Anecdotes from Artifacts:
Hearing When Clay Sings

Teacher: Patsy Hamby


This pre-reading activity of creating and interpreting the artifact is designed to establish prior knowledge for the text When Clay Sings. As they created, shared, discovered, questioned, and interpreted the clay symbols, my students demonstrated respect for others in the classroom community. This method of inquiry learning helps students “read” things other than printed texts, it addresses all learning styles, and it encompasses interdisciplinary instruction. It is intended to arouse curiosity and motivate students to analyze their world objectively.

Giving the students a purpose for reading (“Look for places in the text that remind you of what we did in class”) follows theory-based instruction and improves reading comprehension as students read for meaning.

The concluding writing activity provides synthesizing of the pre-reading strategy and the text.

Instructional sequence

“Every piece of clay is a piece of someone’s life.”

I. Create an Artifact.

Materials: Copies of “Symbols: Tribes of the American Indian Nations,” modeling compound (available—and inexpensive—in  the craft sections of department stores), stylus (toothpicks suffice nicely), desk protector such as waxed paper, unlined white paper.

Distribute “Symbols: Tribes of the American Indian Nations,” clay, stylus, and desk cover. Instruct students to flatten and shape the clay into a desirable form: teardrop, circle, or cone, and then to etch a symbol that represents “a piece of your life” into the clay. The Native American symbols serve as a guide or as suggestions.

II. Interpret an Artifact.

Create a written history: an adaptation of the image poem activity from Awakening the Heart by Georgia Heard.

Have students fold a sheet of plain paper into six sections. Students will leave the paper with their clay piece, then move in a designated pattern to another person’s piece. (I had students move three desks away so they would be observing a totally new piece.) Tell the students they are archeologists, and they have found an artifact and are finding its song as they interpret its history.

Students respond to the first of the following qualities of the piece by writing one or two sentences in the first square on the plain paper. They move on to another piece for the next attribute, then the next, etc., as time allows.

Square 1: In two sentences, describe what you see in the artifact.

Square 2: Write a description of the heart or feelings of the person who created it.

Square 3: Write what we can learn about commerce or productivity.

Square 4: Write what we can learn about the person’s will.

Square 5. Write what we can learn about the person’s sense of beauty.

Square 6: Choose one word or phrase from the other five squares and write it three times.

Then compose all of the squares into one song as you include phrases and words from the squares and omit those you feel don’t contribute to the song.

Have the original creator of the artifact return to it and reflect on whether the song adequately conveys what the creator intended.

III. Read When Clay Sings.

State the purpose for reading: “While you read, look for places in the text that remind you of creating and interpreting the artifacts in class.” After reading, have students write reflective pieces as they relate the text to their own experience. Sample questions: What words or phrases in the book reminded you of making your own artifact? Why do you think I asked you to move so far from your own artifact to begin the song?

Student Artifact

Song: “Untitled”

One small teepee, lone and isolated

But soon followed by another.

A community soon born.

The hope for prosperity and fellowship

On the foundations of these structures

Communities built on the promise of the future.

Student reflections

“When I read that either the bear wrestled the boy or the boy wrestled the bear, I remembered that I saw the opposite of what Ed intended [in his artifact].”

“When I read the passage on the ‘hands,’ I thought about the need to slow down our fast-paced society to appreciate the environment and our precious earth.”

“When I read ‘Songs had to be powerful enough to keep,’ I remembered that all I do matters.”

“When I read ‘they know the molding of a lump of clay has always been a slow and gentle work, no hurrying,’ I thought about the feel of the clay when it was warm in my hands and how we need to slow down.”

Teacher Reflection

Because the question types for this lesson are both engaging and inviting, some students initially had difficulty as they searched for specific teacher-type responses instead of their own reflections. For example, one student asked, “Mrs. Hamby, is this a bear?” I replied, “Is that what it seems to be to you?” When they realized that they themselves controlled their responses, they became more creative and found meanings of their own in the artifacts. Their reluctance to participate vanished as they became engaged and even began sharing responses with students near them (hence the directions to move more than one desk away from the previous artifact).

If the teacher has not previously used questioning strategies of the type used in this lesson, he or she may wish to consider reading Morgan and Saxton’s Asking Better Questions. Ontario: Pembroke Publishers, 1994.

I did observe similar patterns emerging in the student artifacts; more students chose to etch somewhat familiar images into their clay pieces, such as suns, mountains, and distant birds. I presumed that some reproduced these images because of the simplicity of the design, but some also demonstrated cognizance levels beyond my presumptions, both as they created and as they interpreted them in others’ artifacts. I was also surprised that not one student in any class commented negatively on another student’s piece, no matter how simplistic or how creative. 

The most difficult aspect of this teaching strategy is determining how to be both a participant and a facilitator at the same time.  This is one activity I found myself wanting to join, and in the future may find a way to do so.  I would rather invite myself into the learning community than feel isolation from it. However, as I must distribute materials and monitor progress (and take photographs), I have not yet been able to fulfill my wish.

I suggest using this activity early in the school year. No matter how erse the classroom, I have observed a strong sense of community following its implementation, probably because students have practiced interpreting each other’s thoughts. Even when they have been unsuccessful in that interpretation, they nonetheless had to consider the creator’s intent and purpose for the creation of the artifact.

Curricular Crossings


Suggestions on how you might adapt this lesson for a different classroom setting

-- This lesson is easy to adapt to any grade level, particularly younger grades. This lesson works particularly well with young children because it is hands-on and allows a wide range of flexibility. With younger students, a few simple changes would allow the lesson to flow easier and be much more age-appropriate. For very young students, it would be best to put them in larger groups of three-six and allow them to create one piece together. As a group, students would be able to discuss orally what they saw, how they felt and what the piece reminded them of. It would also be easier to use Play-Doh so that the students could manipulate the material without any tools.

-- Older grades (3-5) would be fine with clay. They, too, however, would work better in groups of two or three. Each of these grade levels is introduced to the idea of commerce in some form through their curriculum. This lesson would be a great way to teach about commerce and productivity as a vocabulary lesson prior to beginning this activity or as part of a larger social studies unit. Finally—as all good elementary teachers know—students hate to destroy anything that they make. Simply rolling the used clay back into a ball absolutely will not do. This is the time to fire up that school oven or tote the artifacts home and harden them up for the students to take with them at the end of the lesson or week.




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