Hands-on learning gives students a thrill

Students at Isaac Dickson Elementary recently gained an intensive hands-on learning experience—they got to play in the mud while helping build a working clay oven. Once the oven was ready, the kindergarten-through-second-graders were able to cook pizzas in their new creation.

Pizza, anyone? A students who’s all fired up about Issac Dickson Elementary School’s new clay oven. Photo by Anne Fitten Glenn

“I really liked when we stamped our feet in the mud. It was squishy-squashy,” says kindergartner Ashanti Cobb. The students churned the clay, straw and sand mixture with their feet, then applied it with their hands. They also went through a pile of donated artists’ smocks (mostly old T-shirts).

As part of the school’s artists-in-residence program, two artisans from Kleiwerks International designed and helped build the five-foot high structure, which sits near the entrance of the school in Dickson’s community garden. Kleiwerks is an Asheville-based organization that promotes natural-building techniques. Its local branch, the Ashevillage Institute, offers regular workshops.

The school’s youngest students spent eight days building the oven. On April 21, students, teachers, artisans and parents held a dedication ceremony, which included baking hand-made pizzas and chocolate-chip cookies. The ceremony concluded with a song and a big thank-you from the students to second-grade teacher Patti Evans, who initiated the idea; Meka Bunch and Tony Beurskens, the builders; and Kate Fisher, a parent who was extensively involved. The students also brought small stones from home to place on and around the oven.

“An incredible collective of people pooled their efforts to make this happen,” Beurskens says. “The kids got so much out of it. I don’t know even which kids struggle in the classroom because they all succeed out here.”

To protect the oven from the elements, student volunteers from A-B Tech built a gazebo, which will be erected soon. The structure sports a roof that can hold dirt and plants for an all-natural effect.

Teachers at Dickson will continue to work the oven into their curriculum, as they do with the community garden.

“This project will pay it forward forever,” Beurskens says. “Teachers, parents, community all can use this oven. It’s art and science and practicality all combined.”

The Kleiwerks artisans hope to build their next hands-on educational project at Vance Elementary as soon as that school’s PTO raises the necessary funds.

To learn more about Kleiwerks International and Ashevillage Institute, visit www.ashevillage.org.

[Anne Fitten Glenn is a free-lance writer in Asheville.]

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