I am tremendously fortunate to be learning how to use the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. In my fourth year of teaching, I can honestly say I love my job! That this is so, in light of the fact that 55% of new teachers leave the profession after three years, makes me very grateful; and I want educators everywhere to know why.    —Avi Gvili
Reprinted from....
THE ENGLISH RECORD
Journal of the New York State English Council
"REFLECTIONS... Mirrors of our Past, Windows to the Future"
[Volume 53, Number 2, Winter 2003]
 
 

 

Teaching Language Arts through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method

by Avi Gvili


I am tremendously fortunate to be learning how to use the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. In my fourth year of teaching, I can honestly say I love my job! That this is so, in light of the fact that 55% of new teachers leave the profession after three years, makes me very grateful; and I want educators everywhere to know why. 

A description of this teaching method, on the website of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, states: 

In these definitive principles, Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, gave teachers the method, so urgently needed, to enable students to learn successfully and to replace prejudice with knowledge and good will. He explained: (1) "The purpose of education is to like the world" (Self and World, p. 5). (2) Contempt — "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it" — is the greatest interference to learning and the fundamental cause of all injustice. (3) "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." (Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism,1967) 
For more than 25 years New York City public school teachers have tested this method — and we have seen many, many students, including young people who have been horribly deprived by the unjust economy, learn to read, learn arithmetic, history, art and science with excitement and ease — and stay in school. And teachers have described their results and shared their knowledge in seminars, professional conferences, and articles since the 1970s.

I have seen students who were angry and afraid of failing, come to like school when they see that a subject, such as language arts, which I teach now, is related to themselves through the opposites, and stands for a world that really makes sense, in fact, has beauty in it. And I have also seen through this teaching method that students become less angry and have more feeling for each other. 

In a moment I will tell about one lesson I gave on pronouns to twelve and thirteen-year-old eighth graders at Rocco Laurie Intermediate School 72 in Staten Island. With over 2000 students coming from middle class and poor areas, I.S. 72 is the largest junior high school on the island. The students in my classes are African-American, Hispanic-American, and some come from Greece, Egypt, and Albania. I know many of them are very worried about their families' having enough money to get the basic things in life. Most of their parents work past 8 o'clock every night; and in conversations, parents have told me of their distress about not being able to help their children study because they come home too late and are exhausted. I feel intensely that no person should have to worry for one second about having enough money to pay the mortgage or get shoes and clothes! I see many of my students very concerned about a mother or father or their own future, become bitter and cynical, and take their anger out on everything, including the subject and each other. 

One young girl, Daliah Schwartz, whose mother I learned was battling cancer, said loudly in the first week of school, "I hate English! I'm never going to learn it!" and would often close her book frustrated and say "I'm not doing this." Michael Saconi would constantly call out and try to get the class to laugh by making fun of something or someone. Pamela Cummins, who was living in a foster home, would fight with other students before and during class. Armando Felice walked into class every day yelling and joking around; then, when the lesson began he would put his head on the table, saying his stomach or head hurt, and refuse to do any work. Morris Gouros, whose mother died last year, sat, quietly within himself, all period, shrugging his shoulders any time I asked him a question. Jashawn Cummings, whose father is very ill, would constantly talk to anyone around him and laugh when something bad happened to another student. Joanne Forest often looked vacantly into space and seemed to be lost during class work. Her mother told me she had recently taken Joanne off Ritalin because the doctor said it had stunted her growth. 

I saw that these young people were in the midst of making the most dangerous choice — even though it's understandable — to have contempt, to harden and dull themselves, to feel the world is such a mess it could have no good meaning for them, and "why bother learning anything?" But I knew that through the Aesthetic Realism method this could change! 
 

I. What Do Pronouns Say about Sameness and Difference, or, the Meaning of One Thing Standing for Another?

While in the beginning of the year, most of my students felt they were very different from one another, and some would shout ethnic insults across the room — through this lesson on pronouns, there was a deep change. 

We read this definition of a pronoun in Warriner's English Grammar and Composition text: "a word used in place of a noun or of more than one noun." And the book states, 

One way to refer to something is to use the noun that names it. You usually have to do this to make clear what you mean. However, once you have made clear the identity of the person, place, or thing you are talking about, you can make other references without having to give the name each time.
A pronoun, we learned, is the same as and different from the noun it represents or its antecedent; as in, for example, Gloria stepped back from the picture and looked at it carefully. While the pronoun it as word, is clearly different from the word picture, it has the same meaning as the noun or antecedent picture. Furthermore, the word it relies on the word picture for its meaning in the sentence. Pronoun and antecedent are in a team to make the sentence clear and also pleasing. Difference and sameness do not fight with each other, but rather complete and add to each other. For example, if we said Gloria stepped back from the picture and looked at the picture carefully, wouldn't we feel there was too much sameness? It could sound tedious. 

To illustrate this further, I read to the class the first two stanzas of "The Village Blacksmith," a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: 

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands
The smith, a mighty man is he,
with large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
I asked my students if they liked hearing this. Many said they did. "But suppose I read the following words — what would you feel?" 
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands
The smith, a mighty man is the smith,
with large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of the smith's brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
The smith's hair is crisp, and black, and long,
The smith's face is like the tan;
The smith's brow is wet with honest sweat,
The smith earns whate'er the smith can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For the smith owes not any man.
"How did that sound?" I asked. Almost every student said loudly "awful!" What was wrong here? I asked. James said "It's too repetitive." Daliah said very critically, "You said the word smith over and over again!" Others agreed. Then we saw that in the way I changed the lines, there were no pronouns! 

In keeping with the definition we heard earlier, I asked "What words in Longfellow's lines take the place of a noun?" "He," one student called out excitedly. "His," another said. "And what is the noun those two pronouns stand for?" "They stand for the smith!" said Paral. Yes, I said, "The word smith is what is called the antecedent, which means in Latin 'Something coming before,' because it is the noun on which the pronouns his and he depend for their meaning. So while his and he are clearly different from the antecedent, they actually stand for it! I asked, "Does the fact that the pronoun and the antecedent are different from one another add to the meaning of the sentence or take away from it?" "Add!" Ceasar said. 

What would happen, I said, if instead of the pronouns, he and his, I used different names, which are proper nouns, to describe the smith? Like the following:

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands
The smith, a mighty man is Jack, with large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of Harry's brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
Sam's hair is crisp, and black, and long,
Larry's face is like the tan;
Malik's brow is wet with honest sweat,
James earns whate'er Donald can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For Jeff owes not any man.
Some students thought this was very funny; others looked a little pained. John was shaking his head, and Ceasar said, "It's too confusing because you're always talking about somebody different. It doesn't make sense." You're right, I said, and the reason is: now we have too much difference; nothing stays put. We long for those faithful pronouns he and his which always refer back to the same man — the Village Smith. 

Is there something beautiful about the fact that one thing can stand for something other than it? That same pronoun he can stand for a friend, a character in a book like Harry Potter, or a person who might look different from us and come from a different neighborhood. This means that the word he has a relation to all the people it can stand for, while they may be very different from each other. What can we learn from this? I asked, "Do you think that we will feel bad if we make ourselves too different from other people?" Some replied, "uh-huh," while others were nodding their heads. I asked, "Do you think people long ago felt that their expression would be greater when they came to pronouns?" The class was so thoughtful and attentive, you could hear a pin drop in the room. "Do pronouns show that the opposites of sameness and difference can work together in a way that we all can learn from?" 

As I was growing up and later, the way I saw myself was against the beauty and efficiency that pronouns represent. I didn't see myself as standing for anybody but myself; or that other people were deeply related to me; but felt I was very different from and superior to almost everybody. My students were affected when I told them this. I also said that I didn't see myself as standing for anybody but myself; or that other people were deeply related to me; but felt I was very different from and superior to almost everybody. 

At this crucial time, I had the good fortune to attend Aesthetic Realism Education Workshops, and when I spoke about what was happening in my classroom, I was asked by the teachers of All For Education if I thought my students and I had the same essential purpose — to see new value in the subject. I saw that this was so far away from what had been in my mind — that the purpose of my students was to praise me and tell everyone else in the school what a great teacher I was. All For Education asked me: "Is the subject the center of attention, or do you want to be the center of attention?" I think about these questions all the time, and as I continue to study in this workshop, it has made for a huge change in my teaching. Now, as my students and I are studying together, seeing meaning together, I care more for them, for the opposites in grammar, and I look forward to learning more each day! 

II. Seeing the Opposites in English Grammar, They Learned!

As a result of this lesson and others like it, the classroom atmosphere changed. Students were more interested in class work, there was much less disruption, and homework was handed in more frequently. Many students who had failed the first marking period passed in the second marking period. Almost all of them passed the pronoun test and many received grades of 80 or better. Tammy Feleps, who had often yelled at other students right in the middle of class, became less angry and said that because of this class she wanted to be a writer when she grew older. Jashawn Cummings who used to like it when other students had trouble, and would instigate outbursts of laughter, doesn't make fun any more. And also, he's encouraged discussions about a subject we're studying and really listens when other students talk. Just last week he told me he's proud that he now takes notes, and does his homework — something he never did before. 

Daliah Shwartz who earlier declared that she hated English and couldn't get it, improved so much she received a grade of 90 on the report card for the second marking period! Armando Felice no longer yells and then puts his head on the desk, complaining of headaches; he is eagerly participating in classwork, handing in homework, and asking to read more often. Joanne Forest, the girl who had been on Ritalin, went from a 55 to a 75 on her report card and is no longer staring blankly in front of her. And she's made friends. It is tremendously important that at a time when anger in schools has reached epidemic proportions, these young people have become kinder, helping each other with class work, and sometimes translating for each other. The racial insults have stopped completely. 

I love the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method for showing that every fact we study has an exciting meaning, and for encouraging through its solid, warm principles the best possibilities of young people and their teachers! 

For further information you may contact the Aesthetic Realism Foundation at (212) 777-4490 and visit the website (www.AestheticRealism.org). 

Works Cited

Siegel, Eli, Self and World. New York: Definition Press, 1981. 

_______, Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism. New York: Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 1967. 

Warriner, E. John, Whitten, E. Mary, Griffith, Francis English Grammar and Composition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. 


Avi Gvili is a teacher in Staten Island.

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