Working through a Bad Clay Day…

Things had been going so well. Half the year over, successful lessons, sunny days and then…boom! Fifth grade clay day. Sound the drums!

Fifth grade is a big grade level. Meaning I have two classes with about 30 kids each. Even the classroom seems crowded with my six tables occupying lumbering, growing bodies. But I’m used to that. Maybe it was the Friday afternoon antsy-pants blues? Whatever it was, my clay day hadn’t come close to reaching even my lowest expectations.

I’ve been doing ceramics for six years. I’ve made dinosaurs with my fifth grade class for six years (except for the year I got a little Harry Potter excited and did wizards). I’ve lead large classes of 5th graders through the introduction and techniques of working with clay and quite successfully, I might add.

But those facts didn’t matter.

It started out a bit rough. Kids were rowdy. Couldn’t settle down. Usually when I pull out my sample  and begin my demonstration, eyes become focused.

Never happened.

I had to get a bit firm. That helped. I completed my demonstration, but in hindsight, I may have overstressed the importance of scratch-attaching and avoiding air pockets because, well…I’ll get to that in a minute.

After I completed the demo, the kids fought for a seat and began working. Things were going pretty well until the 1/2 way mark when all of a sudden I found an abandoned dinosaur body. “Oh, he had to go to speech.” Okay. Fine. Wrap up torso and add name. One unfinished body shouldn’t be a problem.

Then a child burst into tears. Oh golly.

He became upset when I pulled too much on his dinosaurs neck. It broke off and became too skinny for him to attach again.

Tears galore. Again.

Oh golly. Didn’t I stress how forgiving clay is?  Apparently not. I cheered him up then helped him rework the head.

Next table: two extra girls with no clay. Huh? Oh, yeah. I forgot. Two of the children arrive for last 15 minutes of art class. Quickly got them started.

Looked up. Twenty hands in the air. Panicked kids. Floppy dinosaur necks, no legs attached and 15 minutes of class time left.


I breathed deeply and rang my bell. I re-demonstrated how to add legs, but honestly, it was like asking the kids to create articulated wings. Some twisted their clay into balls, but by then, I knew I had lost.

Where exactly did I go wrong?

By the end of class, there were maybe 6 completed pieces. I knew a second day  would be needed. Out came the plastic baggies (too small mind you for the lofty heads!) but by the end of class, the teacher and I managed to get everyone’s half-made dinos into a bag with some recognizable letter for a name.

I had ten minutes until my next group of 5th graders arrived. I was sweating.

But I did some quick thinking while wiping the clay from the tables.  One of the possible reasons why the last class went awry was basically good old-fashioned confusion. There were too many kids coming in and going out. And by the time I got the kids under control, 10 minutes had lapsed. In a 50-minute class, that meant the kids only had 40-minutes for the construction of the dinosaur. I usually require an hour for upper grade ceramics. We were behind from the get-go.

I realized it wasn’t the kids. It was me. As I saw them falling behind my self-imposed time-line, my energy changed. I began to panic (Oh yes, the brow furling, talk-fast kind of panic). The kids sensed this and put pressure on themselves. However subtle, I’m convinced the energy of the class starts with the teacher.

Calm teacher=Calm class. Hurried teacher=Hurried class. I was hurried. Not good.

The next class bumbled in. This time, I knew it would be next to impossible to finish, so I was more relaxed. I didn’t take any time to warn of improper techniques, I just showed the kids the basics. The simplicity seemed to work. About 3/4 of the class got the body, legs, tail and head completed. We wrapped the clay in plastic and anticipated adding the horns and bony plates the next week. Yay! Success!

The kid’s energy was very high, but they displayed a level of confidence the first group didn’t. There was certainly less confusion. Less kids moving in and out of the classroom, but more importantly, my expectations were adjusted.

Needless to say, I had a two glasses of wine for dinner that night.

Thanks to all of you who offered suggestions for clay storage on my Facebook page. I plan to buy freezer bags and set my expectations at a more reasonable level for the next time!

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  • Susie Fannin

    Whoo! I’m relieved that someone as seasoned as you still has an occasional blooper. I teach 5 levels… a different group each day, but teach the same lesson for each grade level 5 times. I find the Monday group is at a disadvantage, because they are my constant guinea pigs (being a first year elementary art teacher) for my learning curve. But, calm teacher= calm students… you are so right. I’m going to remind myself of that more often! Thanks!

    • Connie

      Thanks for the laugh! I too am a first year teacher and am relieved to see this stuff happens…..and it is refreshing to see that this sort of thing doesn’t just happen to me! I just love your website and visit it often. I agree with Susie….my Monday group are my “guinea pigs” too! In fact, I tell them this often. hee hee

  • Sarah F

    Sounds like a day I have about once a week…I am still new to this and (although I am very sorry you had a bad class) kind of relieved that I am not the only one that has days like this. Sounds like you did a great job recovering for the next class…do you ever feel like just throwing in the towel for a project on days like this??

    • Patty

      During that one particular class, heck yeah! Bad, crazy days will happen but my nature is to figure out why so they don’t happen often. Sometimes it’s like a little science experiment…if I change this, what will happen?
      Basically, if something isn’t working, figure out what it is and change it. And always look to yourself first. So much quicker this way!
      Thanks for thecomment 🙂

  • Julie

    Ahhhh…so nice to know I am not the only one that has days like this! Thanks for sharing your bad days too!

  • phyl

    Oh my, we all have those days when you just want to throw in the towel…I remember the Monet-style 3rd grade paintings where we taped out fences and then painted w/sponges and Q-tips; next art class took off the tape and voila! White fences! Except the tape was too good (it stuck TOO good) and tore the paper as it came off. One girl sobbed uncontrollably, others wanted to throw them away; it was a potential disaster. My response was to laugh and say “it’s just a sheet of paper and an ; let’s see what we can do.” I tried to get everyone laughing. And with some scurrying around I had dug out scraps of tissue paper and construction paper and Elmer’s glue, and we were scrunching and stuffing and covering holes with glorious flowers. They were gorgeous! so much better than the plain white fences! By the time the next class came in, I was ready to say “your paper may tear, but if it does, you wil fill it with flowers growing on your fence” like it was part of the lesson.

    When all else fails, I remind the kids that whether or not it comes out the way you expect, the process was fun and you learned something from the mistakes. Check out the book “Beautiful Oops”, which I learned about from another blog.

    Turn the lumpy dinosaurs into wacky creatures, or crumbling dancers into zombies, or white picket fences into rain forests; the world will not come to an end because of an unsuccessful art project! I think a good sense of humor is essential for an art teacher, don’t you?

    • Patty

      So, so true. It’s crucial to be lighthearted. I love your attitude. Only problem with clay is that if it is not put together correctly, air bubbles will blow up and pieces that aren’t attached properly will fall off. This was why my stress level was so high. I imagined opening the kiln and seeing a mass extinction!Thanks for your upbeat enthusiasm!

      • Kasi

        WOW, I have so been there. WOrrying about the air bubbles is ALWAYS the big stressor for me with clay. Miraculously, they usually turn out great if I can just keep them from wadding up the clay and starting over if they mess up. I am always happy to give them a new piece if they mess up so badly it is not salvageable. I did have one year doing animals with fourth where the way some did their attaching allowed air pockets to creep in. I THOUGHT I had explained it really well….guess not. We were also firing clay that had dried and been glazed for a one fire experience. ( I only do that in emergency time crunches)
        WHen I opened the kiln the first shelf was a demolition! and the 4 pieces that had exploded had shrapnel embedded in many of the rest. Luckily it was only the top shelf that was that extreme, But it looked the clay teacher’s nightmare when I opened it! The little boy whose clay was barely recognizable ( we had to pass out all the rest to tell!) buried it in a shoebox in his backyard!

        • Patty

          This is my story exactly!

          • Rina V.

            The best tip ever for firing kids art!

            I fire the (low fire) clay in my Skutt electric kiln to cone 04 on the SLOW setting. I used to use the medium setting and did have several explosions over the years.

            It adds just an extra 1/2 day or so to the firing time.

            If you can believe it, I have actually fired WET CLAY (sculpted w/in 24 hours) this way (when a couple kids had missed the clay lesson the week before and were playing catch up – I just added theirs in wet with the greenware).

    • Ellen

      I love the book Beautiful Oops! I read it to every class the first week of school to let them know that in art a mistake is just an opportunity to be more creative–and waste less paper!

  • artprojectgirl

    Totally get it! I had to scale back my clay projects because the levels seemed to be lower this year. Not sure what it is, larger class sizes maybe? Has a lot to do with it. This year instead of making coil pottery (a two day project) we made a “modified” pinch pot, a large pinch pot that was shaped like a heart and glazed. They still did a clay project but everyone was able to be successful with minimal teacher intervention. With 30 kids there is not much else we can do. This is a failure of the system not you.

  • Jessica Balsley

    Exactly the story of my life for the last month! I just happen to be doing a clay week this week, talking about my curriculum, all the trials, fears and successes of an entire month of working with clay with all of my grade levels. Yikes!

    You are so right about the mood we set for the kids. They can pick up on it in an instant! It sure does not help that clay is so darn time – sensitive! Good luck and keep us posted! We are all in this together.

    • Marika

      Hi there! So many great tips here, thank you! Question though, last year I taught ceramics to high schools. Although it was still an issue it was easier to explain the air bubble thing and stress the importance. Every now and then we’d open the kiln and have one or two casualties but over all the kids got the air bubble thing down. Now I’m in my first year of teaching K-8th. I can’t wait to get to do a clay project with some of them but am wondering how and to what degree you all explain the air bubble issue to younger kids? I have learned quickly the attention span is MUCH shorter than with my high schoolers…

      • Patty

        Your instincts are right. Too many warnings scare the little ones to the point of worrying too much. I don’t usually have a problem with air bubbles in the clay (I wedge it enough) but it’s always a bit sketching whether or not the kids have left air pockets in their work. I check each piece after they leave and make sure that if the piece is too large, I poke a hole in it (like the underside of a fat dinosaur). After doing ceramics for 8 years, I’m starting to sense when something is off and then I fix it.
        So, give the students well-prepared clay and check it afterwards for any pieces larger than a thumb and provide some sort of air escape.
        Good luck and have fun!

      • Kathy

        I’ve taught clay lessons in grades k-8, as well as college students. I start the kids off by discussing what happens to air molecules as they heat up – they go faster and faster, they bounce off one another, the faster they go the harder they bounce….until finally – KABOOM! The kids, especially 6th and up, already understand the science and usually join me in the theatrical grand finally (I clap my hands loudly, shout kaboom and make an explosive gesture). The younger ones are quick to catch on (who doesn’t understand air = KABOOM?) and find my presentation fascinating. I don’t spend more than 5 minutes on this, but when I tell them to watch me carefully so that they know how to work with the clay they are listening intently. A little humor with the demo and as they work goes a long way to easing fears and occasionally I pass out a new piece of clay to a student whose work is questionable. I also load the more questionable pieces in the bottom of the kiln and put the rest on the upper shelves. That way if something does blow up, it won’t take out the work of my overly cautious and easily upset students who were diligent about scoring, slipping and not folding clay in on itself. One more tip from a mentor of mine while teaching k-5 this year: give the kids modeling clay on a class day prior to working with real clay as a chance to practice with it. I prefer to do this on a short day or early dismissal, etc. The extra practice session gives you the chance to walk around and see who might have problems using the “real stuff” and I do my demo and discussion on the modeling clay day so that the students have almost the entire hour on the day of the real clay to work on the project.

        • Patty

          What great advice!!! Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Laura

    Oh yes! I can relate. I have not done my clay yet. My degree is in clay yet I just don’t feel it. (pun intended)
    It is hard to do clay with large classes too. Last year I had a couple kids break some clay pieces while there was a sub in my class so I am really not ready to start it.

  • Kati (Miss Oetken)

    Story of my life today!! Confusion is the downfall of success! We have all of a sudden an early out snow day today, I was not given a modified schedule until it was emailed half way through my period, then the teacher shows up early, we’re not done, we end up late, throwing off the whole ‘modified schedule’, another teacher wanted her ‘art time’ prep time and the students projects today (unfortunately not a clay appocolypse) ended up looking like a mess. My stress, fast talking, and hurried directions turned into confusion and students not following through.

  • Lori

    This was funny timing! I JUST HAD A SITUATION JUST LIKE THIS! My sixth grade this year is usually “slow-to-start.” They need flames under their tushies! So, when I broke into my usual introduction to our sculptured mugs and handed them clay…I knew (15 minutes in) that they were never going to be able to pull out a slab, trace it and get anything that came close to a form in the next 20 minutes! Not in a million years! So, what you said is SO TRUE! However, I am glad to say that in my 14th year one thing I have learned about myself is to LET GO! So, in that moment…I smiled through my teeth and said “hey, guys…let’s put the clay down for a second…” and thus- started my Mary Poppins voice and redirection of EXACTLY what they would be expected to do upon entering next class. 40 minutes means it all has to happen perfectly- no mistakes in teaching the expectations (and certainly NO LATE KIDS!) I HATE to waste time and am very organized, so when something like this happens…urgh, frustration! This time, there was no way around it. I spent this past rotation explaining things better, less rush. I hope that there will be results to show that!

  • Molly

    It makes me feel so much better to read about your struggles. It took three weeks (one 45-minute class period per week) to get a coil pot lesson done with a 6th grade class. I even had the kids do a practice version with modeling clay the week before – but it still took forever to get it done. By the time I’ve given the demo, gotten everybody quiet and attentive (a constant battle in my school), and the kids are beginning to make some progress, it’s time to clean up. I don’t get any time between classes – one ends at the same time the next one begins – so everything always feels rushed, no matter what kind of lesson I’m teaching. I think it’s true what you say about the teacher setting the mood. It’s my biggest challenge to stay calm and collected, and very difficult not to project a sense of urgency, especially when it’s time to clean up.

    RE: Laura’s comment – As a student in high school/college, I LOVED working with clay. As a teacher, I really don’t enjoy it. The time and space constraints and large class sizes (as well as many behavior issues in the schools where I work) make it my least favorite thing to teach. I also have to transport the clay pots from one school to the second school where I work for firing, because they won’t fix my kiln room to make it fire safe in the first school (I’ve been asking for three years). So I often find myself wondering….Is it really worth the stress?

    • Patty

      I happen to love clay and find that it’s one of the most assessable of all mediums. But having said that, there can be so many complications. I wouldn’t try to do clay if it isn’t something you love. Phyl at There’s a Dragon in my Art Room does tons of papier-mache projects that are a great substitute for clay. Good luck and I hope you find a solution to those back-to-back classes! (craziness!)

      • Laurika

        I find paper-mache takes 3 times as long as other things. Kids either love the stickyness or hate it and the interest drops really quickly. It’s also the messiest thing I HAVE EVER WORKED WITH! The liquid always gets on their hands and down their arms to their elbow. Droplets on their clothes, the floor and the table. Liquid seeping of and out of the project itself. Drying time per layer being crazy, etc.
        Am I doing it wrong? Is there a easier way? I think i need help with this one.

  • LIz Paquin

    glad to know that this happens to all of us. I use plain ol’ grocery plastic bags and styro foam trays to cover the clay pieces. Students squirt with water before tying up and then tape their name to the outside. Storage is the issue. I end up clearing out my metal cabinet for those weeks of clay.

  • Sue

    Ok, well unfortunately I have a bad clay day myself. I did these draped bowls with my 8th graders and when I fired them with glaze I put the kiln on 04 instead of 06. The glaze came out with the shine and muted. I decided to try to fire again on 06, nothing changed. Is there anything I can do? Can I have them apply a clear transparent coat and fire again? HELP!!! I feel terrible about my mistake.

  • Cassie Harig

    Hi! I just wanted to ask what kind of clay you use. I’ve tried a few different brands and I haven’t been too happy with the outcome. Thanks!

    • Patty

      Mostly Laguna brand. It always works well for me.

  • Anne

    The wine was well deserved.:) and the dino’s look good. I wonder how one keeps the neck upright, for drying. (what if a kids makes a brachiosaurus?) do you set limits on it? I love your art lessons-they are so much fun!

    • Sue

      A student of mine just did a giraffe. We propped something (tissue boxes) under it for support while drying.
      I encourage the students to complete clay projects in one class time (1 hour). If they just cannot finish we will put in a ziploc bag until they can.

  • Stephanie Needham

    I am amazed and impressed that after two classes of this size you are so cheerful to share. I teach K-12 and have had many similar situations with kids coming and going. I keep reinforcing process not the final product.
    Hard for many, but in the end a saving grace. Keep up your hard work, and Bravo for sharing with us all!

  • Colleen Fitzpatrick

    Hi Patty,
    I am private school teacher in Santa Barbara, and I work with 4th,5th and 6th graders. I love giving art lessons, especially clay, but I do not have a kiln. I have just air dried in the past, but I find the results are not as exciting as I know they could be. Do you have any tips on where I might fire my students work?
    Thank you for considering this problem.
    C. Fitzpatrick

    • Patty

      Hi Colleen,
      Some public school art teachers in our district share kiln usage. I’m not sure if you have another school affiliated with you or not, but it’s worth investigating. Other than that, I am not aware of any pay per use kiln in Santa Barbara. if you have a strong student base perhaps you could fundraise for a kiln. It’s such a dynamic part of art program. good luck!

  • Phyllis Willis

    I was wondering, has anyone tried dividing the class in half on clay days. Have half the class do a clay project and the other half do something else or a very simple clay project. Maybe even have the students work in groups so the student with the harder project can have help from the other student.
    Then the next time they come to art they can switch. I have not tried this out , I’m just brainstorming.

    • Teresa Mallett

      I would love to know if this would work. I think my students would have a fit if they didn’t all get to do clay at the same time. I am having the 5th graders draw designs for their masks. It is a great handout and they are able to draw small. Next week they choose their favorite and enlarge it to the 8 1/2 x 11″ size copy paper. I’ve explained to them how clay shrinks as it drys, and even more so once it has been fired. Hopefully some will still need the time to sketch their designs so I can supervise clay distributing, baging and preliminary prep. Everyone will also need to roll some newspaper and tape it to make a mold (small hill) to drape the slab over…so the mask will not lay flat.

  • Teresa Mallett

    I need suggestions for readying the room for clay usage quickly. I only plan on doing clay with one grade at a time and I will start with the 5th graders who everyday come in after my first 2 groups, and then leave when it is my lunch time. The idea I have if I can find the right material is to make covers for all 11 tables that can be put on, stay reasonably in place, can be romoved and folded with the damp remains of clay residue in the center and be set aside. My question is would it be best to use vinyl cloth, or put down some thin plastic ($ store picnic cloth) and make canvas covers (like an ironing board cover)? Or any other ideas?
    I hope to have some shelves cleared so that each of the 4 classes has a space to leave their work and be able to find and continue on each week.

    • Patty

      You’re on the right track. Consider purchasing some canvas. You can go to a fabric store but you may want to check out thrift stores or even an army surplus store. I use placemat sized canvas-like cloth. Actually it’s from an old bolt of Sunbrella fabric that I picked up years ago at a rummage sale.
      Plastic and vinyl probably won’t work as well as they might to get muddy when water is added. The canvas repels the water.
      Anyway, if you can find canvas or cotton duck, that would be the best option.

    • Sarah

      You could try bed sheets. I’ve used donated twin size fitted bedsheets to fit large tables. This works for large projects. For small ones, I use donated newspapers that I cut down with a paper cutter. The paper sometimes gets torn, but it is disposable and doesn’t cost you a penny. Plus you don’t have to wash them. I also like having students write their name in perm. marker on the newspaper BEFORE clay ever touches it, then we go back and add names to the clay when leather hard.

  • sandy

    I’ve been following your website for about six months and really enjoy seeing your lessons. I taught elementary art for many years…..and I loved it. Fourteen years ago we moved to New England and I just didn’t want to start job hunting again. We closed off half of our garage and I started teaching private lessons after school. Well, it mushroomed and so we built a studio building right on our property…..and it’s true…..if you build it, they will come. I just completed my thirteenth year teaching privately. I have been teaching at least one class every weekday. I love it. It’s the best retirement job anyone could ever have. I’ve sent a number of my students on to some of the best art schools in the country. We’ve won lots of art awards. It’s completely different from teaching public school….small classes, better materials and tools, interested invested students……everything is easier AND harder. I have to challenge the kids more. I am accountable to scores of helicopter parents. I had a bit of a learning curve when I started and still have a “worst lesson” once in awhile. It’s part of trying new things and learning how to teach art. I guess that when I stop learning, it will be time to hang it up. In the meantime, I’m nearly seventy and having the time of my life. Retirement? I am as retired as I plan to ever be.

    Thanks for the terrific website…..we’ve done a few of your ideas in my younger classes. Check out the Gallery of New Work on my website. You’ll recognize some of your projects.


  • Laura

    I have completely revamped how I do ceramics lessons, due to the increasing size of my classes. First we start out by practicing making our ceramic items with the modeling clay (that fun non-drying clay that students give back at the end of class). They can make mistakes galore with this because they are going to roll it up at the end of class anyway. The following week I do ceramic clay with half the class. I ask them “Who would like to practice more with the modeling clay this week?” Usually I get a number of students who want an extra week with the non-threatening modeling clay. If I don’t get enough volunteers to divide the class, I just split them in half tell them to play independently with the modeling clay. They have enough fun with that and know their turn will come the following week. This way I can give more individualized attention to each student. Plus, learning a little patience good for them and it greatly reduces everyone’s stress – particularly mine!

  • sharon

    I’ve also been there- it’s great reading all this and not feeling alone. While we are on the subject of air bubbles, I really would like to know if it is necessary to wedge clay that is brand new from the box. I find it physically hard to wedge, and I’m probably doing it wrong anyway, even though I have watched videos of how to do it. Would rolling it with a rolling pin do the same thing?

  • Jacqui Carroll

    I was thinking about clay frustration just the other day, feeling alone in my trials. Sometimes we teachers need to get out of our own bubble and talk to our colleagues. My third graders were having so much trouble with PINCH POTS last week. How do we get past the frustration and maturely glide over that hump of “Well, I told them to close their bags ONE MILLION TIMES, so I guess Jonny will be disappointed to see his clay hard next week”? How do we continue to have lowered expectations yet still desire encourage our students to do their best work?

  • Lyn

    I have SO been there! Good description of an art teacher’s challenges!

  • jill

    this was so spot on of the chaos of clay day.
    I can relate to this and I try to have organization to guide the project but anything can really happen to change that….with children. I also pre teach everything in the class before…to prevent any mishaps. and I write the steps of the lesson on the board and at their tables.

  • Jack Wood

    Almost weekly, I’ll have a pottery student exit the room without cleaning the pottery wheel. These are “real messy messes.” I feel betrayed, angry, and frustrated with myself for not monitoring more closely.” Nowadays I put it back on the students. If the wheel is not cleaned to my satisfaction (an effort has been made), I take the tray away from that wheel…indefinitely. This makes an impact because we have only seven wheels. This tactic encourages students at the wheels to police their own ranks when teacher is elsewhere in the room (sprawling space).

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