Media & Techniques

The Magic of Clay, Part 2 (Ep. 125)

Ruthie and John Post are two amazing art teachers from Sedona, Arizona. Today, they are back for part 2 of their Everyday Art Room appearance. Listen as Nic guides a discussion with them on keeping projects safe in the kiln, logistics of working with clay in your classroom, and the benefits of teaching clay throughout the year. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Last week on Everyday Art Room, we had John and Ruthie Post speak to us about clay. This started quite a conversation in our comments with this podcast. So many that I inquired if John and Ruthie would be able to once again come join us on the podcast. Today we’re going to talk to the two again and they’re going to answer some of the questions that came out of our conversation from last week. If you didn’t get a chance to listen, please stop right now, go back and listen and then continue the conversation with what John and Ruthie have to share with us today. This is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

You guys, we had so much fun the last time that we were able to chat that I really am grateful that you’re able to come on one more time and just talk a little bit more of clay. First, could you please introduce yourself to our listeners today?

John: My name is John Post. I’m a retired art teacher. I taught K through six for around 20 years.

Ruthie: And I’m Ruthie Post and I taught art to elementary students for over 30 years. And now I’m a retired small business owner and I teach art to students through something called a Subscription Box.

Nic: And I could even see the air quotes when you said retired and that really goes for both of you guys.

Ruthie: I know I’m not any good at it, I’m not any good at it.

John: She failed the retirement.

Nic: Yes, both of you did. Yep. You’re still actively teaching, but just in a different way.

John: Yes.

Ruthie: Yeah.

Nic: Yeah. So last time that we talked, you guys gave us so many tips and tricks on clay and just answered a couple of questions, but we actually received a lot of additional questions with the clay. So I’m grateful that you guys are here to come in and chat with us again. So we’re going to call this rapid fire. I’m going to give you a question and if you could hit me up with some wisdom, that would be wonderful. So here’s the first question. Are you guys ready?

Ruthie: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

John: Go ahead.

Nic: I’m afraid of blowing things up in my kiln. What can we do?

John: The thing that our teachers can do to prevent this is that you have to have your work dry before it goes into the kiln. And the other thing that our teachers need to know is that steam forms at 212 degrees. And if a piece is going to blow up in the kiln, it’s going to blow up because the water inside the piece is trying to turn to steam at 212 and it pushes the clay apart. So it’s not an explosion like you’d see on TV. It’s more of a muffled pop and then the piece pops apart because the steam can’t get out of the clay quick enough. So there are some things that you can do as an art teacher to prevent this.

One of the things that I like to do is let things dry out for at least a week. If you’re going to make things that are thick, I would take a pencil and when the kids will turn the projects in, I would take the pencil and push it way up into the center of the clay mass because that pencil creates a hole that lets the steam escape.

The other thing you can do if you have a computerized kiln, some of them are coming with something called a preheat, which allows you to set a number of hours for your kiln to stay below 212 degrees. So most kilns will typically hold that preheat at about 180 degrees. And if you let it sit there for anywhere between two and eight hours, all that steam can be gone before you start to fire up towards their final bisque temperature. If you have them-

Nic: Yeah, I think…

John: Go ahead.

Nic: No, no. I’m thinking of my kiln. It just says hold. Is that what you’re referring to?

John: Yes, well, that’s a hold. And other times, if you don’t have that preheat button, you can set your own ramps. So what I’ll do on my kiln, because I have an older computer kiln, is I will set the first segment of the firing to go up to 180 degrees. So I’ll set a rate of say a hundred degrees an hour up to 180 and then I’ll hold it there at two hours for normal thickness work. For really thick work, I’ll increase that. So the larger it is, the longer I’ll keep that hold. So anywhere between two and eight hours. And when I do eight hours, that’s for something like as thick as a clay hippo.

Nic: Okay. And this is after it’s been sitting and drying for a period of time. Is that correct?

John: Right. Even when the piece feels dry to you, there still can be water trapped on the inside that needs to get out. So kids typically make sculptures, potters make hollow forms, pots, and so a potter’s going to try and keep their thickness of their walls way under half an inch. But a kid, they’re going to make something like a snowman that might have clay spheres on it that are an inch and a half thick.

So that takes a different type of drying to get that out.

Ruthie: Once you figure out the formula that you need for your environment and your clay and your projects, you’re not going to be blowing up things in the kiln.

John: Right. If you have a manual kiln, you can just turn the bottom switch on. Or if you have a dial, you can put that on low and leave the lid propped open for a few hours.

Ruthie: Just don’t be afraid. You’re going to figure it out.

John: And that does the same thing. But the key is you’ve got to stay below that 212 degrees for a little while to let the steam out. And so we all learn the same way. After you blow up a few things, you realize, “Boy, I better slow down more at the beginning.”

Nic: No, I think you’re right. I think you’re right. It’s like a rite of passage. You almost have to blow up a few before you don’t blow up anymore.

John: And little kids are super okay with remaking it.

Ruthie: Oh, because they get to play with clay again. To them, it’s fun.

John: I walked down the kiln room one time and my shirt got snagged on the doorknob and I dumped a whole tray of clay mice right on the floor and they broke to a billion little bits. And then I just looked at the kids and go, “I guess we have to remake them.” And they all shouted, “Yay.” They were cheering.

Nic: Love it.

John: Now, if I did that with adult work, they’d all gasp and probably freak out.

Nic: You are right.

John: But kids, they’re like, “Oh God, another clay day.”

Nic: Oh, that’s why we teach children. I love it. Okay. Here’s another question for you or concern. I’m afraid of parts breaking off. Do you hear that often?

John: Well, they’re going to break off and they break off for a couple of reasons. One is that the kids might not score slip and smooth them on enough, so-

Ruthie: They’re lazy.

John: Yeah, they’re lazy.

Ruthie: Oh, I did it. Don’t believe it.

John: They stick it and then it’s not stuck well enough. So one of the things you could do is I used to collect all the pieces that the kids made in a room. I would sit on a little stool and I’d have a cafeteria tray next to me and I would inspect their work when it came in. And so every now and then I might have to smooth over a little thing with my thumb if I saw that it wasn’t really well attached and I wouldn’t take it off and score slip and smooth, but I’d just smooth it out on there a little more.

Ruthie: But don’t fix too much because one of the best things you can do is have all the stuff fall off because that’s going to teach them the lesson that they didn’t score and slip.

John: And when you have a bunch of projects going every day, I would sometimes walk out of the kiln room holding a kid’s project where all the parts fell off and then I would just tell the class, “Hey, don’t be this kid who made at this yesterday. Look, he made this clay portrait and the ice fell off and he’s got no nose and his hair fell off. So now it looks like a golf ball on a tee and it doesn’t look like a little person anymore.” And so when you show them where they’ve gone wrong, then they can figure out how to correct it.

Ruthie: So just slow down at the beginning and go over the rules of scoring and slipping.

Nic: Yep. Yep. And let failures be a lesson as well is what I’m hearing from you.

John: They do get better at it, but the thing is if you only do it once a year, they’re not going to get better. But if you keep doing repeated projects over and over again, then they’ll get better at it because they have more experiences with it, and they’ll remember what they did the last time that didn’t work.

Nic: Right, right. You’re right. Okay, here’s a big one. And I hear this about all mediums, but especially clay, I don’t want to make a mess. What do you say about that?

Ruthie: Well, you get ready for a mess. Clay is messy and kids don’t mind the mess. I don’t know when you’re working in your arts studio, I always make it a complete mess. I mean it’s part of the creative process, but there are some things you can do to help you cut down on some of that mess. What I always would do in the classroom is I would just do my clay projects all day. So I had a pretty tight schedule. I’d have seven or eight classes a day and so I would just set up in the morning all my supplies I was going to need for the day, put it either on the student’s work area or my work area and I didn’t clean the room to the end of the day and that way I didn’t have to worry about having things set up and cleaned up each class period and that just seemed to work good for me. What about you, John?

John: I think the same way we would have clay weeks and then we would have painting weeks, but as long as I had one material out for the day, it made my life so much easier. And I see some teachers think that they have to take the clay and measure it out and cut it out and put it in little Ziploc bags and have it all prepped before the kids come there. And that’s not how I handed out clay supplies. With my students, what I did is I told them that they have to pretend that they’re coming down a cafeteria line. So I would open up a clay bag and I’d be at the end of the line and I told the kids that they needed their tray, which was their little piece of canvas. Then I told them that they needed their silverware, which was the various clay tools that day. And then they would come to me and I would give them a piece of meatloaf, which was the clay. And so with the little kids, they’re funny. I would hand them their clay and I’d say, “Enjoy your meatloaf.”

Ruthie: Now I didn’t have mine set up that way. I just had a hairy schedule, so it was just on the table. They came in, the table was messy, they left, the table was messy and I didn’t worry about it to the end of the day. And everybody just got used to it being that way. And then I’d just tell the custodian what day’s clay day and they’d just know that it’s not going to be easy.

John: And the thing is with kids is they like routine. So the very next time we did clay, if I didn’t say, “Here’s your meatloaf,” they’d say, “What’s the lunch today?” And you’ve got to say the same joke over and over again because every kid wants to hear, “Here’s your meatloaf.”

Ruthie: And then the cleaners, they’ll just surface in your classroom. There’s always somebody that cannot stay in the mess. So they’ll start wiping the tables down, organizing this and that. And I don’t know, I just try not to be stressed out about it and it all gets done in the end anyway.

John: And your room’s going to be a giant dust bowl for a week. But that’s just the nature of it. I mean I tried to keep the tables clean and the kids have to pick up any clay chunks that are on the floor. But that little fine layer of dust, if you could just confine it to a week, then it doesn’t seem like it’s too much of a pain.

Nic: Yep. Yep. I appreciate that. Especially hearing two different methods for the same question, so thank you for that.

Ruthie: Well, that’s just it. John and I are kind of the ying yang couple. I would have ideas and I’d share them with him just like we’re doing right now with your listeners. And then, “No, I’m not doing it that way.” And then you would just do it its own way. And so there is no clear path from A through Z on any type of teaching. You just take what works with you and you’ll figure it out. I just don’t want teachers to be afraid to do clay. I mean there’s so much anxiety tied to it and I’m like, “If you just knew how magical it is and you can teach so much.” I mean ancient artists from years past they always would work with this material. It’s a wonderful material.

Nic: Very classic.

John: And you’re not going to burn your school down using the kiln.

Nic: Probably not. No.

John: I mean I’ve seen kilns where things have melted on the inside of the kiln before, but the school doesn’t catch on fire. I think that the worst thing that I’ve ever seen is a kiln room that has paper all around the kiln because if any of that falls on the kiln, that could be a problem. But if your kiln is in a separate space and it’s away from the walls and you’re firing it, you’re not going to run into problems with ruining the school because you over fired some pottery. It happens. It’s not the end of the world.

Nic: Yep. And health and safety should be a part of every person’s school and with hope, at least, there’s some safety ensured as well. I know that we did have a situation in our school where a kiln, the ventilation was shut off by a door being shut per afterschool activity. And the sprinklers in the school ended up going off.

John: That’s too bad.

Nic: Yeah, it really was, actually. But nonetheless, there was a ton of learning that happened and our whole entire district took on new health and safety because of a learning lesson.

Ruthie: Well, God, I’m glad no one was hurt.

Nic: Yeah. No one was, no. Okay. Okay. So again, we digress. That’s what we do. That’s all right. Okay, here we go. How do you keep all your students’ work organized? This is a really good question because I’m wondering it too. Tell me your tips and tricks.

Ruthie: Well, I do have to give John credit for this one. He has a great tip.

John: What I did is I would make a little bisque stamp. I took a little rubber letter set that I got at one of the hobby stores.

Ruthie: Oh, I did buy it.

John: And I pushed some little class codes into a tile. So if you were in kindergarten and your teacher’s name was Robinson, your class code might be like KR. And so I stamped all these little rubber stamps into a clay tile. And then I let that dry out and then I pushed a little pea-sized lump of clay into there because I wanted these class codes to show up the right way. And I took that little pea-sized lump of clay out and I attached it to a little coil of clay. So what I made was a bisque stamp that I could push into the bottom of the kids’ sculptures that would be their class code.

And so at the end of our, I would sit up by the counter with a cafeteria tray and as each kid would bring up their sculpture, if they made something big, I’d poke a pencil hole in it, stamp it with the class code, and then I would say to that kid, “Tell me how to spell your name,” because we all have different spellings. And so then they would spell their name for me. And the reason I wrote it was so that I could read it when I was going to pass them out for glazing day. Because kids don’t really write that well in clay.

Nic: No they don’t.

Ruthie: And if you missed one name, you at least had the class code on it and they could go to the no-name pile.

John: Right. Sometimes that might happen. A kid might sneak one in at the very end, but usually when you’re collecting them it gives you a chance to inspect everything and then they all go on cafeteria trays and then they all go in the kiln room. Then when you load the kiln you load them as a group and I had these little bisque little triangle things that I saw in one of the catalogs there. They’re stilts, but I used them to separate one class from the other. So I’ve seen teachers who put a little clay class code stamp with a pile of little snowman in the kiln. Just some way to identify them when they come out. But all mine were stamped with the class code, so I just kept them as a group and then put them in clay boxes when they came out of the kiln.

Nic: Yeah. Okay. So using those clay boxes, those are nice and sturdy, absolutely. Okay. But when you are using clay, how do you store it so that it doesn’t dry out? I know that that’s a problem for a lot of people.

John: The trick that I used is as the kids are bringing their clay up, they’ve got two things of clay. Typically they’ve got their finished project and then they might have some extra clay. So I would just have them take their extra clay and throw it back in the clay bag. And then I would squirt that with a water bottle and I’d get it really wet and then I would just twist tie that bag. And then for the next class I’d start a new bag. And so during the day, sometime later I’d go back to that first bag and it would be soft enough to reuse.

And the reason that the clay would dry out is because it would be out in the air for an hour with the kids, and little kids sometimes tend to overwork the clay and make it dry and cracked. But by squirting it with the water, you give it a chance to kind of revive. And so I’d always be working from several clay bags on the counter instead of just one. And then just recently I learned a trick for bringing back clay that’s way too hard to use in your classroom. And that is, I take a couple of shop towels and I totally get them wet and I open the clay bag and I wrap the shop towels around the big hard pug of clay and let that sit for a day or two. And then almost by a miracle the clay is soft and ready to use again. And I didn’t use that trick when I was in the classroom because I didn’t know it then. But it’s a fantastic trick for those clay bags that you find in the cupboard that you can tell would be good to use, but they’re just a little too stiff.

Nic: Right. Yeah. Well, and that’s a good tip for many people who are just starting out that they’ll have for their entire career. So thanks for sharing that little nugget as well. Okay. I’m going to ask you one more thing before we are done chatting tonight. How do you finish your clay projects? What is your favorite ways to finish your clay project?

John: I like to finish mine with glazes and I would make my own glazes and I know that’s intimidating to a lot of people, but making a glaze is just a simple case of taking the same amount of water that you’re going to make with the same amount of dry glaze materials and mixing them together in some kind of bucket. I won’t get into that too much here, but the reason why I did that is because I had zero budget for my last five years of teaching. And so if I made my own glazes, then that made it affordable for me to glaze the kids project.

But one of my favorite things to do with kids sculptures was to just paint them with the tempera paints that are in the classroom. And then I used this material called Sachs pearlescent gel medium. so it’s from school specialty. And what I did with that pearlescent gel medium is that I mixed it 50/50 with water and at the end of my time I would just pour a full quarter of it into a little bucket and then refill the bottle with water and pour that into the bucket and stirred it all up. And I took a set of tongs and I would dip the kid’s sculptures into that after they had put the tempera paint on and the kids used to call it shiny stuff because it gives it this really nice plastic coating and so that was a great way to give the kids the control that they wanted with the paint and then that pearlescent medium made it seem very durable, like it seal then all the paint so it didn’t rub off on their hands.

Ruthie: Don’t forget mod podge. That’s great over paint too.

Nic: Yep. Good tip. Yeah. Actually I had one more question for you Ruthie. Do you have a suggestion on how much clay to order or have for a class?

Ruthie: Yes. You just need about a half a pound of clay. That’s more than enough to make a nice sized clay sculpture, so-

Nic: For a class size of like what are you imagining here?

Ruthie: Oh, okay. Well my classes were at least 25 students. So if you’ve got 1 25 pound bag of clay, it usually is enough clay for two classes. So if you just make that baseball in your hand, a lump of clay, about a half a pound of clay in your hand, you don’t have to pre-measure it out, you just measure the first one and then you know what size lump you need. And that’s a good size. And there’s always kids that take some off anyway and they like tiny stuff. They think it’s cute.

John: And another thing is if you have an idea, if you want kids to make a certain size project, it really helps to put out a sample size of what you want. So if we were making clay snowmen, I would put out a sample sphere for how big they needed to make that first base because sometimes kids will work so tiny that you can’t even write their name on the bottom of it. But I would tell them, “Okay, get out of your seat. Come on up. Compare your first sphere to this one and if it’s the right size, go back and make the other two spheres that are that size.” And you can do that for anything. If you’re making clay alligators, you can roll out a cylinder and say it needs to be this big.

Nic: About like this, yeah.

John: So just having a sample, a target for them to shoot for is really helpful.

Nic: Oh, you guys, once again, you wow me with all of your knowledge and I’m so grateful that you’re willing to share it with our listeners. Thank you so much.

Ruthie: Well, that’s what happens. That’s what happens after you teach 30 years. You finally master something.

Nic: Yup. Exactly. And then you go onto your second career.

Ruthie: Yes.

John: Yes.

Nic: And third and fourth.

Ruthie: But at least we don’t have the teacher evaluations now, so it’s good.

Nic: Oh, winner. You win.

Ruthie: We’ll just take all those compliments from you.

Nic: All right guys, thank you so much.

Now, if you don’t have a couple of good ideas from John and Ruthie from the last two podcasts about clay, I don’t know what else to give you. My goodness, these two have so much knowledge between the two of them. But I do have an outlet for you to get even more information. You might’ve recognized John’s voice from being on Art Ed Now, the biannual conference, online conference that the Art of Education University puts on. He has been featured multiple times on Art Ed Now and he even has a pro pack. So if you need more information about clay or you need to see what he’s talking about, be sure to jump on the Art of Education University’s website to find more about clay and specifically John Post presenting.

Ruthie Post on the other hand, she has a new clay endeavor as well. If your students are looking to work with clay outside of the school day, The Clay Box is where they need to go. is Ruthie Post’s website and she provides lesson plans and little kits for students to actually create with air-dry clay, which she talked a little bit about in the last two interviews as well. Those two have so much knowledge that they were able to share with us and continue sharing by visiting those two websites.

You guys, thank you so much for listening today. We will chat with you again next week.

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.