by Jodi Rockwell, Upper School visual arts teacher
In my ceramics classes, many of my students lack the courage to fail. One year, I sat at the potter’s wheel, giving a demonstration and asked them, “If you could get an “A” for a failed (aka collapsed, asymmetrical pot), would you do it?” With wide eyes, they fervently shook their heads no.
Another year, a student was struggling to demonstrate his ability to throw a pot weeks beyond the expected deadline. After a heart-to-heart conversation, he said he did not want to keep anything “ugly.” He saw this product as a reflection of himself and his definition of beauty was narrow. He kept his failure private and would not reveal his process toward success.
In the beginning of each new project, I give my students time to explore new techniques, the process, and their own limits before they dive into a more refined, extended project. In recent years, many of them would not use their time to practice, play, and discover. Instead, they either took a break or focused on getting started on the project with an emphasis on aesthetic beauty. For some students, their pots looked good, however they were thick and heavy, lacking volume, scale, and creativity. When it was time to produce quality work, they had not learned how through making mistakes. They held back. Their pots were actually failures. The pots showed reservation and fear under a false mask of perfection.
Upon reflection, I am inspired to design curriculum with this new generation in mind, incorporating required failures into the projects and talk about successful failure. A successful failure is not something that goes wrong because you are repeating the same mistakes; that is mindless activity. I want to see engaged, intentional pushing of student comfort level until a deeper understanding has been achieved. As difficult as it is, they must save their collapsed pots to show for assessment. The collapse is the lesson of finding the edge. With experience and resilience, the student can return to their wheel for another opportunity to show their understanding of the true edge and this time, not venture over it.
...and by the way, the student with “ugly” pots never quit practicing. He is now a ceramic artist in L.A. teaching ceramics and exhibiting in galleries after earning a Masters of Fine Arts in Ceramics from UCLA on a full scholarship.