Each of the past two years, I have had the pleasure of being a visiting artist in ninth grade art classes. It is not an arduous trip for me, of course, as my office sits about ten yards from the art room. Whenever I brave those ten paces, however, I walk away happy, as working with clay is something I have loved to do since the moment I started. Much like many MCDS students, my first ceramics class was the result of an art requirement in high school. Twenty-some years later, it is still an important part of my life. Over time, however, my appreciation for what it has taught me has evolved a great deal.
Seeing the kids’ reactions to learning I was once a ceramics teacher is always enjoyable. Most know that I was an athlete and have coached a number of sports, and many correctly assume that I was a classroom teacher prior to moving into administration roles. Very few, however, ever guess that I was involved in the arts. I find it interesting that my participation in the arts (not to be confused with an appreciation for the arts, which students see as much more common among teachers) has almost a bewildering effect on students, as though meaningful participation in the arts is somehow abnormal. At the very least, the implication is that this sort of artistic dedication is the exception, rather than the rule. To me, it speaks not just to assumptions that people make but also highlights the importance the arts hold in a student’s education and further strengthens my belief in the necessity of arts education.
With that in mind, part of my message when working with the students is that participation in the arts is, for most people, its own reward. We are, of course, a school filled with motivated learners, all of whom plan on attending college, and one of the things I appreciate most about MCDS is that we view artistic study as being an integral part of that journey to college, rather than a superfluous add-on. Most of our students will not become professional artists, but that is not the point; our students study art, if for no other reason, because it enriches their lives. There are timeless lessons to be learned in the art studio, and I try to incorporate those whenever given the chance.
When I am in the art studio with the ninth graders, I tend to focus on one main theme: the difference between a successful piece and a perfect piece. My message is simple: the reason I love working with clay is that perfection does not exist. There are too many variables at play, be it drying time, kiln temperatures, or imperfect glaze mixing, to be able to control everything. Thus, the focus needs to be on the process rather than the product: the artist simply needs to focus on controlling what can be controlled and then refine that process on subsequent pieces if the final product is not what the artist desired.
My approach speaks to intentionality, which is an important theme in all of education. As educators, we challenge ourselves to have a goal in mind and work intentionally to help students reach that goal. Rarely is that goal the creation of a specific product but tends to have much more to do with the way we ask students to think. Students may be skeptical when a teacher talks about the learning process, but ultimately, the process is where actual learning happens. Very little can be learned from a grade looked at in a vacuum, and so teachers work tirelessly to shift students’ focus to the process of learning.
Truth be told, the ceramics studio is where my understanding of that concept crystallized. It helped that working with clay was a process I enjoyed, of course, but even now, I attribute many of my successes and much of my comfort in non-artistic pursuits to the lessons I learned in the ceramics studio. Thus, when students thinking about high school or college ask me about what they should focus on, my answer inevitably turns to the learning process. And, as I look at our high school students and think about how we define what “college preparatory education” really means, I think of these skills.
Inevitably, students will see results that they like and results that they don’t like. It is their ability to look at those results, reflect on their process, and consider what they can change in the future that will dictate their long-term success regardless of their chosen academic or professional path. If these students are anything like me, many of these skills are being honed every time they step in the art studio. I sincerely hope that as time goes on, they will come to appreciate that process.