Love Story

Last night, a student told me that my teaching was “romantic.”

The “Clay Date” is all the rage at public ceramic studios. The museum where I host the event calls it “a different kind of evening activity for friends and dates to mix, mingle, and get a little messy.” There’s beer and wine and the occasional wisecrack about phallic centering cones.

Blame the movie Ghost, maybe, but I also have found a lot of relationship metaphors in the process of playing in the mud. These are part of my script when I lead the event. The impermanence of wet clay, the commitment of firing… the need to find one’s center and stay there… how you can’t push too far, you just have to lean into the process… hey, folks, I’ll be here all night. Not a single one of these amusing metaphors has worked out in my own life, if you’re wondering. But there’s an entertaining ring to the words, right?

Maybe surprisingly, the event has been as much fun for me as the couples whom I teach to handbuild and throw clumsy, wonderful little pots.

Amazing folded pinch pot rim created by a first-time student at Clay Date

Amazing folded pinch pot rim created by a first-time student at Clay Date

There was a synchronicity to the event I led last night, as I’ve spent the last week introducing the wheel to my Ceramics I classes. Same process, minus the romance, plus metaphors that teenage boys will understand. The same sort of muscle memory you need to remember how to swing the lax stick… it’s like leaning against a wall; you’re not trying to push the wall anywhere… you always have a do-over, until you don’t… hey, guys, I’ll be here all day. There’s typically lots of laughter, and groans when I knock their centering lumps off-balance and say, “Do it again.” We lose track of time, and scramble to clean up when the class ends.

At clay date, when one partner “gets it,” I almost always find that person helping his or her significant other to “get it,” too. He or she will pull up a stool and coach, gently offering support suggestions that may or may not be accurate, but are always genuine. The same thing happens with my Ceramics I students – a student who figures out how to center will frequently coach the student next to him who is still floundering. This impromptu tutoring always feels natural and unforced; it’s very lovely. And last night, as I was cleaning up and downing the remnants of a bottle of white, it got me thinking.

I wonder if there is some sort of biological or hereditary roots to teaching in this personal, one-on-one manner? For my students and ‘dates,’ the process just seems almost ingrained and universal. When we have a skill that you enjoy – or a skill that is necessary – we fluidly and naturally pass that skill on. And when we coach, 1:1, we invest ourselves in ensuring that our student “gets it.”

Wouldn’t it make sense that a tribe of people who were invested in each other having necessary skills would flourish? Believe that the skill is necessary or enjoyable or important enough to pass it on, and then pass it on with a commitment to each student mastering it. It’s how parents raise their children, it’s how elders pass on skills, it’s how my students teach, and it might just be how we learn best. By contrast, the traditional model of one teaching a group of many can seem awkward, clumsy, and teacher-centered. “I’m going to present this information; I expect you to understand,” versus, “I have this skill to share with you; let me make sure you ‘get it.'”

A classroom is not, by nature, a romantic place. But maybe the love story of teaching happens when we make an emotional connection to our subject, and a commitment to passing it on to the individual.

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