SAN DIEGO — The art room at Mount Helix Country Day School is full of rainbow-splattered painting desks. Mona Mills teaches here.
Her hands are artist's hands, hands that are not manicured, hands that look like they work--with clay, with paint--more involved in what they are doing than in how they look. They are also hands that hold pencils to show children games to help with math and reading. And hands to touch those children to make a wordless contact with them.
She has charisma. In fact, Dr. John Richards of Kaiser Permanente's Center for School Problems said she could sell refrigerators to Eskimos. Richards has seen results of Mills' teaching and interaction with children he has been following, and he wants to know more about her methods.
"She gives them something to hang onto when school is a horror," he said. "She is a fantastic resource."
The children Richards sees, and the 21 Mills is working with individually in her program, called Young Art (which also has math, spelling and reading), are dyslexic, have general reading problems, hand-eye coordination problems, or are hyperactive. Two are considered mentally retarded. Mills also teaches regular art classes at Mount Helix and Lakeside Country Day schools.
Melissa Hardin, 14, has been coming to the Mount Helix school for individual tutoring with Mills once a week since December, before attending her classes at Parkway Junior High School in La Mesa, to improve her various learning disabilities.
Melissa is considered to be communicatively handicapped, and to suffer a severe disorder of language, according to her special education teacher at Parkway, Olivia Barboza.
This day, Melissa is working on math and reading--using Mills' unusual methods of teaching these skills, which have various names, such as "School Bus Division" (Mills says, "We've got something for everybody--it's called 'Hangman' for boys!") and "Cloney Pony" (a pony whose parts are in the shape of numbers that can be used in math problems).
Mills is using a method with Melissa that has the kid-tickling name of "Buttons and Fleas," which she says is a "bypass multiplication game. In this method, a child need only be able to add two numbers, be able to count by 2s, or be capable of multiplying by 2. The idea is that even the child with considerable memory problems will be able to perform accurate multiplication."
To help with reading problems and auditory processing problems, Mills uses a process called "the star track coding game" with Melissa. In this game, a star is placed on the index finger, and Melissa "tracks" across the lines (in the same manner that children have been discouraged from using in years past). The child with attention problems needs this help to concentrate or focus. The student also learns to break sounds into syllables, by the use of dashes or dots. In this way, a translation from the auditory to the visual is made and the information is integrated.
When she works with children in art, one of Mills' methods is to find shapes in a painting or drawing that look like specific objects, for example, a marshmallow or banana, then drawing those objects. This allows the shaping of skills of visual analysis, verbal description and motor control.
In another exercise the child is encouraged to see whatever shapes can be imagined in a loose landscape line drawing (faces in the clouds, alligators in trees), allowing the child to be creative and imaginative and develop concrete images from the abstract, and, says Mills, "It helps with closure, that is, a conclusion based on something partially revealed.
Married and the mother of 8- and 11-year-old daughters, Mills is a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, has written three books on oil painting (Walter Foster Books) and has taught children's art for 13 years in private schools. Her innovative teaching ideas grew from her own ways of coping when she was growing up, she says. She says she was a bright child who also had problems processing certain information.
"Since age 4 or 5, I learned to cope and overcome a math difficulty by devising a method of counting on the images of the numbers themselves," Mills said. "Once in school, I used this coping method and others I devised along the way to function successfully without anyone knowing. These mind games were entertaining for me. The ideas actually began in the dream world, and broke through to the outside world."
Four years ago, as a result of seeing skills improve among learning-disabled children in her art classes, Mills combined all her teaching methods to create her program. Though other things besides art are part of the program, Mills uses the title Young Art because of its relation to the visual, and because, she said, "the art part is highly motivational."
Through Kaiser's Center for School Problems, Mills is conducting a pilot research project to test those techniques.