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Earth clay pendants.

When my school district bought a new kiln for my primary school artroom, I had no problem coming up with ideas for clay projects for my first and second graders. I had taught the handbuilt pottery class at the high school for eight years and simply geared down the basic methods of pinch, coil and slab to an elementary level of production. When it came to kindergarten, however, earth clay projects went by the wayside. Thirty minutes simply wasn't enough time to do a messy clay project with twenty-five five-year-olds.

After two years, however, I succumbed to the guilt. The kindergarten teachers wished their students could have an opportunity to do an earth clay project, too. Although I did teach the basic properties of clay through oil based clay, it just wasn't the same. There were no shiny glazes and the students couldn't take their treasures home. It was time to design a project just for them.

I was determined to keep the project simple. There was no point in trying to do something that every child couldn't succeed at easily. I remembered back to my ceramics class in college. We had to make textured tiles for each glaze we mixed. They were very simple--a small ball of clay pressed flat and then textured in various ways. The children could make a hole in the top of the tile, put some lacing through it and wear it as a necklace.

There it was, sweet and simple. Put a little glaze on 'em, they couldn't turn out too ugly. I had no idea how beautiful these simple little "texture tiles" would be. The free form shapes created by small, uninhibited hands wouldn't have been out of place in the most unique craft shops.

On the day that we made our necklaces, I gave the students a brief introduction to earth clay, a quick demonstration of how to roll their clay into a ball, flatten it and make designs in it and then watched as they worked. They were so intent on this new medium that "smelled like dirt," they hardly spoke for the next ten minutes. As they worked, I went around the room and put their name or initials and their teacher's initials on the back of the tiles with a thin nail. (I don't recommend letting the students write their own names on the clay--it's often difficult to read.)

The students used a large nail (a small straw works too) to make the hole in the tope of the necklace. I checked these holes to be sure they were big enough (clay shrinks when fired and holes that are too small are hard to thread the lacing through) and that they hadn't been placed too close to the top of the clay piece.

I used a thin spatula to remove the clay pieces which might have stuck to the tables. The pieces were placed on storage tables and left in my room to dry and be fired. The children had time to clean their tables, wash their hands, and begin work on an activity sheet before their thirty-minute class period was over. I was truly amazed and pleased that it had gone so smoothly.

I had previously made several clay "press" bowls the size of tin pie pans for firing clay heads. These were large enough to hold the clay pieces for one entire class. In this way, I was able to keep each class work separate, and yet fire several class' work at the same time. When the students returned the following week, their necklaces had been bisque fired and were ready for glazing. They were allowed to choose one color of glaze and apply it only to the front of their clay piece. After the final firing, the kindergarten teachers were kind enough to help put the lacing on their students' necklaces. They were finally completed and were all terrific!

The best part was returning the finished necklaces to their creators. Little faces beamed as they were placed around their necks. They were delighted with the way the glaze "had changed" since they first painted it on. As I watched many of them wear their necklaces day after day, I realized that the time I spent in preparation and firing was well worth my reward of precious smiles.

Pam Johnson is the art teacher at East Primary School, Waynesville, Missouri. Photos by Marilyn Adcock.
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Author:Johnson, Pam
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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