|NUMBER 1727.—September 17 , 2008|
Dear Unknown Friends:
his issue is about the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—the teaching method that succeeds, beautifully and kindly works. Through it, young people learn who had been unable to do so. Through it, students like learning; they grasp and remember the facts, whether about mathematics, a scientific concept, an event in history, the structure of a sentence. And it is the successful opponent to racial prejudice, bullying, unjust anger. It is what schools across America urgently need.
We print here a paper by a New York City teacher, which last fall was part of a public seminar titled “Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, Knowledge Opposes Anger—& Students Learn!”
Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of education is “to like the world through knowing it.” And the fundamental interference with learning, the thing that has a child not want to learn, or be unable to, is a dislike of the world which has gone deep in that child. Eli Siegel has described the world as all “that begins where our finger tips end.”
A Child & Reality
ake a boy of 8, whom we can call Marcus. In his short life he has come to feel that what's-not-himself will likely hurt him, is something he should be suspicious of and hide from or try to fool. Then Marcus is in a classroom, and every subject presented to him is an aspect of that outside world. Arithmetic is that world taking the form of numbers. History, plainly, is about the world—the world as past. Letters and books were created by strangers—they're ambassadors of that wide external reality.
Though Marcus hasn't made the decision consciously, he has made it deep within: he doesn't want the representatives of a disliked, distrusted universe to get inside him, lodge within his mind. Therefore he has a “learning difficulty.”
Eli Siegel's powerful, tender poem “Twenty-one Distichs about Children” begins with this couplet:
All over America there are children like Bernice and Marcus: as they look around they see much anger, selfishness, fakery. Many (Marcus is one) endure horrible poverty. It is very tempting for children to take the confusion they feel, the sense that things are too much for them, and turn it into what Aesthetic Realism identifies as the most hurtful thing for a mind: the victory of contempt, which includes the feeling, “The world I'm in isn't good enough for me. I should retreat into myself.”
It happens that a description of children practically propelled into such a choice, appears in the memoir of Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father. He writes about visiting a school in a very poor neighborhood of Chicago. He and the principal, Martha Collier, are watching some lively 5- and 6-year-olds, and she says with pain that these young children's relish about life likely won't last:
Yes. And persons who speak about improving education in America but aren't interested in having every child own justly the wealth of America, are hypocrites.
child like Marcus will learn only if he is shown that the world which learning is about is a friend and deserves to be part of him.
That is what the Aesthetic Realism teaching method does. It shows that every item of the curriculum is something that's not just outside of Marcus but is like him, is about him. And every subject is evidence that the world has a structure, an organization, that's not inimical but makes sense and, even, is beautiful: the oneness of opposites. As the article by Avi Gvili makes clear, all this occurs not through any “extras” but strictly through the teaching of the subject itself.
The basis is in the following description by Eli Siegel—though the examples he gives are not items of the curriculum but everyday objects:
The short poems by Eli Siegel that follow are about huge opposites in the world and people: rest and motion. They're in the structure of a sentence: a noun is rest; a verb is motion. They're in arithmetic: a number is at rest, but when it's added to something, or subtracted, multiplied, divided, it's in motion, has adventures. An event in history is motion—something happens—yet we can look at that happening as a quiet fact. Students can be listless (painfully still) and agitated. As the article printed here shows, that bad relation of opposites changes through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method.
One reason the second poem, “Grass Blade,” was chosen is its rich use of the semicolon—a subject of Mr. Gvili's article. The larger reason is its music.
Punctuation & Ourselves
have been teaching for nearly eleven years, using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method in some of the most difficult urban situations. Every year has shown how effective it is in having students learn and become kinder. And this success has occurred despite something described in the New York Times (27 May 2007) as “middle school syndrome,” the “mysterious decline in achievement between elementary school and eighth grade.”
For the past three years I've taught language arts at IS 7, Elias Bernstein JHS, in Staten Island , New York. The school is in an affluent part of the borough, surrounded by stately homes. Some students are fortunate financially, while others, who take buses to the school, are not as fortunate. I've heard students talk about the intense worry their families have because money is harder to come by. I've also seen their fury and desperation—their feeling there's no future for them, so why bother learning anything!
I will tell about a 7th grade class I taught, from 7:30 to 9:15 am, five days a week. The young people in it were academically below grade level and considered “troublesome.” During this early morning class, many were tired, and at the beginning of the year several would fall asleep. When I asked them when they went to bed, some replied that it was after midnight. And many were home alone until 7 or 8 pm, waiting for their parents to return from work.
Meanwhile, with all they're up against, the class was successful: by the end of the year these young people liked reading books much more; their grades improved, including on standardized exams; and they became deeper, more thoughtful, and kinder to one another. The reason is, as the flyer announcing this seminar says: students are
At the start of the year, there was a combination of listlessness and anger in the classroom, and students were very separate from each other, as if in their own worlds. Some felt they were entitled to speak whenever they wanted, and would call out in the middle of lessons, interrupting one another. Then someone who had raised his hand, waiting his turn, would get furious. Often students would laugh at and mock what another had just said.
James Derby,* who had an education program tailored to help him do better in class, called an IEP, could read on only a 5th grade level. During silent reading time, he'd look at the book for a few minutes, then slam it shut with a bang and immediately turn to his friend at the next table, starting a loud conversation. Samantha Morris, who told me she wasn't going to do any schoolwork, would periodically yell during a lesson.
Terrence Tambick, whose reading and writing level was 4th grade, was so agitated he'd have to be in motion, tapping his feet, smacking the desk, or clicking his pen. When I asked him to stop, he would. Then, minutes later, he'd continue, as if it were out of his control. He also got into fights with other students, pushing their books and yelling at them if their pens touched his side of the desk.
Luigi Fortunato had a stomach condition that caused him to be in the bathroom almost every day. When he returned, he would put his head on the desk and not speak to anyone. And there were days when he didn't write anything.
I'll describe two lessons that made for a big change in my students.
Punctuation Is Self & World
arly in the year, many of these young people rarely used punctuation. Compositions would go on for a very long time before a period or question mark would show up. By way of introducing punctuation and its importance to writing, I spoke to my students about symbol and feeling: how a sign on a page—a period, question mark, or exclamation point, for example—represents a feeling within a person. Here we have the opposites of self and world, the fact that something in the world outside of us can stand for our own emotion.
To illustrate, I put the interjection Wow on the board. Then I asked my students to notice how the emotion would change as I placed various punctuation marks at the end of it. First I wrote a period after it and said “Wow” in a matter-of-fact way. My students laughed, and I asked why. “Because it doesn't seem to fit,” said James Derby. We all agreed.
Then I placed a question mark at the end and read out loud, “Wow?” We saw that the question mark changed the feeling conveyed by the interjection from that of a matter-of-fact expression to one that needed an inquiring tone. Terrence Tambick said, “That sounds funny.” Punctuation, I explained, represents feeling, and our job as writers is to match the feelings we have inside our hearts and minds to the words and punctuation that best express them on a page.
Finally, I placed an exclamation point at the end and asked the whole class to say the word out loud. In unison they loudly exclaimed, “Wow!” Terrence Tambick said with excitement, “That's the best one.”
Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method my students were seeing that punctuation is alive. They were seeing that the world was friendlier than they'd thought, because through these shapes coming from the outside world, emotion inside them could come out and be given form.
The Semicolon & the Opposites in Us
hough I majored in English, it was from Aesthetic Realism that I learned that English grammar has beauty in it. I saw that it's not just a set of dry rules designed to make things difficult for students, as I'd once thought: it's an exciting study in the opposites. And this is what the young people in my class came to feel about that wonderful but very difficult to understand punctuation mark, the semicolon.
The class had already learned that a sentence consists of a subject, which our textbook describes as who or what the sentence is about, and a predicate, that part of the sentence that tells about the subject.
Putting a semicolon on the board, I asked, “What two punctuation marks do you see here?” “A comma,” Jason answered. “A period,” Natalia said. “That's right. This,” I said, “is called a semicolon.” According to Prentice Hall Grammar and Composition “the semicolon signals a less final pause than a period but a stronger separation than a comma.” And it is used “to join independent clauses...[that are] closely related.”
So, I told my students, the semicolon is a means of putting opposites together. It enables the writer to join separate, independent sentences, bringing them closer together while still honoring their individuality. It shows, I said, that being independent and needing what's not us, being separate and being joined—opposites every person is troubled by—do not have to fight, but can work together in a sensible, useful way.
I asked the class what two “ related” independent clauses meant. They didn't know. I put the word related on the board and asked them when they've heard it before. “Relatives,” Samuel Waters said. “That's right,” I replied. “So ‘related' independent clauses means—” James Derby excitedly said: “Sentences that have something in common!”
We then looked at two sentences, arising from one of our texts, which I had written on the board: “Marianne's birthstone is an amethyst. Faith's is an opal.” “Both sentences are about birthstones,” Samantha observed—“that's what they have in common.” “Right,” I said, and explained: “These are two independent clauses, with a period between them, and that is grammatically correct. But if we substitute a semicolon for the period, what happens?” I erased the period and wrote in the semicolon: “Marianne's birthstone is an amethyst; Faith's is an opal.” The class immediately saw that the two independent, separate clauses were brought closer together, making one sentence.
Everyone was listening now. Marleen, who often had her head on the table, was sitting upright and attentive. We looked again at the sentence, and I asked, “Does either one of the clauses become a fragment? Are they each still independent clauses even as they're joined with one another?” We scanned the sentences and saw that, yes, both clauses still had a subject and a predicate, but now the meaning seemed to stand out more definitely.
I asked, “Are we each like an independent clause? And if someone speaks in class, do we want our minds to join what he or she says—that is, can we learn something new, be added to, the way those clauses are, and still be independent? Will our minds be greater if we take in what other people say, the way one clause is more as it's joined to another?” The class was pin-drop silent and attentive, including Luigi Fortunato, who often had been listless.
This lesson was pivotal in enabling the class to have discussions that were both livelier and more respectful. Seeing that a punctuation mark showed independence and dependence could work together well, my students wanted to listen to one another and respond in a way they never had before.
Almost all of them did well on the exam I gave following this lesson. Their writing improved, including their use of the semicolon. And during what is called “peer editing,” when they read and edited classmates' papers, they would often—and correctly—recommend the use of the semicolon. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, grammar, a subject dreaded by students, had exciting meaning for their lives.
They Learn—& Are Kinder!
've given just two instances. Because of these and other lessons using the Aesthetic Realism method, my students changed in big ways. The angry mocking stopped. James Derby, the boy with an IEP, said to me, “I'm doing well in English. I've never done well in English.” He finished the year with an 85 average.
On the ELA state exam, the class had a 100% passing rate.
Terrence Tambick, who had been so agitated and separate, no longer yelled at other students when their pens touched his side of the desk. He was friendlier towards his classmates and took part in lessons regularly. He said, “I never liked reading books, Mr. Gvili, but being in this class changed that. I like reading now.” And when I met his mother, she told me, “He loves your class. His writing has improved tremendously. Thank you so much.”
* The students' names have been changed.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
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.
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