BALTIMORE -- Sleeves rolled up, brow furrowed in concentration, 13-year-old Christopher Wright is intent on transforming a heap of slate-colored clay into a masterpiece.
"When I make stuff," the eighth-grader says, pausing to smooth the sides of the box he is crafting, "well, it makes me happy. Both calm and excited -- because I'm good at it."
Watching from a corner of the classroom at Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Middle School, art teacher Joann Strickland knows that what Christopher is feeling goes beyond the glee that accompanies a license to get dirty in school.
Three years ago, Strickland joined a program that brings art supplies such as potter's wheels, clay and kilns into Baltimore city and county middle schools. Since that day, she has seen vivid changes in her group of wiggly, impatient teen-age charges.
"They begin to listen," Strickland said. "They begin to follow directions. It helps them focus, and helps them be individuals, more than the painting and the drawing. It's something about a 3-D form and the fact that they created it out of nothing."
Results like these are what Shirley Brown hoped for when she created a partnership three years ago between city and county middle schools and Baltimore's National Museum of Ceramic Art and Glass.
For Brown, the partnership was natural: She is a former Baltimore schoolteacher who serves as the museum's acting director.
The program began in 1995 with two schools and increased to 10 this year. Local organizations provide money, and artists from around the country donate supplies to schools that can't afford them.
Brown hopes to have 16 schools participate next fall. "With the success of this program, many principals and teachers (want) to have it placed in their schools," she said. "We've noticed a sense of camaraderie and improvements in students' behavior -- both physical and emotional."
Last week, students put finishing touches on brightly colored pieces that will soon go on display.
A long shelf displayed their successes: Astonishingly realistic slices of cake and pretzel twists; slender, delicate vases; and ceramic fish in color combinations more creative than nature could have conjured.
"Some people actually think we buy this stuff," said Joshua McKinstry, 13, as he molded a jewelry box for his mother. "They're amazed."
At the next table, Sean Fowler, 14, painted stripes on a tissue box-sized container. "I wanted to make it different than everyone else's," he said, running his finger across the wing-shaped handle atop the box. "I'll put it on my dresser. It's something I know I did."
Along with a palpable sense of pride, students have learned it takes discipline to craft a piece of art -- and that discipline doesn't disappear when class ends, Strickland said.
One student whose attendance was spotty until he signed up for ceramics has missed one day this semester. Other students show maturity beyond their years by complimenting each other's work -- unprompted.
Another pupil who takes medication twice a day for an attention deficit disorder can sit quietly for 40 minutes at a time, carefully shaping clay just the way he wants it, Strickland said.
At Arbutus Middle School in Baltimore County, teacher Joyce Bell can also trace results, even though the program began there only this semester. "My students show respect for the medium," she said. "They're careful with how they handle the supplies. ... They get to make something with their own hands that they can use, and it's instant pride."
The program has affected a few teachers, too, Strickland said.
She recalled how one of her colleagues stopped by the art room a few weeks ago and became transfixed by the painstakingly crafted face a student had molded out of clay. The teacher couldn't believe this particular student had spent hours perfecting his work.
"This teacher is now taking a second look at him," Strickland said. "Instead of thinking (the student) can't focus, maybe now the teacher will dig a little deeper to see something in that student."
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