Last Tuesday I visited a local high school to talk to a clay class. The visit was part of YVCC's Speaker's Bureau. The Speaker's Bureau is essentially a group of faculty who are available to lecture to local schools or groups on topics in their area. There are lecture topics listed that the faculty have prepared already but faculty can also work with the school or teacher to create a lecture that works for them. Since I was speaking to a clay class, I did a shortened version of a lecture on my work and I also did a project with the students.
The visit to the school was an unusual experience, very different from my regular classes. I was surprised by the facilities, I suppose I've grown accustomed to pretty good equipment at YVCC, despite the fact that the art rooms lack some of the features I see in other classrooms on campus and also lack studio features I was accustomed to in previous college studios.
Davis, the school itself, is in pretty bad shape. I was a little bit surprised by how much the building itself colored the atmosphere in the studio classroom. The art classroom is at the top of a three-story building with exterior stairs and hallways. When I arrived, a bit early for my visit, the classroom door was propped open with a bit of wood in the doorway and the class was loudly milling around the door.
This was a young group. I didn't see what they were working on since they seemed to have put stuff away by then time I arrived. Shortly after I came in, classes changed. The classroom had about 8 four-person work tables, 8 pottery wheels, a metal-smithing hood in the center of the room and a small glass fusing kiln.
Because I normally show images using Powerpoint on a computer with projector, I asked for these things. They were able to get a projector but didn't already have one in the classroom. They had a screen to pull down at one side of the classroom but the projector cart was dusty enough to show that it wasn't frequently used. It was lucky that the instructor who invited me communicated with me through several e-mails about the equipment because I would have expected a projector in the classroom, though I did ask about it to confirm. What I didn't think to ask about was whether I would be expected to bring my own computer. I did. And of course there was no cable to hook my Mac to the projector, so I had to bring that as well. They had one somewhere but it wasn't in the room or on the cart. I was also told I wouldn't be able to go online in the classroom since websites have to be pre-approved. (Yeah for college! Today I lectured to my Design class about having someone view their logos or posters with a critical eye to avoid images that can be misinterpreted. I showed them this site which might be banned in a HS.)
But the main feature of the classroom, as far as I am concerned, was the vent underneath the screen. The vent was blowing when I arrived. When it finally shut off, I realized it was responsible for about 50% of the noise in the classroom. I mean, it was loud! My voice was a little hoarse, but I don't think I could have talked over that vent all day anyway. The students seemed to have trouble listening to a full set of directions, but I've gotta say, I think the vent was partly (or mostly) to blame.
The vent blew for most of my lecture and shut off just as I began the demonstration. Another vent (I don't know where it was) started partway through the project and continued until I left. Because of the space on the projector cart, the projector was above my head and my laptop was below and facing the screen. So I stood facing the aisle between the students' tables, but with a very large cart in front of me, obstructing my view of several students. The projector blew hot air directly at my face for the duration of the lecture. I was relieved I had decided to cut out part of the lecture.
Now, to the credit of the school district, serious renovations are planned for this dump of a high school. They should begin construction in a year. Until then the students can enjoy jet-engine decibel vents in the classrooms, portables (a real trend in Yakima K-12 educational facilities), and exterior walkways and stairs that would frighten me in winter.
The limited equipment in the studio meant that students in this clay class were sharing 4 wheels. Before my visit the instructor informed me that each student had at least 1/2 an hour on the wheel this semester. By contrast, my beginning pottery students have at least 2 hours on the wheel by the end of their first class.
As you might imagine from my description of the facilities, the demonstration didn't go as smoothly as I might have liked. I may be selfish, but I don't think I can entirely blame it on me having a bad day. I have done this demonstration before. It is a tricky project but I was optimistic that we'd have 75% success. In a class of about 25 or 30, we had 2 successful whistles.
I have actually made whistles with little kids before and the kids were able to get the whistles to work. The trick with little kids is to take the whistle away as soon as it does work because they will keep blowing on it until it is soggy. I didn't have this problem with the teenagers. One problem I did have that I didn't anticipate was that the students wouldn't put their mouths close enough to the clay to test the whistle because they didn't want to get dirty.
The other thing I should do differently in the future is find a bigger set of appropriate tools. I have one nice hole maker for the mouthpiece. It is a random plastic tool that is flat and stiff and a little wider than the modeling sets at Michael's. I don't know where it came from but it works much better than the tools they had. I also didn't expect they would be sharing fettling knives but this wasn't a major problem.
One way that the project could have had a higher success rate was if I cut the holes. The teacher told me that she attended a workshop once where the person did just that. But how will they learn? I think it is more interesting to get them to understand the concept, the reason the clay makes a whistling sound. I brought several whistles of different sizes and I also brought a diagram illustrating the side view of a whistle.
I was very surprised by how hard it was for some of the students to understand the concept of what we were trying to do. Basically, a whistle needs a contained space and an opening with a sharp edge. It needs a mouthpiece that directs the air at the sharp edge. The air splits so that half of it is directed into the contained space and half of it goes out of the whistle. Though there is probably a technical term, this "split" in the air causes the whistling sound. The sound can be further adjusted by the size of the contained space or opening and the number of holes into the container (which can be covered or not to make a multi-note whistle).
It appeared, not surprisingly, that the students who had the most trouble understanding the concept were farthest back from me or were having other conversations during my explanations. However, one student still didn't understand how the angle she was cutting was different from what I instructed, even after I came over with my example and my diagram illustration.
Basically, giving the lecture was like talking to a semi-distracted lecture class, but giving the demo was a new thing altogether. I felt like everything I said needed to be repeated half a dozen times and still the students weren't quite with me. By the end it was hard to tell if it was too noisy or they weren't listening or if my vocabulary was different from theirs.
I left verbal instructions for the instructor explaining that the holes might be easier to cut when the clay is a little drier. Students who had reworked the openings several times were better off starting over again. Hopefully she had more success with their whistles another day.