The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Teaching Method Children Deserve

Dear Unknown Friends:

This TRO includes a poem by Eli Siegel that I love—a masterpiece of wildness and organization: “Have the Lily.” Here too is a paper of tremendous significance by elementary school teacher Lauren Phillips—from a public seminar of this January so truly titled “The Answer to the Fury and Failure in America’s Schools: The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method!” 

As Ms. Phillips describes the magnificent effect of this method on students in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York, one gets a sense of the exactitude, might, and kindness of the principles, stated by Eli Siegel, on which the method is based: 1) “The purpose of education is to like the world.” 2) The central cause of learning difficulties is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” 3) And this principle is the means of getting to the heart of every subject, and of a child’s feeling that subject has to do with his or her own turbulent, hoping self: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Everyone reading Lauren Phillips’ article should ask, What could the Aesthetic Realism teaching method do for the young people, the schools, the towns and cities of America, if given a fair chance? What it has done while definitely not given a fair chance is, soberly, monumental. For over two decades, New York City teachers have documented the fact that it is this method which provides—in real classrooms, with real students—the things America is desperate for: Children learn, who had been unable to. Instead of wanting to hurt each other, students change and want to encourage each other. Ethnic prejudice, in all its ugliness, stops. 

The wonderful poem that follows is a romping picture of the world in its harshness and loveliness. We can feel Mr. Siegel’s love for reality in it, and his kindness.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Have the Lily

By Eli Siegel

It is a world of space and fritters,

Somehow with us all day long;

A world—mad—of softs and bitters,

With angles in a pretty song.

 

Dash along, world, hit the quartz beds,

Make paper fly in merriment;

Bring sullenness to sleepyheads,

Find bugs in the transcendent.

 

Hand gifts to jaguars moving lame,

Fill libraries with unseen smoke,

Make Thursdays have their clouds and shame,

Dash periodicals against the oak.

 

Being is a revelry,

Existence is a jumble,

The universe is crippled and free,

Overbearing, humble.

 

Slap time upon its curly pate,

Put years upon a background’s knee,

Cause pavane of early and late,

And let resentment have the lily.


The Answer to the Failure

By Lauren Phillips

The children in the 2nd grade class I taught last year at PS 7 in East Harlem endure daily the brutality of our unjust economic system. Some cannot afford to buy the notebooks needed for school; and they can be scared at night by gunshots in the streets. They spoke about rats running in their bedrooms, and sometimes I had to send a child to the nurse because of cockroach bites.

When I first met these seven-year-olds, I was affected by their dull, tired, and angry expressions. This was a Spanish bilingual class, and although all the children spoke English, it was the first time they had a teacher who gave every lesson in English. Maria* wanted to get into arguments with me or anyone. Miranda and Beth were competitive and would fight with each other, with one soon crying. I was troubled by how quiet Emily was, never speaking during class. Peter was so distressed that often he sat with his back to the rest of the class. When I corrected Steven’s work, he would be angry, usually replying, “That’s the way I’ve always done it,” and would stay angry the rest of the day. I later learned that he and his mother were living in a shelter.

In the first weeks the children interrupted each other so much, all talking at once, that discussions couldn’t take place. Miranda constantly yelled out, finding it almost impossible to listen. But as the term progressed I saw these young people—who were so angry, wild, and unable to concentrate—learn with eagerness as they saw, through the Aesthetic Realism method, that the subjects we studied represent a world that makes sense, is deeply related to them, and can be honestly liked. The basis of my teaching is this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

We Begin with Rest and Motion

I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that our ability to listen stands for the deepest desire in us: to like the world, to feel that things can add to us. The reason a person, child or adult, doesn’t listen is not understood by the so-called “experts.” It is an ethical matter: do we think the world is worthy of getting into our ears and minds, or do we feel what goes on inside us is much more important than anything we can hear from other people?

In the Aesthetic Realism As Teaching Method workshop, I asked how I could encourage my class to listen better; and the teachers suggested I speak to them about two things: 1) the fact that I, myself, hoped to listen more deeply and respectfully; 2) that listening is a wonderful relation of opposites we all want to do a good job with—rest and motion—and that these are opposites we would meet in every subject we studied. They said, “To learn anything means we want to take into ourselves something from the outside world. This is not only passive. Can we really learn if we do not feel we are also active as we listen?” This discussion had a tremendous effect on my students. As I told them what I heard and spoke self-critically, the class was absolutely quiet. Miranda said thoughtfully, “I never heard a teacher say she had anything to learn before!”

Every day, as we studied the subjects in our curriculum, we saw motion and rest were central to each one. During a science lesson Juan noted, “While we are sleeping, our hearts are beating and our blood is going through our bodies.” In a geography lesson, the class saw that the bed of a river stays put while the water moves. In an English lesson, as the class was learning to write a complete sentence (something they had earlier had a hard time with) we saw that what is called the naming part, or noun, stands for the world at rest, while what is called the telling part, or verb, stands for the world as active. And a complete sentence has to have both.

The class loved talking about these opposites, and would excitedly point out where they saw rest and motion in a butterfly, a plant, a bus. And they became both more energetic and calmer! They were listening during discussions, asking questions during lessons, and they liked learning from each other. One day my assistant principal walked in and was so surprised. “I can’t believe the change in these students,” she told me. “The way they are listening to one another—they’re like a different class!”

A Book and Ourselves

Part of the learning standards for 2nd graders is to “listen to a book, discuss it, understand and appreciate and share ideas, listen respectfully and take turns talking.” Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, all these things and more happened in my classroom! As I read them Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, we saw in this popular book a fight between kindness and cruelty, respect and contempt—opposites children are tremendously interested in.

For example, early in the story Wilbur, a pig who has come to live in a new barn and is lonely, tries to befriend various animals, all of whom feel they are too good for him. When he asks the lamb to play with him, she snootily replies, “Certainly not....I am not interested in pigs. Pigs mean less than nothing to me.” The children were surprised hearing a lamb, usually seen as gentle, speak in this arrogant, mean way, and they said it was wrong of her. I asked, “Has anyone here ever felt like this lamb—that we’re better than other people?” Emily, who very seldom spoke, raised her hand and said “Yes.” I asked, “Are we proud of ourselves when we have contempt and don’t want to think about what another person feels—someone we see as different from us?” No! they said.

One night in the barn, Wilbur meets Charlotte, a spider:

You can imagine Wilbur’s surprise when, out of the darkness, came a small voice...."Do you want a friend, Wilbur?” it said. “I’ll be a friend to you.”

Children, like adults, have been frightened of spiders. But Charlotte proves to be warmhearted and noble. I asked, Does the character of Charlotte show there may be goodness in the world and in people which we haven’t seen yet? They thought so. Is this a way of saying we shouldn’t sum up what things are?

An aspect of the 2nd grade curriculum is to learn story elements, including character and character traits. I wrote Charlotte inside a circle and then the children named traits or qualities she has. I respected very much the words they used to describe her, some of them difficult English words: generous, kind, compassionate, true, loyal, intelligent.

Another character in this story is Templeton, the rat, who, the author says, “had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness.” Templeton will only help if he is bribed with food. We discussed how Templeton and Charlotte represent two aspects of a person—the desire to be selfish, grudging, and the desire to be generous and kind.

I asked, “Does Templeton stand for something in all of us? Can we be selfish?” Every hand went up; they all agreed they could be like Templeton. Juan said, “Sometimes I am too grabby and don’t want to share.” The children respected him when he said he sometimes took things that didn’t belong to him without asking. “Does Templeton show that selfishness makes us small, and also unlikable?” Everyone agreed this was true. “Who do we want to be like—Charlotte or Templeton?” Everyone eagerly yelled out, “Charlotte! Definitely Charlotte! I don’t want to be like Templeton!” The children were seeing the world in the form of words in a book as friendlier, through seeing that this story put together opposites fighting in them.

As part of our study of characters, each student chose a character to write about. Earlier in the term, they had had a very difficult time writing English sentences and often put words in the same order they would have in Spanish. Now they wrote with much more ease, and their grammar was the most accurate it had been. Danny was a student who had been so restless that he could not stay in one place. Yet he loved working on this assignment and proudly edited it with me two or three times. He changed dramatically during the semester—to a person who loved reading biographies and worked carefully and steadily.

Big changes like that occurred throughout the class. One day the science teacher told me, “I love your class. They’re so good during discussions!” She commented on how “they so carefully listen to each other and say such deep things!”

The children came to love reading, many of them reading 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade novels. Almost every morning they would rush in to tell me what page of a particular book they were on, and would ask for extra time during the afternoon to read. Peter, who had earlier sat with his back to the class, went from level 2 to level 5 on the Language Arts test. Most of the children reached the highest level on their June reading test.

As these students who have endured so much saw in one subject after another that the world has a beautiful structure, related to their very selves, they learned! Steven, who had hated my correcting his work, began to sit in the front of the room and listen as if water were being poured on parched land. Maria, who had looked to fight with people, became much more considerate. I was moved at the end of the year when Emily, who earlier never spoke in class, wrote, “I love you for all the things you have taught us and because you want us to be kind people.” And on the last day of school, her mother hugged me and said, “Thank you for all you have done for my daughter.”

I am so proud and grateful to be a teacher using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method!

*The students' names have been changed.