To End the Crisis
By Avi Gvili
In the over six years I have been using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, I’ve seen students who had all but given up on school and said they hated books, come really to like reading and writing—something they never imagined could happen.
I teach eighth grade English at IS 72, the largest middle school on Staten Island. The students, of diverse ethnic backgrounds, are very much affected by our economy, and we teachers have brought fruit to school because we’ve seen young people come to class hungry, complaining that their stomachs hurt. It is shameful, outrageous, that in the richest country in the world students cannot concentrate because they’re not getting enough food. And they are affected by racism, including bias crimes, one of which occurred recently a few blocks from the school.
I tell about a class of students who, when I met them, were having great difficulty reading. Because of their low scores on state exams, they were required to supplement their language arts class with an additional one, which I taught. At the beginning of the year, many of these 13- and 14-year-olds were angry, often scowling as they came through the door. James Harris* told me he’d done poorly in school last year because of worry about where he and his family were going to live and where their next meal would come from. Jose Diaz came into class ready to explode. I learned that he was very poor and that his mother had not found steady work for over two years. Tania Brown, who is African-American, would stare at me as if to say, “Come on—what can you tell me that I haven’t heard before?” She was furious at the prejudice she saw and experienced, once exclaiming in the middle of a lesson, “White people are racist!”
When I introduced the first reading lesson I heard groans. One student said, “Why should we read? We have TV.” Others said they had never finished a book in their lives and “reading is stupid.” Yet they were ashamed of the difficulty they had pronouncing some of the most basic words.
I’ve seen that the cause of a person’s inability to read is described in these sentences, from “An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education” (TRO 703):
Behind every “learning difficulty” is the feeling that the world cannot be liked. If a child sees the world as an enemy, why should he take inside him letters ... coming from that world?
And I knew—because I have seen it again and again—that through the Aesthetic Realism method these students would be able to learn successfully.
Hard & Soft: Words Have Both
All our lessons were based on this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” To illustrate, I picked up a piece of chalk and asked, “Could this chalk be useful if it were just soft?” “No,” Patrick called out, “it would crumble.” “And if it were just hard,” I asked, “would you be able to write with it?” “No,” Tania answered. I drew a line on the board and said, “We see this line because the chalk has a degree of softness which enables us to write with it. At the same time, you can hold it in your hand because it’s hard as well, or firm. So it’s both at the same time."
Then I said, “Words are like that; they put together hardness and softness in their sound.” I wrote the word school on the board: “Take this word. Does it have a soft sound?” Daishawn Smith said, “Yes, the sss sound of the s.” “And does it have a harder sound as well?” I asked. “The letter c has the k sound,” James Harris said excitedly. “How about the oo—is that more soft or hard?” “Soft!” Jake Fanley said. “The l sound is soft also,” said Patrick. “So the word school has both hard and soft sounds.”
I asked, “Would there be something wrong if the English language had words with only soft sounds?” “That would be whack!” James Harris said. “And do you know any words that have only hard sounds?” I asked the class. Jose Diaz shouted, “Crack!” I wrote the word on the board and asked, “Does it only have hard sounds?” “No,” Tamika Jones called out; “it’s got the a. That’s soft.” We spoke about how the r sound is also soft in the way it rolls.
The class was now really into it, naming words like cat and ball to see how they put hard and soft together. I told them what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: that words put together the opposites that are in reality itself—and that we’re trying to put together. I asked, “How many people here want to be tough enough to stand up for themselves?” Everybody’s hand went up. “And how many would like to have feeling about things and be affected, say, by music, a great joke, and a good story?” Many students raised their hands. “So that means we have something in common with the word school and also a piece of chalk: the opposites of hard and soft.”
Already on this first day of school, their cynicism was beginning to change as they saw that words have a logical structure and are related to what goes on inside themselves. When the bell rang, Jake Fanley, walking out, said, “This is going to be a good year!” Yes, it was.
A Novel Has the Opposites Too
I’ll describe briefly a series of lessons on The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. We saw that a question this novel brings up is: What’s true strength—trying to be kind, wanting to be affected and to know; or hardening oneself and lashing out at the world? This fight is had by the main characters, teenagers in a gang called the Greasers: Ponyboy Curtis, Dallas Winston, and Johnny Cade.
Early we find that Ponyboy, the narrator, likes to read books, cares for poetry and movies, but doesn’t see these interests as strong. I asked my students if they too ever felt embarrassed to say they like things. Many hands went up. “So do you think it’s strong or weak to like things and show it?” Jermaine Howard said, “You don’t want anyone thinking you’re soft.” We saw this is what the character Dally Winston feels. Says the author: “His eyes were blue, blazing ice, cold with a hatred of the whole world.”
At a dramatic point in the novel, Johnny Cade, trying to protect Ponyboy from a brutal attack by another gang, the Socs, stabs and kills a boy; and to escape the police they run away to the country and find shelter in an abandoned church. They’re both very scared, and Johnny is in agony over what he did. As days go by, Johnny is affected by Ponyboy’s care for books and nature. One day Ponyboy wakes up early and is captivated by the sunrise. He says:
The clouds changed from gray to pink, and the mist was touched with gold.... Then the sun rose. It was beautiful. “Golly”—Johnny’s voice beside me made me jump— “that sure was pretty.” ... “You know,” Johnny said slowly, “I never noticed colors and clouds and stuff until you kept reminding me about them. It seems like they were never there before.”
My students wanted to talk about this passage, and the subject of hardness and softness was continuing. To be affected you have to have softness; but is the ability to be affected strong or weak? I asked, “What do you think—is Johnny smarter for wanting to value what Ponyboy sees in the sunrise?” Mitchell Collins said, “Yeah, he’s seeing new things—like colors.”
Are Kindness & Real Toughness One?
The two boys learn that their town now knows Johnny acted in self-defense, so they decide to return and give themselves up. They’re outdoors, and suddenly they see the church has caught fire. Some children are trapped inside. Johnny and Ponyboy rush to rescue them, and the children are saved, but the building collapses on Johnny. He is terribly injured and burned.
My students were gripped, visibly moved. James said about these boys, “They got guts, man.” Others agreed.
We looked at a passage in which Dally and Ponyboy visit Johnny in the hospital. There has been a big rumble between the Greasers and Socs:
“We won,” Dally panted. “We beat the Socs. We stomped them—chased them outa our territory.” Johnny didn’t even try to grin at him. “Useless ... fighting’s no good....” He was awful white.... The pillow seemed to sink a little, and Johnny died.
This scene affected the whole class. Mitchell Collins, earlier so cynical, said of Johnny, “He’s been through it all. He knows what’s up: fighting will only lead to something bad.” I told them I’m grateful to have learned that there is such a thing as a beautiful fighting—in behalf of justice and people. “Is there a difference,” I asked, “between the fighting that goes on between gangs and the fighting the boys did in rescuing those kids?” Mitchell said, “They were helping the kids. The other fighting doesn’t help anyone.” They were seeing that a good fight has good will in it. It’s a oneness of opposites: toughness for the purpose of kindness.
As we read on, we found that Ponyboy and Dally react differently to Johnny’s death. Dally uses it to hate everyone and everything. He yells at Ponyboy:
“If [Johnny] got smart like me he’d never have run into that church. That’s what you get for helpin’ people.... Look out for yourself and nothin’ can touch you.”
Dally holds up a convenience store and is chased by the police, who, not knowing that the gun he points at them is empty, shoot and kill him.
Ponyboy, though, becomes deeper and kinder to people, including his brother Darry, with whom he hadn’t gotten along. I asked, “Is Ponyboy tough in wanting to care more about people, or is Dally the tougher one?” Jake Fanley, a young man who would erupt in class and fight with other students, said, “Ponyboy is the tougher one. Dally couldn’t handle it.” The whole class agreed.
I asked, “Do you think we always have a choice to make between feeling we’ll be strong by being mean or by trying to see what other people deserve from us?” The next day, James Harris told me, “Mr. Gvili, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we spoke about in class, about making good choices.” Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, students who at the beginning of the year felt that anger and quick-action retaliation were what would take care of them, came to see studying this novel that strength, real toughness, is wanting to think about what people feel!
They Saw Words & Books As Friends
As we continued reading, my students became more and more interested, often asking eagerly, “Are we going to read today?” And they wanted to discuss what they were reading—including in the hallways. One student wrote that our study of The Outsiders “taught [me] to make right choices instead of making the wrong choices and being mad at the world.” Tashonda Foster, who had been wild at the beginning of the year and would answer every question I asked with a shrug and “I don’t know,” now wrote:
I think the book teaches how people shouldn’t treat people bad because they’re different, and that people of all kinds can get along.
Everyone in this reading class passed the test on The Outsiders, many getting very high grades.
Through seeing that both individual words and books put together opposites that have fought in their lives, they came to like the world more. And they wanted to take the world in the form of books into their minds. More and more of the students who had had difficulty pronouncing basic words could now read on their own, understand what they read, and discuss it.
They began to take books out of the class library and tell about books they liked. Writing improved a great deal. Their compositions were longer, clearer, more thoughtful. And they were kinder to each other. Giovanni Pappas and Johnathon Lofter no longer made fun of Jose Diaz. Mitchell Collins became much less angry and wanted to participate in class discussions. Tania Brown, who had earlier said, “White people are racist!,” became friends with white students, and was critical of classmates who were unfair to each other. She was much happier.
Ninety-eight percent of these young people, who previously had had some of the lowest scores, passed the state English Language Arts exam taken at the end of the year. This is tremendously important. Americans often read statements like the following from a recent New York Times article:
[NY State education commissioner Richard] Mills expressed consternation with the 8th grade [ELA] results and suggested that the state faced a crisis in the middle schools.... [Said Mills,] “If you look at the entire five years since 1999, performance has not improved in the middle grades.”
The results that my colleagues and I are describing are very different. It is clear that the answer to the crisis is what you are hearing tonight.