As seen in the Winter 2019-20 issue of School Ties
Math Teacher and Ceramic Artist Cuong Ta on Creativity
In your career, you’ve taught mathematics, computer programming, and ceramics, as well as being an established ceramic artist yourself. Does creativity come up in the same way in both mathematics and ceramics for you?
Because I work in clay, I think a lot about craftsmanship. When one develops a certain level of craftsmanship, that is when one has the “language” to express one’s ideas. This does not mean that one can make things that look “perfect,” it only means that one has developed the tools for creating and expressing exactly what one wants.
In mathematics, there are a great number of tools to master as one learns to deal with more and more abstract ideas. Something we don’t give enough credit to are the multiple representations that math teachers employ in teaching math, especially in K-8 courses. From representing multiplication pictorially to asking students to verbally defend their answers, teachers at these levels are giving students the fundamental tools for personalizing their learning and encouraging a broad understanding of methods.
Developing the craft of mathematics and the tools our students employ become essential to examine more and more complex questions. Eventually, students are rewarded with having the ability to pursue much more interesting questions that hopefully linger in their minds and become the companions of their thoughts for a long time.
Do you have these “lingering questions” that drive your artwork? Is this where creativity comes from?
Yes! Absolutely. In my most recent ceramic work, I have been thinking a lot about loss and the solidity of a loved one’s absence, and the remnants of a life. It is also about the consequences of catching motion in a still image.
What are the traces that one leaves behind? For example, how does one catch the temporary beauty of fall leaves turning and losing their color?
Though I don’t know that my examination will answer all the questions that arise, those questions nevertheless frame the thinking behind my work.
Mathematicians always have a notebook, like artists have sketchbooks. In it is the diary of their thoughts as they circle around the central questions that drive their thinking. The best of these mathematicians love to talk through and collaborate with others, knowing that the sharing of ideas only leads to other perspectives. In this way, they are nurturing that “lingering question,” that itch in their brains that demands all their problem solving skills. An organization in the Bay Area called the Math Teachers Circle brings math teachers together to contemplate problems. Its goal is to perplex teachers with new questions, for the questions will make these teachers grow and learn what it means to be a mathematician.
As much time as learning requires, and as frustrating as it sometimes can be, I want my students to know that the payoff happens. And when it does, it can indeed be magical. I was a prolific drawer in high school, driven by the desire then to become a comic book artist. I drew constantly and never thought I was good enough. There was a point, though, when I suddenly felt a sense of flow, like I had a voice. I was suddenly doing work that was interesting to me, and original. And I found that each drawing was teaching me something I did not know before.
Really knowing something, finding joy in learning, requires a lot of time. But if you are patient, you’ll feel an ease and find your voice, and that’s when you see all these interesting, creative questions and directions for learning that you never saw before.
How do you nurture opportunities for creative thinking? What does it look like?
The most influential teachers in my life knew me and pushed me to go further. What I loved about them—and what I love about teaching in independent schools—has always been the teachers’ ability to get to know the students for who they are, and to encourage them to develop the tools that will help them succeed. As a teacher, I love to give students challenges that stretch their creativity, allow them the time to develop enough so that they feel empowered to carry out their solutions, and applaud their agency when they show their growth. I feel so fortunate to be a touchstone for the students who come in and out of my classroom, to give them what they need to grow into the creative adults they are meant to be.
Cuong has found a way into his students’ hearts and minds not only with his teaching, but also with his gifts of handmade mugs and bowls. “I gave my multivariable class bowls (to go with their mugs) as graduation gifts. Bowls have always been meaningful vessels as they function to hold the things that nourish us. I did a little exercise with my students where we wrote each other ‘nourishing’ notes and wishes to put into the bowls as they went off into the world after SD.”