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Reading, writing, and relief.

It really doesn't get any better than this in terms of integrating art and academic learning. Thanks to a generous grant from a family foundation, two retired art teachers from Washington Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, were brought back to facilitate a series of special projects, giving every child in the school a meaningful experience with clay.

Classroom Preparation

We asked each grade level team to decide on a part of the curriculum they wished to integrate with this project. Fourth-grade teachers chose a social studies unit on the continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia. Each student researched an animal of his or her choice, then wrote a report with information on habitat, anatomy, food and other interesting facts. Students also made a detailed drawing of the animal, labeling specific attributes. Finally, they drew a picture of the continent where the selected animal lives.

We thought it would be fun for these students to create a relief sculpture of their animal and cut out the background in the shape of the corresponding continent. Actually, we were a tiny bit skeptical about recreating the shapes of the continents but we provided maps to use as references. When you get right down to it, how do you draw Asia? In the end, however, the kids had no problem.

Artmaking with Clay

We scheduled two hour-long lessons with each class of fourth graders. During the first class, we started out by discussing the properties of clay. Then we demonstrated how to roll out a slab, draw a contour of an animal, and build up a relief image. "Drawing" in clay is exciting. You can feel it as well as see it. It is easy to erase with a finger and it involves manipulating pin tools, which are shiny and sharp. It is also an excellent way to teach contour drawing because any inside lines will be covered up once you start to build up the relief.

Building up the animal images allowed the children to explore the use of a variety of interesting tools to create textures and patterns. Once the animals were in relief, students cut the flat backgrounds in the shape of the various continents. At this time, we encouraged them to add details to their animals as well. Because students had already spent time drawing both animals and continents, they were quite comfortable and confident working. Since clay was a new material for them, they were also quite engrossed.

Glazing the Clay Reliefs

Before the second class, we dried and fired the sculptures in the school kiln. The second class began with a discussion of kilns and glazes. We demonstrated how to apply glazes on bisque ware and talked about how the colors change when heated. Each table had a choice of six basic underglazes including shades of green, brown, yellow, pink and black. Students were encouraged to use their imaginations in selecting colors for their animals and backgrounds. They also had to trust us when we asked them, in the final step of the project, to cover their glazed pieces with a thick coat of pink gloss (a glaze that fires clear). We promised them it would not turn everything pink but only end up clear and shiny. They believed us, and the results were spectacular!

Enthusiastic Conclusions

One student summed it up when she announced, "I looked at my clay and loved it!" One of the homeroom teachers was so intrigued by the project that she gave up her breaks to accompany her class, and she created a beautiful blue hippo. Another teacher was so taken with her students' enthusiasm that she extended the project even further and had each child write a creative story from the point of view of the animal they chose.

We considered "Clay Days" at Washington School a big success and an excellent model for integrated instruction. In addition to the fourth-grade continent project, we facilitated work at every grade level. Other projects included three-dimensional woodland habitats, Native American coil pots, and African masks. The scope of the project did entail considerable communication with teachers. In addition to preparing the students, they had to review and adjust the scheduling as necessary, but they were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to extend and enhance a unit of instruction. We provided the clay and the expertise. Together we represented over forty years of art teaching experience.

We communicated with parents by writing a brief explanation of each project, which went home with the finished piece. As with most good teaching experiences, we learned a lot, too. I had no idea that sea otters eat lying on their backs or that there are fourteen ways to classify a wolf, or that a male tiger and female lion can produce a tigon!


Students identify connections between the visual arts and other disciplines in the curriculum.


Comparing the Continents, xpeditions/lessons/01/g35/tgcontinents.html

Inez Okrent and Gail Galloway are retired art teachers who worked with students at Washington Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois.
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Title Annotation:Elementary Studio Lesson
Author:Galloway, Gail
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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