Big Projects, Subtle Changes | Kate Plows

I listened quietly to another in-service presenter talk about project-based learning.  This talk is everywhere these days at my school — the idea that learning happens best in authentic, cross-disciplinary situations designed around real-world problem solving. Education buzzwords flew by too fast for me to catch.  My mind wandered back to the studio.

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The ceramics studio has been a mad buzz of activity lately.  In classes, my students are preparing one or two more pieces before we make final preparations for the winter art show.  Outside of classes, student potters are making bowls for our annual Empty Bowls event.  Working as a community, we will make over 800 bowls for a fundraising dinner in January.  The full proceeds from the dinner will go to an organization that works with the homeless in our city.

There are few projects about which my students and I are as passionate as Empty Bowls.  I believe that when one develops a talent, that talent comes with the responsibility to seek ways in which it can help someone else, or make our world a little better.  This talent-responsibility narrative becomes part of my teaching script as soon as my students can throw a decent bowl.  I don’t force them to make pots that they will give away at a fundraiser.  But once I have them considering how their talents might fit into a bigger picture, it does not take much convincing for them to do so.

We work for hours, before school, after school, on weekends, with alumni and siblings and parents and friends.  We take bisqued bowls to a church basement in the city, and glaze them alongside some of the homeless men for whom we are fundraising, before sharing a meal the students make from scratch.  We solicit advanced students and local artists to donate work to a silent auction at the event.  Seven seniors – all of whom have been involved with the project for all four years of school – serve as student chairs who guide most of the strategy and decision-making for the whole process.

As the speaker continued talking about new trends in education, I thought about last Friday’s workshop with the freshmen.  On a special community and service day, groups of 20-30 freshmen come to the studio for one hour, to underglaze bowls and learn about the Empty Bowls process.  I tell them that the bisqued bowls in front of them have been made by their peers.  I show them how clay – prior to the bisque – can be recycled and used again and again.  But after the first firing, those pots will be in the world for thousands of years.  There’s no turning back.  The marks these students make on the bowls will be part of pieces that will outlive them.

Most of these freshmen have not worked in the studio before.  Many consider themselves ‘bad’ at art, and I don’t have enough time in a one-hour slot to significantly change that perception.  Instead, after a brief introduction to Empty Bowls and a condensed version of the talent-responsibility script, we always just handed them brushes.  My upperclassmen students and I watched as they fumbled through painting, and sighed at the awkwardly painted bowls left behind, adding gentle touch-ups so the pieces would appeal to our general audience of Empty Bowls guests.

Last Friday was the twentieth freshman workshop we’ve hosted, in six years of doing the Empty Bowls process.  This time, I rehearsed a small but significant change to the script with my student chairs prior to the freshmen’s arrival. They liked it, so we proceeded.

This time, I told the freshmen that I didn’t expect them to have developed any talent in the studio yet.  I told them that I hope they will figure out their talents as they go through school, always trying new things like what we were going to ask them to do today.  We handed out sponges instead of brushes, and demonstrated how to dab on the underglaze instead of painting.  It was foolproof.  The freshmen were enthusiastic. My critical upperclassmen noted that the pieces looked so much better, no touch-ups needed.  And we even had time at the end of the session to do some closing reflection.

Back in the cafeteria meeting space, I tried to focus on the presentation. With so many proposed changes to how we should teach, I often find myself feeling like a complete beginner. Experts at the podium propose radical changes (“design a whole unit around the zombie apocalypse!”) Yet, I wonder if what we do in the studio might already have some of the best practices of project-based learning. My students carefully consider process and product, and we work hands-on every day. We allow time for critique and revision, but we acknowledge that some choices are permanent. They write and speak about their work; they publicize and promote; they budget time and resources.  My students’ future plans might not directly align to the pottery studio. Yet learning to create, to follow through on projects, to manage time, to evaluate work, and to apply one’s talents to big challenges like poverty and homelessness are skills I want them to be able to apply in whatever directions they might follow.

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Small changes can have significant outcomes, and maybe much of this educational progress involves considering how we can simply tweak our process to make it more authentic.  In the case of the freshman workshop, my message (‘develop a talent, then find ways to use it constructively’) was not aligning with the actual process (‘here’s a brush you’ve never used, I know you don’t know how to paint, but please paint a bowl that will last in the world for thousands of years’)  I needed to acknowledge that the students were beginners, and to invite them into the process with more sensitivity.  A subtle change – offering tools that met their talents at a very novice level – made all the difference.

With clay-splattered clothes and messy hands, and feeling like anything but an expert, this beginner is trying to find her way into a big discussion about how education is evolving.  We need – I need – to acknowledge that teaching expertise is at the end of a long road that keeps getting longer as more theories and buzzwords emerge.  In the meanwhile, my adjustments to my teaching process might seem small.  Yet the simple, deliberate change of brush to sponge was significant to my students, to our studio, and to a big project that will culminate in a little over a month.

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At an Open Studio over the Thanksgiving holiday, a few freshmen brought their parents to the studio and taught them how to use sponges to apply the glaze. These new experts had developed a talent and a way to share it. I couldn’t be happier with the results of a subtle change.

Our Empty Bowls event takes place on Martin Luther King Day – Monday, January 20, 2014.  Cheer us on at mpemptybowls.com – or, if you’re local to southeastern Pennsylvania, come join us!

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