CHILDREN LEARN TO READ THROUGH
By Monique Michael
THE AESTHETIC REALISM TEACHING METHOD!
For more than two decades teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism Method
have succeeded powerfully—in public schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem,
the Lower East Side—through these principles stated by Eli
Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism: 1. "The purpose of all education is to like the world." 2. Mr. Siegel showed a person's contempt—"the lessening of
what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees
it"—is the central thing making that person unable to learn. And contempt
causes every cruelty, including racism and the hideous injustice of the
profit system from which millions of children are suffering.
||This paper was part of a recent public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism
Foundation, a not for profit educational foundation at 141 Greene Street,
in New York City. In it, teachers from elementary school through college—teaching
in some of the hardest hit areas of the City, demonstrated through lessons
in their classrooms, this urgent fact: The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
is the answer to the crisis in our nation's schools. It can end the
inability of children to read and the desperation of teachers. This teaching
method, states the seminar announcement, "shows students that every
fact in the curriculum has vivid meaning and therefore students learn
with eagerness and pride"; and it continues:
I teach in East Harlem in one of the poorest neighborhoods
of New York City. The first grade students I met last year have been horribly
brutalized by our ugly, unjust profit economy. They live in over-crowded,
rundown, sometimes rat and roach-infested apartments. Many do not have
adequate clothes and do not eat the good nutritious foods that their minds
and bodies need to grow strong and healthy. They live in fear of the violence
which surrounds them and sometimes hear gunshots at night. Some of my students
didn't even have permanent homes and had to live in nearby shelters. They
saw their parents angry and depressed because they were unable to find
the work that could provide their children the safe homes they deserve.
Because of what they had been forced to endure, the children I met in September
did not feel that the world made sense, and therefore did not feel that
the facts of the world—in the form of words, other people, numbers—had
likable meaning for them.
Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, showed through this revolutionary
principle of Aesthetic Realism, "The world, art and self explain each other,
each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," that 1) the facts of the curriculum
have meaning because they show the structure of the world makes beautiful,
logical sense. And 2) through the opposites, facts are related to our very
selves and enable us to know who we are.
Mr. Siegel explains in Self and World with
kindness and compassion:
If a child is frustrated, it is because the fundamental life procedure
in it of becoming an integrity, simultaneously with meeting life at more
and more points, has met interference: interference which it combats most
often murkily or blindly by attack or withdrawal, or confusion, having
in it both attack and withdrawal.
This explained what I saw at the beginning of the school
year. These six-year-old children had a very hard time paying attention
and did not retain much of what they heard. They did not listen to each
other and fought with each other. George, who had lived in a shelter for
the past two years because his father was unable to find work, was very
suspicious of other children. He was constantly on the defensive, ready
to push and hit any child who touched him by accident. Manuel, who had
recently become a foster child, looked stunned and bewildered. He went
from putting his head down on his desk in frustrated resignation to vengefully
hitting other children if he did not like the way they looked at him or
talked to him. David crawled under the desk or hid in the closets. Geraldine
looked sad and tired for her six years, yet she had a toughness that said,
"I'm not going to let this world affect me too much." She was restless
and roamed around as the class gathered for lessons.
I have learned, in my study of Aesthetic Realism,
that my students' hurtful ways of meeting the world came from their using
the horrible injustices they had experienced to be angry at and have contempt
for everything. Contempt, Eli Siegel stated, is the "disposition in every
person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."
And it was this unconscious decision for contempt that made it so difficult
for them to learn the facts in arithmetic or reading. I knew that the only
way to bring out their deepest desire to know and like the world was to
show my students that every subject is evidence that the world has a sensible,
even beautiful structure that can be liked—it is a oneness of opposites.
1. They Learned about the Opposites in the Alphabet
In kindergarten, children study the letters
of the alphabet and their sounds, and at the beginning of first grade the
alphabet is reviewed in preparation for learning how to read. But children
often feel overwhelmed by the alphabet, which can seem to be an arbitrary
assemblage of symbols and abstract sounds that do not make sense. Therefore,
in the beginning of first grade children have often forgotten the sounds
of the letters and get confused by the letter formations, sometimes writing
them backwards or upside down, mistaking a p for a q, or
a w for an m. They can feel letters represent an unfriendly,
strange world that wants to confuse and fool them.
In order to have my students see the letters
of the alphabet with friendly meaning, we studied Eli Siegel's great essay
"The Alphabet: a Description and Excursion Everywhere." In it, Mr. Siegel
shows something completely new—letters are related to many other things
and to us. "The letters of an alphabet," he writes, "are pictures as sounds."
And he continues: A body with a self makes sounds....The sounds that a body-with-a-self
or person makes, are like the sounds to be heard anywhere. The alphabet,
then, is to be placed among the sounds of dishes falling, a waterfall,
leaves rustling, wood crackling, wind sighing, cloth rubbing, paper tearing,
iron hissing, birds singing, ocean roaring, clock ticking—and more and
more. The alphabet, as used in words, goes after respecting all these sounds. We looked at how the letters in their shapes and
sounds have the opposites. First, we looked to see how straight and curve,
hard and soft are in the world and ourselves.
I told the children that everything in the
world has straight lines and curves or both. I showed them a blue rubber
ball and asked if a ball had straight lines or curved lines. They said
curved. "Can a curved line make a straight line?" I asked. "No," said Jenny,
"it goes all around." "Look," I said, and rolled the ball to Jenny. Did
the curved ball travel in a straight line? The children looked surprised.
I measured the distance the ball traveled with the string and held it up
straight. "Now I have a straight line but what would happen if I took this
straight line and kept curving until both ends meet. What shape would that
make?" Hands shot up, and Tina said: "I know, I know—it makes a circle!"
The children were excited to see how two things that seemed only different
were also related.
Then I said, "Look around the room. What do
you see?" "The door has straight lines; four of them," said Danny. "My
desk has straight lines and curves," said Marjorie. Other children said—the
door knob, the window pane, a cup. "Do you see straight line and curves
on you?" "My eyes are round," said Mary, "and my lips have curves." "My
wrist bone sticks up like a ball," said Freddie. Nancy said, "My nose has
both." "My legs and arms are straight," said Charlene. Freddie added, "No,
legs curve too, see?" as he bent his knee and pointed to the curve it made.
I showed them a picture of a building in India.
The children made oohs and ahhhs as they saw the beautifully curved dome
of the Taj Mahal. "Are there straight and curved lines here in a way you
have never seen before?" The children said yes. "Which seems sharper, the
straight, pointy end of the dome or the curving part?" "The point is like
a needle," Melanie said. "And the curve seems to be softer?" I asked. "Do
we have sharpness and softness in us? We need sharp or hard teeth to eat
our food. But what would happen if our skin was only hard?" Freddie jumped
up and said, "We'd be like this"—and he froze into a statue. Geraldine,
who had been walking around the room slowly approaching where the rest
of the class had gathered, suddenly said, "My cat is hard and soft. She
scratches but [her fur] feels nice and soft." I asked her and the class:
"Do we want to be hard and soft in a beautiful way with people?" The children
looked pleased and excited as they thought about these questions.
I told the class the letters of the alphabet,
like the world and ourselves, also have the opposites of straight and curved
lines; hardness, or sharpness and softness. I asked: "What letter of the alphabet is all curves?" The children looked up at the
alphabet at the top of the board, and I heard a shout "O!" and wrote the
letter "o" on the board. "Can you see a letter that has only straight lines?"
"T!" several children shouted. "Now, let's make the sounds of these two
letters. Which seems to have a soft sound, and which has a hard sound?"
The children said the letters out loud and agreed that the "o" was softer
than the "t." Then, I wrote the word "cat" on the board and said, "The
word 'cat' has harder and softer sounds." Judy shouted, "The 'c' is hard!"
"And the 't,' too," said April. "Is the word 'cat' in the way it has a
hard 'c' and 't' and a softer 'a' like the way a cat on your lap is hard
and soft—the way Geraldine's cat has sharp claws and soft fur?" The children
were amazed, both excited and composed, as they saw that letters in the
alphabet had meaning for them, and represented a friendly world.
As we continued to learn about letters they
made relations between letters we reviewed and things in the world. For
example, Eddy said that the letter "m" was like two mountains; Jerry said
the letter "v" was like the wings of a bird, and Andrew said the capital
"A" was like a house where Indians live. As they saw these new relations,
the letters had more meaning for them and they began to write the letters
correctly and to remember their sounds.
Soon after this lesson we walked to the neighborhood
nursery to get pumpkins. I was very moved when the children spontaneously
and with breathless excitement began pointing out all the straight lines
and curved lines, shapes and letters they saw on buildings and street signs.
Barbara shouted, "There's a 't' on the church." as she pointed to the cross.
"Look, I see an upside down 'u,'" said Daniel as he pointed to an archway.
Tanya, carrying her pumpkin, said "My pumpkin is a 'Q'," as she turned
the pumpkin stem-down and smiled.
Through the alphabet the children were seeing
the world around them with new meaning, and this was a beginning point
in their doing one of the most important things in their lives—learning
2. Reading Is Sameness and Difference
In the Children's Guide to Parents and Other
Matters in the chapter on "Books," Eli Siegel writes: Books tell us really the same kind of thing that walking on the
street does. We feel and learn when we walk on the street; we also feel
and learn when we read books. When we read books our minds "go out" more,
work more, to have things happen to us. A technical aspect of learning to read is being
able to see sameness and difference among words. For example, the words
"can" and "pan" are the same at the end, but the initial consonant is different.
But if a child feels he does not fit with the world, and does not see a
friendly relation among different things, he can have a hard time seeing
how letters go together in a logical way. I have seen children get very
upset when they are asked to read a word, some of whose letters they have
learned in a similar word, but which is also different—like "can" and "pan,"
because they see "pan" as only different, strange, and frightening.
In order to encourage my students to see how
words have a friendly relation of sameness and difference, we learned how
to read a book, titled Who Has a Bill? by Judy Nayer. I told the
children that there are thousands of different kinds of birds in the world,
but they are all the same too—they're all called birds. They were amazed
at a picture of a hummingbird perched on the tip of a pencil measuring
21/4 inches. Then, we looked at a picture of an African man from Madagascar
holding a gigantic ostrich egg. Miguel said, "Oh, mama!" Then, I showed
them a picture of an ostrich. Their eyes were wide open with wonder.
I then showed them a picture of an owl, a toucan,
and a parrot, and we discussed how these were the same and different in
color, shape, and size. "With each new bird we see, are we seeing how the
world is the same and different in a way that is beautiful and exciting.
Does this make you like the world more? Would you like it better if the
world had only one kind of bird in it?" "No!" they all shouted.
The book tells about different birds using
their bills in different ways. It says the hummingbird "will sip with it."
The woodpecker "will tap with it." I then told the children we were going
to look at how words fit with the things they describe. We looked at the
word "tap" and I asked, "Which letter sounds hard?" The children responded,
"The 't'." "Is the word 'tap' in a way like the sound a woodpecker's
bill might make as it taps the tree—the bill is hard and the tree trunk
is hard, they meet and you hear a sound?" The children experimented as
they repeated the word "tap," and tapped the floor, chairs, and desks around
them, listening carefully for the sound they heard. They were seeing that
there is a logical relation between the sounds of letters and the actual
thing they represent.
I then told them what I learned in an anthropology
class taught by Aesthetic Realism consultant Arnold Perey—that our physical differences come from the same kind reason that the birds are
different—to have us fit better with the world. Mankind began in Africa,
where people were dark to protect them from the sun. As people moved to
where it was colder, they grew longer hair to stay warm and their skins
became lighter. People who are Asian have an extra fold of skin on their
eyes and flatter faces because they once lived where it is very cold and
windy, and the extra skin protects their eyes, while the flatter shape
of their faces protects their noses from getting frostbitten. You could
have heard a pin drop as I told the children what I was so grateful to
have learned from Aesthetic Realism, that when we use the fact that other
people look different from us to feel we are better than they are, that we are big and they are less—we are having contempt. This is what
makes people mean to each other, call each other names, and when we have
contempt we feel ashamed inside. The children had thoughtful and wondering
looks on their faces as one of the ugliest things, prejudice, which many
of them experienced and also had themselves, was being described and opposed.
I told the children: "Like birds and ourselves
are a relation of sameness and difference, words too are the same and different
from each other—like these words from the story: 'has, tap, sip, it, bit.'"
"Can we use these words to make new words by keeping some letters the same
and changing others?" I asked. "For example, in the word 'has,'—if we keep
the beginning letter 'h' and end letter 's', and change the middle letter,
the vowel 'a'—to an 'i'—what new word does it make?" The children formed
the sounds of the new word with their mouths and smiles came to their faces
as they recognized it, and shouted "his!" "Can you make a new word?"
I asked. "What rhymes with 'bat'?" Judy said, "sat, rat," and I
wrote the words on the board. "How are 'sat' and 'rat' the same and different?"
"They all have an 'a' and a 't'," said Marco. "They have different letters
in the front," said Jose. Raphael, who in the first week of school cried
because he said he knew he wouldn't be able to learn to read, said, "I
get it! You keep something the same—right?—and you put in something different,
and I can read a new word! I can really read! You know, I really like school
better than staying at home. And I like the way God made this world."
As the year progressed, Geraldine's tough expression
softened, and she looked happier. She joined the rest of the class and
began to concentrate for longer periods of time—and she learned to read!
David, who had been so deeply withdrawn at the beginning of the year, wanted
to learn new words and to write them. After he read his first books Jim
Wins, and Max, he beamed and wanted to read them over and over
again. The world he had wanted to shut out was now becoming part of his
mind in a way he had always hoped for. Manuel, who in September looked
ready to give up, got new hope as he learned to read quickly and with ease,
and he wanted to help, rather than hit, the other children. Many children
did so well in their reading they were not only prepared for second grade,
but, as their second grade teacher told me this year with pleasurable surprise,
they knew a lot more than she had expected coming from what was called
the lowest level first grade.
Monique Michael was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from which her
family fled in 1965 to escape the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. Mrs. Michael,
who began her study of Aesthetic Realism in 1979, attends the bi-weekly
workshop for teachers, "The Aesthetic Realism Teaching
Method," and has taught elementary school in East Harlem for five years.
She and her husband, photographer and Maritime Captain Allan Michael have
written articles showing how Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that can
end racism at last.
I hate the press for boycotting the Aesthetic
Realism of Eli Siegel as Teaching Method. They are stunting the lives of
children. This kind and practical teaching method brings out possibilities
of mind in children that would otherwise remain dormant—or worse, become
crippled. That is why it is the birthright of every child!