Dear Unknown Friends:
Here are four poems by Eli Siegel. And with them is an article—historic, thrilling, and needed—by New York City teacher Zvia Ratz, formerly of Israel. It is a paper she presented in January at a public seminar titled “The Solution to the Fury & Failure in America’s Schools: The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method!”
Yes, this great teaching method succeeds. It succeeds even with young people who had seemed unable to learn and were cynical and angry. Through it, not only do students truly learn the subjects of the curriculum—they’re excited and eager about knowledge; they become kinder; they become proud.
I think the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is one of the most beautiful things in human history, and is the birthright of every child. Every child deserves to benefit from it: to be able, because of it, to take in knowledge abundantly, to have his or her mind become larger and kinder. And I’ll say quietly: the one reason all of America’s children are not meeting it is that various persons with power have felt this teaching method interferes with their own self-importance. They’ve been angry that they themselves have so much to learn from it.
Education versus the Profit System
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is succeeding even in the midst of our nation’s cruel, shameful economy. Because of our profit-based economy, many millions of America’s young people are poor. Their poverty is not theoretical; it’s no mere statistic. Children sit in classrooms across our land who are undergoing the awful living conditions, the intense worry, the deprivation, often the hunger, that accompany being poor. Our profit system robs them of warm clothes in the winter, and good food; and, frequently, of hope.
There’s a huge effort now to privatize public education in America—the public education that Horace Mann and others rightly saw as inseparable from a nation’s being ethical and civilized. It’s a phase of the effort to privatize everything in America. And Eli Siegel explained the reason behind it when he showed, in the 1970s, that economics based on profit—on seeing people and the world in terms of how much money you can get out of them—had failed and would never recover. Today, the profit system can stagger on only by turning everything people need, everything children need, into a means of lining some individuals’ pockets.
However disguised, the viewpoint of the school privatizers is the following: “The chief purpose of schools is not for children to learn—it’s to supply us with money! And of course we have to break the teachers union, so we can pay teachers very little and treat them any way we please. Why should educators be respected—why should anyone who works? They, like the children, are just profit-fodder for us!”
The Two Purposes
We should be clear: the purpose of education is completely opposed to the purpose of profit economics. The purpose of all education, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like the world through knowing it. That is the purpose of learning how to spell a word; how to find Africa on a map; how to solve an algebraic equation. The profit motive—the purpose behind profit economics—is not to know but to grab and own. It’s the motive to make profit: which means to get as much money as you can from the work and needs of others, while giving them as little as possible. This way of seeing people and reality is a form of sheer contempt. And Aesthetic Realism identifies contempt as the most hurtful thing in us; it’s the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
Contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows too, is that in us which interferes with our ability to learn. Millions of children feel, though they can’t articulate it: “With what I’ve met in my life, I see the world as something I should guard myself against, look down on, get revenge on. I’m not going to allow this unfriendly world to get into me—and that includes facts about it presented in a classroom! Also, these people around me, particularly from backgrounds different from mine—they’re representatives of a world I despise. I should put them in their place, punish them, get the upper hand.”
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method, as Zvia Ratz shows, is the great opponent of contempt for the world. It enables young people to see, through the very facts of the curriculum, that the world is like themselves, and has a structure that’s beautiful. They see that the world is, as Mr. Siegel put it, the other half of ourselves. The basis is this landmark principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
The following poems have to do with the lesson Ms. Ratz speaks of: they’re about mathematics, numbers, geometry. The first and third are from Eli Siegel’s Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. The second is from his Hail, American Development. In all of them, the world of number and measurable shape is the same world as that of wonder, charm, kindness. When we see this, we’re on our way to that necessary and longed-for thing: seeing the world as a friend.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Geometry, the Opposites, & Us
By Zvia Ratz
I love teaching. And I love seeing how, through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, the basis of my lessons, students’ anger changes and they learn with pleasure! Instead of mocking and calling each other names, and doing minimal work “just to pass the class,” students take pride in learning; they become proficient in math, are kinder, and more hopeful.
I’ll tell about lessons I gave in geometry at Middle School 319 in Washington Heights, Manhattan, to students who are from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, the Caribbean islands, Yemen, as well as the US. It is terrible that many of these young people worry every day about not having enough money for food and other necessities. Some live with their grandparents in one-bedroom apartments; others live in shelters. Many are responsible for taking care of younger siblings while their parents or guardians work long hours, sometimes at two or three jobs. I’ve seen students come to school looking dazed.
Aesthetic Realism is scientific and merciful in showing that a person’s ability to learn depends on how he or she sees the outside world. When students see the world as a fearsome, unreliable place that will change on them at any moment, they may lash out angrily, or retreat scornfully into themselves.
There were students in this 7th grade class who had some facility with math, but they were competitive, often mocking each other’s mistakes. Cesar*, for example, muttered insults under his breath, while Curtis and Dominic often yelled at others, “You’re stupid!” Group work was interrupted by arguments about who was smarter. Marcus boasted that he got to 7th grade doing no homework, but when asked a question, he would look stricken, unable to focus. Sarah, whose parents struggled with drug addiction, was very distressed because she and her siblings might be separated. She could suddenly burst out in anger. Kira and Juliana, best friends, looked scared and withdrawn; they said they knew they were going to fail math. Hector and Muneer sat with blank expressions and often asked me to repeat the directions for the task at hand. Emily never spoke in class. Her mother told me she had been diagnosed with “selective mutism.”
I am grateful to have learned in Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method workshops that the deepest desire of these puzzled, angry, lively, anxious young people, whatever they showed, was to like the world through knowing it—and this is also the purpose of education. “The one way to like the world,” states “An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education”—
a world that has wars, economic injustice, and parents that confuse us—is through seeing that the world has an aesthetic structure: it is a oneness of opposites, like difference and sameness, freedom and order, motion and rest, manyness and oneness. Further, these opposites are in all of us all the time, and we are trying to make sense of them, see them as one.
Sameness & Change in Geometry & Us
Transformational geometry is the study of how a shape can change position on a coordinate plane while preserving its original shape and size. A coordinate plane consists of the horizontal x-axis and the vertical y-axis. And through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method this subject becomes a thrilling study in sameness and change, opposites tremendously important in my students’ lives. As the flyer announcing this seminar says, “Young people can feel terribly stuck...and also feel the world is unreliable and people change in ways that don’t make sense.” Learning about geometric transformations, these students saw that opposites they were tormented by can make sense, and even be beautiful.
I asked the class, “When you hear the word transformation or transform, what do you think of?” “The movie,” said Marcus, referring to the film Transformers. “What happens to the robots in the movie?” “They change from one shape to another,” he answered. “That’s right,” I said; “to transform means to change. Do we also change?” The class said yes. I asked how, and Kira replied, “My mom told me I am very moody.” “I got taller this year,” added Curtis. Then I asked, “As we change, do we still recognize ourselves?” Grant, who rarely spoke in class, said, “Not always. Sometimes I get confused.” I said, “What if I told you that geometry shows us a thing can change its position and also maintain itself, be the same as it was, even as it’s in a different place? Would you like to know how?” They said, “Yes.”
I told the class we’d learn about four kinds of transformations: translation, rotation, reflection, and dilation. To introduce the first, I showed a picture of an insect and asked, “What do we call this beautiful being?” One student called out, “A butterfly.” Then I asked, “Does it have the same name when it is in another country?” “No,” said Annabel: “it’s mariposa in Spanish.” “In French it’s papillon,” said Grant. Nadeem said, “In Arabic it’s farashka.” The class wanted to know the Hebrew word. “Par-par,” I said, “and in Rumanian it’s fluturi.”
I asked, “As we move from one country to another, does the object, the butterfly, change?” “No,” they answered. We agreed that the location changes but we can still recognize the object. “It’s like me,” said Muneer: “I sleep in my house, I come to school, I play baseball, all in different places, but it’s me, Muneer the Great.” Juliana added, “It’s like when my mom was mad at me—she translated my computer and the television out of my room and the phone out of my hands. They didn’t change; I just couldn’t use them.” The class laughed. Marcus said, “I feel there are many changes in my body and I get confused. But when we translate, it’s the same butterfly, just in different places. I like that.” Many nodded in agreement. “In geometry,” I said, “translation means moving a shape accurately from one location to another on the coordinate plane.”
We looked at what happens if we translate a triangle 5 units right and 4 units down. We use the x-axis to move right and left, and the y-axis to move up and down. And in order to move the image, I explained, we will move each corner, called a vertex, and then connect the dots.
Step 1: Label each vertex of the original image. We labeled those of our triangle C, D, and E. Each has an address. For C the address on our coordinate plane is (-5, 1). We call this a coordinate pair. (In a coordinate pair, the first number, here -5, is the x value; the second, here 1, is the y value.)
Step 2: Now we want to move each vertex 5 units right and 4 units down. We will label the new location with the same letter as the original image and add a prime symbol. C is moved to C' and its address is (0, -3). We follow this procedure for each vertex.
Step 3: Connect the dots. Voilà! It’s the same triangle in a different place. What we just did is called mapping the coordinates, in this instance (x, y) → (x + 5, y - 4).
Why This Matters to Our Lives
I asked the class, “What happened to the image as it was translated? Did the shape of the original image change?” “No,” they said. “Did the size change?” “No.” “Did the location change?” “Yes.”
Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, my students saw that geometrical transformation is so different from how, in our everyday lives, we can “transform” people or things in our minds, not in keeping with what they truly are, but to make ourselves big through lessening them. We can “transform” a person in order to have contempt—shrink or twist a person’s meaning through an insulting name, make someone into an enemy and retaliate against them, as was frequent with my students at the beginning of the year. Giving an example, Curtis said, “I shrunk Hector yesterday. We had a fight about who’s better in basketball and I called him stupid.” I asked, “Were you a good transformer—which means, were you exact?” “No. And I felt bad,” he said thoughtfully: “he’s my friend and I didn’t care how he felt. I’m sorry, Hector.”
In the lessons that followed, everyone learned how, also, to rotate, reflect, and dilate a given image on the coordinate plane. They had a good time carefully drawing the original and transformed images. And—so different from earlier in the year—they assisted each other, asked each other’s opinion of their drawings and their explanations about them. And they answered challenging questions, such as how to distinguish between reflected and rotated images. Kira, who had insisted she would fail, said, “This doesn’t look hard. I can do this.” All these 7th grade students were actually doing 8th grade work with ease and pleasure.
In April, every one of them passed the state test. Sixty percent tested above grade level.
Other very important changes took place. For example, there was Emily, who had been diagnosed with “selective mutism.” In our discussion of transformational geometry I mentioned that years ago I often chose to be silent around people; then, studying Aesthetic Realism, I learned the reason: I had unjustly “transformed” people in my mind, making them seem enemies, unworthy of knowing what I felt. Seeing that people were deeper, friendlier, and more like me than I’d imagined, I changed. “Now,” I said, “I’m a teacher—and, as you’ve heard, I speak a great deal, and loudly!” During this discussion Emily’s face lit up with a smile of recognition. After it, she was both more relaxed and more attentive in class. She gradually began to participate in discussions, and I saw her actually talking with other students. Near the end of the year she volunteered to come to the board to solve a math problem, and explained it clearly and loudly to the whole class. The proud look on her face was priceless. She wrote: “When I came to math class I learned many things....I learned to be respectful of others. Additionally, I came more out of my shell.”
There was Sarah. Instead of exploding with fury, she became kinder, and by the end of the year was assisting others with their work. She wrote that in our class, “I learned...not to try and be better than anyone, just to be you, and better than you were before.”
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method provides the scientific, kind solution to the fury and failure in schools.