2013 Highlights, Part 3: Risktaking

One Friday during this past April, a group of my upper-level Ceramics students and I took boxes full of hand-made mugs to a local grocery store, set up tables outside the store, and tried to give away the mugs for a few hours.

It wasn’t as easy as you’d think.  But then – the best experiences seldom are.

Adding tags

The backstory.  I had several meetings with the Artistic Director at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia who pioneered this project in the city, and got his support.  I tried to explain the project to some befuddled school administrators who said okay, even though I don’t think any of us fully understood what they were agreeing to.  We talked the project over as a class, discussed ideas online, disagreed and made consensus with each other.  We made and made and made, getting in turns deeply fascinated and bored with the repetition of making 25+ related or duplicate forms.  Six area grocery stores told us no, and I was just about ready to give up when the seventh said yes with enthusiasm.  A student designed tags for the mugs, and we revised these over and over again to get our message right.  Permission slips went home.  I answered a bunch of curious-to-confused questions from parents.   The students documented their work and wrote artist statements discussing their process and hopes for the mugs.

A table o' mugs

A table o’ mugs


We cleared schedules, tied on tags, made sandwich boards, carefully packed the mugs in plastic bins.  We set up a Twitter account and shared the login and password.

And then we showed up at the ACME grocery store and tried to give the pieces away.  We truly had no idea what would happen.


One student described:

It was way harder to give away free mugs than I thought it would be.  Everyone thought we were trying to sell something.  Some people didn’t even respond when we approached them, and I saw one lady whisper to her son while guiding him away from us toward her car.  I imagine she said, “Don’t look directly in their eyes Timmy, if you do you’ll turn to stone!”  Or something of that sort.

Some store visitors crossed across to the opposite entrance, reluctant to interact with such unusual solicitors.  Others wanted to linger and handle every mug at the table.   Some of my colleagues from the school stopped by, curious about what trouble I was getting myself into this week.  Store employees snuck out to check out the table, talk with the students, and select a cup.  We re-arranged the tables to keep the display attractive as more and more mugs disappeared.

No one could believe there wasn’t a catch.

A new mug owner responded:

I used my mug all weekend, starting with soup on Friday night, hot chocolate for breakfast on Saturday and love it so much I even used it for an adult beverage on Sunday night. There is something very comforting about holding a hand-made mug.  The best was that it was so hard to believe that it was a free gift with no strings attached.

And another:

I am happy to see that todays students find value in this project, are using their hands to create and hopefully learning how much small gestures such as the mug giveaway can change or amend a persons outlook….

Why was this a highlight?  Because it was a partnership and a risk.  Once we committed to the giveaway, I was no longer a teacher – I was a partner and stakeholder in the project.  Matt wrote, “This project has been unlike any other project I have been asked to do before, and was not an easy one for me to do,” and I empathized completely!  I’d never done this before, either, and we needed each other’s support and perspectives to make the project work.  I made cups alongside my students.  We critiqued each other.  They asked questions I hadn’t considered (“Hey, Ms. P., what do we do if someone tries to give us money?”) and we figured out the answers together.  

My god, I miss this sort of partnership when I don’t have it.  The only things that qualify me to be a ‘teacher’ are a few years and a couple of degrees – all small potatoes in the big picture of life. Experiences like this one remind me that I have so, so much to learn from my students, from our environment, from the obstacles that we encounter.

We can and do make cups in a studio and share them with other makers, or with family members who will love them because of the makers.  We can and do create experiences that are safe, risk-free, sterile and removed from the real world.  To some extent, we have to have a safe place to make mistakes as we are learning.  I’d never ask my intro-level students to try to give away their first, clumsy cups; these pieces are about learning a process and feeling safe to stumble.  A science teacher wouldn’t expect a student in his first chemistry lab to propose a brand-new compound; a manager wouldn’t expect his trainees to revise efficiency standards.

But I’ve always believed that teenagers are capable of so much more than the sterile environment of school expects of them.  And after a certain level of introductory learning, doesn’t it make sense to break down the classroom walls?  What happens when we try to take our work to the street?  When we test our viewpoints and products in a parking lot instead of an exam or in-class critique?  When we focus on learning experiences that are more authentic than not?

A few years ago, I read John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instructionand scrawled this phrase on a napkin that has been posted on the fridge ever since:

Consider what society would look like if 65 million trapped schoolchildren learning to be consumers were suddenly set to actively imagining themselves in independent livelihoods, adding value to the rest of the community; imagining themselves as producers instead of bored consumers?

Despite the napkin that flutters each time I reach for my water pitcher, I sometimes forget about this big idea.  It’s easy to do, when you’re in the bubble of online grades, or debating the shift a few minutes from here to there in a schedule.

But as I revisit the ‘Mugging’ experience, I think this is why it made the list of 2013 highlights.  My students and I produced something that added authentic, unexpected value to a (slightly) bigger community, albeit in an unusual way.  They saw themselves as producers with a skill that the real world considered valuable.  The whole experience was a worthwhile risk, one I think I need to try harder to replicate and expand in the future.  Six months later, the thoughts I posted that Friday afternoon remind me of the sort of teacher I want to be.

As I watched my students interacting generously and enthusiastically with unsuspecting strangers today, I was thinking a lot about risks worth taking.  Is it worth more to own an object – like the ones I’m dusting off and packing into boxes for yet another move – or to own a grade – like the multiple choices and fill-in-the-blanks that fill study time in our homeroom – or to accumulate experiences that support generosity, vulnerability, and open-ended questions?

For those of us who make, or teach, or learn things, I suppose it’s a cocktail of all three. We let go of the former today as we re-homed our mugs.  My students will all be back to studying on Monday, I’m sure.  But, as for the latter – today’s experience left us overflowing.

We chronicled the project here, and you can see more photos here.

Jake shares a mug with a store employee

Jake shares a mug with a store employee


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