When the art show approaches at the end of each semester, I ask my ceramics students to write artist statements. The reaction to this assignment is usually mixed. Some students took the class because they anticipated not having to write at all. Others ask for a formula or script so they can “get it right.”
Sometimes, even I question whether the assignment has value. I usually am so busy with setting up the show for five classes, creating the program, and wrangling attendance that I do not have a chance to work closely with students on feedback. I should be sitting with each student to review his language, read it out loud, ask questions and investigate meaning, right? Or minimally spending an all-nighter adding comments to online drafts, and assessing student response to these suggested revisions? That’s what I should be writing about in a reflective blog post – how helpful and beneficial the feedback process is, how it adds value to meaningful statements, how great it has been to integrate writing into the ceramics curriculum.
Pssh. If you want that, visit Edutopia (and reflect for a moment on how reflective practice in education is funded by the same dude who created Star Wars).
Instead, we crank out and paper-cut the statements on the morning of the show. I chug excessive coffee to get through the setup process. We slap the statements on display next to students’ work, pray that no one will deface them, and it’s showtime.
The morning after the show’s opening, I try to arrive early so I can walk around the displays and read the hastily-printed statements more slowly. Usually, I find some inspiration. Always, I find a lot of typos. I tell myself that next time, I will do better – statements due a week before the show, find the time, figure out a way to make feedback a loop.
And occasionally, I read a gem that makes me stop in my tracks and re-assess everything about being a teacher of craft.
When we put student work on display, all that is visible is product. An artist statement is some attempt to describe process, which – if I am on my teaching game – should be far more valuable to the student’s growth and development than finished cups, bowls, or sculptures.
No audience sees process. I wish that they could. I wish that I could somehow show parents the huge grin on the face of a junior linebacker when he passes the 30-second centering test, and now has the first steps of making a pot committed to muscle and mind memory. I wish that my colleagues could feel our class’s collective wonder when we learned that most keys melt down at cone 06, but most pop tabs and crucifix medallions do not. I wish that I had a way to more directly connect the principles of risk-taking, slow time, patience, and resilience to students’ lives outside of the studio.
So often nowadays, I see people and all they want to do is go, go, go. Our society and its constant movement and drive forces everyone to be that way. Ceramics is an escape from reality. It forces you to slow down and notice that every touch and every little movement matters.
-Matt S., Winter 2015
I think a lot of teachers must feel this way. We see the daily progress – or lack of it – and we know that process is more valuable than product. Just like my certainty that a day spent flopping pots to address a missing link in technique is more valuable than a polished final display – we know that the backstories of editing a rough draft, or grasping what a calculus formula actually means and doesn’t mean, or failing to meet expectations on a team project and learning from the mistake, are all the real ‘stuff’ of learning. Product showcases end result, but process measures motivation and growth.
Ceramics as a whole is a great metaphor for life as a whole. If you constantly spend your time trying to make everyone happy, all that will end up happening is that you will die sad. The funny thing here is that I never fully appreciated this seemingly simple lesson until I played with a bunch of dirt on a spinny wheel.
-RJ N., Winter 2015
It’s been said that we share what we value, and we value what we share. So what do we share in education? We share grades – on tests, on transcripts, on resumes – and because the evaluative systems value grades, so do we. We might share displays, or presentations of learning – but trying to do so in a way that is student-centered, process-based, and not overly performative is a challenge that requires more buzzwords than I have time to practice. I share final art shows, and, [insert frustrated emoji here], I know I can do better than this. Our mechanisms to share are product-based, even when we try to make them otherwise.
Interim solution? I think that story may be a solution to my process-over-product woes. I’m trying to share more stories – which means that this blog is going to be getting a little busier. Not busier with winning stories, or public relations stories, or play-it-safe stories, either. I think it is time for me to start sharing more gritty and reflective stories that get at what it is really like to learn and teach.
Minimally, story makes the hard work of getting to product a lot more interesting, and provides a forum for the reflective practice I’ve been missing. Storytelling may also deeply essential – Jonathan Gottschall’s amazing book The Storytelling Animal suggests that telling stories may be how we survived evolution and part of what makes us human.
I swear I will find the time to do better with the artist statement assignment this spring, because even without my full engagement, this assignment has turned out the sort of results that inspire me to be a better teacher. A few are showcased in this post.
Of course, ‘time’ is the key and operative word here. I’ve tried to create it out of thin air before, with mixed results. If you read this, hold me accountable.
In life it seems that we have a tendency to want everything done rapidly and easily. We want everything to be perfect, and we rarely have an activity that is without aid of digital or modern technology. This is why ceramics is special. It forces us to be patient and caring about each move we make while sculpting something extraordinary that ultimately turns out to be imperfect in ways.
-Jake G., Winter 2015