergen free. A wonderful small school for all kinds of learners.
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