I spent my teaching day today making planters. Big planters – or at least big for someone who spends most of her time crafting cups or soup bowls.
Last night, I heard from a friend that he had been promoted at work. The promotion is a very deserved one, and I’ll confess to doing an awkward little dance when I got word yesterday afternoon. Later, when he called, he was shopping for houseplants. Between deciding whether lavender, more thyme, or a tree would be a better option, he shared the details – all exciting and dance-worthy. And then he started debating which big-box store pots would be best.
“Are you serious? You’re going to buy a pot? While you’re talking with me on the phone?” I half-joked, and convinced him to give me an approximate measurement instead.
What a beautiful gesture. Add a new plant to your home on the date of a big transition in your life. Note what it looks like on that date. Then water it, and care for it, and let it grow. The day-one plant is like a chalk-line marking a child’s height on the kitchen wall. It will never be that exact size, or take up that space in your world again. If you care for it properly, it will grow, expand, and bloom. If you don’t, it will shrivel, shrink, and leave you with dead soil for the trash. But that plant on day one is a marker – just like the milestone for which it serves as metaphor.
I have a horrible track record with plants. I kill just about everything I try to grow. My track record with pottery, though, is slightly better.
All four of my Ceramics classes are immersed in project work this week. Ceramics I classes are competing against each other in a “bowl-off” – creating bowls for an Empty Bowls event next year. Until today, I thought this event was a sure thing, scheduled on the calendar and integrated into my curriculum for this semester and next. That seems a little less certain now. But even if these bowls are not used for the event we’ve hosted for the last five years, I’ll see to it that they are used for a similar local program – thus fulfilling the purpose I’ve shared with my students, and towards which they are working hard. Ceramics II and III classes are making a body of signature work to share with classmates. Generosity has been a theme in both of these classes this spring, and the students jumped on the project when I proposed it. They are making thoughtful, sensitive work for their peers, and it’s a joy to be sharing this process with them.
So – since my students are working, and working generously – so could I.
Bill Strickland can tell you when his life began: It was a Wednesday afternoon in September 1963.
And he can tell you how it began: It started with a lump of clay.
Strickland, then a 16-year-old kid, was bored by school and hemmed in by life in a decaying Pittsburgh neighborhood. He wanted a way out, but he didn’t have a clue about how to find it – until that Wednesday afternoon, when he went wandering through the hallways of his high school. It’s a moment etched so clearly in his memory that, 35 years later, he can still recall the quality of the sunlight streaming in through the school windows. That’s the day he came face to face with hope.
Looking through an open classroom door, Strickland saw something he’d never seen before: a rotating mound of clay being shaped into a vessel by a man absorbed in his work.
“If ever in life there is a clairvoyant experience, I had one that day,” says Strickland, now 51. “I saw a radiant and hopeful image of how the world ought to be. It opened up a portal for me that suggested that there might be a whole range of possibilities and experiences that I had not explored. It was night and day – literally. I saw a line and I thought: This is dark, and this is light. And I need to go where the light is.”
So Strickland walked into the sunlit classroom, introduced himself to ceramics teacher Frank Ross, the man at the potter’s wheel, and said, “I’d like to learn whatever that is.” With Ross as his mentor for nearly 20 years, Strickland not only found the way out – one that led to college – he also found the way in: the path that lets one person make all the difference in the world.
Genius at Work Sara Terry. Fast Company, August 31, 1998
“I’d like to learn whatever that is.” I can’t fathom a better example of authentic motivation. Schools and parents and teachers tell students that they have to learn. Grades and futures depend on your learning, we say. But what is it about the stuff we have to teach that evokes, “I’d like to learn whatever that is”? It’s the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
I’m lucky with my subject matter. As I sat there in the studio throwing planters, 7-10 pounds each out of soft porcelain, my students paused their own work to watch and others stopped to observe. Both the process and its results are visual, tactile, fascinating and maybe a little hypnotic. But – then again – I think I strive for that model of “I’d like to learn” even when I’m not in the clay studio. In Graphic Design, I make sure that the walls are covered with student-designed posters, and that from day one we are looking at real-world examples that drive home the presence of design all around us. As I plug through advising the newspaper for my first year, I’ve been driving our regular writers crazy with nonstop reminders to make content interesting enough that other students will want to come write with us – that they will “like to learn.”
Maybe this is the blessing and curse of being an arts teacher: We know that our subject matter has to sell itself. No standardized test prep or for-profit placement company is going to help us assert its importance. Outliers like Sir Ken Robinson, Seth Godin, and Dan Pink will shout that creativity and the arts are important in education, but Common Core, STEM, and business-model practice have other priorities. I can’t assume that my students come to class with the mindset that they have to learn what I’m teaching. I have to convince them that they want to learn it. In order for me to sell them on the idea that this stuff I teach is beautiful and important and meaningful, against the odds of everything else they hear – sometimes, I have to show, not tell. I have to do, not talk; produce, not preach.
So when I’m sitting there throwing planters while my students are working and watching, it might not look like traditional teaching – but I’m actually teaching my heart out. When I tell them about the beauty of a plant that starts on day one of something new, that story isn’t in a textbook – but it means something. When Ceramics I students ask if planters might count as bowls – if attendees at an Empty Bowls event might choose a “bowl” that deliberately leaks so as to later have agrarian function – I applaud their flexible thinking. When Brian – who isn’t enrolled in a class – asks if I can show him how to make the base after school, I stay late and make sure he gets the process down.
These occasional days when I make alongside my students are important to my teaching practice – and sometimes to my spirit. Making is a ritual that has been around nearly as long as humans. When I’m faced with a lot of stress and uncertainty, ritual can be a comfort, a reminder that I and my craft are part of a much longer story.
I think I’d do well to take my friend’s approach to change: Set a marker, note where I am today, water the soil, and see what happens. “I’d like to learn” to be better at all of this.
In the meanwhile, though, while I’m fumbling through, I made some ten damn “sick” planters today, taught engaged and focused classes, and held off most of the anxiety until the school day was over. Not bad for a Wednesday.