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  • Stacey Bowers

Melting Pot: Little Rock Educator Teaches Science, History Through Pottery

“Awesome feet!”

Middle school art educator Jordan Wolf compliments a students on the little clay “feet” she’s added to the bottom of her pinch pot, a type of accessible hand-built pottery that’s a perfect jumping-off point for working with clay.

“This is the first time most of these students have worked with clay, so we’re spending a lot of time learning how to use our hands. Students have spent several classes just practicing pinch pots and rolling coils,” Wolf says. “I try to remind students to focus on the process rather than the end product, and I remind them daily that things don’t always end up how they were originally planned.”

Wolf says, since Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School, where she teaches, is an arts and science magnet, many of her students are highly motivated in the art room. Mann Magnet is also a Title I school, meaning the majority of wolf’s students come from low-income households.

“Because of this, most of the art materials in my classroom are entirely funded by the district, which provides $500 to each art teacher per school year,” she says. “Given that I teach at least 150 students per year, this budget only allows for classroom necessities such as markers, colored pencils, scissors, glue, paper, etc. By the end of the year, the materials bought with this money are either heavily used or completely gone.”

To break the cycle of restocking the same basic materials each year with no budget for new projects or supplies for more challenging lessons, Wolf looks to Thea’s Art Closet for help. Thea’s Art Closet, a program of the Thea Foundation in North Little Rock, Arkansas, provides art supplies and creative materials to underfunded classrooms and ambitious educators across the state. Art budgets are often on the chopping block when schools want to cut a budget, and teachers across Arkansas, more often than not, find themselves in situations similar to Wolf’s; and at schools like Wolf’s, where most of the students come from low-income households, relying on parents for funding is out of the question.

In October of 2017, Wolf uploaded to her project idea to bring hand-built pottery to her classroom. Thea Foundation, who partners with DonorsChoose to fund Arkansas-based arts projects, paid for half of her $978 request up front, and individual and corporate donors from across the country pitched in the other half. DonorsChoose bought and delivered fifty pounds of clay and dozens of underglazes directly to Wolf’s classroom a few weeks later.

As her students quietly and thoughtfully knead and roll out clay to build up their pinch pots, Wolf asks, “Does anyone want to remind the class where clay comes from?”

Several hands shoot up and a few answers are blurted out. In her Art Closet request, Wolf said, “students will start their journey in ceramic arts by learning about the physical qualities of clay. They will learn about where it comes from, what it is made out of… they will also learn about the physical changes that take place when it is heated.” Part of her desire for her students to work with clay is the many ways she can tie science into her lesson plan.

“Art offers a unique educational experience because it naturally encompasses all subjects,” she says. “I’ve heard a lot of students say things like, ‘I’m good at math, but not writing’, or ‘I love history, but not science.’ Art education allows students to make cross-curricular connections that help further their understanding of the world we live in. In this project students have not only learned hand-building techniques in clay, but also the historic and cultural contexts of functional and sculptural ceramics. They’ve learned what exactly clay is, where it comes from, and what happens when it’s heated in a kiln. They’ve also had opportunities to reflect on their processes and experiences in writing exercises. I hope at the end of this project the students have a well-rounded concept of clay and a ceramic artwork they are proud to claim as their own.”

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