Children love clay. We go through about 300 lbs of the amazing stuff each year in our art studio and it offers so many facets of learning it's hard to measure the value. Simply sharing the history and the chemistry of clay is a fascinating story for kids and the pleasure of holding a heavy, glossy creation in one's hand is nothing short of magic.
Although kids instinctively love getting their hands on firm natural clay, I use my own version of play dough for kindergarten and first grade. It's softer, cleans up quickly, and gives lots of practice in basic concepts like shaping, joining, and standing - essential for later success with natural clay. I keep a 50 lb bag of all purpose white flour and 25 lbs of salt under the sink and mix up a new batch every couple of weeks. I used to use Kool-Aid to color and scent the play dough, but dropped the scent because of a sensitive five year old nose several years ago. I also found that I could buy the primary colors of food color in 32 oz bottles at a local restaurant supply store, as well as large bottles of potassium hydrogen tartrate (aka cream of tarter) to keep on hand for easy access. I love cooking up a batch when kids are around - they're always impressed with the relative gloppiness of the mixture. My short skeptics never believe that the mess I've dumped out on the table will end up looking anything like play dough but after I've kneaded it a while (insert discussion about kneading for kids' vocabulary stores here, adding the fact that their great, great, great grandmothers all knew how to knead bread) voilà! It's lovely, soft dough, suitable for any use a six or seven year old can imagine.
To help the salt and the acid from the cream of tarter preserve the dough, we do a ritual hand washing for all play dough artists, both before and after going to the center. I don't worry too much about infection when we're careful about hand washing. Big kids get to use play dough a couple of times a year when the regular natural clay is halted before the holidays and at the end of the spring semester when I'm either out of natural clay or have shut it down to ensure firing of all dried projects. We keep the simple recipe on hand for anyone who wants to try the recipe at home, too. Fun!
Though play-dough gets high marks for gooshiness and fast transitions from one critter to another, nothing beats the deep satisfaction of designing and creating an artwork out of natural clay. My demos are fairly simple. The first day I open the center, I intro the tools we use, talk about safety considerations (sharp tools and powdery clean up of work spaces require thoughtfulness) and both slab rolling and how to join using scoring and slip. The second day is devoted to pinch pots and coil bowls with more examples and reminders of appropriate thickness. We use the classic "hang ten" hand sign to remind us not to go thicker than our thumbs or thinner than our pinkies.
Samples of past clay creations live in a tub close to the clay table. In it are some examples I created to try to explain how important "hollow but strong" is to clay work. Frankly, hollow is an elusive concept for many kids. They need lots of examples - small bowls, demos of Too Thick bowls sliced in half for observation, and comparisons with hollow balls and other toys to begin to get the concept. As is always the case, I seek out better ways to teach the techniques to children and assess how effective the instruction is by what is presented for drying in the kiln.
Even though there are only four seats in the clay center, projects multiply quickly, and keeping track of what's drying and what's ready for the kiln takes some steady attention. I ask students to bring completed items to me so I can scratch their initials and class code on the bottoms - both to assess the piece's survival chances and to make sure I can read the marks. Since greenware is so fragile, I do all the handling and keep track of where in the drying process projects are.
It's hard to be patient, and I've had more than a few second graders (finally old enough to work in natural clay) come to me five minutes after I've put their work up high to dry, asking, "Can I paint it now?" That giddy impatience is part of the reason that second grade and some casual projects are painted with tempera or water color. That way they can go home the same day they're painted and don't require another run through the kiln, like glazes do.
I love watching kids work through their own "scribble stages" with clay techniques, moving from simple slabs and bowls to more complex boxes and animals or action figures that can stand on their own. There simply is no other way to understand clay than to spend the time poking it, prodding, scratching textures into it, stamping it, pounding it, scoring it, and exploring its limits with strong fingers. I'm inspired when as they share their discoveries with peers and persist, solving problems as they go. Clay presents quite a few serious challenges - materials that dry quickly, what happens when too much water is applied, how to balance four-legged animals, how to protect damp projects until our class returns again, and what to do about a stubborn art teacher who won't let a person write love notes or gang signs all over slabs. Adults - can't do a thing with them!
Our favorite play-dough recipe:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cream of tarter
food color (depends on the mood of the art teacher!)
2 cups water
Note: I triple this recipe to yield four large, grapefruit-sized globs - enough for four play-dough sculptors at my clay center. If you're using the same table for natural clay and the dough, be intentional about keeping clay tools out of the mix - the two substances don't do well together. My kid-powered clean up crews are great about leaving the center set up for whatever age is scheduled to use it next. I'm also a bit of a bear about using only fingers and brains for tools in play dough. I get more interesting figures that way instead of three hundred matching "cookies."
Combine all ingredients in a heavy sauce pan over low to medium heat. Stir frequently until heated through and the dough is the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes. Remove the mixture from the stove to cool a bit. When it is cool enough to handle, turn it out on a floured table that won't mind oil or moisture. Knead the dough, adding flour if you need to (at the end... be patient.) This is best when performed in front of an audience of children so you can hear, "Wow!"
Divide the lovely, warm play dough, run all child hands through the washing process, and smile. Fresh play dough is also great therapy for stressed adults, too.
Staging an art show is an interesting exercise. It's one part celebration, one part pulling teeth, one part planning, and one part total surprise. As our choice-based studios have matured at Evergreen Elementary School, we've taken on a bit more with our end of the year exhibition. Year one was an art walk. Our current PTSO president, Donna, contacted area businesses and arranged for display space. She has considerable artistic ability in her own right and the displays were well received in coffee shops, cafes, libraries, and utility companies. Artwork was chosen on the basis of variety and pithy artists' statements and Donna did ALL the legwork involved in hanging and retrieving the displays.
Year two (last year) was our first year staging a big show in a public space. Since our gym/cafeteria is used for so many purposes during the day and is also booked for athletic and dance practices in the evening, it wasn't a good idea to display our artwork there. Our hallways have some bulletin display space, but with active, innovative teachers, they're always full of children's writing and poetry, artwork, and science and math project work. Our experience with staging the show at our local Civic Center was a positive one, so we booked the big main room again this year. Only four blocks from our school, the two story "big room" lends itself well to weddings, big meetings, community events, and elementary art shows! The city offices that are there - police, court, and water payment offices result in lots of foot traffic and their facility manager, Mark, has a crew that is adept at setup and take down.
After I looked at the attendance data from last year I realized that having the show in the evening hours, alone, resulted in fairly modest numbers of visitors. We'd also attempted to gain larger crowds by scheduling the show during our annual Dia de los Niños celebration. Instead of bolstering attendance, that split the crowd. A brainstorming session with my specialist team (PE, music, library) started the planning for walking field trips to see the show. Grade levels would make the trek in pairs (K-1, 2-3, 4-5) with lots of adult walkers to help with safety and behavior choices. Our specialist time provides planning time for teachers but after presenting the proposal to the Leadership Team, people were willing to juggle their schedules for the day so that all children and staff could see the show. To help support the goals of my library partner we scheduled a book fair for the evening of the show in the school library.
Perhaps I'll track the amount of time it takes to mount 540 pieces of artwork on black construction paper and convert oral or written artists' statements from each child someday. This year's effort began last June, when the order for 18"x24" black paper went in. The April, 2009 show taught me that gluing enough 12"x18" paper to mount the number of large paintings we had was seriously time consuming so the larger paper size worked great this year. I talked to the students about the show early in September when we decorated our portfolio covers, promising that they'd enjoy the process of choosing a favorite piece when the show came along in the spring. A few children proudly announced, "This one is for the show!" when they finished a particularly satisfying piece of artwork. Others needed to be nudged a bit. Ours is a methodology that focuses more strongly on process than product, so many children prefer to try to "just do one more picture of X" to choosing a piece from further back in the year. After much shuffling of artwork, deep consideration of everything in the portfolios, and only a little bit of BossyArtTeacherStrongArming, works are chosen.
Artists' statements are amazing things. I watch adults and children alike sink into the fascination of listening to the artist's voice in print while their eyes look at the art. Some are tidy lists that highlight process. Others are rambling stories
that beg for more print space. Still others are almost too private - windows into that artist's mind. Younger students dictate their statements and they're dropped straight into a computer template. Older students do their own first draft and submit the statement when the art is submitted for the show. A few find it difficult to talk about their art (hence the earlier reference to pulling teeth) but I politely insist. You won't be there to discuss your work with your viewers. Share just a little about what you were thinking, please. This year's format was two statements: Share something about why you created this piece. Share something about how you made it.
Thank you notes have gone out to the volunteers who gave us their afternoon to help hang the show, to the maintenance men who transported the livestock panels for my display kiosks, and to the facilitator of the room, for being such a pro in how he deals with our wandering art hordes. Data from the surveys I distributed to staff are being collected to help in next year's planning, and the artwork from the 2009-2010 art show is safely posted on refrigerators all over town. Life is good.
If you're one of the lucky souls who can't tell the difference between playing and working, you'll know exactly what this post is talking about. If you're not, stop by for a visit. I'll share some of the short people that make this place such a hoot.
1) Kinderpeople have the coolest hats.It's not just that they're cute and five (or six) and wearing something endearingly kid-like. It's that they are still brave enough to know that a silly hat is a GOOD thing and, if they've made it themselves, a badge of doublecoolness that simply doesn't require any explanation. (Note: if written in "kid" doublecoolness would be replaced by "awesome!!!" Yes. Three exclamation marks ARE required and yes - it's an all- purpose term in serious vogue right now and is to be used for general cool stuff, store-bought school lunches, Spiderman logo anythings, and reviews of any current kid movies.)
2) People notice when you're gone.I am rarely sick, due to the cumulative accumulation of antibodies that living in close proximity to 500 of one's closest friends affords me. This week was a (thankfully) rare exception as I spent last weekend and most of the week home being a poor patient. When I came back, little people and big ones alike made me feel really welcome.
3) My kids know the difference!I had the world's best sub this week - one of those saints of our profession who, by her very presence creates little ripples of beautifully behaved children in her wake. Kids stand a little taller for her, form into gently polite lines, and simply beam in the glow of her steady love. She retired last year and subs for us "just to keep busy." This sweet tornado swept into my room, looked at my plans and chose "Plan B. - in lieu of the nutty intensity of TAB Central, you're welcome to let the students draw a topic of their choice or to use your favorite art lesson." When I heaped praise on their heads (because of the flood of post-it notes she left insisting I do so) they smiled and said, "Yes, we were good, but we're glad you're back. We did coloring sheets yesterday and marched and sang cool songs but today we want to do ART!"
4) If there's anything sillier than fifth graders early in the morning, I'd like to know about it.We meet for art club on Thursday mornings at 0'dark-thirty. The number of kids varies between just a few to a table full and they're responsible for getting themselves there on their own. A few have a sweet parent who drops them off on their way to work but several of them walk. They come for the long span of unfettered art time, for the conversation with kids from other classes, and for the giggles. Appropriate giggle topics are legion: silly parent tricks, video games I'm good at, alien clay trophies (think mighty hunter den,) Hannah Montana (soooo last year,) NFL teams that want me, my new fashion statement (catch the tie outside the t-shirt outside the white dress shirt) do you like my (insert description of artwork here)?, NBA teams that want me, my new fashion statement (neat color statement, huh?) head banging puppets (this one bears a classmate's name) my gigglegiggle clay gigglegiggle!
5) The wisdom of the artists in this studio humbles me.Today's best example came in response to my explanation to a first grade class about why subs do other things when the art teacher is absent. I'd just finished the part about the noble art teacher coming in early to get things ready for class every day when a fully indignant (see his arms folded defiantly across his chest?) first grader pipes up, "But Ms. J. We do our OWN set up and clean up. Didn't you tell her?" I love it. He owns the independent artist thing! (And I won't bother him with any drudgy old details about what art teachers do to set the stage for that independence. Shhhhh.)
6) Visitors.We have a university student who's absorbing the art of teaching from the fifth grade team. Eva is energetic, curious, and loves playing with art and kids. She comes by to talk teaching, lichens, nudibranchs (google them - you'll love the images) and school. It's refreshing to see my profession through her eyes and I love the way she interacts with the kids.
To be continued...