Monday, October 3, 2016

It's the Great Pumpkin!

My absolute favorite season is AUTUMN. Or fall. Tomato, tom-ah-to, whatever you like to say...and the very best part of fall is October. There's a crisp chill in the air that feels good on my face as I walk around bundled in layers. My trusty old knit hat is out of storage and adorning my head. Boots are back (cute ones, no winter attire quite yet!). THE LEAVES ARE GORGEOUS! Campfires are cozy, warm homemade soups are the perfect meal, and SQUASH (it's awesome)...There are football games with family, it's quilt and book/Netflix weather, and there are apple and pumpkin goodies everywhere! There are so many reasons to love October that I couldn't possibly list them all!!!

One of the reasons my 4th grade students look forward to October is because we open the kiln the very first week to reveal our finished clay pumpkins! It's our first clay project of the year, and everyone loves clay! In years past I've made jack-o-lanterns with them. They'd draw the faces on, I'd carve them out with an xacto and fire them. Students would glaze them, we'd use a funnel to poor black glaze inside and I'd fire them. They were adorable, and everyone was happy. Sadly I know that a lot of paper art projects get recycled (students and I love it when it's framed!!!), but clay projects are one of those things most folks save. I love hearing about clay projects students have saved. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. 

I was all jazzed up to teach 4th graders how to make these adorable 'lil jack-o-lanterns but this year a student noticed a collection of clay shakers on my shelf and asked if we could make some. YES!!! What a great idea! 

So we mish-mashed the two ideas together and made pumpkin shakers instead! Let's take a closer look at the process here, shall we?

Each table had a handy dandy 'lil bucket with various clay tools in them to share. Partners shared water between them, just like we do for painting projects. Sharing is a big deal in the art room. Can you tell? Anyway...Each student had their own small canvas board to work on. They're pretty great because clay doesn't stick to them, so our work doesn't stick to the table surface! I found a box of neat-o old paper straws in the dark corners of a dusty cupboard and I cut them into 1/4's (I'll explain why a bit later) so each student got a little piece. I'll be sad when I run out of these and will have to find a replacement. While students worked, I passed around tiny dried clay spheres that students made with extra bits of clay from previous projects. I collect them in a container throughout the year, they dry out, and they're ready for shakers! Lastly, if anyone was wearing jewelry my little doxen shaped ring holder guarded it for us while we worked! We rolled up our sleeves and got started...

A pinch pot is made by pinching clay. In order to make a hollow sphere for these pumpkin shakers we needed to make 2 pinch pots and fuse them together. To do this everyone was given 2 larger spheres of clay and one much smaller. Students were asked to give me a thumbs up! Then we pushed one of the spheres of clay onto our thumb so it looked like it had a rock on it. We called them "rock thumbs" and happily showed them off to the room. Everyone smiled. It was pretty adorable. These rocks were about to become pinch pots! 

Thumbs needed to push into the clay far enough to reach what would become the bottom of the pinch pot. We talked about different ways to pinch. I didn't want them to pinch like a crab with their fingers curled because their clay would be too thick in some spots and much to thin in others. We need the walls of the pots to be fairly even. Instead, students were asked to pinch the wall of their pinch pots with flat fingers, like when you use your hand to quack like a duck. Pinch a little, turn it a little, pinch again, turn again, and we continued until we went all the way around the pot. Once the first pot was finished we made another with the other ball of clay!

We very lightly tapped the rim of the pots on our canvas board to flatten them a bit so we could fuse them together later. We also lightly tapped the bottom of one pot (the one for the bottom of our pumpkin) so that it would sit level on the table. Nobody wants their clay project to be so round that it rolls off of a shelf or table. Right? Right. Students are protective, proud, and excited about clay projects so we've got to be careful...

Time to score the clay! Scoring basically means you're scratching the surface of the clay so that you can fuse two pieces together. A professor in college said that if you didn't score and slip (put a bit of water over the scored clay) that your clay wouldn't stay fused together. I thought that was crazy and made something I was very proud of without scoring and slipping properly. I had blended the clay together and totally thought it would be fine. Nope. It fell apart. She knew why without me having to say it. I should have listened to the expert on the subject. Lesson learned. I share that with students so they know I'm human and that I've made mistakes that they can avoid. They take it pretty seriously. Everyone scored and slipped perfectly! Whew....

We set our scored pinch pots aside for a bit to prep the beads to go inside. After all, these are supposed to be shakers! The pinch pots are moist and the clay beads are dry. To prevent them from sticking together (because the dry beads could absorb some of that moisture) we wrap them in a small piece of paper towel and fold them in to prevent them from touching each other or the walls of the pots. 

The paper towel wrapped clay beads were placed inside of the bottom pot (the one we flattened the bottom of). Remember that little piece of paper straw I mentioned? We finally used it here! It acts as a little "exhaust" for the pumpkin. If clay isn't wedged (kneaded) properly it can contain air bubbles. These air bubbles are like tiny little bombs inside that explode under extreme kiln temperatures (the kiln is the large "oven" clay is "baked" in to harden it permanently). Without the paper straw our pumpkins would be one big air bubble, and that would be enormously disappointing to the pumpkin loving kiddos that worked so hard to make them. The paper towel and the paper straw will burn away in the first firing, leaving the beads free to move around to create that lovely rattling sound! 

With exhausts in place, students slipped (added water with their finger) to one rim of one pot and carefully fused them together. You can see here that putting two pots together creates a line around the middle, like an equator. To blend that in students used their fingers and thumbs to "erase" the equator all the way around the sphere. Ignore the glitter stuck in my clay. There's almost always a glitter trail around the art room, and the kiln temperatures get so hot they'll burn off! Problem solved...

Next, students used that other much smaller sphere of clay to form a stem for the top of our pumpkin shakers. After shaping it, they scored, slipped, and fused the stems to the tops of their pumpkins. Almost finished!

Students used clay tools and pencils to add lines and details to their pumpkins and stems! They looked great even before firing them!

Names and class sections had to be written NEATLY and GENTLY on the bottoms of our pots. Without them it can be hard to tell who made what and which belongs to who. This makes sorting them much easier. And I like it when things work out easier. Makes me smile. 

Students placed their finished pumpkins on the clay cart shelves to dry for a few days and tried to wait patiently. That's hard to do. I was asked often if they were ready yet. That's how much kids love clay. When they were dry enough, I loaded them in the kiln and fired them. It took about 10 1/2 hours to fire and reached about 2100 degrees! I told students that typical kitchen ovens only reach about 500 (that's a good pizza makin' temp), though most recipes hover between 350-400 degrees. That's pretty HOT! After firing, they cooled in the kiln for another day or two. Then it was GLAZING TIME!!!  

Glaze is not paint, though it's applied with a brush. It's confusing, I know. Just trust me on this. The colors look very pastel and strange and it's hard for students to imagine what they'll look like after a second kiln firing. To help them out I have a collection of glaze tile samples for them to look at. We loaded plastic egg platters that I bought at the Dollar General with glazes and labeled them with masking tape and sharpie so we'd know what colors we were using. 

In order for the glaze to work well, students needed to apply 3 coats of glaze. They did not need to be 3 coats of the same color, they could mix it up any way they wished. They love to choose. 

Some had polka-dots. Some had green, orange and tiger eye layers. I couldn't wait to see how they'd look after their final firing, and neither could the kids! 

To clean up students put their glazed pumpkin shakers on the clay cart to dry...

Check out those spots and speckles! 

Can you see the layered colors in the stems? 

We saved the glazes by placing a small dish of water in the middle of the egg platters and covering them with plastic wrap. The water dishes in the middle kept them moist and prevented them from oozing all over when stacked on the counter. These egg platters are AWESOME!

I loaded the kiln, set the temp, and pushed start! They went in looking very pastel and dull, but during the firing process the glaze turned into a waterproof glass coating over the pumpkins. 

EVERYONE LOVED THEM! The kids can't wait to take them home, but have generously agreed to loan them to me for a display in the hall case. The rest of the school is sure to love them too! 

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