IS THE SOLUTION TO THE CRISIS IN EDUCATION!
By Jeffrey Williams
This following was part of a public seminar by New York City teachers who presented, with evidence from their own classrooms, the enormous, proven success over 25 years, of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. Teachers study the method at the not for profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, and via telephone conferences nationwide. Aesthetic Realism was founded in 1941 by the great poet and educator, Eli Siegel. The method is based on these crucial principles which he taught:
1. All education, whether geometry or agriculture, arithmetic, poetry, or computing--is for the purpose of liking the world.
2. Contempt--the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world"--is the fundamental cause of the inability to learn. It is also the cause of one student getting pleasure insulting another, feeling big by shouting a racial epithet. Contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, carried far enough, can make for horrors like those which occurred at Columbine High School.It is my great pleasure to speak this evening with my colleagues about the teaching method that can end the crisis in education. I teach physical education and health education in the South Bronx to junior high school special education students who have been termed "severely and profoundly emotionally handicapped," and who have great difficulty learning. Many of these students have committed one or more serious acts of violence within a school setting. Some of these have been punching and kicking a pregnant teacher, hitting a principal with a chair, assaulting other students, sometimes with a deadly weapon. And often, students will go deeply within themselves, cover their heads with their jackets, glare at a teacher, refusing to speak or answer questions; sometimes a young person will suck his or her thumb throughout a lesson--or suddenly shriek, curse another student, or laugh mockingly. One of my primary responsibilities as a teacher is, according to our guidelines: to reduce as much as possible these various kinds of "anti-social" behavior so these students can go to a less restrictive environment and receive a fuller education.
Approximately 4 years ago I was given a flyer--similar to the one for this seminar--and it proved to be one of the most important moments in my career as a teacher, and in my life. I had taught for 10 years and earned my Masters degree in Special Education, with a concentration in teaching emotionally handicapped students. But through all my years of experience, which included winning a teaching award and a graduate fellowship, it wasn't until I had the good fortune to study Aesthetic Realism that I learned precisely what I needed to know to enable my students to learn.
I have seen that the reason students and other people--including, yes, teachers--have difficulty learning, is because the world is seen as an enemy, is disliked, and a person has contempt for it. I am grateful to be learning from Aesthetic Realism--and seeing as true in my classroom--that every student, including the young people I teach, also have a deeper, larger desire: it is the desire to like the world on an honest, accurate basis. And through the facts of the subject, the Aesthetic Realism teaching method brings it out! Mr. Siegel stated, "The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it."
Almost all of my students endure great economic deprivation, and many of them live in foster or group homes. Many have suffered horrible things in their short lives, including being physically abused and neglected, some from a very early age. They are very angry at a world they see as having hurt them, and are ready to lash out at anyone. Aesthetic Realism is not soft and doesn't flinch from the worst situations a person can meet. It says that there is no limit to how much we should be against injustice to people, to children. But with compassion and great respect for young people's minds, Mr. Siegel also asked this question, which I see as important for all educators to know:
Is this true: no matter how much of a case one has against the world, its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness--one has to do all one can to like it, or one will weaken oneself?Aesthetic Realism is the kindest education ever in showing how the subjects in the curriculum represent a world that can be honestly liked. And for the past few years, as I've been teaching physical education and sports, with all the problems and academic failures these students have, I have seen decisive evidence that through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method they increasingly choose learning!
Freedom and Order--in Softball and Ourselves!
The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.
When I learned that the rules of softball put opposites together, particularly freedom and order, this made teaching the sport thrilling. And as I was preparing my lesson, I saw with a freshness I never had before, how every rule in the game makes for a kind order and also a greater ability to let go, enabling the players to be free and make creative decisions within that order. Learning what is or isn't allowed also makes for more pleasure; and strict adherence to the rules is crucial for the game to be safe and played fairly.
This was so important for my students to see. Many of them had already been in trouble with the law for crimes such as drug possession or mugging another student for his bus pass. These students had come to feel in a pretty big way that their freedom was equivalent to being able to do whatever they wanted no matter who or what might get hurt--and that any rule was an enemy out to humiliate them. But I was very affected to see that through studying how freedom and order are together in the rules of softball, these students got excited, they actually liked learning about them--and not only that, it made them kinder and more respectful of each other.
As I describe this lesson I will also comment on a student I will call Marilyn, who is representative, and show how she is learning in my classroom. Marilyn (students' names are changed) is a fourteen-year-old who, at the age of four, was taken from her home where she had been treated cruelly, and placed in a foster home. She said she hated sports. In class she would go from being angrily silent for long periods of time to being outwardly and aggressively seductive with other students and the teaching staff. Through this lesson, Marilyn changed very much.
I began by asking how many of the students liked the game of softball. I was surprised to see most of the class raised their hands. I asked them, "Do you know why you like it?" Diane answered "It's fun." Janice said, "You get to run to each base."
Meanwhile, we spoke about how each of these enjoyable things has strict rules with it, and I asked if they knew what they were. Some students knew a few rules; others didn't. I said:
There is something beautiful about the fact that there are many rules of softball that are always the same, for example, a predetermined amount of innings in a game (seven or nine), three outs per inning, and only nine players are allowed to be on the field at one time. There are also the particular markings on the field, some of which indicate a fair or foul ball, and where the field begins and ends. And then within all this order is the freedom of players making individual decisions--as to batting, throwing, or running the bases--as well as the possible effect that the wind could have on the ball. Without this strict relation of freedom and order we could never experience the joy of a team hitting a home run, or the drama when it's the bottom of the 9th inning, there are two outs, your team is losing by one run, and the person on first decides to steal second!Because I knew that the opposites of freedom and order can be found everywhere in the world and that seeing this could have my students feel more related to the subject, I showed the class a dramatic poster with this photograph by Tom DiPace of a great player in his batting stance. I asked, even though he is standing still, is he showing a good relation of freedom and order? Janice shouted out, "That's Sammy Sosa! I never saw a picture of him." I asked, "Does he look like he's excited? Look at his eyes." Marilyn said, "Yes!" Diane commented, "He's concentrating." Janice said "He looks ready."
This photograph shows a thrilling relation of freedom and order, because as Sammy Sosa has great precision in his stance, he also is showing the potential to make unpredictable decisions about how he is going to bat. I said, "Sammy Sosa has the right to swing the bat whenever he feels like it, but he has to do it within the rules of the game." And I continued, "He's free to swing, but how many swings does he get?" The class responded, "Three!" I asked, "What if he got three strikes and the other players got four strikes?" They agreed that the game would be very disorganized. And it would be unfair. Through seeing freedom and order in this photograph, the students were becoming more and more excited about learning the rules of softball--which also put these opposites together.
So we reviewed what we had learned. I asked, "How many outs are there in an inning?" Diane said, "Three--and three strikes." "What is the base that you run to?" Joanne said, "First." And Marilyn surprised everybody when she said: "You can't run past anybody on first base."
Continuing with the lesson, I asked, "What would happen if we were free to do whatever we wanted to do in our homes?" Elsa said "We would make a mess." Diane said, "There would be no discipline. There would be a lot of confrontations." Due to the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, the whole class was taking part, there were fewer disruptions, and no violence occurred! It's one thing for a student to recite the rules dutifully--but to really like them is something else; these young people liked learning the rules, and they were choosing to be actively involved in the lesson rather than calling each other names or starting fights.
The reason is: the students were seeing opposites as one--that being accurate made for freedom! They saw there is an exactitude these rules stood for which enabled them to be more free and easy in the game, not less--and I can't think of any bigger thing for a person to see, especially these students. When a person sees that rather than being hampered, held back--there is real pleasure, real freedom of expression in being accurate, fair to something outside of yourself, it can make the difference between choosing to hurt or kill another human being, or not.
To see Marilyn who had not liked much of anything--let alone a sport--come out of herself so much as to be thinking deeply about the subject--was HUGE! She is blossoming. And the fact that these students were raising their hands to speak and answer questions, not running around the room or insulting each other--it may seem like a small thing, but for my students, it's grand! I have only experienced this success through using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, and I am unboundedly grateful for that fact.
An Assignment Every Teacher Should Do
I came to see that I was not fair to my students' hopes and dreams and used the severe nature of their problems as an excuse not to do all I could to have them learn. I regret this very much.
In an Aesthetic Realism Education Workshop taught by All For Education, the class was given the assignment to write a 500-word soliloquy about a student we wanted to understand better. As I wrote about a young man named Josh--trying to see his thoughts and feelings, from the moment he woke up, how he thought about his family, his bus ride to school, and his thoughts about classmates and his teachers--I felt that Josh and I were more alike than different and that he had important hopes and feelings like I had. This assignment had a profound effect on me. Through it, and hearing criticism of my contempt, I became kinder to my students. All teachers need to study Aesthetic Realism for the crisis in education to end.
I have had many important successes since using this teaching method. One is with a boy named Michael who, despite the fact that he was very strong and had a big frame, felt awkward on the playing field. If he felt another student was bothering him by talking to him, he could react violently. He acted as if he was totally against learning physical education, saying "I don't need to study this." But as a result of my giving lessons using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, Michael started to take part regularly in classes. He began to see other students as more like himself and started making friends. When we returned from summer vacation, he told me proudly that now he loves sports, that almost every day he would go downstairs from his apartment and play softball or basketball, and couldn't stop playing them all summer. The fact that Michael changed his attitude represented a personal achievement for him, and is cause for a celebration. If this had not happened he would probably have been kept indoors by his mother, under strict supervision, to stop him from getting into fights and bullying other children in his neighborhood. Sadly over the years I have heard of incidents where students in my school have died a violent death on the streets while still of junior high school age.
In Health Education classes, I have had students increasingly take more interest in the subject, and in one instance two students leapt off the steps of the school bus and proudly handed me their homework. This had never happened before in my whole educational career.
Another large success is the school basketball team that I coach. In the two years that I have used the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, I have not had any violent incidents in any inter-scholastic games, an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. And this year the team went undefeated!
The press's keeping Aesthetic Realism from reaching people is foul. It has created an unfair educational playing field where students are doomed to failure. The results of this boycott have been countless numbers of children unable to learn and a record number of murders in schools in recent years. The blood is on the press's hands and I hate them for what they have done. The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the only teaching method that can solve the crisis in education; that has students choose learning over fighting with each other, or worse. It is my hope that people in this audience today will take decisive steps to make sure that the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is implemented everywhere in this country.
October 10, 2001
Jeffrey Williams played ice hockey for CCNY, and at that time he was the only African American player in the league. He won a graduate fellowship from the New York State Department of Education, and a teaching award from the American Heart Association. He has taught Special Education for 12 years (10 in the South Bronx). A former union representative and current delegate for the United Federation of Teachers, he has represented the UFT in selecting mentors for new teachers for the New York City Board of Education.