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A model ceramics program.

Center Senior High School Kansas City, Missouri

The Center School District is small, independent and located within the boundaries of a major metropolitan city and is surrounded by four major urban and suburban districts. The student demographics of the Center School District reflect American public education: 66% white, 28% black, 3% Asian, 3% Hispanic and 3% Native American. With an enrollment of 722 students, the high school serves grade levels nine through twelve and is the only high school in the district of 2,800 students.

As one drives into the parking lot, there is nothing of architectural or aesthetic note that would differentiate this school from any other typical high school of its size and the average statistics of its student body. What is it, one might wonder, that has enabled Center High to receive the lion's share of national awards in ceramics at the National Scholastics Art Awards for each of the past four years? What are the factors that enable this mid-size secondary school to offer twelve semester-sections of ceramics instruction each year, in addition to substantial offerings in design, drawing and painting and jewelry? The purpose of this "Field Trip" was to determine the answers to these questions.

The Setting

Room 12 at Center Senior High School is a basement facility bustling with ceramics activity for six of the seven periods per day. Work tables, potter's wheels and storage fixtures are placed amid columns and corners in this windowless workplace. A sealed concrete floor allows for easy cleaning when the clay dust begins to accumulate. However, pre-mixed clay keeps dust to a minimum compared to an operation that relies on continuous pug mill operation. Last year, the ceramics program used over three and one-half tons of moist clay. Dust is also minimized through the use of commercial glazes, which reduces health hazards related to the use of chemicals. In addition to all of this concern for dust-free air, there are two large 36" "squirrel cage" exhaust units that provide a complete air interchange every two hours.

While no special emphasis is directed to wheel throwing, since handbuilding, slab, coil and various combinations of these processes are very evident in pottery produced in the program, ten electric potter's wheels and two kick wheels are placed in small groupings around the room. The only other pieces of pottery equipment that I noted were a large slab roller and an air compressor with regulator, for glaze application. Two heavy-duty sinks, several large fans and shelving and storage furniture complete the equipment found in the room itself. Mention should be made of an outdated, cafeteria-size refrigerator that keeps clay moist for working on or adding to wheel-thrown pieces.

At the rear of the room, behind a wall divider, are three high-fire kilns and a smaller kiln used for bisque firing. A clay extruder and shelving for everything from plaster bats to kiln furniture are crowded into this space, along with open wire racks for the temporary storage of unfinished pottery.

The Art Department Curriculum

When a semester approach to elective art courses was adopted in the early 70's, the art department decided to specialize and offer only programs that were taught in depth. The decision was made to teach a sequential program of design, drawing and painting, jewelry and metal arts, ceramics and fiber arts. The district also made a commitment to develop art studio labs to support that decision. Over the years, student interest in fiber art declined and eventually that offering was dropped. Interest in the remaining courses increased until a second level course was offered in each area. It is the district's art education philosophy that survey art courses are not offered beyond the eighth grade. The senior high art courses explore an art discipline in depth.

The Design I course is the pre-requisite for all other art offerings. The philosophy of the ceramics program continues the concepts taught in Design I, with an emphasis on understanding the relationship of surface decoration on a three-dimensional object. Sequential assignments are specific to the forms explored and the surface decoration applied. The aesthetic qualities of the form and its decoration are the primary focus of each assignment, not the free expression or exploration of the medium. For a student to comprehend the aesthetic qualities of the various specific projects undertaken, he or she must accept, initiate, and respond to art criticism. If a ninth through twelfth grade student approaches the clay medium without specific guidelines relating to the concepts of form and surface decoration, the Center Senior High art staff asserts firmly that the finished project will differ little from those created by sixth grade students on an elementary level. They base this on the belief that a common shortcoming in art education is to allow the student to base visual interpretations on his or her limited experiences and not those of the trained art educator.

The Ceramics Curriculum

The ceramics program at Center Senior High School has been offered since 1971. It began with an emphasis on high-fire stoneware hand-building and wheel-thrown projects. The students used studio-mixed cone 6 glazes and did not explore surface decoration. The only aesthetic decisions that students made on surface decoration was the choice of color when glazing. Ceramics instructor Tom Creamer explains the change in program direction: "In the early 1980's; I attended two Arrowmont summer workshops given by Margaret Ford that changed my philosophy of our secondary level ceramics program. Her use of commercial underglazes on low-fire white earthenware was the answer to the greatest fault of our ceramics program: the lack of imagery on projects. For the past eight years, we have utilized low fire white earthenware, underglazes, and commercially mixed clear glazes. With this approach, the students are able to produce ceramics projects from a white clay body and apply a controlled colored image that is based on concepts explored in Design I. This approach has also eliminated the use of dangerous raw chemicals. As art educators, we do not make the papers and paints used by our students, so why should we subject ourselves and our students to the dangers of mixing clay bodies and glazes. The health hazards in the art studios should be a concern of all art educators."

Students are usually expected to complete eleven projects during a semester. Sculpture is occasionally pursued as an independent project, but the emphasis in this program is on ceramic pottery. Each project is graded on two criteria: design and construction. The amount of clay needed to complete the assignments is provided without cost to the students but material fees are charged on a weight basis for oversize pieces and projects.

Art Staff

Center Senior High School's three person art staff shares common goals and has high expectations for its students. All three teachers, Tom Creamer, Doyle Pace and Corine Woods, have full art programs --five periods of art instruction each day--and their own artrooms. Creamer teaches a full program of ceramics, while Woods also teaches a ceramics class in addition to drawing and painting and design classes. Class sizes average eighteen students per session. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Tom Creamer serves as District Art Coordinator for the Center School District. Mr. Creamer has presented numerous programs at state and national art education conferences. Among other awards, he received the Outstanding Missouri Art Educator award in 1989.

As I was leaving the school, I stopped briefly in the school library to view an exhibit of recently fired student pottery. Complementing the ceramics display were several drawings of equally high quality. High expectations, well planned facilities, a sound educational philosophy and competent, dedicated teaching, have joined together to produce discernible evidence that high school students have the potential to create art that would be the envy of many professional potters. Everything was up-to date--and first rate--in Kansas City!


A typical lesson plan (this one is for a slab bowl) has the following components.


Construction of three-dimensional ceramic objects from two-dimensional shapes of clay.

OBJECTIVES (a sampling]


Develop and refine ideas for expression. Design and make objects for a specific function.

Surface Decoration

Use value contrasts to create interest. Utilize space around and within forms.

Research Concepts

Examine the concepts and historical context leading to various movements in art. Discuss and investigate current issues in the art world.

Social Context

Compare fad and fashion as they relate to design. Compare the values people place on different styles of the same type of object.


Describe the appropriateness of the use of media and technique works of art. Defend aesthetic value statements with objective criteria.



Slides, Books, Colored Photographic Prints, Historical Examples from the Burnap Collection of English Pottery, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.


Examples of works by local, regional and nationally known ceramic artists.


Sequenced techniques (illustrated on storyboards).


Utilize class critique for evaluation. Observe and analyze student progress during application of process.

Note: Ceramic works produced by Center High School students are featured in this month's Showcase.

Kent Anderson is Editor of SchoolArts.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:high school
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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