Woodworking and ceramics adapt to virtual contexts

Mr. Raeder in his art studio – Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

Since the pandemic began last spring, woodworking and ceramics, two art classes focused on building large art pieces, have faced the challenge of giving students the same type of hands-on experience during virtual school. The two classes have refined their approach to virtual learning since the pandemic began, allowing students to obtain a high-quality virtual experience. This high level in these two classes is the result of teachers’ hard work and preparation.

     “Last year when we were kind of thrown into [the pandemic] very quickly, it was a struggle in the spring because we weren’t prepared with materials or anything to send kids home with,” woodworking teacher Ms. Jill Sides said. “So I spent the majority of the summer figuring out the best way we can still offer the woodworking students that same experience they were expecting while they were in the shop.”

     Upper-level ceramics students were able to bring pottery wheels to their home, and they had access to them over winter break. 

     “We set up a system where [students] would get clay from me, bring back their scrap clay, and drop off any kind of finished work to get fired,” ceramics teacher Mr. Jacob Raeder said. 

     Woodworking classes also took home tools, including vises, glue, saws, chisels, carving tools, and pieces of wood. 

      “We were able to teach the same techniques,” Ms. Sides said. “Granted, the scale on which they were working became a little smaller, but they were still able to learn the same techniques we would learn in school.”

     The students had to effectively create a “workshop” in their house where they would make their pieces. Creating this workshop in students’ homes was difficult, requiring cooperation from parents.

     “We have to have parents involved, just to say really, like, ‘Your kids are going to make a mess; there’s gonna be woodchips everywhere.’ Or, ‘Do you have a surface that they can clamp a vise onto?’’ 

“When they were working at home, when they were by themselves, I found that the students were way more focused. I thought the art that they were making, the quality of the art was actually a few notches better.”

Mr. Jacob Raeder

     Art teachers also found ways to let students use tools at school while they were at home. 

     “Right now we’re working in [Adobe] Illustrator with [the students] to design flat-pack furniture,” Ms. Sides said. “They’re able to work at home on their computers and design that. And then we can send it to the computer after school and run it and cut out their piece. Come Monday, if some of the students choose to be virtual, we can get them their pieces, and they can assemble their project at home, or if they do come back, they can do it in the classroom.”

     Since students have the tools to create art at home, they came up with high-quality work—a surprising positive of working from home. 

     “Guys can hold themselves back when they’re in a group. Maybe they’re embarrassed, maybe they have other things going on or are distracted,” Mr. Raeder said. “When they were working at home, when they were by themselves, I found that the students were way more focused. I thought the art that they were making, the quality of the art was actually a few notches better.”

     However, some parts of the woodworking and ceramics classes couldn’t be replicated at home. Teachers had to come up with alternatives.

     “One of the things that I learned from the spring was what materials students typically had readily accessible to them at their house,” Mr. Raeder said. “We can make art out of anything really. So, one of the things we were able to do was actually soap carving, because everybody has bars of soap at their home.”

Mr. Raeder shares soap sculptures students made during recent virtual weeks surrounding the holidays. – Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

     For the woodworking students, the main problem of going virtual was that they had to shift to more hand-held tools. Yet, this yielded a different, possibly more enjoyable experience.

     “[Using hand-held tools] was kind of hard at first, but once you got it, it was a lot more interesting than just using a mechanical saw,” Fourth Form woodworking student Jacob Sellari said. “You were really putting in a lot more work to your art, and it felt better at the end when you realized your final work just ’cause it was so much work and so much effort going into that one project.”

     Another challenge of virtual art class was the way that the teachers could interact with the students. With art classes like woodworking and ceramics, the way a student physically implements the techniques can significantly alter the outcome of the work. Art teachers had to figure out how to monitor this through a screen. 

      “[With virtual teaching], you really have to change and figure out the language you use to describe the activities of the hand,” Mr. Raeder said. “When we’re in person, an advantage is that I can scan the room, and I can almost immediately tell if you are doing something right or wrong just by the posture of your body. It’s a lot more difficult to kind of ascertain when it’s on the screen.”

     “I hope we never go virtual again,” Ms. Sides said. “I love being in there with the students, working with them, being able to touch the project that they’re working on, explain how to use things, and then seeing them do it in real time.” 

“The connection, while it’s still strong online, isn’t as rich or as deep as when we’re in person.”

Mr. Jacob raeder

     Mr. Raeder agreed, telling me about the field trips he had envisioned that are dependent on the pandemic. These include trips to clay mines and to see kilns with different types firing, including a kiln that fires with wood.

     “Part of being a teacher at Haverford in the art department is the connection I have with my students, and the connection, while it’s still strong online, isn’t as rich or as deep as when we’re in person,” Mr. Raeder said. “So I much prefer [being in person].” 

     No matter what forum—virtual or in-person—art classes like woodworking and ceramics will continue to give students a space to grow as an artist and a person. 

     “It’s cool to see how something as simple as wood can be turned into a box for storage or can be pretty useful,” Sellari said. “You don’t really see that at first, but once you start using the wood and carving it out and getting your finished project, it becomes more apparent.”

     “It’s a pretty cool process,” Sellari said. “It’s a lot of fun.”