By Todd R. Nelson
“We’re throwing pots in the art room,” said Annie. “Come see.” I hang up the phone. I’m off. Gotta see this.
Here are half of the fifth- and sixth-grade class sitting at the four potter’s wheels. Master potter Annie, on leave from teaching her kindergarteners, is helping them throw balls of clay onto the slowly spinning wheels. This is hard, unfamiliar work. It is a tactile, intellectual, mud-based, gooey exercise in play, precision, letting materials talk to you, and listening to the wise practitioner about how to find your way from ball of clay to glazed and kiln-fired pot. A mug! A bowl! A Grecian urn!
The whole curriculum is present. You must gauge speed and centrifugal force and friction (math and physics), the chemical nature of the clay (science. Would the clay out by the playground forts work on the wheel?). Aesthetics (What makes the amphora such a beautiful and practical design?), history (What is an amphora?).
And the sub-curriculum is present, too. Explanation is only minimally helpful. You must put your hands on the work to understand it. And your hands must be simultaneously directive and yielding, allowing the clay to declare its intentions in response to you declaring yours. The clay has a mind of its own. The wheel seems to have a mind of its own. Each potter has a mind of his own. The master potter, too.
Each potter, each bowl, is an exploration of effective technique. Surely this is a Zen moment, a curriculum and pedagogy moment, and the concentration of our nascent potters at work is intense and focused. This is most powerfully about exploration, taking unfamiliar materials and working them towards an idea you have in mind: utilitarian, decorative, experimental — your call.
This is a careful dance between malleability, force, yielding, the balance of wet and dry, centered or off-centered; having an idea in mind, and a resistant material in hand. It is about making something, and the best teaching interactions center and cohere around some expression of this goal.
Is this not a perfect metaphor for the interaction of student, teacher, time and
materials, the commerce by which the best learning is accomplished, when the entrepreneurialism of teachers is tapped? The perfect metaphor for the teacher’s own show of restraint, force, direction, listening and observation — gauging the primal force at work in each student as desire is centered, molded, shaped and beautifully encouraged? Consider the respect of the experienced potter for the self-discovery that the novice must go through, when experience itself is allowed to instruct…and relay that into any academic or artistic arena! The clay is not the only thing being centered here.
The poets have already distilled this experience. “The Thing you Must
Remember,” by Maggie Anderson, comes to mind, and may stand for all of the power and much of the influence of great teachers.
The thing you must remember is how, as a child,
you worked hours in the art room, the teacher’s
hands over yours, molding the little clay dog.
You must remember how nothing mattered
but the imagined dog’s fur, the shape of his ears
and his paws. The gray clay felt dangerous,
your small hands were pressing what you couldn’t
say with your limited words. When the dog’s back
stiffened, then cracked to white shards
in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful
suffers from too much attention, how clumsy
a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. The thing you must
remember is the art teacher’s capable
hands: large, rough and grainy,
over yours, holding on.
Beyond clay, pots, wheels, and the kiln is that sense of “capable
hands….holding on,” knowing just when to guide and when to watch approvingly. Centering.
I appreciate the perspective of a school head friend, which defines and draws attention to the centering quality of great teaching. “Watching and listening are the greatest of the teaching skills,” writes Jonathan Slater, “the most difficult to master truly, the most demanding to sustain over time. As a parent, you have a child or two to deal with. But as a teacher you have 15 or 18 at once. By and large, children go about as far as the adults in their lives invite them to go, and truth to tell, most children are not invited to go very far. They are not invited to be curious, to be informed, to discriminate — except in the best of homes and the best of schools.”
May I suggest that we are in the endeavor of going far, and that an immense distance traveled often starts with a humble, small step…and a teacher’s hands showing yours exactly how to hold the clay. The shape of the final pot is then in your hands, once the centering has occurred. As the kids themselves realized, “You have to use a firm hand and a gentle touch.”
Todd R. Nelson is principal of Brooksville Elementary School and offered the foregoing commentary in recognition of Teacher Appreciation Week.