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.

Yikes!

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!
    http://theartofeducation.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/its-clay-week/

    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.