|NUMBER 1806.—September 28, 2011||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are glad to publish an article of enormous importance. It is a paper that New York City teacher Zvia Ratz presented last year at the public seminar on education titled “Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, Students Choose Knowing—Not Anger & Bullying!” That title, as Ms. Ratz shows, is magnificently true.
She tells about teaching young men in East Harlem, whose life circumstances were profoundly unfair, many of whom were exceedingly angry, cynical, mean to each other, and uninterested in learning. And she tells how, through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, these young men came to like mathematics, be excited about it, learn it well—and how they became much kinder. The success she describes is NEWS. The fact that she achieved it in her first and second years of teaching, makes the news even more meaningful.
Educators, parents, community leaders, government officials, fellow Americans: The great, kind, scientific, cultural Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the answer for American education—for any grade level, subject, any school anywhere! Teachers using it have made that fact clear in public seminars for years. And the instructors of the long-established Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Workshop can train our nation’s teachers as they have taught Ms. Ratz and so many others.
Eli Siegel is the educator who identified that within a person which interferes with learning, and with every aspect of our mind and life. It is contempt: the feeling that we enhance ourselves by lessening what’s different from us. Meanwhile, students in America’s schools have also been battered by contempt from outside themselves, two instances of which I’ll mention.
1) There is the horrible contempt of profit economics—a system in which human beings are seen in terms of how much money someone else can make from them, and in which the nation is owned principally by a few people, not by all. This economic contempt has made millions of schoolchildren poor, millions hungry.
2) Part of today’s huge effort to have a few individuals go on using people’s lives for profit, is the contemptuous campaign to make education increasingly privatized. The existence of public education is one of the big achievements in human history and ethics. It arose from the recognition that every person deserves to have knowledge, and that people as a whole, in the form of the state, have an obligation to bring out the goodness of every child’s mind. Various persons today want to impoverish the public schools, and want them to fail. The purpose? So young people (and teachers) can become fodder from which some individuals can make big profits—through private or semi-private schools that don’t work.
The short poems by Eli Siegel printed here are related to what the young men in East Harlem were learning. These playful, deep, musical poems show what Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy to make clear: opposites that fight painfully in people need not do so. The poems say, in different ways, that fact and value are not apart; that quantity, with its more and less, is inseparable from mystery, and our feelings.
All students in America have a right to the teaching method that can enable their minds to be increasingly intelligent, and happy, and kind.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Poems by Eli Siegel
Flew round the maypole
How much is existence a cause
The Uncouthness of Fact
Can be felt
Until it is given meaning.
Knowing, Not Bullying
By Zvia Ratz
Though I had graduated from a teachers college in Israel, I’d given up on the idea of teaching. I was cynical about education and so angry that I worried I might explode in a classroom. Then I began studying Aesthetic Realism, including in the bi-weekly workshop for teachers. Every workshop illustrates what Eli Siegel explained: “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” And the reason we can like the world is that it has a structure that is logical, beautiful, and related to ourselves: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
What I was learning renewed my hope to teach. And in 2008 I began my career as one of the luckiest of teachers, learning how to use the Aesthetic Realism method.
In Middle School 317 in East Harlem, where I taught math, the majority of the students are African-American and some are Latino. Our unjust profit economy affects them brutally. James* would sometimes miss school because he had to take care of his younger siblings while his mother worked, and many students told me about parents or guardians losing their jobs. Some families, like Darnel’s, had moved in with relatives, all living in a one bedroom apartment. Darnel would sometimes come to school so distressed that he’d either stare out the window or ask to put his head on the desk.
Students often went without sufficient food and clothes. Some lived in shelters. Tyron, who lived in public housing, told me he sometimes couldn’t sleep at night because of gunshots in the hallway or police activity in his building. No one should have to live that way; and the fact that people do, rightly makes for anger. Such anger could be used in behalf of changing the injustice, but instead, it often takes the form of a desire to retaliate through gang activities and bullying, which were widespread in the school.
In September 2008, when I met the 7th grade all-boys class, I saw in them a readiness to be angry and show it at the slightest perception of insult. Students would drop what they were in the midst of and assert themselves chest to chest, saying, “Wussup? Wussup?,” and a fight would break out. Bullying was a daily occurrence; insults, including racial epithets, and cursing were frequent. Larger boys would slap smaller students on the head for not moving out of their way fast enough. In class, if a boy made a mistake he would be ridiculed—which made some stop raising their hands.
Though I knew things could be difficult for a new teacher, this was not exactly what I’d expected. And I unfortunately responded, as teachers can, by bearing down and trying to enforce discipline. My students were not impressed, and reacted with increased anger. In an Aesthetic Realism class for Consultants and Associates, when I spoke about this situation, Ellen Reiss asked me many questions, including whether I saw these students’ lives and feelings as real. And she asked, “Do you want to subdue them, or do you want to understand them and have good will?”
Thinking about these questions was a turning point in my teaching. I thought about the anger my students have concerning their living conditions; how they are affected by racism; about their love of music and dance; their hope and despair as to their future; their hope to fit in with each other and also stand out as individuals.
I saw that both they and I have what Aesthetic Realism explains is a fierce debate in everyone, between two desires: should I hope to like the world, see meaning in it, or should I have contempt for it? Many of the young men clearly felt that to take care of themselves in what they saw as an unfriendly world, they had to retaliate against it, act tough, and be as little affected as possible. Learning to distinguish between the two desires was an emergency.
Equations: A Drama of Sameness & Difference
I taught the students I speak about for two years, in both 7th and 8th grade. At first, many saw math as boring and intimidating. I was thrilled to begin to show them that mathematics is friendly, and evidence that the world has a structure that’s sensible—an exciting relation of sameness and difference. And through the Aesthetic Realism method, math can teach us about the ethics we want in our everyday lives.
“Equations,” I said as we began our study of them, “have one of my favorite things in math.” And when I wrote the equal sign on the board, I heard, “You gotta be kidding. It’s only an equal sign.” I asked the students to look around at the people in class: “Do we all look the same?” Jerome yelled out, exasperated: “No, we’re black and you’re white.” Taylor followed with: “I am not black—I am Latino.” “Yeah,” said Emilio, “me too—my family is from DR.”
I asked, “Suppose we all had the same skin color—would we all look the same then?” The response of the class was yes. “If that is so,” I asked, looking at two African-American students, “how could I tell the difference between Hakeem and Kelvin?” They said, “Because they don’t look the same.” “Are they interested in exactly the same things?” “No.”
We’re all different. But do we have a deep sameness? They weren’t sure. For instance, do we all have hopes, worries, a desire to respect ourselves? Let’s see, I said, what math says about whether things that seem different can also be the same.
I asked them to name terms I could write on the left side of the equal sign, and on the right. They randomly called out terms, and I wrote: (2a + 73 – 176a) ÷ (3 · 7) = 8a – (29 · 1,234) ÷ 107. “Do the expressions on the two sides of the equation look the same or different?” “Different,” they said. “What happens, though,” I asked, “once we write the equal sign? What are we saying is true about the two sides?” Everyone agreed: “They’re equal!” I said: “Math describes the relation between different things in the world. Though algebraic expressions can look very different, as soon as we put that equal sign in, we’re stating that with all their differences they have the same value. Not only that—in order to find out what the variable a is or get accurate information about it, we MUST see the two sides as equal.” (And there is a value for a which would make the sides of this equation equal.)
Emilio called out, “I get it! This is like us: we are different but we are also equal. It’s what you told us before: that we look different but we have the same insides.”
Algebra & Ethics
As the class learned how to solve equations, they were seeing that the equality of the two sides has to be preserved or the equation will become a false statement. “Whatever we do to one side,” I said, “we must do to the other side, or we will get the wrong solution.” We solved the following equation:
Subtract 2 from both sides:
Divide both sides by 3:
This was November of 2008, and the phrase “Whatever you do to one side, you must do to the other side” became an instant hit. I sometimes heard students saying it to each other as they worked in groups, meaning that there is something every person deserves.
Through this and other lessons—for example, on the least common multiple, and the greatest common factor—my students were seeing ethics in mathematics: that there is an insistent relation of sameness and difference going on all the time. This made for a large change in how they saw people different from themselves. Mocking and cursing lessened. They began to work with and help one another. And they learned!
Jamal, who, according to his mother, never passed math classes, went from failing at the beginning of 7th grade to the honors class in 8th grade. Emilio, who had wanted to join a gang, was talking at the end of the year about what he wants to study in college. He was one of the best students in the 8th grade honors class. In a school where less than 60% of the students scored on grade level in the 2009 state math exam, 82% of my students were on grade level.
The Power of Knowing
When we met again in September 2009, amidst growing anger and violence in school, this all-boys class, now starting 8th grade, was known for the students’ desire to have a good effect on each other, their desire to learn, and their significant academic progress.
One objective of the 8th grade curriculum is for students to solve equations with an increased level of difficulty; for example, equations that have variables on both sides. To review, I put a “Do Now” on the board with an equation to solve. Mario chided me: “Ms. Ratz, we learned this last year. It’s that equal sign thing—it’s telling us that we look different but we are the same. Don’t you remember?” “Yes,” I said, “and we’re going to see even more about how powerful the equal sign is.” Jerome yelled out, laughing: “Powerful? That’s not powerful.” He held up his fist: “This is powerful.”
I said, “A fist is powerful, and knowledge is also powerful. The question is, what kind of power do we want? When we use our fists, what do we use them for?” Morgan said, “We deck the other person, get them out of the way.” Taylor said, “Yeah, deck ’em!” and many in the class were motioning with their fists in the air as if they were hitting someone. I said, “And then what? If you deck a person, do you learn anything that will help you not be in the same situation tomorrow?” Mario called out, “She’s telling us that algebra does it better.” “Yes,” I said. “We can all learn something about the kind of power we want through solving equations.”
Using an equation like 4a + 6 = 2a + 20, I pointed out that now the variable a is on both sides of the equal sign. Taylor said speedily and with annoyance, “Get rid of the 6 on the left and get rid of the 2a on the right and then divide it by 4 and you’re done.” Many in the class disagreed. Since students are expected to be able to recognize mistakes in given solutions, I said, “Okay, we’ll try Taylor’s ‘deck ’em’ method first, and see if it gets us where we want to go.”
I wrote on the board: 4a + 6 = 2a + 20, and continued, “Get rid of the 6 on the left: 4a = 2a + 20. We knocked out that one! And get rid of the 2a on the right: 4a = 20. That one too. Divide it by 4 and you’re done: a = 5.” Then, checking our answer as we had learned to do, by substituting 5 for a in the equation, we got: 26 = 30. The class was in an uproar: “It’s wrong! You can’t do that!” “Why not? I was just following the ‘deck ’em’ instructions.” “26 is not 30! You can’t do that!” they yelled.
Students were seeing that in order to solve a mathematical problem, we can’t manhandle the numbers or treat them any way we want. Those numbers deserve that we see them fairly, accurately. We then solved the equation correctly:
Subtract 2a from both sides:
Subtract 6 from both sides:
Divide both sides by 2:
Checking, by substituting 7 for a, we got: 34 = 34. There were many sighs of relief, calls of “Yeah!,” “That’s it!,” “That’s cool!,” and “Finally!” I said, “We had power—we took things away, we divided, moved things around. But we did it accurately, and we got what we wanted. Is this the power we really want?” They said YES!
The Real Power
Their math skills continued to improve, and they became kinder. Mario, who had refused to do work and was close to failing the class the previous year, now not only understood what we were learning—he began helping others. His grades rose; he was at the top of the class. Taylor waited for me after class one day and said, “Ms. Ratz, I was too wild last year and I didn’t care about school. I’m going to be different.” And he was true to his word. Quite a few students began speaking about going to college. And while working on a major project toward the end of the year, many students came after school, sat in groups, and assisted each other. On the 2010 state exam, 87% passed.
Their response to a big fight that took place in the school showed how deeply these young men were changing. Some, who the year before had been eager to fight, helped to break it up. Others removed themselves from the gym where it was taking place. Enrique, Mario, and Julio told me later, “We had nothing to do with the fight. We don’t want to beat people up. It’s not who we are anymore.”
It is my opinion that when the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is implemented throughout America, teachers and students will be kinder, classrooms will be safe, and students will flourish as they choose learning over anger and bullying.
*The students’ names have been changed.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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