ming pottery and teachable moments

every year at sas we have a week dedicated to celebrating our host country, china. the chinese teachers organize performances, our fifth graders take a three day trip with hands-on chinese cultural experiences and the art room makes chinese-themed art!

it’s my first year so my favorite teaching partner, (who’s been out on medical leave after surgery) sent over ideas for projects she’s tried and loves. usually we sit and talk about the process but because she’s out, i simply looked over the images and jumped right in.

i was most excited for the 4th grade project, Ming Dynasty ceramic pots. the project was simple: draw an outline of a ceramic pot, color it in with a variety of blue oil pastels, paint a layer of white paint on top, dry, use a scratch stick to etch designs into the pot.


i loved how easy it would be to do these and anticipated fantastic results.

so we got our papers ready talked about symmetry as we drew our pots (math integration; yay!), the kids all painted over top of their oil pastels with white acrylic paint and then the next day we began to scratch.

hello chaos!

some kids found success but as some kids started scratching, thick layers of acrylic paint peeled right off the oil pastel background making it almost impossible to create neat, precise lines.


frustration levels rose. disappointment clouded the room, slowly giving way to apathy. this is an art teachers worst nightmare. watching dozens of projects haphazardly attacked with scratch sticks. the moment kids decided their projects were beyond saving they totally gave up.

the horror.

enter: teachable moment.

i stopped the (obviously apathetic/frustrated) class and brought them together. we talked about why it’s important to pay just as much attention to the lessons that don’t work out as the one’s that do. as a class, we talked about why the lesson was a bust: the kind of paint we used might not be the best for this task, the paint was layered on too thickly and should be much thinner. then discussed possible solutions: remove all the paint then use white oil pastel, draw designs on top of the acrylic paint with markers, start over.

after our discussion it was really quite incredible to watch the kids go back and attack the problem instead of their papers.IMG_3046 i could feel the empowerment surging through the room. three of my girls even stayed in during recess to fix what had previously seemed unfixable.

the results were less than amazing but i know we’ll never forget the bigger lesson.

teaching art can be hard because the product is so visual that it’s really easy to get caught up in the aesthetic. there are times that i’ve considered certain projects a “success” because they look pretty but after reflection, realized the kids didn’t really learn a whole lot.

watching kids fail is tough especially because, in some ways, it feels like a reflection of my teaching practices. no one likes to get things wrong. but as i grow as both an artist and teacher, i often find that it’s the times in which something goes horribly wrong that i learn and grow the most.

being able to take the time to have this discussion with my students was an incredibly powerful moment for all of us. we took a few deep breaths, did some reflection, and embraced failure as another type of lesson.




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