Troubled youth and clay- Growing as a teacher

Funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.





It’s right there. That magic moment when the world shuts off and the mind becomes focused on the clay. The room goes silent. That’s when I know that we’ve created a safe space; safe enough to turn off the mental chatter and tap into a deeper layer of ourselves. For most of us it can be something of a feat to turn off the mind, but when we do, we find that what lies below the surface is unpredictable, skittish and muddled. It’s formless and difficult to talk about. It takes courage to spend time in the unknown. It takes courage to not know what will happen when you touch the clay. It takes a sense of wonder and the ability to let go of any preconceived notions on the part of student and the teacher.


Creativity often gives us physical evidence of a feeling or a process. Something that existed solely inside and was invisible has been released. It doesn’t matter what ‘it’ is or how well it has been executed, the reality is that what was previously inaccessible can now be observed. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to verbalize and some problems are simply too deep, too complex to be understood enough to articulate. This is why the arts play such a huge role in processing emotion. This is precisely why the arts are such an important part of our education and should not be dismissed.


Assessment is showing evidence of learning. How does one measure and value emotional work? Do we as a culture value this work? This is where my interests lie. I would love to measure how it felt when you pounded, squished, and mashed the clay. Did you giggle, erupt in tears or stare blankly in fear? I want to know if you felt release. I want to know if when you walked out of my classroom you felt better about yourself and perhaps are more willing to believe that you have value? I don’t really care if the vessel you made is straight or that you even made a vessel. I want you to understand that the piece you crushed and mangled and reformed is absolutely positively perfect in this very moment (just as you are) that this whole art (life) making experience has never been about creating a perfect ‘thing’ but rather perfecting the process of creating. It’s sounds trite, but it IS the journey not the destination and the only one truly capable of measuring the emotional shift is the individual. We may be able to observe the outward results, pride, joy, focus and one hopes that will spread into every other area of life.



The Glenn Stratton Learning Center (GSLC) is a school for behavioral children ages 8-18. The work we did together at the GSLC was spread over 2 months this winter. It was funded with a generous grant from the Maine Arts Commission. I spent the day once a week with small classes of 3-4 students for an hour at a time. The faculty participated and modeled the learning and exploring process. All were given a short description of a project with a demonstration, some vocabulary terms, and some photographs, magazines, books of ceramic artists. We covered some yogic breathing techniques and basic rules for success. We used clay from local sources and discussed the glacial-marine clay of Maine as well as scoring, slipping, sgraffito, carving, glazing and firing techniques. Mostly the students made whatever came to mind. I had no agenda other than exposing them to certain techniques, vocabulary and gave them free reign to talk about and create what they wanted. I find that loosening the expectations lets them find their own voice. Depending on the group, most students were self motivated and quite engaged with the materials. There were times when the conversations were charged and full of male bravado and other times when you could hear a pin drop. I saw it as my job to hold the space for as long as I could, allowing things go their natural course. When we wandered too far off we just started over. Trusting that each time we returned to the work that the road back became a little clearer and the emotional load got a little lighter. It’s my hope that these kids can continue to find methods of expression and safe spaces to express them. They do not have an easy road and far too many have suffered extreme abuses. Their behavior is a direct result of these abuses. They are learning to trust as well as learning to integrate back into the system. I was there long enough to know most of their stories, but not long enough to measure the deeper results.


An interesting thing occurred with this project and that was that all of my photographic evidence went missing. I’ve searched high and low and cannot find any of the hundreds of pictures that I snapped. I was devastated because HOW does one document one’s work without the camera? It’s such a big part of our culture. It occurs to me now that education is like that… hard to get a snap shot of what students are really learning. What I felt was the biggest fail and had to admit defeat about turns out to prove my biggest point. I must find solace in the fact that the project itself was important and successful and that the kids really benefited from spending some time with clay in a safe trusting environment. I have to come to my own conclusion that just because you can’t ‘prove’ that it happened doesn’t erase the experience or the value. I think this is important as we start to re-think education and revisit trusting our own instincts in the classroom. The most important part of teaching for me is the human connection and if those kids learn how to connect then that is no small feat and I can feel proud of the work we did. Thank you Maine Arts Commission. Thank you Glenn Stratton Learning Center. Thank you kids, for allowing me space to grow as a teacher.










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