Clay can be the best and worst thing to happen in an art room. It can be a magical and intense experience for both the students and the art teacher. Once students get over the messy aspect of clay, they are completely mesmerized by the tactile and time consuming process. The illusive kiln, the obsessive smoothing, the endless need to score and slip….
I LOVE teaching clay.
That being said, it can be stressful. The early morning kiln firings, breaking the news to a student that their artwork they spent a month on exploded in the kiln, the messy fingernails, the dusty footprints trailing from the art room into all areas of the school…
I still LOVE teaching clay.
I taught this slab lesson for the first time to fifth graders at the beginning of the year. My school district recently finished the process of purchasing a kiln for all art teachers in the district and shipped several boxes of clay along with it. I wanted to teach a hands on but approachable lesson to my wiggly 10-11 year olds. We had just finished the monochromatic landscape painting and I thought a “Tree of Life Textured Tile” would time in beautifully with the artists we had been studying.
Part One: SLAB ROLLING!
The day before students roll their slab we watch this video and discuss questions. Students are given their ziplock back and they label it with their name along with their cardboard or cardstock their slab will rest on. I only have my students for 40 minutes so organization the day before is KEY!
The next class period we rewatch the video and discuss key points or questions. Students suit up with their aprons and already have their personalized storage bags ready to go. Each student uses a small cut piece of canvas to cover some their table (newspaper works too!) and share a rolling pin with their table partner. #publicschoolbudget.
I highly recommend dividing the clay into manageable pieces the day before or morning before class. Did I do this? Nope. And it made the process take much longer than necessary.
As students return to their seats they immediately wedge and begin rolling their slabs. Remind students to wedge into a flat shape, not a sphere, and hold the clay in the air, not squishing it to the table. When it’s time to roll the slab make sure students use the canvas (or newspaper if that’s what you have) because it will stick to the table. Just ask one of my first period students. I also had students try to beat the clay with their fist. Not sure where they picked that up, but I constantly reminded students to “Roll, roll, roll, flip and turn!” I had the video on a loop while I made constant laps around my slab rollin’ ten year olds. At one point my heart rate was 130 bpm. Cardio zone. I didn’t know if I should be proud or concerned.
At the end of class MOST students should have an even slab that isn’t too thin. I said the thickness of a pancake, which is tricky because all pancakes are different. They get the idea. Students had the option to cut their slab into any shape they wanted. I had a lot of circles because there were round paint palettes already sitting on the table that they could trace. Squares and rectangles were a popular choice (probably because my sample in the video was a square) and there were some really fun free form, diamond and triangular slabs.
All extra clay was returned to me to be sprayed and stored for tomorrow…which was COIL BUILDING!
Part Two: COILS!
On the second class period we watched my tutorial until the 3 minute 30 second mark. This class period’s focus is on coils and I save the score, slip and blend technique for day three.
This part was so much fun. Students first practiced rolling an even coil with a piece of clay about the size of chicken nugget. Not a large McDonalds nugget, but closer to a Chic-fil-a nugget. My students intensely enjoyed this ad-lib nugget discussion. I walked around the room and gave thumbs up and suggestions to students as they work. A thumbs up was permission to go get another “nugget of clay” I had sitting out on the clay supply table. And yes, I learned my lesson. All nuggets were pre-cut and ready to go. (Shout out to my 6th grade Advanced Art class for making these for me the day before!)
We did NOT score and slip anything. Rolling coils is either second nature and students pick up the technique quickly, or it’s a source of stress for those that have a little more difficulty. By day two all students are pros. (Thanks, Play Doh!) I loved seeing students build up their confidence and start to braid and twist the clay.
Pro Tip: Make students use 100% of their nugget to shape a coil. Do not let them hand back any “used clay”. It will be dry, gross and you the teacher will be the one laboring through the recycling process. Students get no more than three nuggets (two is the usual) and they need to make a coil out of each piece. They lay however many coils they’ve created on top of their slab so that tomorrow they can….
Part Three: SCORE, SLIP & BLEND!
We start class by watching a minute or two of coil building as a review and then until the 6 minute and 30 second mark. I emphasize how important this step is. Once clay loses all of its moisture the pieces will no longer stick.
We spend a couple minutes drawing a basic tree design with their bamboo skewer. I thought this step would take longer, but a general trunk with several branches is all that is needed at first. Students score, slip and blend one branch while I walk around checking their work. I tell them they need to use enough slip that when they press the coil to the slab a little comes out like they are biting into an ice cream sandwich. (I really love food references.)
Students most often forgot to score BOTH the coil and the slab. The other reoccurring issue was them not pressing the coil down or blending the edges of the coil to the tile, which I called “the line of separation.” This was something I reviewed and re-demonstrated almost every day.
Two whole class periods were spent scoring, slipping and blending their coils. Most students made enough coils on the coil day, others had to get one more nugget of clay. I tell students they should have at least seven branches and most of these branches should have at least one sub-branch that extends to the edge of their tile.
I have students carve their name on the back of their tile and I come around with a needle tool and put two holes in the top of their tile so it can be displayed with wire. This also gives me the opportunity to check in with students and check their score, slip and blending. I have been known to dramatically remove coils that I can tell weren’t properly attached.
Part Four: TEXTURE
This is truly the most fun part. Students are already confident ceramicists at this point and have clean-up down to a science. Students watch the rest of my tutorial and start adding their texture and carved designs. My students have previously created a Zentangle artwork and are pros at adding designs. This part moves pretty quick. By the end of the first class period most students have filled up almost all of their sections. And then they are introduced to…obsessive smoothing and cleaning!
We use a sponge and their slip paint brush to smooth out the tree branches and edges. After the second day of texture, students leave their tile out of their bag with the bag draped over the slab. This will allow the clay to get leather hard without drying out to quickly. The next and final day is spent cleaning up textures with the bamboo skewer and using a DRY paint brush to dust off the “crispies”. I tell them there is not enough time in the day to perfectly clean your tile, but try to get as many stray pieces of clay as you can.
Students turn in their tiles along with their bags the day we do our assessment and rubric. I keep the bag over the tile until it is graded and then I load the kiln. I learned that loading the kiln when the tiles are leather hard helps make sure that they don’t break because they are waaaaaay less fragile than when they are bone dry. Just BE CERTAIN that they are bone dry before you press start on that kiln. They need to sit in there for at least 48 hours, or more depending on how dry out they were, the humidity, how thick the tiles are etc. I like to put my “troublesome pieces” together and in an easy to reach spot. If there is a really thick tile I want to be able to get my hands on it before the kiln heats up to 1900 degrees. The clay will create steam and explode everywhere if there is still moisture in it. If it’s cold to the touch, it ain’t ready. If you’re questioning if it’s cold, it’s cold. Wait a day.
Part Five: SURFACE DECORATION!
The options here are endless. Glazing, painting, colored pencils etc. I decided to try something new and do a watercolor and oil pastel resist technique. At first, I HATED IT. I thought the oil pastels looked really sloppy and felt wrong going over the awkward bisque ware. Then ahhhh, the magic of the watercolor. The contrasting colors behind the oil pastel really makes all the textures pop. This technique saved time, SO MUCH MONEY (why is glazing the most expensive and unpredictable technique ever?) and builds on skills my students have already learned. Try it, your students will literally gasp.
If you are looking for some great art history connections, check out my Tree of Life Lesson Plan. I used the same artists and discussion points with this clay unit.
Let me know if you try out this technique and how you changed it to work for your own art world!
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