By Lauren Phillips
I have seen, in 17 years of teaching, that the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the means for children to learn with ease, depth, and pleasure.
Eli Siegel has defined learning as “the getting into oneself of the world, with as much variety, as much order, and as much respect as possible” (TRO 729). Whenever we learn anything, I tell my students—whether it’s how to tell time, write a complete sentence, or understand the feelings of a character in a book—it’s the world we’re knowing, taking into our minds: the world is becoming ourselves, making our minds larger.
Every student and teacher, though, has an unspoken debate: Is this a world to know and like—or is it a world I should protect myself from, keep separate from, make less of? The latter feeling is contempt. The Aesthetic Realism teaching method understands and opposes contempt. It enables a teacher to show, through every subject, that the world can be honestly liked because it is a oneness of opposites, the same opposites a student is thirsting to put together in himself or herself.
I teach at PS 184, a dual language, English- and Mandarin-speaking school on New York’s Lower East Side. The students in the 2nd grade class I’ll tell of showed, on the one hand, an eagerness to learn. Each morning, on the “Count to the 100th Day of School” chart, we’d post the day number—one, two, three, etc.—in Mandarin, French, Spanish, English, and in Roman numerals, and it thrilled them to see how the words were similar yet different. They liked the rhythmic sound of Spanish; they’d do a little dance with their bodies as they chanted, “Cuatro, cuatro!” But by 9:30 they had put their heads down, looking bored and listless. David would call out, “I’m hungry,” and the whole class would follow: “Me too”; “Yeah, when is lunch?” This was at the beginning of the term.
What my students were showing was a fight about whether to keep themselves separate from the world or join with it. Few raised their hands to participate, and those who did often spoke in a whisper. Others, when called on, looked terrified—they hadn’t been listening.
Then, excitement and contempt could mingle. When it was time to come to our meeting area, the boys ran full speed, slid on the floor, and fell on top of each other. When I got them all assembled, they would poke and distract each other.
Jacob*, who played the violin, showed a preference for his own thoughts: whenever anyone spoke, instead of listening he’d conduct an imaginary orchestra. Chen, who knew very little English, told me he didn’t want to learn any more of it. Lilly refused to join others in the meeting area. And she’d roll around on the floor. She could also be a bully, smashing one child’s snack on the floor, telling another “I’ll spill your guts out!” Her reading was below grade level. She rushed through books making up words, and was unable to join words into a complete sentence.
Claire was a very pretty girl who, when anyone spoke or asked her to give attention, would nervously put her fingers together and tap rhythmically. She also would often touch herself. She told me she didn’t like reading. Yet I knew that Claire, Lilly, Jacob, Chen, every child in my class, desperately wanted to know the world, to learn.
I’ll tell of a science lesson that brought out this desire in them. I once hated science, and the fact that I now love teaching it makes for large gratitude in me to the teachers of the Aesthetic Realism Education Workshop. I knew that if I could change, so could the students in room 206. And that is what happened.
The Ordinary & Surprising in Science
The 2nd grade science curriculum begins with geology and the study of soil. I asked the class, “When you hear the word dirt, what do you think of?” They responded: “Ick,” “Bugs live there.” Andrew yelled out, “When I get some on my clothes, my mom gets real angry.” I told them, “We’re going to see that soil, the ordinary thing we walk by, play on, get on our clothes, is more wonderful and important than we ever imagined. In fact, we couldn’t live without it!” Now they were all surprised and listening. I read these sentences from What Is Soil?, by Ellen Ungaro:
Without soil, we would not have...fruits like apples, bananas, and strawberries. Soil also gives us grass to walk on, trees to climb.... Imagine a place with no plants at all and no food for us to eat. We couldn’t live without soil!
As much as jaded adults, children can sum things up, decide in advance that something is just boring and they know all about it. These students were seeing that something could be around them all the time and be mysterious. When I asked if they’d like to find out what soil is made of, everyone shouted “Yes!”
To begin, they investigated soil samples with magnifying glasses; observed and gently touched the soil; then carefully drew, described, and labeled their observations. I heard: “Ms. Phillips, look! There are sticks in here!”; “What are those white things?”; “Ms. Phillips, come—we see small pebbles!”
Giving soil samples to 7-year-olds can terrify a teacher, but I was delighted, walking from table to table, to see students using their hands and minds to join with the world in a careful, respectful way—to learn!
Soil: One & Many, Hard & Soft
We learned that soil is a surprising relation of very different materials joining together. I read the following:
One part of soil comes from rocks. When wind, water, snow, and rain beat against large rocks, small pieces of rock break off. Over time, the bits of rock become smaller and smaller. The tiny pieces of rocks are sand. Even tinier pieces of rock are clay. Both sand and clay can become a main part of soil.
The way rocks break down over millions of years is a process called weathering. The study of it affected my students very much as they saw they were learning about opposites in the world which were also in them. These included hardness and softness. I asked, “Do you think when we want our way, we can get hard as a rock, and feel nothing is going to change us?” “Yes!” Lilly said. She began to take part seriously.
In weathering, tiny pieces of rock—which are hard—mix and join two other ingredients, which are soft: air and water. I asked Lilly, “Are you excited about this because it shows things can change each other in a good way? From the weathering process, soil is created, from which life can grow. Do you want to affect things and people in a good way, to have them better?” Now this girl who had bullied others smiled, and looked very thoughtful and happy.
Soil has a final ingredient that really surprised us. From What Is Soil? I read:
Another important part of soil comes from dead plants and animals. When plants die, their leaves..., stems, and other plant parts break down into very small pieces. Dead animals break down into small pieces, too. Together, all this material forms something called humus.
A few students yelled, “That’s disgusting!” But they all wanted to understand what happens to plants and animals after they die. I asked, “What could be in plants and animals that is so valuable for soil?” Mason answered, “Dead plants and animals have nutrients in them.” “That’s right. Animals that once were alive still have meaning and are doing good. Does this show the world has kindness and is a world it would be good for us to know about?”
My students were seeing the opposites of life and death—which are often used to hate the world—as related in a mysterious but beautiful way. “Let’s put the word humus in our science glossary,” someone suggested, and everyone agreed. They eagerly wrote this word and learned it. The teacher’s guide instructs teachers to introduce the words soil and humus but says we should not expect 2nd graders to learn them. My students did learn them, and were very proud.
Junction & Separation; or, Do We Need Other Things?
In another lesson, my students were amazed to hear that the United States has more than 700,000 kinds of soil. And as they learned about some of the differences, they had real pleasure drawing and describing in their books the four central ingredients that always join to make soil.
I asked if we could learn about ourselves from those separate ingredients and how they join: “We are separate from everything else, yet do we need the outside world to join with us to make us all we can be?” And knowing the difficulty many students had about reading, I related that subject to our lesson: “Once we didn’t know the alphabet; we were separate from it. Now we know if we put together three letters, c, a, t, it makes the word cat. Does it make our minds bigger to know that?” “Yes!” “Would you tell your baby sisters and brothers, ‘When you get older, don’t learn the alphabet. It isn’t good for you’?” They looked horrified, and said: “No way!”; “That’s crazy!”; “Yeah, that’s mean!”; “They’d never learn to read!”
Meanwhile, we saw, there are also bad, unfair ways we can join with things and people. I respected the examples of this they were eager to give: grabbing pencils and erasers; hitting; calling out when someone else is speaking. “Each of us,” I said, “is a separate person. Yet we want to be in a good relation to other things and people. Look at the person sitting next to you. Does that person have feelings as deep as yours that it would be good for you to know? Would that be a beautiful, kind way of joining with another person?”
The Success: Learning & Kindness
I’ve told mostly about one science lesson. The cumulative effect of lessons like this every day, was notable. The wildness and lethargy I saw at the beginning of the year changed to real excitement about learning. And the children wanted to have a respectful, kind, strengthening relation to other students, objects, books. One day in the spring I realized: so many people were raising their hands during discussions that now I often had to apologize for not being able to call on everyone. These 7-year-olds changed as to other subjects too. During our nonfiction unit, I saw them busy, reading books, learning the very sophisticated process of taking notes, working for 1½ to 2 hours.
Lilly loved the lessons on soil and told her mother she wanted to be a scientist. During our reading discussion I noticed her tremendous desire to be affected by the characters in a book and speak about them in relation to herself. By June she had gone up 5 reading levels. She stopped fighting. She told the class that when she saw others fighting during recess, she thought of the things she’d learned in our class: “I wanted to be proud,” she told us.
Claire also changed dramatically. She stopped touching herself, and her parents told me this had changed at home as well. They said that when they opened the door to her room now, she was often reading. She no longer tapped her fingers nervously. She had become one of my most attentive students, the first to gather in a circle for discussions. Her reading improved 4 levels. And at the end of the school year, she wrote to me in a note: “Thank you for all of the important things you taught us.”
Jacob paid attention now when someone was talking, instead of conducting his imaginary orchestra. He, too, became one of my best students. He taught me Chinese words, explaining in a very respectful way the difference between the Chinese sounds and the English. He and others proudly applauded me whenever I pronounced a word correctly.
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method enables a child to feel: Through knowing the world that’s both like me and different, I’ll come to be all that I can be!