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Adventures Of A New Wheel Teacher


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So, I have my first beginners wheel thrown pottery class for adults under my belt and it was a satisfying and wonderful experience. I'd like to share with you a tale of two students, neither of which had any clay experience.  One centered almost immediately and the rest of us watched in amazement.(student A)  One still couldn't even get close to centering after 3, three hour classes. (Student B ).

I started them out with cylinders. Student A just wanted to make bowls since they were easier, so I let her do her thing.  Student B continued to struggle with the basics and told me she came in during the week to practice.  Poor thing, she just seemed so hopeless.

At the last class, (6 Sat. mornings), student A had a bunch of failed bowls, and student B managed to produce a single, well formed, low cylinder for which the entire class stood up and clapped.  JOY!!!!

I must admit to a bit of guilt for not pushing A harder, but she seems happy, and I do advertise the class in the catalog as fun and relaxing....

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My first clay experience in college was during a 9 week Summer course. I could not center for 3 weeks, working 3-5 hrs every day, frustrating. Then I through everything out up to the 7th week as never pleased. We were required to throw 9" 3#  cylinders before we kept anything. I was able to throw these in 5th week, upping my schedule to 6 hrs a day. I kept everything the 7thweek and 2 days of 8th. Ended with 13 pieces.

 

How did this experience influence my teaching career would be a good question. 1 I required the same throwing requirements of my students. 2. Unlike my professor, I reviewed and hovered, correcting hand and body positions every day, especially in the beginning. 3. I did not pressure the students on grade, only requiring that they be throwing or preparing to throw(wedging) every working class period. 

 

I loved working with the kids, and had several over the years that bought their own wheels, some that did shows, and some that went on to colleges in either BA, BFA, or B in Art Ed. Most were pleased to come back and tell me that their first ceramics class was so easy, because they were already wheel savvy. I had told them, never to go into a class acting knowledgeable to the prof, to let them find out, and ask questions. That way if it never came up, no assumptions made. If it did come up, then they had topic for discussion.

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Much like Pres, it took me a while to get the hang of things. My college instructor was an adjunct, but a very knowledgable, skillful guy. He also taught at one of the local, public schools, so I feel he was more "grounded" than some of the permanent staff.

We were required to make a 9-10" cylinder before, we could keep anything. I barely met that requirement, but got it. I made two mugs and two bowls after that. They weren't too bad. One of my mugs was a bit thick, prompting my instructor to say, "Well, that's insulated!"

 

For my classes, I only have the students for nine weeks, where we are also working on hand building projects. I require them to make three projects on the wheel, including a trimmed foot. The first project I will give them a fair deal of help. The second, less help. The third project they get no help, unless they are working really large or complex. The students like the wheel overall. We do a final day critique, where they talk about their favorite project/ process. Many say they enjoy the wheel work, and wish they could have done more. But with twenty some students, four wheels and nine weeks, we can only do so much. There was apparently a more focused "Pottery" class years back, but with reduced staff, I can barely cover the classes I have now. I'm just grateful I can offer the classes I do.

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Hahaha,"Well, that's insulated!" :D My beginning ceramics instructor called the thick pieces "weapons," because if someone broke into your house, you could bean them over the head with it! :D

 

I've never formerly taught a class before, but I once looked after the beginning class in college. There were students that were so frustrated on the wheel--one of them started crying. I felt so bad, because I had been there only a few years before. Throwing did NOT come easily to me at all. Our instructor was awesome, but she had been throwing since she was eight years old, and was in early 50s, so she had no conception of what it was like to struggle at the wheel was like anymore--it was as natural to her as writing. I, however, had that memory still quite fresh in my mind, and I showed the beginners a few tricks I learned. They were all so grateful and said I gave better instruction than the teacher! ^_^

 

I told them that centering was like learning to drive a stick-shift for the first time. Centering is like first-gear, and that is ALWAYS the hardest part! For some, that dang clutch will give you a whiplash a hundred times before you get it right ; for others, it happens smoothly the first time. I was of the former group in the pottery department! Either way, once that stupid first-gear/centered clay happens, it's clear and sunny skies from there. The rest of the gears/rest of the throwing process are a cinch by comparison! I find it gave a lot of people encouragement. You should have seen the elation on that poor girl's face when she pulled her first success off the wheel... :)

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I believe that throwing on the wheel has very little to do with a priori knowledge. Like riding a bicycle for the first time you really don't have a whole lot of skills and knowledge to bring to the bike riding to help you learn it. You know how to balance from walking, but balance on two wheels, pedaling at the same time, and steering to keep from hitting something-tough. With the wheel there is nothing you have done before to help you understand how much pressure to apply to the clay to get it to center and move, how much wheel speed to keep it from flying apart, where to position your hands and hold them to get it to move up in a pull. So much more to it than even that, and all of it is new knowledge. Steeper learning curve than learning to program in C++!

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I have taught beginners wheel classes for almost twenty years.  One of my favorite things to tell students when they first start is that within the ten week course they may not master centering perfectly, but they will probably learn how to throw better off center.  It's meant as a joke, but I think there is some truth to it....

 

Happy New Year!

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some people have a very hard time with visually connecting what they see to what they feel.  i wonder if it would help to train small children to find themselves in their surroundings. simple exercises like sitting them down on the floor and placing objects of different sizes and shapes nearby.  closing their eyes and reaching out to find each one from a verbal description can be fun but also challenging to some.  it's a great game for really small kids but some never have that experience.

 

i remember trying to teach a young lady how to drive.  we went to a newly laid out subdivision where no houses had yet been built and practiced.  i finally had her put her right leg out as far as she could to try to have her visualize where the tire would be when she turned the wheel.  she finally got it and stopped steering down the middle of the road. (someone should have done that with my mother-in-law, maybe she would not have driven downtown from chicago's O'hare with the hood ornament centered over one of the freeway's white lines.) :wacko:

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  • 2 weeks later...

One of the best exercises for wheel students once they have had the basics is to blindfold them before they even start up the wheel.

Thanks Pres, truly love this idea and that is something I'll be trying myself tonight on the wheel. It is indeed about the feel of the clay on the wheel.  Any more of these great ideas and teaching strategies for the beginners from 5 years to adults, which is the age range I'll be teaching.

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Check the education archives for more information that is non specific. There are a lot of teachers here with VAST amounts of knowledge, collectively. There have been many strands dealing with different age groups of children to adults, project ideas, themes etc. You may even check out my blog for some project ideas.

 

 

best,

Pres

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My love affair with clay got off to a rocky start due a teacher who made a big deal about me being left handed.  He threw so many obstacles at me that I hand built for several years to avoid the wheel. I was convinced I would never learn to throw.  

 

Enter a skilled teacher who banished the obstacles and was patient and encouraging.  I learned to center with my eyes closed relying on feel and was soon centering like a champ!  Then the challenge was learning to pull a wall. Finally it came together and I am a POTTER! I now have a wheel and kiln at home and can work to my heart's content.

 

All pottery instructors are not good teachers. It really takes a special combination of skills to work with pottery students. 

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  • 8 months later...

With absolute beginners I find managing expectations is key. I often start with the Van Gough quote "all great things are done by a series of small things brought together." I explain there are a lot of elements that make a successful wheel thrown piece and gaining a small insight into one of them is a productive practice session. It's too easy to become driven to produce viable pieces early on.

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Guest JBaymore

My love affair with clay got off to a rocky start due a teacher who made a big deal about me being left handed.  

 

 

In my opinion, the more important hand in throwing in the Western rotation direction (counterclockwise) is the inside hand.  Make the inside well......... the outside will follow.  Left handers have great control of the inside hand.  Righties need to learn to use the other one ;) .  (FYI... a rightie that, after 45+ years of claywork, is now a bit ambi.)

 

best,

 

..................john

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I agree with John, one of the benefits I had when learning to throw is that my right hand had health issues where I couldn't use my muscles good, so I ended up using a really different method of throwing similar to Hsinchuen Lin. This lead me to using my inside hand doing a lot of the real work while the outside hand sort of supported the pulling. I used my left hand a lot more in my throwing than my right hand. It sort of just sits there to support my pushing from the inside. 

 

Also if you learn to use your left hand to clamp on the clay when you pull your walls, and your right to support you can pull walls a lot faster and easier IMO, than the right hand knuckle method which I have tried a lot recently and ended up going back to my clamp pull method. 

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