“Can you…?”

Today was my first day of two weeks of teaching at the summer camp gig. I’m working with 6-12-year-olds, loosely teaching some clay projects in morning and afternoon sessions, three hours to a clip.

I want to believe that clay is innately engaging, that touch-based learning is essential and too often overlooked. Staley, in ‘The Hegemonic Eye‘:

In almost every other subject students are asked to use their eyes and ears to process information and expand their minds. The nuances of touch are rarely called upon by the academic institutions. The interconnections between the ancient art of making pottery and a generation of students raised in a new visual electronic world is profound. When students’ hands touch clay there is learning that takes place that goes far beyond just skin touching earth.

This is my fifth round at this camp, though, and I’m starting to believe that the rarity of intentional exercise of touch is taking its toll on the students I teach. Each year, their attention spans seem a little shorter; their patience (our studio rule #1) is a little shorter; they seem quicker to say, “I can’t,” or – maybe harder to hear, even – “Can you…?’ This morning, in our introduction exercise, one young girl told our class that she’s been spending most of the summer “using lots of electronic devices,” and when I asked her to explain, the class took off on a discussion of video and computer games that felt like a foreign vocabulary to me. Should I have known more? Or maybe just not to ask…?

I tell my young artists that the clay they manipulate, once fired, will be in the world – with their signature on the bottom – for 6,000 years or longer. I show them how we know ancient stories from ancient pottery. I try to coax their fumbling hands into trying, trying, trying past the initial stumbles of muscle to mind to memory. One little boy – no more than seven – holds back tears bravely as he taps me on the shoulder after ten minutes, tells me he “sucks at this,” and asks me to do his pinch pot for him. I think of the world that awaits him. Matthew Crawford notes:

Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day?

I hand him back the clay, and ask him to try again. I sponge down edges, poke holes in hollow spaces, add slip and seam edges. I want these little pieces to survive their firings, to be something tangible (if not beautiful) after the bisque… and I want these little people, digital natives who were born into wireless technology, to be able to push through the making process. I don’t wonder; I know that playing in the mud was more engaging five years ago, and this worries me.

At the end of the day, I am exhausted.


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