When I think about all the art lessons I’ve taught, the ones that stand out have their basis in storytelling, memories, and the personal moments that students cherish. Whether life-changing, joyful, silly, small, or monumental, our memories define who we are. These memories we treasure can be represented by personal symbols. With this in mind, I created the following clay lesson for my elementary students.
Student Valentina organizes shrink film treasures in her ceramic treasure box.Emily, burlap treasure map.Glazed treasure boxes. Box on right by Ava.
What’s Your Treasure?
Using an image of a pirate treasure map, I asked students to imagine they found hidden treasure. “What’s inside your treasure box?” After they listed action figures, video games, and coin collections, I added, “Not just the things you own—what about the people, memories, and even places that mean the world to you?” We explored the concept of treasure in its totality and students then drew symbols for their most important treasures, including images of family vacations, parents, and siblings, along with special toys, books, and food. They would use this brainstorming page in their sketchbook as reference for the creation of a personalized treasure box.
Hand-Building a Ceramic Box
Students learned ceramic hand-building techniques to create a treasure box. They could choose the shape of their boxes but had to include personal symbols for the things they treasure. We used the slab-building technique to construct the treasure boxes and additive and subtractive techniques to enhance the boxes with personal designs.
To teach students the hand-building technique of slab construction, I had them make a paper template of the bottom of their box. To make a template for the top, they drew the same shape, but ¼" (0.5 cm) bigger on each side. Students used these paper templates to cut an accurate top and bottom piece from a slab of clay. They made the sides using one long rectangle of clay. No matter what shape they wanted their box to be, once they wrapped the slab around the bottom piece, scored each corner with the needle tool, and blended the seams, the side piece magically transformed to the shape of the bottom of their box.
Shrink Film Treasures
While students waited for their clay boxes to dry and go through the firing process, we created shrink film treasures to fill their boxes. Shrink film is a special plastic paper that can be colored with marker and colored pencil, cut into specific shapes, and it shrinks in size when baked in an oven. This method allowed students to make symbolic icons and transform them into wearable jewelry.
Glazing the Boxes
The most magical part of this project was when students glazed their treasure boxes. I went through the glazing process and showed them examples of how the glaze changes in the kiln. Students had trouble believing the gray glaze they applied to their clay would transform into the beautiful blue example I showed them, so they couldn’t wait to see their pottery fired. When the pieces came out of the kiln, the classroom was filled with the excited laughter of students enjoying the vibrant colors and smooth, glass-like surface their boxes had taken on. Many students had only used acrylic paint on clay up to this point, so I felt it was important they experience glaze for this project.
Treasure Map/Artist Statement
The final part of the project was the artist statement. Students had to explain the meaning behind their treasure symbols and box design as a story. This creative writing assignment challenged students to tell the story of their treasure box—how it ended up buried, how it was discovered, and the meaning behind the objects inside.
Students then used stitchery techniques on burlap—supplemented with paint, felt, and other mixed media, to create the actual treasure map from their stories. Students presented their entire projects—ceramic treasure box, shrink film treasures, burlap treasure map, and artist statement. I was pleased to see how supportive of each other they were, asking questions and making insightful comments.
There were so many inspirational moments during this project as students worked with a variety of media, all tied together by the concept of treasure. I was so impressed as they gained confidence and showed pride in their work, while having fun and developing their technical and conceptual skills. This unit was worth its weight in gold.
Art teachers develop lessons that encourage students to explore their emotions, develop empathy, and nurture positive relationships. Young students use paper shapes to create scenes that interpret their feelings about a special place, elementary students share personal stories through clay and shrink-film treasures, middle-school students express a chosen emotion through paper and cardboard masks, high-school students connect to the Indigenous histories of their community, and more.