Showing not telling.

When I was in high school I had a teacher named Sheena who was an incredible influence on me. Many of us are blessed with great teachers, they are a real gift to us. We probably don’t think to look them up later and then tell them how important they have been to us. I’m fortunate enough to keep in touch with my friend Sheena all these years later. Thanks Sheena.

Here’s something that happened in grade 11, I recall.

I was quite active in the arts in High School and took every art course that I could from Sheena. It was a way for me to express myself during that very awkward time of growing up — 6’5″ and 170 lbs — need I say more. During those years I was found at one of two ‘safe’ places, either the bowling alley or in the art studio.

I had taken an interest in ceramics and was becoming quite creative in the use of clay. Some of my pieces are in my office today, if you ask next time you are in I’ll show you. Sometime at the start of a new semester a new group of ceramics students arrived. I may have been the teacher’s assistant, or just a senior ceramics student — not senior by much — this was high school after all.

Out of the blue Sheena asked me to teach these students how to wedge clay. Wedging is a process that removes the air bubbles from the clay so when the piece has dried it won’t explode during a kiln firing. I was terrified of having to teach these students. I’d been picked on and bullied all the way through school, but that is a story for another time.

There were about five students gathered around the 4′ x 8′ wedging table, with me at the end. Each of them had a freshly cut piece of clay to work with. I just couldn’t speak so with trembling hands I slowly began to work the clay, pulling it up from the back of the slab with my fingers and then pushing it down with my weight on the palms of my hands. Not entirely different than kneading dough. It’s probably called wedging because if done right it creates a piece of clay that resembles a wedge shape.

One-by-one the students watched and slowly started to follow my hand movements and wedge their own clay. I watched them, I watched their eyes, I watched their hands. Over the course of 10-15 minutes everyone learned to wedge clay. I said nothing. I recall relaxing at the end and making a few suggestions but even that I’m not sure about now.

It’s likely that I taught others later but I don’t remember anything other than this first time.

As I think about this today I think about how this style might reflect my personality. Where words often fail me, I can show by example. I can prove that something can be done by demonstrating it. There have been times and continue to be times when I simply can’t explain something with my brain but that I feel to be right elsewhere in my body. The building of Sunworks has largely been like that.

Perhaps this is why I think that experimenting — giving things a try — is so important for community development. For example, how can we be certain of what we’ve been told by traffic engineers that blocking two lanes of traffic on Ross Street by City Hall would cause traffic to back up? Then, lucky for us, the lanes get blocked from construction for two years, and we make a discovery which we can demonstrate, and that leads us to the creation of a park (see Creating Cenotaph Plaza entry). Showing not telling is perhaps an underutilized form of teaching and learning.

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