Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Volcano Ceremony

Typically, our older kids, what we call our Pre-K class, takes on the job of making our new volcanos. But since this year's group finally got through to me that they preferred their messes at a distance, especially when it comes to paper mache, we opened up the process this year to their younger classmates, a group that, as a group, as never found a mess into which it didn't want to get in up to it's elbows.

Erupting the volcano is an ever-popular activity, one that always draws a crowd, and one that from a pedagogical point of view is really far too much about me putting on a show for my taste. There are other times when the kids engage in free-form, hands-on baking soda and vinegar experiments, of course, including bomb making, but erupting the volcano as become a kind of performance that has taken on many of the trappings of a community ceremony, one that children ask for, even demand, so in that way at least it is child directed.

When I carry the volcano into the outdoor classroom while our 3-5's class is in session, children begin to call out to one another, "The volcano! The volcano!" Most of them have already taken part in a handful of volcano ceremonies the year before, and the Pre-K kids have been part of dozens, so everyone knows what that cry means. From every corner of the playground, children descend to the work bench or wherever we've selected to set up shop on this day.

Even before I've said anything, the kids are warning each other, "Don't put things in the volcano!" and "If you put things in there it won't work!" They know this not from direct experience, but rather as a part of a "legend" I occasionally tell of a boy who stuffed a bunch of wood chips in there several years ago, clogging the vent, rendering the whole thing inoperable.

Typically, I'll then run through our volcano supplies, holding each item up as the children shout out what they think it is: "Baking soda!" "Vinegar!" "Soap!" "Paint!" "Funnel!" "Chopstick!"

Most of them know that we start by inserting the funnel, then I shake in some baking soda, using the chopstick to push it through if it clumps up. Even if it doesn't clump up I use the chopstick because if I don't someone will always demand, "What about poking it with the chopstick?" This is how anachronistic things become "necessary" parts of ceremonies, I suppose. This is followed by a healthy squirt of liquid dish soap, then a shot of orange or red liquid water color to give our lava a "realistic" hue.

"What's next?"

"Vinegar!" "Stand back!" "It's gonna erupt now!" "Be careful!"

Their cautious anticipation is entirely uncalled for and the more experienced ones know it's all for show. The addition of the soap guarantees a slow motion, long-lasting eruption, one that oozes from the vent rather than spurting out violently (when we want to experience that kind of eruption we drop Mentos in a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke), but this is all part of what we're doing together.

As the eruption becomes visible, the children push their way up to its flanks, jostling, and sometimes griping at one another, crowding around, hands now finally engaged in the flow of lava as it emerges from the vent and flows down it's sides. "It's erupting!" "Touch it!" "Don't get it in your eyes!" "It's dripping on the ground!"

The way we know it's time to make a new volcano is when the eruption is visible almost instantly. It tells us that the 2-liter bottle that forms the chamber is nearly full of impacted baking soda. This is what we'd observed during our most recent volcano ceremony.

There was a time when I fantasized about collecting our volcanos, adding a new one each year to our "mountain range," but with storage space at a premium, that idea, as cool as it would have been, has fallen by the wayside. I've tossed a few older ones, but this time, I turned it over to the kids, telling them we needed to dismantle it, in order to build a new one. They made short order of it, leaving us with the wooden tray that we've been using as the base.

A new 2-liter soda bottle was positioned, then the idea is to create a kind of framework out of masking tape upon which we'll later build our paper mache flanks. Usually, we do this with the older kids in a more systematic manner, so this process was a bit more chaotic than normal, with many of the children simply getting lost in the process of wrangling tape or using scissors. Archie's mom Natasha was the parent-teacher leading this process. It wasn't until she began to use the description "spider's web" that we arrived at a general understanding of our mission and while it took her hands to guarantee sufficient stability, a core group finally managed it.

Then we began the paper mache process by tearing newspaper into strips. There are all kinds of pastes one can use, the "best" of which are cooked, but for our purposes, a thin white flour and water concoction works just fine. We managed a full layer by the end of our first session, added a second layer a few days later once the first had dried, then finished it with a layer of tissue paper which was left over from another art project. This step made painting unnecessary, although that still might be in the offing.

We've often tried for a "rainbow volcano," always winding up with preschool gray due to all those paint brushes bearing all those colors, but with the tissue paper technique we've actually managed it.

The entire process took about two weeks. On the last day of school I brought it out to cries of, "The volcano! The volcano!" and we finished our year together with one more volcano ceremony.

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Anonymous said...

Creating the colors through using tissue paper is a wonderful idea. Now I have some good idea for the many tissue paper squares I have in our art storage. Also, I love the phrase "preschool gray" - I'm sure I will think of you the many times I view it!

Dina said...

I love the technique of building your volcano! I've always just made salt dough with the kids and had them mold it around...But this is a great way to expand the horizon!