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Langley Middle School students learn the culture of clay and fire
As layers of sawdust are cleared away from the top of the smoldering fire, small clay pots begin to emerge.
Students carefully poke at them with sticks. There is a clinking sound as student teacher David Adams begins to lift the small "pinch" cups out of the fire with a shovel to be cooled in a bucket of water.
Many are blackened by the fire, but still intact. Some are cracked and falling apart. Others that were nestled on the cool side of the fire pit are still damp.
"Clinking is a good sound, like china. That means they got hot enough," said Linda Racicot, art teacher at Langley Middle School.
David Adams, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was assigned to teach in the west African nation of Ghana, has returned to the island after two years and earned his teaching certificate. Now, he is showing Langley Middle School students how to fire their clay pots, much like the people in Ghana still do today.
Roughly 70 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade art students are learning the art of firing clay sculptures the old-fashioned way by fire, rather than in a heat regulated kiln.
The project began last week when students placed their pots in the fire, which was then covered with layers of sawdust. The theory is the fire will smolder and become hot under the sawdust, thus "firing the clay pots."
"Be prepared, they may come out with a crack, because the heat is so hard to control," Adams tells the students as they begin laying the pots on the soft layers of sawdust. "But those that do make it through the process are going to be cool."
"There is a level of uncertainty of how they will turn out," Adams added. "But there will be a good feeling when it works, a real sense of achievement."
Adams, a 1996 South Whidbey High School graduate, obtained his bachelor's degree in art education from Western Washington University in 2001. He made a smooth transition in Ghana when he was assigned by the Peace Corps as a visual arts teacher in a secondary school in June 2002.
In his Ghana school, he taught sculpture and general art and graphic design to students ages 16 to 23.
Students at Langley Middle School appreciated his expertise.
"I think it is cool. We learn about different cultures and how they create pottery," said Lacey Williams.
For other students, thoughts went to more immediate things.
"I hope mine is still in one piece," said Sydney Mann. "It has a design of small dots on it."
In Ghana, students got their clay from termite mounds and built fires with cow dung. Here, the students use alumna silica clay and wood and sawdust for the fire.
"It's a good project. Students can understand the concept, how the process really works. The randomness of the flame makes it so intriguing," Racicot said.
"These are our sacrificial pots. If they crack we have backup art projects, masks fired in the kiln," Racicot said.
Standing and resting on his shovel, Adams recalled similar experiences with students in Ghana. He is hoping this project will give students a snapshot into life in Ghana.
"In Ghana, the people live much more in the present. They are happy to live in the present. I hope this process will help students slow down and appreciate what's happening now," Adams said.
Indeed, the students happily gathered around the fire, first placing their pots and then watching them reemerge after the process. It was slow going, much like the pace of life in Ghana.
"I was happy to leave that," Adams said. "But now that I'm home, I kind of miss the slower pace of things."
Experiencing that difference pace was just of the lessons for the students.
"This project gives students a break from their daily routine and a learning experience about other people," Adams said.