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First Year Art Teacher and Need Help!

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I'm new and I'm also new to teaching. I teach middle school art and I've been holding off on working with clay because I've never worked with a kiln before. I've only done Raku firing and even then my professor was the one that handled it and she never really explained what type of clay we used. I was wondering if there are some resources or if y'all can help me out some? I literally know almost nothing about clay firing.

The clay I ordered for my students is Cinco Blanco. Here is the website of where I got it: http://www.armadilloclay.com/midfire-cone-5.html

I have a Sentry 2.0 Paragon High Fire Electric Kiln and one section of the coil is out - it's not hanging off, it looks tight but it's just poking out of its socket. Is that still safe to fire with the coil out?

Should I do like a practice run or something before I even start the kids on their project? They are going to be testing all next week and I figured I could use that week for drying so I can bisque fire by 5/19-5/20. 

I found a PDF on how to turn on the kiln and whatnot but I'm kinda terrified of doing this on my own (I'm the only art teacher). Are there videos that might be able to explain the process easily? I've tried looking but found few.

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Welcome intrepid middle school teacher! While I have not taught middle school art, I have taught middle school science. An excellent rule of thumb is always to do a trial run of equipment without students present, particularly where health and safety might be at issue. To me your kiln would certainly fall in this category. 

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Another good reason to fire when students arent present, is that most middle/high school ceramics programs have a lack of funding, which means a lack of proper safety setups. Ill just make the assumption that you dont have a good ventilation system installed, and without it you'd be doing damage to both yourself, and the students by firing while present. Firing overnight (with window/ door open) when no students are present eliminates one issue, but necessitates you to be present to make sure risk of fire is controlled (assuming you have a computer controlled kiln). An option is to run the kiln overnight through water smoking/burn off and into quartz inversion, and then let it finish during the day when you are present to make sure it shuts off. That's fine for bisque, but glaze firing, your glazes are going to be off gassing throughout the entire firing and, without proper ventilation, shouldnt have yourself or students hanging out nearby.

   Ive seen/discussed this similar issue numerous times.  A school will bring in a teacher who may/may not know how to operate a ceramics studio and expect them to run something which has usually been set up (on a budget mind you, oftentimes a pitiful one) by someone prior (who may or may not know a thing). You as the teacher are put into a bad position; if there is no experience, you're expected to learn a skill set which takes LOTS (i mean LOTS) of time, in a short period and operate a studio, or if you do have experience, maybe the studio is inadequate and you're forced to recommend the school spending thousands (sometimes more) to improve its situation and cease use until its done. Often these experiences happen a the beginning of your employment and create a very uneasy situation to begin with.

    I fully support the teaching of ceramics to youth (I learned in 7th grade, and full time professional  20 years later), but it needs to be done safely. Read up and learn about the dangers of ceramics (lots to read), and evaluate the studio situation, and before you start using the equipment, make sure you FULLY understand how to operate it. Whats worse? Not operating a ceramics course for a semester, year...., or damaging a piece of equip, yourself, the students, or the facilities? Dont rush into doing something because someone tells you (without knowing your comfort level or knowledge) that "you can do it, it's easy".

    My suggestion, find someone (knowledgeable, preferably a professional) who can come to your studio and work with you to learn about the tools and equip you have, and evaluate what you need to make it better/safer/easier to use. Approach the school to allot for a budget to pay this professional (tell them its cheaper than a case with OSHA), or if they wont, kiss ass, beg, barter and ply yourself to get the help you need.

   I was the head of  a university ceramics department which had horrendous safety measures installed (of course, had been that way for decades, so who cares....). I brought up the issue to head of department who told me that if we tried to push the budgeting through, likely the university would just shut the program down rather than fix it (cheaper, and their arts program wasnt the golden goose). OSHA wouldnt have approved any of the operations which were in place there, and I was forced with tough decision, wreck the department, or keep quiet. I chose not to be a part of the university (this, among other reasons) and left my recommendations with my boss.

    Point of my story, do everything you can to keep yourself, and your students safe. Take your time, learn before you do, and preach safety. If you cant operate the studio safely, then change what you teach. Use air dry clays and acrylic paints....

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texas teacher,  hitchmss is right about all that .   bet you have a nearby potter who could come in and advise you.   to find him/her, try contacting any art galleries or the local pottery supplier, craft show managers, etc.  judging the competence of that potter might be hard but see if the first thing mentioned is safety.  good luck.

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Welcome to the forum. . . 

Having been in a similar situation years ago where I went into a program with little in the way of equipment, and where even less was understood about safety, I would step slowly. All electric kilns need to be placed away from a wall  at least 12". Clear the area around the kiln and arrange things so that students will not wander into it. As to firing, if not ventilated, it may be fired later in the day, so long as red heat occurs toward the end of the classroom day. Then you can finish the firing with another 4 hrs for bisque in most cases. You may be able to talk the district into some funds for a kiln hood vent. Many are out there with flex hose, and a fan usually at the wall. It may be exited out a window with a modified window cover.

Your clay body as ordered for the first year should be OK, but I would recommend you asking the supplier for some sample clays to test out. I have found over the years that a clay good for throwing and sculpture or handbuilding is a good fit. To rough of a clay can turn some students off as the sandiness may hurt young hands.

When you do your budget for next year, you should have more of an understanding of what you need and how to order. At the same time, you may consider "repurposing" many common tools. Popsicle sticks and chopsticks work well sharpened as wooden ribs, wooden or bamboo kitchen tools may be cut up to make rounded ribs and knife edge ribs by using both bottom and handle cut apart and adapted. If your district has a shop teacher (wood) I would befriend them with the hope to have him create some hand made tools for you. . . or ask if you may use his tools someday after school. Scrounge, there are a lot of things out there to be used for ceramics. Have students make clay stamps, fire and save from year to year. Be innovative, and resourceful.

As to cleaning, your worst enemy in most times is the dust pan and broom. Wash tables off with sponge and water, have the floor mopped or do it yourself. dust brooms, and brooms push the dust into the air and it takes 24 hrs to settle, often with a light film everywhere. . . best to mop.

I have added a link here to a listing of a search result in the freebies section on firing a kiln. Hope that it alleviates some of you anx.  



Entering into clay with your students is a journey, with all sorts of roadblocks, but at the same time the experiences they will have along with the many other benefits are worth it.




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