There are two ways of viewing the art classes Patty Lewis teaches after school at Alexandria's Hammond Junior High.
To the casual observer, the four seventh graders in the class are learning how to work with clay, to draw and to paint. The students confirm this image: "I chose this club because I wanted to get out of soccer -- it's too cold in the winter," says Lawrence East. "And my drawing is getting better."
But to Patty Lewis, a former cartoonist who has a master's degree in art therapy, the primary purpose of the class is to help students acquire skills that will improve their reading.
On a recent afternoon, Lewis demonstrated how a class on clay can help develop habits that also can aid students improve basic reading skills.
At the start of the lesson, Lewis grabs a slab of clay and asks how many children have worked with clay before. A few raise their hands, and she prompts them to tell when they last used it (memory).
She describes the origin of clay (keeping their attention), and begins to "wedge" the clay -- slapping it down. "Why am I doing this? What am I trying to push out?" she asks.
One of the students, a bright young boy who bullets Lewis' monologues with questions, answers, "Air bubbles?" (inference).
Then Lewis launches into an elaborate description of the slab and coil methods of building pots including the method for attaching two pieces of clay together by scoring both sides and using wet clay (a slip) to "glue" them together. The students watch all the methods intently, knowing they must reproduce them (ability to follow instructions and to do work in the proper sequence).
Holding up examples of other students' work, Lewis asks the class to explain how each was made. One of the bowls is cracked, and Lewis explains that the potter used too much water (cause and effect). She advises her students to beware of the same problem.
The class is urged to work out a pattern before they begin actual work with clay, and Lewis shows them a number of objects and pictures for inspiration.
"Here's a ceramic starfish -- see how the potter added bumps on top?" she asks (sensory perception).
When the students finish their own clay products, they will critique each other's work (social interaction, analysis) and move on to another art medium.
Lewis conducted a similar program for three years at Alexandria's John Adams Middle School and proposed the current class when she was transferred to Hammond last year. The school, where Lewis is a full-time art teacher, provides art material for the after-school class.
All the students in the program were referred to Lewis by other teachers, but the class is voluntary and it is up to each student to decide whether to join the program.
"It's a good opportunity for me to expand on my therapy skills," Lewis says, "and besides, I really enjoy working with these kids."
Lewis hopes to work at least three years with the students -- until they go onto high school -- and to measure any difference in their reading skills.
"I know their art skills are increasing," she says, "and there's every reason to believe that the same perception difficulties that keep people from progressing in art also hold them back in reading and math."
Before children think with words, she says, they think in images, and children who cannot recall, record or unravel images have special learning problems.
"We don't know why these skills are missing," Lewis says. "It's not a learning disability in the case of these kids. Perhaps they just learn differently than the way they were taught."
One purpose of the program is to help children build confidence in themselves.
For one curly-headed boy who preferred to remain anonymous, the manipulation of clay -- especially the pounding and wedging -- seemed to provide a good outlet for some of his frustrations.
"They tell me we're slow raders," he said, "but there isn't anything slow about me. I just need more skills."