One of my students favorite lessons is ceramic gargoyles. One year I even had a fifth grade teacher ask if she could come in and make one of her own while her students were at art! I have seen these done as fully freestanding sculptures, but when I learned how to deliver this lesson it was sculpted as a high relief gargoyle tile, which is how I have continued to teach it over the years. Students are presented with information about gargoyles and grotesques in architecture. They are fascinated to learn that there is a Darth Vader gargoyle on the National Cathedral in Washington, DC that was designed by a child their age. Once we have reviewed gargoyles and grotesques from a variety of cultures and time periods, students develop multiple sketches that incorporate animal features, exaggerated facial expressions, and cultural references to create an original gargoyle design. Students usually sculpt their small gargoyle sculpture in one class period, then we glaze them using Crystaltex glazes to create glossy, mottled sculptures. I don’t have any photos of our finished gargoyles after they were glazed, but here are a few that show the gargoyles after bisque firing.
I thought it might be useful for you to see how I organize ceramics tools for my classroom. I have nine tables in my classroom and each table receives a ceramics toolbox and a small water dish. Each tool box is a Rubbermaid storage box (shoebox sized) that includes a variety of tools that are only used with clay.
I include needle tools, wooden clay tools, a variety of found objects that can be used for stamping patterns or textures, and forks. Plastic forks. These are by far the most useful tools I have found, and they were completely free. Whenever they get broken I get new ones from the cafeteria. When students sit down to work at their table I ask them to pull all of the forks out of their tool box and leave them in the water dish (which only contains about half an inch of water). The forks are used for scoring clay before joining. We don’t use slip at all. Students just score both pieces where they will be joined, press the two pieces together, then weld to join the pieces securely. The picture above is misleading, as I have since taken out the sponges. I think it encourages students to dip the sponge in the water and use it to try to smooth the clay, which nearly always results in a mud pie situation, which I prefer to avoid. Second most valuable tools in the box are the math pattern blocks which were donated to me by the occupational therapist in our school. They were going to be thrown away but they make the best texture stamps. I include tongue depressors- also donated, which I like to use for welding in tiny places too big for fingers, and empty thread spools, donated by my mom, which we use for pattern stamping. Even my water dishes were donated margarine tubs. Please note that all of these were FREE. The storage boxes cost 94 cents at Walmart.
All of the storage boxes are kept in on cabinet in my classroom, along with the water dishes that I use for clay. I do not have to set them up for each use, I just open the cabinet and set up the tables, and have a student volunteer return them to the cabinet when we are finished.
Another of my favorite ceramics lessons is done with my third graders. In third grade students learn about a variety of ancient civilizations in their social studies curriculum in general education, which is a perfect match with our grade level big idea-culture. We discuss examples of vessels from a variety of cultures including Chinese, Roman, Egyptian, and Native American. We discuss how each culture included vessels that were inspired by animals, and we explore what the meaning of those animals could have been to artisans during the time period in which the vessels were made. Next we work collaborate to brainstorm a list of animals that are culturally meaningful in our own lives including national, state, and local animals. Students are encouraged to find cultural connections to animals outside of simple personal preferences. Once students have come up with a list of personally meaningful animal idea, they sketch to plan for their sculpture. This is the first year when students are taught to score and weld to join two pieces of clay together securely, and they are very interested in the process of combining a pinch pot with animal body parts.
Students are encouraged to go home and investigate with their families to find even more potential animal ideas that might tell about their cultural heritage. Students are also working on animal adaptation research projects in science and are encouraged to select their own animal, which offers students the opportunity to learn even more about a personally meaningful animal.
Since I always have multiple grade levels and multiple stages of clay at ceramics time, I had to find a way to keep different classes work organized. When I moved into my fancy schmancy new art room, I was able to order a ceramics cart like this one which has made transporting and storing clay sculptures in progress much more manageable.
Even still, I usually have every single shelf of this cart full, plus the storage shelves in my kiln room, plus multiple trays or copy paper box lids of sculptures to be glazed or returned. In order to easily see which class of sculptures is which without picking sculptures up and flipping them over to find a class code, I made a set of class code tags that can be easily clipped to any shelf, box, or tray using a binder clip. I laminated a set that includes one tag for every class we have in our school, color coded by grade level of course, and I keep them in a bag clipped onto the side of the cart.
Inside the bag with the tags I also keep binder clips that are exactly the right size for the shelves. When it is time to store work on the rolling cart I clip the class code tag to the shelf and students know on exactly which shelf to store their unfinished sculptures.
After bisque firing I move the sculptures and tag to a tray that I can carry into my room, which leaves more room on the rolling cart for greenware. When sculptures have been glaze fired and are waiting to be returned to students I move the tag and sculptures onto a shelf in my kiln room until it is time for them to go home. This system keeps things organized and helps my art teacher colleague find her things if I have fired them while she was at her other school. Even if I had a sub and wanted to leave glazing for the day, all I would have to do is let them know which class code to look for.
One of our county-wide visual art assessments focuses on abstract ceramic sculpture, so I spend a lot of time trying to come up with engaging ceramics lessons that not only encourage personally meaningful idea development but also build skills in order to better prepare my students. Each year I try to build my students ceramics hand building skills and sculpture craftsmanship while engaging their creativity. One of my favorite sixth grade ceramic sculpture lessons is one that was originally developed by our visual arts office. After viewing a variety of art images that make connections between symbolic items and the human form, students are presented with the challenge to create a figurative ceramic sculpture that incorporates their personal interests. Students use a graphic organizer to brainstorm and sketch a variety of their own personal interests, then use these ideas to create an original design for a sculptural figure.
Approaching abstraction and juxtaposition through ceramic sculpture makes these complex ideas less intimidating, and students created expressive sculptural self portraits without the usual hangups of making it look realistic. Some students choose to go more realistic and others chose to go completely abstract, but this was left open for individual students to decide.
Each finished sculpture incorporated multiple ceramic hand building techniques combined to create an original solution to the art-making challenge. Students are presented with art exemplars and are expected to exhibit ceramic skills and good craftsmanship, but the ideas are their own and they are required to find a personally meaningful solution to the art making problem.
We’ve been covering ceramics with grades K-6th this past quarter, and as I am wrapping things up I thought it might be helpful to share some of the ways I make simultaneously teaching ceramics with many grades more manageable, as well as sharing some of my favorite ceramic art lessons. Each day for the next five days I will be sharing student ceramics work as well as a ceramics management tip. Here is the link for the first ceramics management tip:
First, I will start with an old favorite. Each year My second graders focus on the big idea of community. When we get to our ceramics unit, we imagine what it would be like to plan a zoo for our community that includes all of our favorite animals. Students brainstorm a list of possible animals with each student contributing at least one animal idea. Students are encouraged to branch out from the standards-elephant, giraffe, lion. By including a different idea from every student we include animals such as naked mole rat, electric eel, and even the occasional saber-toothed tiger. (An animatronic zoo exhibit perhaps?) Once students have brainstormed as a group, we discuss sculpture-in-the-round, and each child sketches their own idea for a model animal from multiple points of view an we practice modeling an animal using modeling clay.
The following week we sculpt our zoo animals with ceramic clay focusing on modeling the animal from one piece and adding the animals texture. Students glaze their animals, and we finish the zoo-themed artwork by creating a paper habitat for the animal sculptures. Students write titles for their exhibit and I select a variety of animal habitats to display in our library display case each year.
This is a lesson plan that has been developed and refined over the years. It started out as a ceramic alebrije lesson I received from our visual arts office when I first started teaching. It was revised during curriculum development a few years ago to connect to the idea of community zoos, and I combined these lessons with ideas I found on the SchoolArtsRoom blog. I worked to incorporate more idea development activities as well as to encourage students to think about a sculpture-in-the-round as a three-dimensional object before they even handled the clay.
Because students sketch at multiple points during the unit they are repeatedly asked to visualize their sculpture as a three-dimensional artwork. Discussing sculpture as a model for a larger community exhibit encourages students to think about an artist’s potential to influence their community. These animal sculptures are beloved by students and I am occasionally hard-pressed to find a student willing to leave their display their work in the showcase-they are so eager to take them home to their families!