Learning vs. Prejudice!
By Barbara McClung
I’m very glad to tell about two lessons I taught, in science and reading, to my third grade students at PS 184 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, they came to love these subjects, learn them successfully, and change in big ways, becoming much kinder to each other. The basis of this magnificent method is in the following principles, stated by Eli Siegel: 1) The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it; 2) The way to like the world is to see its aesthetic structure of opposites; 3) The biggest interference with learning is contempt.
The students in my class are predominantly of Chinese descent. Many were born in the United States but speak Mandarin or Cantonese at home. Several were born in China and are learning English as a second language. Some come from families that are financially fairly comfortable, while the parents of others struggle to make ends meet. In some instances the child is part of a large, extended family living in one cramped apartment.
Where Prejudice Begins
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that prejudice does not begin with race, but with the desire in every person to have contempt, to “lessen...what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” We can be prejudiced against anything—books, food, music, clothing, sports. This desire for contempt can come to include one student’s being fiercely against another, and insulting or hurting that student, simply because his or her skin color or accent is not the same as one’s own.
At the beginning of the year, the children would sit almost exclusively with those they saw as like them. Some who were more “Americanized” played together, while several, whose English was limited or who came from more traditional Chinese homes, kept separate from the others, often looking at them with suspicion. During a lesson, some children sat with a kind of stony silence and sometimes a blank stare. Then suddenly I’d hear them angrily teasing and mocking each other, calling out insults like “That’s stupid!” and “He’s dumb!”
I respect the fact that our school administrators have been concerned about incidents that have occurred among Asian, African-American, and Latino children. Some of the girls in my class, particularly Maddie, * would give mean looks to and whisper about Amanda, the only Latino student, who wanted to play with the other children but was often excluded from games at recess. And when Allan, who is half Chinese and half Jamaican, answered a question correctly, several boys rolled their eyes and gave him a disgusted look.
I’m grateful that my students were able to learn the powerful, scientific alternative to prejudice and contempt. Through my 19 years of experience using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, I know that when a young person sees that reality in all its difference is like him or her, that child does not want to have contempt for the world and people and punish them.
Don’t Sum Up a Rock
One of the first things we studied in science was geology, how the earth is made. We looked at something people can take for granted, kick around, even stumble over, something we can prejudge and see as boring. I saw surprise on children’s faces as we read from our read-aloud book Let’s Go Rock Collecting, by Roma Gans:
People collect all kinds of things....The oldest things you can collect are rocks. Most of them are millions and millions of years old.
We learned that rocks are made in three different ways, each a different relation of hardness and softness. These opposites are awry when a person is prejudiced: we harden ourselves to the feelings of people and are too soft on ourselves, assuming our own opinions are correct—without wanting to know the facts.
With a hand lens, my students and I examined several rocks closely. The first turned out to be an igneous rock. These are “fire-formed” rocks, made from heated minerals deep within the earth or by an erupting volcano. One such rock is granite. It’s very hard. Yet pumice is also an igneous rock and is very different: it’s so light it can float!
The next kind of rock we looked at is called sedimentary. These are formed when layers of sediment, like sand, are pressed together under the sea. My students loved seeing how a sedimentary rock, such as limestone, is both hard and soft, as they delightedly took turns at the blackboard with a piece of limestone and wrote their names with it.
The third kind of rock is called metamorphic. These, the hardest rocks, are formed over millions of years. They begin as softer rocks deep in the earth. Then heat and pressure are added—and limestone, for example, becomes marble.
Those opposites, hardness and softness, trouble people of every age. Like many of my students, I once felt that to get along in this world I had to be hard. “Keep it to yourself,” was my motto, because I didn’t think other people were good enough to know the “deep, sensitive” me. “Do you think you’ve become a master of not showing your feelings?” I was asked in an Aesthetic Realism consultation. Because my snobbishness was criticized and I learned that other people had feelings like mine, I became both warmer and stronger.
As the lesson continued and the children saw how hardness and softness are joined beautifully in the rocks, a hurtful hardness changed in them: they no longer had that inert stoniness. They were excited, and with great care they examined many rocks, drew them, and described their color and texture. There was no calling out or mocking. Instead, they worked respectfully and eagerly together.
Surface & Depth Can Be Friendly
When a person is prejudiced, he or she judges another by what’s outside and doesn’t want to look beneath the surface. That way of seeing was being countered as we studied rocks that have been broken into such tiny bits that they are called sand. I read the class this line by William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand”; and as we looked at pictures of sand from different parts of the world, the children were amazed to see how an everyday thing had such depth—such variety of shapes and colors.
They loved looking at sand under a microscope. “The sand looks like rocks!” said Patty excitedly. This was the first time she seemed really pleased and wasn’t afraid to show us her feeling. William, who had often acted bored, said with definite awe, “I never, ever knew that you could look into a small grain of sand and see so much wonderful stuff!”
The Hermit Crab Is Not Prejudiced
In another lesson, which combined reading and science, we read A House for Hermit Crab, by Eric Carle. It is centrally about the opposites of sameness and difference.
These are the big opposites in prejudice, where they fight horribly: a person sees what’s different from oneself as inimical and to be hated, and fiercely prefers what is like oneself. But in this story, though the main character, Hermit Crab, at first fears the great ocean he’s in, he makes a decision to welcome the world different from himself.
We learned that a hermit crab lives in the empty shell of another mollusk, which has left it behind. And as he grows, he needs to find bigger and bigger shells to live in. That is how the story begins. The author writes: “It was frightening out in the open sea without a shell to hide in.”
Soon, however, Hermit finds an empty shell that fits him perfectly. But it’s very bare. He goes abroad again, and discovers creatures who are different from him, including sea anemones, “soft animals...without bony skeletons.”
“How beautiful you are!” said Hermit Crab. “Would one of you be willing to come and live on my house? It is so plain, it needs you.”
"I'll come,” whispered a small sea anemone. Gently, Hermit Crab picked it up with his claw and put it on his shell.
This surprised my students—that Hermit Crab and the sea anemone are so welcoming of each other. What’s the reason? In the glossary, we learn that sea anemones
protect and camouflage the hermit crab, and, in turn, may share the hermit crab’s meals. This arrangement is called symbiosis, meaning that both animals benefit from each other.
The children were thrilled to learn about symbiosis and see how two animals, so different, really add to each other and make each other stronger. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, they were seeing that symbiosis is a relation of difference and sameness that shows reality has a beautiful, sensible structure!
Difference Is Friendly
As Hermit Crab travels through the ocean, he meets many other creatures, all looking different—the sea star, snail, sea urchin, lantern fish, coral—all of whom do good things for his new home, like protecting it, keeping it clean, making it look beautiful. The children wanted me to read about every one of these animals and wanted to learn to say their names.
I asked how each animal is both different from and the same as Hermit Crab, and the children were eager to discuss this. “They all live in the sea,” said Alicia, a girl who had been sullen and cynical. Max added, “A snail is like Hermit Crab because he carries his house on his back too.” I asked, “Does Hermit Crab feel, even as these animals are different from him, he needs them to be more himself?” “Yes,” said Allan, the boy of Chinese and Jamaican parentage, who had been taunted by other children and seen himself as so different. He continued, “Hermit Crab is smart to need these other animals, because all the friends helped him in different ways.”
There was an energetic, eager buzz as we discussed the story—so different from the beginning of the year when a class discussion would have long silent pauses and faces with dull expressions. While this delightful story is a means of teaching science, the Aesthetic Realism method enabled it also to be anti-prejudice, because my students saw that the opposites of sameness and difference don’t have to fight, but in fact make for kindness, efficiency, and mutual assistance.
“How would the story be different,” I asked, “if Hermit Crab only wanted to be with other hermit crabs?” “Boring” was the overwhelming response. “He would be prejudiced to other things then,” said Jackie. And Miranda said, “If you are not prejudiced you will have more friends! He’s telling us not to hang with just your own type.” William added, “You can be a friend to anybody—even if he’s different from you.”
Knowledge and Kindness
These children, like Hermit Crab, are venturing forth. They want to learn about English, science, organisms, their environment. They’re reading books. Now when we have “free choice” time on Friday afternoons, Allan, instead of playing by himself, joins the other boys, who welcome him, exploring magnets, painting, or reading a science book. Maddie, once so sullen, not only participates in class discussions—she and Amanda, the Latina girl she’d been mean to, have become friends, working together on projects, helping each other.
I love the Aesthetic Realism teaching method for the effect it has on these children, who are learning and becoming kinder. And just last week my principal, having read the flyer for tonight’s seminar, greeted me saying, “Congratulations—we’re very proud of you!”