Media & Techniques

Teaching Clay During Distance Learning (Ep. 151)

Distance learning is undoubtedly a challenge for every teacher, and most teachers are navigating how to teach their same lessons in a new way. But what does that look like when you want to teach clay? Today, Nic welcomes on Leah Schultz to discuss how she has handled distance learning, the things she has learned, and how she taught clay projects with every grade level during quarantine. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Today, we’re going to talk to Leah Schultz. She is a personal friend of mine, has been for a long time. And actually she is the current Elementary Art Educator of the Year for Minnesota. She was presented this last fall and I was able to actually stand up on stage and give her this award, present this award to her on behalf of Minnesota Art Educators. I was honored to have this opportunity and I stood up on stage and looked at the crowd with a big smile. And when my eyes connected with Leah, who was sitting in the front row, I just about burst into tears. And here’s the deal, I announced to the entire audience that I fell in love with Leah the minute that I met her. Yep. I announced to everybody how much I love Leah Schultz. We laugh about it now. I was choking up. She was choking up. We had a little ridiculous connection up there in front of all of Minnesota Art Educators. But it was true from the heart. And I am so happy to bring her on today to talk to you about Clay Week during distance learning. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Leah, I’m so excited to have you join me. I’ve been bugging you for a while about this. So we’re making it happen today. Leah, please introduce yourself to our listeners today.

Well, thank you for having me, Nicole. I am honored to be here. My name is Leah Schultz and I am an Art Teacher for kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school in Elk River, Minnesota. And I have been there for 16 years, about, I believe. Yeah.

Nic: Yeah. Okay. And we started about the same time. So I’m fortunate to know Leah for that whole extended time, because I don’t know if you guys have found this, but when you start with another individual at your place of work, I don’t know. It deepens the relationship a little bit right away.

Leah: Absolutely.

Nic: Do you agree? Yeah.

Leah: Absolutely. Yep. We bonded. Yep.

Nic: Yep. Yep. That’s true. Okay. So we just got done with doing distance learning in our district as the rest of the world did. But let’s talk about the approach that you took with your elementary students. Would you say that you have about 800? What do you have?

Leah: This past year, it was around 750. So close to eight. Yep.

Nic: Yep. Right around the same, we both have the same case load, but how did you work distance learning for your students?

Leah: So I chose to provide my grade levels with a weekly lesson. Some of the lessons actually extended over the week, so they were given their learning board for the week. And then within that, I had my art lessons in there. I wanted to try to not make it too overwhelming. I tried to add some familiar in the lessons that I was choosing, just so the kids, it would still feel like their normal routine or normal lessons that I would teach.

Nic: Okay. So I remember you saying something to me about, “I didn’t know what to do, so I did what felt familiar to me.”

Leah: Yeah.

Nic: Would you say … yeah. So your lessons were very true to what you do in your classroom as well, would you say that?

Leah: Absolutely. Yeah. At first it was hard to where to grab and what to grab onto and it was very overwhelming. So I just scrapped all of the new and just went with what I knew. So it would be familiar for me and for the kids and we both wouldn’t get too overwhelmed.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I think that was a really … that stuck with me because it was a really wise thing to say. It doesn’t matter what your style is or what you’re used to. If it’s something that’s comfortable to you and your students, as you mentioned, it’s going to work, it’s going to work the best for your situation. So you’re so clever.

Leah: Thank you. I think it worked. So, thank goodness.

Nic: Yes, thank goodness. Yes. Specifically in this distance learning, we met once a week with a bunch of art teachers from our district, but you started sharing about your Clay Week. That’s what I want you to really focus on here because I was, well, we were all super impressed with not only you taking on Clay Week in distance learning, but how you went about it. Because when I think about clay, I think about kiln, I think about the mess that it makes, I think about having that material of clay, but you did it differently. Let’s let’s hear about that.

Leah: Well, when we heard that we were not going to go back to school for the remainder of the year, right away I knew that meant my kids wouldn’t have clay, my students would not have clay. And that’s something that I put off to end of the school year, because it’s something that they look forward to and clay is exciting. It’s exciting for students. It’s fun. It does make a big old mess, but more than anything, it’s something they look forward to. And I didn’t want them to miss out on that. So right away, I started researching and thinking about how could we still do clay, but do it from home. So I Googled recipes. There is a lot of recipes out there and some have pretty wacky ingredients like lotion and Kool-Aid. I mean, there’s a lot out there.

So I tried a few recipes. I tried out some of those recipes and saw which ones worked. I tried to make ones that were simple, not a ton of ingredients. I looked at things like a gluten-free option, a non-cook option. So I tried to make it pretty inclusive and simple for my students. Because if it was too much, I would have lost my parents’ interest right away. I knew that maybe this would stretch them a little bit anyhow, when I said that we’re going to do clay from home. So I was trying to, again, simplify it a little bit.

So once I found those recipes and found the things that I was going to do, I put together some options for clay. So of course the homemade recipes were on there as well as I knew some of my families didn’t want to deal with making clay. So I gave them some links to buying air-dry clay, some links for doing Model Magic. And because really the experience is to make something three-dimensional, to make something sculptural. So if a family would rather make with Play-Doh and have it more of a temporary art and just do it for the experience, I was okay with that too.

So I rolled out all of those options a week before we actually started Clay Week. So they were given an email and in that email, it had all of the links, all of the recipes, so that if they chose to purchase ahead, to think ahead a little bit, then they could. And I did get quite a few emails from my families asking just questions on how much and that they were excited to give it a try, a little hesitation, but mostly excited to give it a go.

Nic: Right. Yeah. And I think what I saw from what you shared with us and what you shared with your families, you had a really good way of communicating those recipes and those options. Can you just describe what platform you were using to explain those needs and wants from your families?

Leah: Sure. I chose to use Google Slides. So I just had the links within Google slides. I had photos of each option and then included a link to the recipe that I found on Google or Pinterest, and then a link where to buy them either on Amazon or Target. Again, I tried to find things that parents would have used.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. And I think what was important in that explanation too, is that you first experimented and tried it yourself, which I think that’s important if you’re going to tell a family, “Oh, give this a shot.” You want to have some experience with it. I’m hearing you say, and I saw this on your document, just linking to the resources that you got the recipes from as well. So you were acknowledging that not all of these were yours, but you’ve tried them out. So, impressive. So let’s go back to how you were communicating with your families and your coworkers. We talked about the Google Doc, but how were you sharing what was happening in your classroom when it was virtual? How did you share with your community?

Leah: We shared our lessons in a few different ways in our district. So one was, we had distance learning boards for each grade level. The distant learning boards were email to parents, as well as put on Seesaw for kindergarten through second grade and Schoology through third through fifth grade. Within those I was able to share either the Google Slides or the video directions of the lessons. So, that’s how I delivered them to families.

Nic: Yeah. That makes sense. And so you found that was, well, I mean, this wasn’t your first lesson, you did this towards the end of distance learning, right?

Leah: Yes. And I thought that I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to do the clay, but I didn’t want to do it right away. I wanted to give families a chance to get accustomed to doing art from home and taking off little pieces at first. And then I didn’t want to do clay too late. Because as we know, when you get to the end of the school year, it’s harder to do something big. So I did it right in the middle to help keep them engaged for the end.

Nic: Yeah. I thought it was clever where you placed it in your … Oh, I think we had 12 weeks, 10 weeks of distance learning. Because, yeah, the bugs were already out on the use of technology. Right?

Leah: Right.

Nic: And you were able to bring in this extra engagement piece, which we all know anyone who has taught clay knows that that is very engaging. Yeah. Super, super great. So let’s talk about, well, first of all, you share on Instagram. And so the lesson plans that you did end up going with, they’re represented on your Instagram feed. And we’ll be sure to put that in the podcast notes and talk about that a little bit more with how you communicate it to your families. But can we go back and just talk about the specific lessons that you did with kindergarten through fifth grade?

Leah: Sure. Do you want me to talk about each lesson?

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. I think just a quick little conversation, just so we get a visual on our head and then we know where we can go to look at the actual pictures.

Leah: Sure. So some of the lesson ideas I have borrowed from some amazing art teachers out there. But again, I chose them because I thought they would be successful, that the students would be able to do them from home. So for kindergarteners, we made bird nests, and that’s a lesson that I found at Painted Paper. And it was just because kindergartners don’t have a ton of experience with clay. They use their homemade clay or air-dry clay to make the eggs for their bird’s nest. And what I found with kindergarten is they had a bit of leftover clay. So on Schoology and Seesaw, there was lots of extras where they were just playing, and experimenting and making their own thing, which was really great for them. So they made the bird’s nest and then they did play, which is perfect for kindergarten.

Nic: Yeah, that is.

Leah: First graders made a bug. And I first saw the bug on Art Room Glitter Fairy. She posted little first grade bugs. And because of everything that was going on in our country with the pandemic and kids are really lonely right now, I turned that bug into a bug hug. So I have a friend, Katie Shatusky, who wrote The Ladybug Hug. And it’s a really cute book about the importance of a hug. And so I read that book and then asked the kids who they thought needed a bug hug. So after they got done making their cute little bug and they got to choose between a bug, a ladybug, a bumblebee, a beetle, there was a few fireflies in there and butterflies. So I let them make their bug. But my favorite part about that was they shared with who they thought needed a hug.

And some of the answers that they had were really special. I heard, “My grandma needs a hug because I haven’t been able to see her in a really long time.” Or, “My dad needs a hug because he has to work every day.” Or, “My mom needs a hug because she’s really stressed out.” I mean they were of course very honest.

Nic: Yes. All moms are stressed out. You’re right.

Leah: Yeah. So it was really precious. That was a great addition. And because of Seesaw, you get to hear those voices and recordings and it was really good. Second graders I have made croc-o-gators for years.

Nic: Yes, yep, for years.

Leah: I think 16 years. And I actually didn’t make them one year. And those group of kids, even when they came back as seniors said, “We never got to make our clay croc-o-gator.” That was one of the things when we knew that we were doing distance learning, I’m like, “Oh no, my second graders aren’t going to get to make a croc-o-gator.” So they did make a clay croc-o-gator. And it’s just a really great lesson on talking about texture and creating tactile texture on their croc-o-gator. And then I had second graders name their croc-o-gators. So again, on Seesaw, they told me all about their croc-o-gator and one little girl used her extra clay and made little food dishes for their croc-o-gators. So, that was pretty fun.

Nic: Yeah. That is.

Leah: Third graders made a vase and I thought different ways to make their little vase or cup. I chose to actually use a glass or a plastic container like a jelly jar or about that size, and form the clay around it. And then they could use it to plant inside or use it for a pencil cup. And this was one lesson I was glad I practiced first. Because I did on my first attempt, I loved it, and it actually cracked quite a bit. So experimenting with that and trying it I found that the smaller containers work better, but again, the kids, the examples they did blew me away.

I mean some chose to make animals like I did. I had other kids that made a SpongeBob. One, she tried to make it look like her. Lots made them look like their puppies. So, that was the third grade one. Fourth grade, they tend to really like ocean life, fourth graders do, and relief sculpture is part of our curriculum to do something with a relief sculpture. So, that’s usually where I add in the clay relief sculpture. And so I had them create almost like a paperweight coral reef. And again, I gave some examples and then just let them take it from there. And the details and textures that they added to their coral reef was really, really great. I absolutely loved it.

Nic: Yeah. They were beautiful.

Leah: And then fifth grade, I am forgetting her name right now, but she is the famous dragon eye lesson sculptor on Instagram.

Right. I can’t think of it either, but we’ll put that in the links. We’ll find her.

Leah: Okay. She has a great step by step for how to make dragon eyes. And I knew that would be a lesson that I could catch my students, my fifth graders. I knew that would draw their attention. So that’s why I chose that one. And I actually had fifth graders that hadn’t created lessons for me before, during distance learning, for whatever reason, jump on to that dragon eye. And they made a dragon eye. So that was pretty powerful for me.

Nic: Yes. Wow.

Leah: I appreciate that lesson as well.

Nic: Yeah. And I think that’s what … Distance learning really was a time for all of us to share whatever we had and then borrow from each other. I think it was such a global professional learning network that we created during this time. So I love that you use lessons from your past, but also learn from other people. And then that bug hug is so, guys, this is why I had to bring Leah Schultz onto this. She has just such a big heart. And your lessons are always deeper than … just full hearted. They’re just so caring. You’re so caring.

Leah: Thanks.

Nic: Yeah. Let’s go into, talk about your Instagram account and your Facebook. How did you use that during distance learning?

Leah: So I use Instagram to celebrate the successes when the students were done with their projects. So I wanted to pull some examples and share with families, with friends and with the more global community, what we were doing and celebrate their success. I also, at the beginning of distance learning, posted a hashtag for them to tag any art that they were making.

Nic: Smart.

Leah: So I just wanted to try to see if what kids were making maybe without my instruction and if they use that hashtag. And I did have some kids, they made fishing lures, and then they would tag me with that hashtag. So it was just great to see what anybody was making. Even if it wasn’t for me. I was glad to see my students creating.

Nic: Well, it’s fun to see them inspiring you too, like, “Hey Ms. Schultz, I like this project and I could.” You get to know your kids.

Leah: Yeah. Absolutely.

Nic: Yep. So Leah, after talking about the lessons with clay and just distance learning, what are some of the final thoughts that you’d like to share with our listeners today?

Leah: Well, I encourage anybody, if you are hesitant to do clay or worried about the normal clay in your classroom, I strongly encourage you to look at clay a little bit different and try to do it from home and look at the different options. I think your students and families will definitely be delighted by the experience. I took my role as a distance learning art teacher as definitely a cheerleader. I felt like more than the art projects. I was there to encourage them to keep making and take chances. And they would show me pictures of their hands dirty. Because, that’s something that I say a lot. I say, “It’s okay, guys, that your hands are dirty. You are washable.” So they would show me their dirty hands. And I just think just keeping their hands busy is important for us right now.

Nic: Yeah. Thanks Leah.

Leah: Yes. Thank you.

Nic: Maybe at the time that you’re listening to this podcast about clay at home, you’re thinking, “Well, we’re not in distance learning anymore.” I hope that that’s the case when you listen to this. But here, think about this in a bigger way. This doesn’t have to be for distance learning. This can be an afterschool program. This can be an assignment to extend your clay lesson within your classroom. Maybe you create just a packet that has homemade clay options for your students to send home with them. There’s lots of different ways. Maybe you do a summer camp or a project that you need homemade clay, non-firing clay. These are all options that you could use in the same way that Leah just explained to us. Plus, she really gave us a ton of sweet ideas about what lessons to do, what age levels to do them with, how to share them with your families at home or how she did it.

And I just want to correct one thing. We were unable to figure out the name of her fifth grade project, or the creator of the fifth grade project, the dragon eyes. And that actually came from Katie Blanchard. She is on Instagram as shiningartstars. So we’ll tag her as well in the podcast links, but just want to give her credit. And I think that what Leah had to share was, we truly, during this time of distance learning, shared and shared and shared and used the resources that other people had shared in the past. And I think that is what our community, our art community is all about, is sharing the experiences with not only the students in your classroom, but beyond that to other teachers so that they can then teach students throughout the world. So keep on sharing. Leah, thank you so much for being on with us today.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.