From time to time, I come across the question of how to run a class that has a single focus such as painting, printmaking, or ceramics following a TAB pedagogy. It seems as if people think it isn’t possible to be fully TAB because the students don’t have 100% choice of everything. I mean, the medium is already chosen for them.
Well, I think it is possible, and I have been running my ceramic classes that way for the past couple of years. It has evolved into the almost fully student-led class it is today, but there is always room for improvement.
As we know, TAB isn’t just about giving the students free reign over things. It’s about a way of thinking and about the process of going from conception through to end product and all the steps in between. So, since it isn’t about a product so to speak, that leaves room for lots of exploration, skill building, and concept growth.
I have three levels of ceramics…beginning, intermediate, and advanced. My program is small, so intermediate and advanced meet at the same time. I think that is better anyway. Our classes run for a full year. I start off my beginners with a bunch of “have to” projects. Yes, I know, not very TAB, but I think this lays the ground work for moving to full student driven work. We spend the first semester learning basic hand-building techniques: a slab box with rolled in texture, a carved pinchpot sphere, a carved tile, and a coil built vessel with some kind of additive texture. We also spend some time on the wheel. The students do have some choice aesthetically, but in the end, I have picked the project for them and I know the outcome.
Once we get passed that, we move to themes. I came up with a bunch of themes and put them on the class’ website. Under each theme, I asked some questions to help them begin thinking about how they could interpret the theme. From there, they can pick a theme that speaks to them and begin the creative process. They decide how to build. They decide size. They decide clay type (we have low-fire, mid-fire for the wheel, and porcelain). They also decide their time schedule. They work at their pace. No longer is the class all together in the same place working on the same thing. My intermediate and advanced classes work in the same way, but without the have-to projects at the beginning of the year. We do start together with the same theme–just to get back into the flow and shake off the summer, but after that, they can move into their own groove. If a student wants to repeat a theme, they can. If a students doesn’t like any of the themes, they can come up with their own. Once pieces are bisqued, they also get to choose surface treatments. Not all students like to glaze, so I have tried to show and display many other non-glaze treatments. This really gives a lot of variety to the pieces my students create.
Another great thing about keeping the class student-led is that it really allows for mistakes and taking risks. Students don’t have the looming deadline over them of a piece they may not even want to be doing. If a piece blows up in the kiln because I rushed it or it falls apart because they didn’t score/slip properly, the kids have been okay with that. They move on to the next thing and figure out what went wrong so they don’t do it again. If something they are building isn’t coming out right, they are more willing to fix it or take it apart and try again because they know their project isn’t being graded and that I am instead looking at their artistic process, habits, and growth.
As for assessment, I do follow the same thing I do for all of my classes. Each student has a blog and has to write about artistic behaviors every other week to let me know what they are doing and how they are progressing and thinking like artists. However, for the past 6 or so weeks, we have been playing with a combination blendspace and the blog.
As my class evolves, I am working on changing up the ceramic reader I have created to be more helpful to the students. I am also going to implement what I plan on calling “Technique Tuesday”. I have created a list of things I think the students should know how to do and what they are, such as press molds, sprigs, 2 part molds, different tools, glazing techniques, etc.
I really enjoy running my ceramic classes under the TAB pedagogy. My students have really began to flourish. I can see them applying the techniques they have learned. They are creating pieces that are important to them. It allows them to be always working and not waiting on classmates to finish in order to move on. It allows them to stop a project for a while and come back to it later. One of my intermediate students, Julia, is working on a willow tree. She has been all year. But, she also has worked on other pieces when she tires of it. She comes back to it with more interest each time. It is a fabulous piece. Another student, Frank, has been able to work in a more “make it up as I go” type fashion…which is where his work flourishes and becomes fabulous. Having “projects” wouldn’t work for him. A beginning student, Braeden, has completely blown me away this year because the TAB atmosphere has allowed him to follow his path. He has learned how to make his own clay, how to create his own wood ash glaze, and he is close to surpassing me on the wheel. If I made him to projects, he wouldn’t have realized that working in ceramics is what he wants to do with his life after high school.
I am writing about my experience, but I think this can be done in any single-medium class. It’s all about giving them the reins to drive what interests them. They will learn the process as they go along. It’s about learning through exploration. Because it is single-media, they really get to know the ins and outs; therefore, since so much time isn’t spent learning multiple mediums, they can really focus more on message, process, and content. Which, in my opinion, leads to higher quality work.