Reprinted from the San Antonio Register
By Lori Colavito
I am proud to show the tremendous success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, which I have used as my basis for 11 years. Through this indispensable method, I have seen hundreds of children— representing nations and cultures from all over the world—learn their subjects with eagerness and pleasure, and also become kinder to each other! I say passionately that when this teaching method is used right from the earliest grades, prejudice in our schools—instead of escalating—will simply not be!
Eli Siegel, whom I regard as the greatest of educators, explained two things that every teacher must know: 1) "the purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it." 2) The biggest interference with learning is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it." And contempt is also the cause of prejudice. It is a fact, which I have seen true year after year: When a child sees that arithmetic, words, geography, represent an exciting and friendly world—a world he or she can honestly like—that child does not want to be against other children looking different, who come from that world.
I will show through a lesson on subtraction, how my kindergarten students learned this difficult subject with pleasure—and simultaneously became more interested in having a good effect on each other. It was based, as all of my lessons are, on this scientific principle stated by Mr. Siegel: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."
Prejudice Is Ordinary and It Begins Early
I teach at Public School 59 in Manhattan and the students in my class come from Turkey, the Comoros Islands, Japan, China, Albania, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Nepal and Central America; some have already met religious and ethnic prejudice in their young lives. Some of their families are middle class, but others are poor. A big thing affecting children today, which they see and feel first hand at the dinner table or while shopping with their mothers, is the brutal effect of the profit system. Many of my students see their parents working very long hours under tremendous pressure, having two or more jobs to pay the rent, buy food, and get proper health care. Some families live with relatives because the parents cannot afford to provide homes of their own for their children.
When I first met these children, I saw in many ordinary ways they already had prejudices against things and people different from them. And I have learned the reason: they unconsciously felt it was smart to have contempt for a world they saw as hurting them. Prejudice, Aesthetic Realism shows, doesn't begin with how we see other people, but rather with something much larger. "No person would be against people of a different race," writes Class Chairman Ellen Reiss, "if that person were not against the biggest thing different from him: the world....Prejudice comes from the feeling, "If I can look down at this person representing the world different from me, I'm Somebody."
This is what I saw. For example, I saw early snobbishness as Nadia, Daniel, Kate and Alexander, who had all been in the same early-kindergarten class the year before, talked and played exclusively with each other, looking down on and snubbing 20 other potential friends in the class. Jovanna and Laura, who looked very much alike, instantly became a superior little team, walking around the classroom making a club-list—inviting some children to join and telling others they couldn't belong. Rishi from Nepal, who didn't yet speak English, saw the new language and the other children—many with paler skins and differently shaped features—as against him, and not as good; and would hit and push them to get ahead while lining up. The other children did not want to play with him, and I would often hear, "Miss Lerner, he's pushing us!" Suki, who had just arrived from Japan, cried daily, saying that everyone and everything was too different from her nice school in Tokyo, and for weeks refused to have anything to do with the other children or even stay in the classroom unless her mother sat by her side. And I knew that unopposed, this disposition in my young students to lessen what was different from themselves would limit their ability to learn richly and be kind in a way that would make them proud.
Right away in the beginning of the year, I gave lessonson the five senses. While this is a standard unit of study for the kindergarten curriculum, only through the method I write of now can this unit stop racism in its tracks. My students saw how the human body—every person's body--is well made and works in the same way. We learned that every one of the five senses puts together opposites—such as, inside and outside, depth and surface, and most importantly ourselves and the world. And, we saw that even though the shapes of our noses or eyes are different, what they do is wonderfully the same—their purpose is to have the world come inside of us so we can get along with it well.
A question one child asked, which I am grateful I was able to answer, was: "Why is Omar's skin so dark?" I told them I had learned from Arnold Perey, anthropologist*, the reason is: in different parts of the world the conditions of sun and shade are different, and in order to meet these differences, the human skin was capable of changing its color over generations, adapting to nature so that people could live well in different climates—and in this way the world was very kind. Everybody was pleased by this, including Omar! So a child's looking at another's skin color, which so often has made for horrible cruelty, became a source of respect and kindness.
And the children loved learning how everybody's skin, no matter what color it is, has tiny nerves, which send messages to the brain telling us instantaneously something about what the world is like, the kinds of textures we are feeling. They were filled with awe as we learned how everybody's tongue—ours and the person's next to us—has more than 9,000 little bumps on it, called taste buds, which are organized in sections and identify the different flavors we are tasting: bitter, sour, salty and sweet. And we also spoke about how when we have contempt, when we make less of the outside world and other people--like when we don't use our ears to listen, because we think what they have to say is less important than what we have to say—we think we're making ourselves more, but we're really making our minds smaller. We're stopping the world from coming inside of us and adding to us. I told the class this is what I did when I was a little girl—I saw other children who had a different religion from mine, which is Jewish, not as adding to me, but as making me less. This made me mean, and had me feel very lonely and separate from others. And it dulled my mind, making it difficult for me to learn certain subjects, like math! They were affected hearing this and agreed that it was definitely not smart!
I believe starting the year this way was central in having my students eagerly want to learn the different subjects we studied; and it was also the beginning of a crucial decision to welcome other children different from them, instead of having fear and scorn.
—May 20, 1999
Continued: Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Addition and Subtraction Oppose Prejudice.