Oswalt Students Learn Art of Zen

Nogales High School teacher and artist James Ellison gave a workshop Monday to sixth-grade students on the Japanese style of Raku pottery.

James Ellison offered one departing piece of advice to Oswalt Academy students during a visit Monday.

“Remember, art is about having fun,” he said, with a broad grin.

And that seemed to be the case as students at Oswalt giggled while they formed clay first into balls and then into the shape of a tea bowl during a lesson in the Japanese style of Raku pottery.

Ellison, who has taught at Nogales High School for more than 16 years and is the visual and performance arts chair, came to the Shadow Oak Drive campus to lead a workshop for all of the sixth graders. He was one of the nominees for the prestigious Music Center’s BRAVO AWARD this year, which recognizes arts educators in Los Angeles County.

During his presentation, Ellison talked to the students about Zen, the Buddhist philosophy of how to live life naturally. He told the students to look up the word serendipity and said that it is an important part of Zen pottery.

“In Zen, you want it to look like it was naturally made, not made by a machine,” he said.  “Whatever happens happens.  Accidents are good. You are not to fix them and make them look perfect because perfect is against Zen.”

At an outdoor set up of tables under tents to block out the sun, Ellison roamed around demonstrating to students how to use their fingers to pinch grooves into their clay creations.

The Oswalt students are studying hunting and gathering and ancient civilizations as part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. 

Teacher Earle Ousley said the workshop gives the students a chance to have fun while learning about art.

“The kids are basically using their hands to create,” he said.  “We’re tying that in to a them and they’re using their hands to create pottery.”

Ashley Rodriguez, 11, said that was the most fun part.

“We get to do the stuff with our hands and learn as we did it,” she said.

The most interesting thing she learned from the workshop is that the Japanese drink their tea out of bowls, not mugs, she added.

Principal Kevin Despard said Ellison came to the campus last year to speak to students.  This year, the teacher who set up that talk decided to see if he could do a hands-on workshop, Despard said.

The workshop goes beyond paper and pencil, giving the students more of a connection to the cultures that they read about through the pottery making, he said. 

Ellison’s visit also links the two schools, as Nogales High also has an IB program.

“The more kids get into art, it will help (Ellison’s) program,” Despard said.  “It will build a relationship between the two schools.”



Ron Ynz October 16, 2012 at 07:57 PM
Teaching Zen at a public school? What about the separation of church and state? Where is the ACLU? Zen Buddhism is not needed to learn pottery. Why not just teach the technical aspects and keep religion out? Ceramics Classes at my high school taught Raku but it was a technique and not based in religion. Or, is it just Christianity that is kept out and any other religion can be studied as "cultural diversity"?
Melanie C. Johnson (Editor) October 16, 2012 at 08:07 PM
Well to be fair Ron, the teacher did not mention religion specifically in his workshop. Are you objecting to the portion of the class when he said Zen does not require pottery to be perfect?
beta blue October 16, 2012 at 08:26 PM
"During his presentation, Ellison talked to the students about Zen, the Buddhist philosophy of how to live life naturally. He told the students to look up the word serendipity and said that it is an important part of Zen pottery." it's probably the sole teaching of zen, the buddhist philosophy...
B= October 17, 2012 at 02:26 AM
Ron, I invite you to read the content standards located on the California Department of Education website.: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/index.asp and see for yourself that all religions are taught in school. Yes Ron, even Christianity.
B= October 17, 2012 at 03:31 AM
There is a clear distinction between studying religion and proselytizing. 6th and 7th grade history curriculum, mandated by the state, requires the study of world religions. Connecting history curriculum to art is good teaching.
Ron Ynz October 17, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Can you be more specific? There are links to dozens of PDFs containing multiple pages. Or were you being sarcastic?
Ron Ynz October 17, 2012 at 07:21 PM
But what about indoctrination? What was the purpose? BTW I was being somewhat sarcastic in my original post
Ron Ynz October 17, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Almost any art does not require perfection. I don't object to imperfect art.
B= October 18, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Here is the link to the history content standards: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/histsocscistnd.pdf No Ron, I am not inclined to sarcasm in this social forum. It tends to be missed and/or misinterpreted. I also invite you to visit Mr Ellison at Nogales high school and allow him to address your concerns. (You might find yourself less inclined to sarcasm if you were looking him in the eye )
Minnie Mouse October 18, 2012 at 01:24 AM
Oswalt students are International-minded, and they understand that building understanding of other religions and belief systems helps them to put their own beliefs in perspective and to be more tolerant of others.
Minnie Mouse October 18, 2012 at 01:28 AM
To Ron, below: click on the "History-Social Science" standards. start on page 24 with the 6th grade standards.
parent October 19, 2012 at 02:41 AM
Ron, I'm a parent of a 6 grader who attended the class. Her response to your concern was "what a shame. He obviously is not open minded to other cultures or religion." I'm glad Oswalt is an IB School that teaches my child to be open minded! The world can only benefit from well rounded, open minded people.
Ron Ynz October 19, 2012 at 03:23 PM
I think you are all missing my point. I do not have a problem with learning about other cultures or religions. I remember learning about other cultures in school. What I am making a sarcastic comment on is about the way that learning about Zen Budhism in a classroom today is ok (I don't have a problem with it) but having anything to do with Christianity is TYPICALLY rebuked in a public school environment. It was meant to promote discussion about the same standard not TYPICALLY applied to ALL religions. Teach ON!! : )
B= October 20, 2012 at 02:46 AM
You are wrong. You took direct aim at public schools teaching art and its cultural foundations. You call it sarcasm. . . now that your costic remarks are unwelcome you are trying to blame us for misunderstanding! How is it Ron that several people, none of which know one another, all took the same meaning from your comments? You did nothing to spark conversation about the status of religion in education. Instead, all of us were appalled at your close-mindedness and intolerance. Please don't respond again, really, you'll just embarrass yourself further.


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