Conversation #1: Beginning of Something New?

I recently ran across artist J.E. Johnson and our interest in each other’s teaching work sparked a written dialogue that is proving to be generative and instructive on a lot of levels, especially about what it means to call yourself an artist who teaches. This is the first in a three-post series that shares our (lightly edited) e-mail exchange around this issue. 

On a more meta level, this series is also about the role of conversation and writing in the pursuit of understanding and refining one’s teaching practice. To illustrate this I decided to stray a little from our normal ALT/space format; instead of asking J.E. to turn his e-mails into a more formal piece, I decided that I wanted to share our exchange as it happened. You are encouraged and welcome to add to the conversation in the comments section, below.

Malke Rosenfeld
ALT/space Curator & Editor


July 18, 2013

Hi Malke,

Some more background about me and the clock class that caught your attention: The class I taught this summer was the result of having some time on my hands due to being furloughed for part of the summer from my job as Scene Shop Supervisor at Texas Performing Arts at The University of Texas. Knowing I would need to make up for lost income, a colleague suggested that I propose a class to the Austin Diocesan Education Enrichment Program (DEEP) summer camp. If enough kids signed up for my class I would teach it – simple as that.

Nine out of a camp of about 150 signed up for my class and I received notice in mid-March. I spent my evenings in April and May coming up with a working clock prototype designed to be built by 4th and 5th graders. I was so focused on these technical details that, only the night before the first day of class did I bother to define the goals of the class:

  1. You will be able to explain to how a mechanical clock works!
  2. You will learn how to be better makers!
  3. You will have a working Cereal Box Clock to take home!

My first day of class I was really nervous about my lack of experience with the age group. Would they understand me? Would they be interested? Would they laugh at my jokes? More importantly, could they cut double-thickness cereal boxes with a pair of scissors? Of course they were interested and able and I quickly built rapport with them. We hit the ground running and through twelve 75-minute class periods six successful clocks were built.


Trimming the outer edge of the Hour Wheel.

On that first day, as I was introducing the goals of the class, one of my students, impressed by my iPad, blurted out a half-remembered Steve Jobs quote, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” I thought, what a great way to begin the class. So for the rest of the camp, though time was very short, I presented a quotation by a famous thinker or technologist and asked the class what they thought it meant. This turned out to by one of my favorite parts of the class. I so enjoyed talking to them about technology, art, and all the determination and patience it takes to achieve great things. I really think these discussions helped them focus their energy on the tasks at hand every day as well as connect their efforts to both the history and future of both technology and art.


The escape wheel read: “Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

As for the goals of the class, I’m not sure if any of my students could really explain all the principles of mechanical time keeping but I’m certain that everyone left with improved craft skills and a majority of students had running clocks. In the end, I realized that I pretty much ran this class like I run my shop at the University, where we train grad and undergrads to build theatrical scenery. The training that my staff and I do is a critical part of production and we all love teaching but the highest priority (besides safety) must always be getting the set built by the deadline. There are no tests at the end of the semester, just a lot of clean up.


The recent purchases of a large shoe order and a new vacuum turned out to be quite helpful to the class.

On the last day of class I felt really, really good about the results and I received a lot of enthusiastic comments from students, parents, and other teachers as well. The experience seemed to be a rare opportunity for me to exercise all of my skills, interests, and experience at once.

In these weeks since the class has ended I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this more than just once a year at the camp. People have suggested that I develop kits for sale, search our more opportunities to teach young people, or work with a publisher to develop STEM lesson plans. As I continue to puzzle this out, I will likely start a second blog in addition to that is more overtly focused on STEM education through craft training – much like you do with dance.

As far as my personal artwork, I’ve never been able to commit to it with my whole heart because the focus has been on my own personal expression and I could never find opportunities to connect it with a community. Now, with a new focus on education I feel like have a unique synthesis of skills and experiences that might be able to help young people grow into the people who can build a better future. Or at very least, help them to recognize all the artistry present in the history of technology.


J. E.


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