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November 7, 2017 > High school teacher uses ceramics to mold young lives

High school teacher uses ceramics to mold young lives

By Victor Carvellas

Jacob Rodenkirk is living his childhood dream. I knew I wanted to teach since I was in elementary school. I love teaching people things. I was always the guy who when I was done with my work would go around and help other people do theirs. The way I process a skill is to teach someone else how to do it.

Rodenkirk (known affectionately by his students as simply Mr. R.) started his teaching career while still in high school as a tae kwon do instructor, even giving lessons to his mother and several of his teachers. But ceramics captured his attention like nothing else.

His passion is undeniable. One year when I was in high school, says Rodenkirk, I took ceramics first, second, fifth, and sixth period. To augment the instruction he was getting in school, he read books and conducted his own research. I watched DVDs and whatever I could get on the Internet, says Rodenkirk. There wasnt much then. I messed up on everything at least ten times before I got it right.Ó

After high school, Rodenkirk put himself through college waiting tables and teaching martial arts. Upon receiving his BA from San Jose State, unbeknownst to him, one of his SJSU instructors told Washington High principal Bob Moran about the new graduate. Impressed, Moran invited Rodenkirk to join the faculty. Its now been about five years since Rodenkirk replaced the previous instructor, Don French, who had been there 42 years. He feels incredibly lucky. People who do ceramics like to have a place to do their own work, and not have to pay a studio fee or the electricity bill, or that kind of stuff. I feel very fortunate, I just kind of fell right into it.

Rodenkirk is every bit as dedicated to teaching as he is to the art of ceramics. The first challenge is teach the basic skills. Most students arrive with little or no experience. ÒI like that challenge of transforming someone with no skills into someone who can do ceramics,Ó he says. Its an amazing process, you know, taking a ball and turning it into a beautiful vase or shape. Thats kind of the same process with students: by the time they leave, sure, Ive taught them how to make things, but also hopefully shaped them a little.

Rodenkirk knows of course that most students will leave ceramics behind when they graduate, but there are deeper lessons to be learned. I want to teach them when they start something, how to finish it, he says. Theres a lot of failure in the class room; you start something and you mess up, or it breaks in the kiln, or someone bumps into itÉthey have to start all over again; it can be really discouraging. My goal is to teach them how to recover from that and finish what they start.

Heating what was basically mud to 2,000 degrees is an error-prone task. Perfecting the process means learning from the mistakes. ÒSometimes you have to make four or five bad things until you get a good one,Ó says Rodenkirk. ÒItÕs the process that teaches you, not the end result. Product doesnÕt teach you, process does.Ó

His class is popular and always full. Not because it is easy. Students are keen to notice the potential of ceramics as an art. Belle Oliver, a senior, explains: ÒIn the beginning of the year [Mr. Rodenkirk] focuses on the skills, and then after that after youÕve learned the skills you can use them any way you want to send a certain messageÉ Art can be just making functional ware, but even functional ware can have some kind of meaning or conceptual element to it.Ó

Kalen Adams, another senior, first took ceramics because she Òneeded another fine art,Ó but continued, like Oliver, because of the flexibility of the art. ÒCeramics is such a versatile art field,Ó says Adams, Òyou can make functional objects, you can make beautiful objects, you can make statement objectsÑyou can make anything you want. And some days itÕs just very therapeutic to work with clay.Ó

Visitors to this past yearÕs Niles Antique Faire and Mission San Jose Olive Festival will have seen displays of Washington High student work as well as a live demonstration of pottery throwing. Sales generated by these events has a two-fold benefit. Receipts go back to the program, but more importantly, the sales are an important personal validation. ÒIf you can make something with your hands that came from a ball of dirt,Ó says Rodenkirk, Òand someoneÕs willing to give money for that objectÉthat inspires a sense of confidence.Ó

Rodenkirk keeps the studio doors open well into the evening Monday through Friday. As the term progresses, as many as 50 students might be found there after school, completing assignments. The space also provides something equally importantÑa safe space.

ÒI get to talk to these kids,Ó he says, Òand some of them have really challenging childhoods.Ó One student last year was there every evening until closing. When Rodenkirk asked her why, she told how she was renting a room and working two jobs, having been kicked out of her home by a troubled parent.

ÒMy parents fed me and they loved me, and those two things are not constants in the world,Ó says Rodenkirk. ÒSome parents donÕt acknowledge their kids; some kids donÕt talk to their parents for weeks at a time. I donÕt think every student who tells me that is lying to me. They could be exaggerating, but I can see it in their attitude, the way they are hungry for attention and want to please, and theyÕre not getting that at home. The public school teacher is responsible for teaching a curriculum, but then thereÕs the holistic aspect where youÕre trying to build a citizen and model adulthood to adolescents.Ó

Why is mentorship so important to Rodenkirk? ÒAt my church IÕm the youth leader for the Sunday schoolÉthe idea of mentorship and of being responsible, of being an example for someone, holds me accountable and makes me a better person.Ó

Perhaps that is RodenkirkÕs key to success. He learns from others while teaching. In that sense he himself is always a student, always gaining knowledge and experience from his relationships with others. ÒRecently I was visiting my grandpa at his house,Ó says Rodenkirk. ÒHeÕs like 80 now, and I was helping him hang a picture, and you know, heÕs the one who taught me how to do it. ItÕs a full circle thing. I love being a teacher and I love being a student, and the exchange, that process, to me, thatÕs where my lifeÕs at.Ó

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