During my second year of teaching at a small-town high school in New Jersey, I met Shannon. She came to my classroom by way of a few other art courses, and at first we were a little cautious of each other. She was clearly talented in ceramics and meticulous about her craftsmanship – but we were both playing it safe. I assigned formulaic projects that had little room for failure and wouldn’t keep me around for too long after school – that was against union rules. She seemed to like making nice pots, and was pretty good at it. We could have cruised along like that for her whole junior year, comfortable in the crowded, converted home ec room, treading dust down the halls as we left the studio on time each day.
Then I assigned a daredevil project – to create a sculpture at least eighteen inches tall that depicted a favorite children’s book character. I thought that maybe I could connect the students to some fun childhood memories, and get them applying all of the construction methods they had learned so far. The students sketched designs for Dumbo the elephant, an adorable Velveteen Rabbit, a mermaid’s tail. Shannon produced a design for a Dr. Seuss bird that she claimed would be over three feet tall.
I pointed out that what she was proposing was taller than the height of our kiln. She said she would assemble it post-firing. I challenged her on making multiple construction pieces during the time that her classmates would make one. She told me she was motivated to do it. I challenged her on whether it would stand up, assembled. Rolling her eyes a little, she said she would figure it out, and that she would attach feathers to the finished product. Looking back, we might have caused a little scene, arguing respectfully in front of the class as other students began their work. I finally shrugged and she began constructing her piece.
I can’t remember whether it was two or three weeks later when she had completed the three-plus-foot-tall brightly-feathered bird. She constructed it using sand, dowel rods, epoxy, and a lot of our shared overtime. Didn’t it work out just about perfectly? It was a turning point for both of us.
Not long after that, another one of Shannon’s pieces was accepted to the National K12 Ceramics Exhibition. Not long after that, she was asking for advice in assembling her portfolio, clutching a presidential scholarship letter for a top art school, using Kickstarter to fund post-graduate travels to Japan, and just last week throwing blindfolded with her studio colleagues on the streets of Philadelphia. Now she comes in to my current classroom a few times a year to help us with Empty Bowls and gently rib my students to try harder.
I have a theory about Shannon and about other students like her whom I’ve met over the years. Shannon’s classmate Evan insisted that my graphic design projects were biased and asked for different framing of the work. Kevin fought every clay assignment I offered him until I eventually shrugged and decided to support him in whatever artistic direction he wanted to go. Corey would often flat-out tell me that he hated my samples and could do better (he could). I remember telling Ryan that there was no way he was going to build a vessel that was as tall as he was. What a sight we made carrying that piece in two sections down Market Street in Philadelphia as we took it to NCECA. His younger brother is currently trying to make a piece that is taller than him. Besides challenging me, often fiercely, what else these students have in common is that they have ended up pursuing exactly the artistic directions they wanted to follow.
So my theory is that being an artist – or maybe following any passionate direction – takes just the right amount of no. My students who have been the most successful with art are the ones who have pushed back at me. Maybe I challenged them that a process might not work, or assigned work that they knew they could do better or differently. I’ll admit that sometimes one or the other of us was just acting outright cantankerous (or the better moniker of ‘human’.) But these successful students were not sheep. They didn’t accept what I said at face value; they wanted to use their imagination and explore the problem for themselves. In so many of the long-term success stories, something along the scale from challenging questions to challenge outright seems to be a common thread.
The actual moments of these arguments can be gut-wrenching. I’ve studied enough adolescent psychology to know that pushing back against authority is part of how teenagers form their identity. I know that I often represent that authority figure when I teach, so here’s to the challenging conversations that support identity development. Still, it can feel risky to interact with a student on the precipice of conflict – especially when I am not in charge of the questions they are going ask or the directions in which they are going to push.
Frankly, it would be easier if it was all about clay. Clay has a clear-cut set of rules and processes. If I could presume that my students’ curiosity and drive was all towards clay, I know I could always steer things in the right direction, even if it sometimes meant letting them fail or win. But most of my students are not on Shannon’s road towards the world of ceramics. To presume that students will be passionate, curious, or imaginative about the subject matter I teach does them a disservice. It’s nice when it happens, but it’s not something I can presume. They are headed in different directions, and the medium I teach is just a framework for process, creativity, and follow-through.
What that means is that when the pushback happens, it’s often about something more than subject matter. If the ‘no’ is technical (“I’m going to construct something taller than the kiln”) – the challenge is to let my student figure out the answers. If the ‘no’ is conceptual (“I don’t like the direction of this project/article/assignment”) – the opportunity is to listen and explore alternatives. Not just clay skills – life skills.
“Imagination means, by definition, that you’re bringing something new into the world,” writes William Deresiewicz in Excellent Sheep. “It only feels impossible because nobody’s ever done it before – or at least, you never have.” Whether it’s in the ceramics studio, the design lab, or the newsroom, I’m learning to appreciate and even celebrate the imaginative no. When it happens, it can be an indicator that something either micro (clay, story structure) or macro (process, meaning, relevance) is starting to stick.
It isn’t always a spark – maybe it’s just a cantankerous or human interaction. But sometimes the ‘no’ also marks a situation when we are about to push past what we previously saw as impossible. It’s the sort of tense, exciting, potential-filled moment that I hope my students find often beyond the studio. As exhausting as it can be, I would take a hundred of these risky, challenging ‘no’s over a ‘yes, ma’am’ any day of my teaching career.