Common clay, common ground

by Guest Blogger

Madeline Holland, a sophomore living in Winthrop House, spent part of her summer working for Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (RYSE), one of twelve summer camps under Harvard's Phillips Brooks House’s Summer Urban Program. The mission of the program is to offer English instruction to low-income recent immigrants and refugees in the Boston and Cambridge area. In this post, Madeline describes how an art-making outing led to reaching a greater goal of shared, common experience.

The ten students in my classroom came from seven different countries and four different continents, and spoke six different native languages. Learning English was an exercise in learning a common language in more ways than one. My students, ages fourteen to twenty—and me, too—were learning to find a set of common reference points, a stretch of common ground, to be shared among people from such distant places.

We were encouraged to venture outside of the classroom, using our time together as an opportunity to expose our students to experiences they might not otherwise have. My students and I traveled together to the public library, toured college campuses, and even printed at Harvard’s Bow and Arrow Press. As the summer wound down, I was eager to have them do something fun, new, and memorable. I sent a message to the Ceramics Program at the Office for the Arts at Harvard and got an enthusiastic response. Soon, Acting Director Shawn Panepinto sent me an itinerary for a day at the studio that offered each student the opportunity to get their hands dirty.

On our second to last day of class, my students and I rode the Harvard Shuttle Bus over to the studio. As Shawn showed them around the studio, my students pulled out their phones to snap pictures of the ceramic pieces on the walls. They laughed as they pulled plastic smocks over their heads. None of them had seen a ceramics studio before, let alone tried it for themselves.

They split up into two groups to observe as Shawn and instructor Kathy King demonstrated the pot-making process. They watched gamely as the clay was thrown onto the wheel, the wheel began to spin, and the clay was centered. But as they watched thumbs pressed into the center and the clay open up, their jaws quite literally dropped. As well-trained fingers coaxed the walls of the new pot upwards, they looked as if they were witnessing magic. When they tried for themselves they realized it was indeed a kind of magic that allowed for such effortlessness: making a pot was messy and hard! They splattered themselves as they tried and tried again to make structures resembling bowls.

I loved teaching them skills that had little to do with English. We learned a rhythm game, we drew pictures, we danced. I liked reminding them that language was only one of many ways we could communicate with one another, that those universal sentiments expressed in language could be found in other forms as well. I also liked those little reminders that when learning something new, mess and mistakes are inevitable. It takes considerable effort to make anything look effortless. Too often they felt discouraged by their English abilities. Many had only been in the U.S. for a few short months. All the fun in language learning had been overshadowed by the necessity of it. Ceramics, I hoped, could serve as a small reminder that there are acts in which utility and structure, but also imagination and expression, overlap. And when they do, it’s nothing short of magical.

[Caption: photo by Alex Brizicky]

[Caption: photo by Alex Brizicky]

[Caption: photo by Alex Brizicky]