Pottery students try meditation, visualization in clay-stained classroom at Prairie High

Ceramics elective a way of 'connecting to the earth'

Students in John Saikaly's ceramics class work at the pottery wheel at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 18. (
Students in John Saikaly’s ceramics class work at the pottery wheel at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 18. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — For decades, John Saikaly has taught Prairie High School students how to create bowls, cylinders and Greek vases on potter’s wheels in his clay-stained classroom.

Recently, he said, he’s encouraged students to close their eyes and visualize — or meditate on — their finished products. The change has helped students more quickly grasp the basics of throwing pottery, he said, as it allows them to trust their hands over their eyes as they try to keep their work centered.

“There’s a lot of things happening all at one time with regard to meditation when you’re throwing,” Saikaly said. “It’s complicated, but really, in my opinion, it’s simple. ... They learned exponentially faster by learning how to meditate.”

To students, Saikaly refers to the meditative practices only as visualizing — to avoid conflation with religious practice, he said — and his methods dovetail with growing interest among teachers to use yoga and mindfulness techniques in their classrooms.

Read more: Eastern Iowa teachers turn to yoga for kids with trauma and anxiety

For some of Saikaly’s students, their ceramics classes are a respite from busy and demanding course schedules.

“I think about my day, what I’m going to do,” Leah Mejbon, 16, said of her mind-set when she’s sitting at her wheel during Saikaly’s introductory class. “I stare off into space and let my hands do the work.”


More advanced students, like 17-year-old Gabby Frey, similarly find solace in throwing. Frey, who started making pottery a decade ago, said it’s “a way of connecting to the earth.”

“Even if it’s slightly off-center, you can tell if your eyes are closed, but not if they’re open,” she said. “If you’re trying to look for the imperfections, you won’t see them.”

The advanced student says her mind still drifts when she’s at the wheel, though usually it’s to her next project. A tabletop full of her work displayed perfectly-aligned pots, painted coffee mugs and ornately decorated cylinders.

“Pottery isn’t always about the final product,” Frey said. “The whole process of ceramics, anyone can learn it if you’re willing to sit down and be patient with the clay.”

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