Teaching Ben to throw

On the day I returned to teaching ceramics after almost leaving the studio for good, Ben arrived after school, eager to learn to throw a pot. When he departed a few hours later with clay on his shoes, he left me with much to consider about my approach to teaching over the last year.

Ben had just finished his freshman year of college. His hair was longer than I’d ever seen it before, and he laughed as he told me that his mom tried to tie it into a ponytail when he’d first arrived home. The last I’d heard from Ben was in the middle of his finals, and just before my job interview across the country. Both of us pretended not to be nervous and exhausted as we exchanged pep talks over a shaky connection.

Today I showed him how to cut the clay, collect his tools, and power up a wheel, and I set up my own wheel next to him for the demo. Today he seemed relaxed and confident.

Every teacher should receive the sort of gift that Ben brought to me on his third day of summer break.

I never taught Ben in a high school class, but we taught each other while he worked as a newspaper editor during his junior and senior years. I could draw conclusions about his academic ability from his accolades– National Merit Scholar, distinguished honors, accepted to selective, big-name colleges. Sometimes I saw the stress of keeping those grades high when he would come to school with bags under his eyes. The occasional 3 a.m. email suggests it has been just as challenging in college.

Yet Ben would be the first to tell me that none of that really mattered so much. How he lives his life on a daily basis is more important.

Ben was, and remains, curious. Genuinely curious. You know this about him from your first conversation with him, when he will ask you questions that warm up with the basics, but quickly have you talking about your own family, motivations, and challenges. Ben wrote his college essay on all he learned from great radio hosts about how to engage others with interest and curiosity. Specifically, he wrote about the Tappet brothers. At 17, he pulled off a powerful and authentic connection between his own life and Car Talk. I don’t pretend to know much about the world of college admissions, but I do know that curiosity breeds curiosity– so if I’d read that essay in a stack of generic narratives about making the world a better place, this would be a kid I’d want to meet. This was a kid I’d been lucky to meet.

I think it was curiosity that drove Ben to the pottery wheel on his third day home for summer break. It was one thing he never learned to do in high school. There just wasn’t enough time during that high-achieving schedule– and with his summer research job starting in just a week, there’s not much time now, either. I was a little surprised, and a lot honored, that the studio was one of his first stops.

Spoiler alert for the next hour of instruction: Ben was a natural on the wheel. Within twenty minutes, he could center the clay repeatedly, not just by luck. Within 45 minutes, he’d thrown his first two bowls. He braced his hands tightly as I showed him the position, and he asked questions when my demonstration wasn’t clear. It usually takes my introductory level students at least two or three classes to throw their first wobbly bowls. Ben had three pots on his board after a just over an hour of coaching.

Every teacher should receive the sort of gift that Ben brought to me on his third day of summer break. We all should encounter at least one student each year whose interest and curiosity for what we teach is genuine. One student each year who is motivated by learning the content or process, rather than just making the grade. One student each year who seeks us out, because he or she appreciates the value in what we have to offer.

We would all like to believe that each school year ends with many lives improved for how we have spent our sixty-plus hour weeks. But one encounter that leaves us certain of this– that is a gift.

Throwing big on the last day of class

The bright sophomore who chose to learn pottery after his first year of college ended reminded me that I need to reconsider all of my students as bright, curious, engaged, and seeing the world a bit differently through our experiences together.

I’d been seeking a new job in part because I’ve had doubts lately about the value I offer to my students. The doubt crept in through many cracks in my approach to teaching. After facing the learning curve of a new online grading system each year, I spent less time trying to learn this year’s iteration. Rather than adapting to yet another new schedule, I didn’t change much about my pedagogy and instead just grumbled to anyone who would listen about less instructional time. Faced with buzzy challenges like “personalized” and “blended” and “mastery” learning, I started making assumptions about student motivation– namely, that with a lot of other classes which sell these approaches fluently, my students would be less motivated by what I had to teach. I was unsurprised when they didn’t want to spend hours outside of class time in the studio, or watch videos I posted for them online. I came to expect the same sort of apathy I’d been starting to feel.

Then there is the visible symbol. At the end of each school year, I push a cart into the hallway of ceramic work left behind by my students. So many pots left behind. Teachers descend like vultures on the ‘Free Pots’ cart, and the objects they select will spend at least a first chapter of the next six thousand years in loving homes. But the rest of the work is left behind for a teacher unsure what to do with all of it.

I can tell you a story about every single abandoned pot on that cart. This lopsided cylinder was the first one a student successfully cut off the wheel, and he sang along to Journey as he admired it on the table. The tiny white teapot with a handle made of string was patterned off a lacrosse ball, by a student-athlete who could not throw more than a pound or two throughout the semester after an injury. He seemed proud and happy when he was able to work with five pounds again by the end of the semester. When another creator finished that one quirky teapot with the sealed-up spout, he sighed loudly and announced he would never make a teapot again, but could he start making vases instead?

Free pots

The stories in each pot are precious to me, like snapshots that document highlights of a year. As I examine the pots left behind, I wonder what I could have done to make those highlights matter more to my students.

Yet after school on one of the last days of class, there was Ben, eager and excited to learn.

At the JEA spring 2017 convention in Seattle, Mr. Jack Kennedy, Executive Director of the Colorado Student Media Association, made a compelling case to do one thing really well. His argument circled around a defense of print in digital age, and it really deserves its own thoughtful commentary. Maybe I’ll get around to that soon, with summer offering some much-needed time to write and think.

But one line from Kennedy’s presentation has stuck on the tip of my tongue ever since he spoke the words:

“What if we thought of our audience as one bright sophomore at a time, seeing the world a bit differently?”

Did my exhaustion and frustration creep in because I’d lost track of that bright sophomore? Or maybe because I’d stopped looking for him?

What did I do this year to make those stories about each pot, each experience, each step along the way matter?

Where can I rediscover my own idealism and curiosity– traits I so admire in my newest pottery student?

How many times this year did I miss the sort of curiosity or engagement that I’d come to know in students like Ben?

What will happen if I re-invest in my teaching, and in my relationships with students?

I’m going to let Ben read this essay before I post it, and I’m fairly certain he will brush off any praise. He will tell me that his quick study on the wheel was just because he had my undivided attention, that he’s only done well academically because he works hard. He’s probably right on some of this. Trimming didn’t come quite so easily to him, and he still has his first round of glazing to finish.

Yet the reasons why I consider Ben to be unique, curious, hardworking, and wise have everything to do our mutual investment in what we have to offer each other. The bright sophomore who chose to learn pottery after his first year of college ended reminded me that I need to reconsider all of my students as bright, curious, engaged, and seeing the world a bit differently through our experiences together.

That reconsideration has everything to do with time and investment in my students. It has a little to do with shedding some cynicism, too. That’s a big shift at the end of a grueling year, but I think it’s a necessary one.

Ben’s first three bowls

Originally published at Teaching Craft.