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In the digital age, one San Gabriel Valley school district revitalizes old art form

Tenth grader Isaiah Piazza at Rowland High School works on a coil pot. The school recently brought back ceramics classes and about 60 students are now learning to work with clay. Mary Plummer/KPCC

As many public schools across Southern California and the nation invest in digital devices that promise to transform education, some teachers are sticking to — even revitalizing — old-style, hands-on arts classes, like ceramics.

"A lot of this stuff is kind of forgotten," said fine arts teacher Stephen Faller, who brought back ceramics instruction at Rowland High School in the San Gabriel Valley.

He helped his students raise about $2,000 to buy a new kiln by selling Cup Noodles and baked Cheetos. 

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Min Seop Kim, 16, signed up for the class hoping for an easy A. He was surprised when he found himself actually enjoying working with clay and discovering how hands-on design differed from the virtual world.

"Online, you're just looking at the view of it, but in reality you're touching it, you're feeling it, you're getting the smell of everything," he said. 

For his classmate Cindy Chung, ceramics class has become a rare time to unplug — and she likes that.

"I lose track of time here because my phone is in my bag and I don't touch it," she said. "I just let my mind like escape for a moment."

They were among some 60 students this semester who studied ceramics with Faller, working on projects ranging from basic pinch pots to elaborate pottery crafted from coils of clay. 

He joked that his tech savvy students hesitated at first to get their hands dirty.

"Of all my students, none of them worked on ceramics before," he said. "They had no idea how to work on wheels, throw ceramics, what clay was, what glaze was."

That's not surprising, given the sheer amount of time today's public school students spend on their smartphones, tablets and laptops.

In a national study, 16 to 17 percent of K-12 teachers reported using one-to-one-technology — where each student is assigned his or her own tablet or laptop — according to a 2014 report by Common Sense Media. The nonprofit said 8- to 18-year-olds spend 53 hours per week on average on technology outside of school.

At the same time, arts education has largely been on the decline in classrooms across the country.

Heather Malin, a researcher at the Stanford Center on Adolescence, said when kids lose arts instruction, they also lose something else: "the personal connection and the depth of meaning from those cognitive processes."

Those skills, she said, are hard to acquire elsewhere.

"I think that's really what needs to be kept in," she said, "that bringing of what matters to me, how I connect to others and how I make sense of my world."

Nearby Nogales High School also offers courses in clay making, and students across Rowland Unified School District can choose from a variety of art forms ranging from photography to animation to orchestra. With support from parents and board members, the district has invested heavily in the arts for the past 35 years. 

The emphasis on the arts has provided rare opportunities for its students. The band at Nogales High School has twice won spots to perform in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The district also has a summer arts academy for 1st through 8th graders, a mariachi program and two music buses that travel around to schools to provide string and band instruction for elementary students. 

The driver of one of the buses, Mark Anderson, has been selected as a quarterfinalist for the Grammy's Music Educator Award.