Clay Culture: Teaching Remotely

Teaching hands-on ceramics courses has been challenging over the past year. Two educators, Kelly Clark and Courtney Long, share the ways they’ve adapted to instructing ceramics students remotely.

A High School Experience

Ceramics Monthly: How did your high school respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kelly Clark: When the pandemic hit our area in March 2020, we were told to pack up and teach from home. Without knowing how long we would be virtual, we left the projects in damp newspaper and plastic bags and walked out the door.

At that time, I had been teaching the high school introduction to ceramics students since September and the advanced students for at least a year prior, some for all four years. We met virtually during a reconfigured class time, mostly doing wellness checks and reminding each other how much we missed class and being together. Without supplies or the ability to get them, we found ourselves streaming The Great Pottery Throw Down and critiquing it informally and brainstorming what we would like to take back to a new school year—like perhaps throwing blindfolded.

1 Underglazes being prepped in condiment containers for Kelly Clark’s students to take them home to decorate the surfaces of their projects.

2 Victoria Eodice, one of Clark’s advanced ceramics students, displays the ceramics champion belt and her bottle portrait for which she won it.

New Challenges

CM: Based on your experience last spring, how are your virtual class sessions organized, and what technology and equipment do you use?

KC: With September came a new way of teaching, and also a new group of students that I had not taught, ever. We were now teaching at our school, in our classrooms, while students remained at home. This meant that I had access to clay, tools, glazes, and the kilns; however, I couldn’t see what students were making while they were making it. For advanced students this was heaven—unlimited time to work and to be able to get in the zone, allowing all the distractions to fade away. For the three classes of introductory-level students, I considered this as a new challenge that might even invigorate my teaching.

Our school uses Google Classroom with Google Meet (video meetings) for a class time of 35 minutes. These classes are shorter than our normal classes, but it is what works for other scheduling considerations. On Fridays the school is sanitized, so I meet with students from my kitchen table once a week.

Adjusting the Curriculum

CM: What are some resources that helped you provide clay and tools to students, as well as set up your online course?

KC: With all these changes and some of them feeling like obstacles, I considered how to adjust my curriculum. The third project in my introductory class is a coil vessel that must be 18 inches in height after shrinkage. This requires that students jump right into the deep end—they become artists, engineers, and architects all at once. Evaluating while moving forward, I realized that I should try the project first, then make adjustments. I set up a table outside my classroom door that leads to a driveway. Students in masks drove, walked, or rode their bikes to pick up clay, tools, plastic bags, and newspaper. I did not have enough of every tool, but I was able to stretch what I do have and improvise the rest. Demonstrating rolling out slabs using wine bottles may be something I continue to do just for kicks.

3 Clark’s introduction to ceramics students’ greenware coil vases as they were delivered to school.

4 Grace Silva collecting her fired vase.

Each day, I work on camera making the projects in front of the students, demonstrating step by step, never cutting to a finished project. I can pin the students’ video feeds during our meets, which allows me to enlarge their image, and they share their progress while making the piece at home. When projects are complete or clay needs to be replenished, students drive up during set after-school hours and I make these exchanges. Once pieces are bisque fired, they drive up and check out the test tiles while I put glazes in condiment to-go containers for them to take home.

Making the projects myself, rather than spending my time moving from student to student to guide and assist has been an unexpected renewal of practice. I explain to students that if they keep pace with me and work simultaneously, they will have similar results and questions that can be answered in real time. I encourage that approach rather than students watching me demonstrate and then working on the project later or right before it is due. On Fridays, I share videos of amateurs and professionals from across the globe using similar techniques.

I have found that in some cases I need to drive to students’ houses. Whether they are quarantined or do not have a ride, they message me their address and I appear on the porch or in the driveway to collect work or deliver clay. This has been a challenge when it rains and I have also mistakenly allowed a dog to run out, but otherwise it is working.

Creative Resolutions

CM: Do students interact with each other during virtual classes? How do you cultivate creativity and community?

KC: During our virtual classes, the introductory-course students are quiet and do not engage with each other, which I think is a result of the academic classes’ structured approach. The advanced students are a rowdier group because they have a level of comfort with me and each other. We kid and talk about off-topic subjects just to stay caught up with each other.

5 Samantha and Ambar Perez allowing their brother to help select colors from the test tiles.

Before the pandemic, I encouraged our classes to have a sense of community because ceramics really is both a team and individual undertaking. With my teaching undergoing change, I felt it was important to keep these extras in place for continuity and community wellness. For several years, we have awarded a ceramics champion belt to the truly exceptional projects. The we consists of the advanced class students; they challenge each other, place votes, and the winner holds onto the belt until they are bested by a new challenger. Each month, I give out the Ceramics Student of the Month award—which includes a gift card and a school announcement—to any student demonstrating a serious work ethic. Each advanced student is given a t-shirt with our logo and I share and demonstrate support on our Instagram page. Our page has a large following with parents and I enjoy sharing with other high schools as well. During the pandemic, these small shows of support are an attempt to reach through the screen and let students know they are seen.

I have never administered tests or quizzes, or required sketches. If a student needs to communicate an idea and can sketch it out, I welcome it; if not, we talk it out or I might sketch at their direction. For our class day, the students welcome the opportunity to step away from screens, get dirty, and make something with their own hands. During traumatic times, this is more important than ever. An unexpected victory came in watching advanced students set up home studios—on the deck when the weather permitted and in garages and basements as the temperature changed. They shared photos, and I loved seeing that one student’s parents bought her a wheel and she set it up in her room. Now that is commitment.

I find that art teachers thrive in problem-solving situations and are used to being flexible and developing creative resolutions. I did not know what this pandemic would bring, but I had faith that art is how we would cope. For years I have seen the therapeutic qualities of classes, an idea that my students now champion.

A College Experience

Ceramics Monthly: How did your college respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Courtney Long: As a community-college instructor, I provide essential job training to support the local creative economy. My collaborations with community leaders helped create incubators and co-ops that provide studio spaces and equipment to nurture emerging artists. When North Carolina shut down in mid-March 2020, access to the college’s pottery studio was restricted and many students were forced to make alternative plans to finish the semester; some students found solace in these community spaces to continue clay work. Introducing papier-mâché medium to students who sheltered in place gave them the opportunity to practice formal elements of design, and a free online glaze course closed out the semester. Like most educators, I began to reconstruct my approach to meet course objectives.

6 Courtney Long uses a web camera with a USB-port cable plugged into a laptop and attached to a tripod for live Blackboard demonstrations.

7 For demonstrations of mobile processes, such as kiln loading, the studio technician records her.

Virtual Learning Solutions

CM: Based on your experience last spring, what tools did you incorporate to make the shift to virtual learning for the fall semester? 

CL: I started the shift from in-class instruction to virtual learning by creating a video-demonstration resource library. I use a GoPro because it’s an action camera. I literally wear the camera with a GoPro head strap so demonstrations are recorded from my perspective—for example, when wedging clay. I also use two GoPros mounted on tripods, capturing front and side views simultaneously, but for mobile processes, such as kiln loading, the studio technician records me.

Moodle, a course-management system, is where I organize and share course content including handouts, YouTube videos, PowerPoint links, and URL links to local suppliers where students can purchase clay, tools, and equipment. Each pottery course has its own Moodle page and the layout is divided into modules such as Course Documents, Projects, Studio Procedures, etc.

Blackboard (Bb) Collaborate, a video-conferencing tool, is the main source of communication between me and my online students and as needed for web-assisted students. Bb Collaborate sessions are used to evaluate student progress and are listed in project modules. In order for pottery curriculum majors in all classes and invited guests to partake, I email an invitation link. Students can use their smartphones if they don’t have a computer. I use a tripod-mounted web camera with a USB-port cable plugged into my laptop for live demonstrations.

My college’s IT department is an invaluable source of expertise. For example, they recommended ShotCut, an open-source video editor, which I use to slice, fade, speed up, and add audio. My demonstrations are edited to 15-minute segments. I created a private YouTube channel to store demonstrations and PowerPoint presentations, which allows students to review lessons as often as needed.

YouTube will generate automatic closed captions within 24 hours of uploading, in order to be ADA compliant. Other standards one must follow for web accessibility include adding alt text (alternative text) and descriptors to images so visually-impaired students using screen readers will have textual access to an on-page image. When scanning a document, you run the risk of it becoming an image, unless your scanner has OCR (Optical Character Recognition) capability. If your document converts to an image, consult your college’s Office of Disability Services to seek assistance on how these images can be transformed into a readable format before sharing with students. Always use an accessibility checker before saving as a PDF.

8 Long wears the camera with a GoPro head strap so demonstrations are recorded from her perspective, including when wedging clay.

CM: Do you cover the same techniques as with in-person classes?

CL: Videos and PowerPoint presentations are available for both web-assisted and online course sections. I employ the same techniques and manner in videos as I do in the classroom, giving clear, concise descriptions of what my hands are doing while offering tricks of the trade. I use both wheel-throwing and handbuilding techniques to demonstrate the same project, which can be exhausting but well worth the effort. I’ve observed a faster learning curve for seated students because studying technical concepts beforehand helps them better utilize their studio time. Students enrolled in purely online classes who don’t have access to a pottery wheel or kiln hand build their projects and schedule time to glaze and fire their work on campus.

Cultivating Creativity

CM: How do you cultivate creativity and community with students?

CL: There’s a common misconception that the best way to foster creativity is simply to get out of the way; however, I’ve found, especially with virtual learners, students will flounder without consistent contact with an instructor.

Cultivating creativity is a balancing act: how much structure versus freedom, when to step back and when to intervene; both are a matter of teaching style. My approach is to offer ongoing encouragement and individual help as needed. Weekly check-ins help students talk out ideas, ask questions, and build relationships, all of which foster a sense of community. I introduce historic and contemporary artists, techniques, and clay and glaze principles to give students a sense of what is possible. I am passionate about my craft and learn as much from my students as they learn from me. Overall, virtual learning has helped me transition from a traditional teacher role to a facilitator of learning.

the authors Kelly Clark is in her 35th year of teaching at Middlesex High School in Middlesex, New Jersey. At the University of the Arts she enjoyed her classes with Lizbeth Stewart as well as when Mary Jo Bole came to the Rhode Island School of Design one summer.

Courtney Long is an educator at Western Piedmont Community College located Morganton, North Carolina. She is the college’s lead ceramics instructor and professional crafts coordinator overseeing clay, wood, and sculpture curriculum programs.

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