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A Lesson in Aesthetic Realism—Duck Incubation

By Lori Colavito

In 1989, a thrilling thing happened to me. I became an elementary school teacher. Like teachers everywhere, I began my career hoping to have a good effect on children. Eighteen years later, I’m happy to say, this hope has been a reality every year since, and the reason is my use of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method.

     The scientific principles of this method have enabled me to give lessons which are exciting and deeply useful, having the children I teach feel that learning is good for their lives.  Eli Siegel, the noted American educator, founder of Aesthetic Realism, stated the following landmark principles which are the basis of this method:

1. “The purpose of all education is to like the world through knowing it.”
2. The world can honestly be liked because it has a structure that is well made: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
3. The great interference to learning is contempt, the desire to get “an addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

     The following account describes  what my first grade students at Southampton Ele­mentary School learned during a unit on duck incubation. These  lessons had a large effect on them and encouraged their study of other subjects—reading, mathematics, writing.

1. The Life Cycle of a Duckling; or,
the Amazing Way Inside and Outside Work Together

Our study began with the arrival of fertilized eggs from a farm. Through the Aesthetic Realism method, the children saw duck incubation as a wonderful drama of the very opposites they wanted to make sense of in themselves—outside and inside, welcoming and keeping out.

They had looks of wonder when I showed an inside view of an egg and saw where a duck’s life begins: at the blastoderm. It is the fertilized cell which will become the duck embryo. It rests outside of the yolk within the shell that contains the nourishment the baby duck needs to grow. Delicate cords called chalazae hold the yolk in place.  

     I explained: the duck embryo is ready to grow, but it cannot do this on its own. It needs help from the outside world: a particular relation of moisture, warmth and air which the mama duck provides as she sits on her eggs in the nest and rotates them with her webbed feet. I said, “Our incubator will provide these things and is going to act as a substitute mama. If the baby gets what it needs, it will hatch in 28 days!” I read these sentences from Nature’s Children: Mallard Ducks by Bill Ivy about how the mother duck: “…suddenly hears a sound. A tiny ‘peep peep’ comes from one of the eggs. Her long wait is over—her eggs are about to hatch. After a few minutes a small hole appears in the noisy egg...then a crack. Finally the shell splits in two and out steps a brown and yellow duckling with its feathers sticking up in wet spikes. Weak from the effort of breaking out of the shell, it sits quite still and looks around bewildered.”

     My students were excited when, on the 28th day, they actually heard little chirping sounds coming from the incubator and saw little beaks pecking their way through the shell! They were delighted when, two days later, we had ten fluffy ducklings.

2. The Eggshell: A Study in
Welcoming and Keeping Out

I showed a photo of an egg and asked, “Do you think the eggshell is open or closed?” Many children said, “closed.” I explained this surprising fact: “The shell may look like it is only closed, but it is not.  It has more than 7,000 tiny holes called pores.” They were astonished. “What do you think the pores do?” I asked. Matthew, a boy who had been quiet and often seemed in his own world, said with excitement and a sense of relief, “It’s so the embryo can get air!” He was seeing that this growing being was not shut off from the outside, as he himself had often felt, but was welcoming it in the form of air which was ready to come into it, having it grow and become a strong, healthy duckling. I asked:  “Does the duckling say, ‘I don’t need this from the outside world.’?” They said, “NO!” 

     Examining an eggshell, the children were thrilled to see that there is also an air cell at the bigger end of the shell which acts as a “shock absorber” in the duck’s early development. It is here that the duckling will get its first breath of air.  Pointing to the classroom windows, Luke said, “We are like the duck in the egg because we are in the room and the windows give us air like the tiny pores!” Yes, and I asked, “is the eggshell then both open and closed?” “Yes!”

Duck Incubation Drawing

     We learned that while the shell allows things the duck needs to come in, it also keeps out harmful germs and bacteria. And it helps things get out that need to. “What do you think these might be?” I asked.  Miguel, a child who often asked with complaint, “What are we going to do?” now said with ex­citement, “The old air that the duck is breathing out!” “That’s right,” I said. “It’s called carbon dioxide, which is the air we also exhale.” Miguel was excited seeing this process both includes and excludes for the same reason: so the duck can grow and get along in the big new world it will enter. They felt the way the egg­shell works is beautiful. It is different from how we can close ourselves off from meeting new things outside of us.

     I told the class that as a child I was very exclusive. When I visited the homes of friends, I’d compare the way my mother did things to the way their mothers did things—and felt mine was better simply because it was mine. Foolishly, I stopped myself from welcoming new things, including food that I was not familiar with. I was snobbish, and this made me mean as I sometimes encouraged friends to make fun of classmates because of the way they looked or dressed, which I regret very much. The children were very quiet and attentive.

     I asked, “Are there things that could harm us which we shouldn’t take in?”  Estella said, “We shouldn’t steal.” Johanna said, “We shouldn’t trip people.” Miguel said, “We shouldn’t make anything inanimate. We should have good will for the earth.” He had learned in an earlier science unit about the difference between living and non-living things, and how when we have contempt for people we take the life out of them. And Conor, who earlier in the year had felt hurt by other children and would lash out saying “KEEP AWAY!” now raised his hand and said heartily, “I agree with Miguel.”

     Every step of the way we were seeing those opposites of inside and outside in new, exciting relations. Once the baby duck has finally made its way out, it doesn’t have to go far for its first meal. Why? The shell, which was outside now goes inside as the duckling actually eats it! We drink milk to help our bones grow; and the little duck eats its shell and will grow stronger bones because of the calcium in it. My students loved learning about this compact little package of life, and were moved by the kindness and good sense in its structure.

     I asked, “Like the duckling, do we want to do a good job putting together the opposites of inside and outside, open and closed?  What would be good for us to take inside of ourselves from the outside world?” Katey, who would talk non-stop during lessons, was the first person to raise her hand and said, “Learning.” Miguel added, “We should learn about everything around us so we can get smart.” I agreed and added, when we learn, we take in facts about the world and feelings of people and they become part of us. Then we have the chance to express ourselves—have what is inside of us come outside—and have a good effect on other people. The duckling takes in what it needs from the world outside, and then it ex­presses itself by hatching!

 3. Sameness and Difference; or,
What Do We Have in Common with the Duckling?

Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method this wonderful happening had my students see the whole process of learning itself as something they should welcome. They were seeing that the outside world’s enabling the duck to grow was like what happens to them through taking in facts about arithmetic, geography, words, and each other.

     The children were very conscientious in taking care of the ducklings. I asked them to write a story from the duck’s point of view: What was it like to hatch out of the egg, and begin the next part of its life outside of the shell? As they worked on these stories, we went through the writing process including proofreading, editing, illustrating and writing a final draft. 

     Conor, who had had a volatile anger, wrote kindly about the feelings of this baby bird:

     My name is Luwegg (Luigi).  I am a duck.  Where am I going?  What is going to happen, what am I going to do?  I would go eat and go to a farm and go see Mama duck.

     Gianna, who had difficulty learning and who was so oblivious to things she would fall off a chair,  wrote:

     I had a hard time….I’m out of my shill (shell). My egg is crak (cracked) opin (open) and I’m out. I am ckadnd (scared) of this place. I’m in this box. Naew (now) I’m not ckadad (scared) any moer (more).

     The children were very proud as they read their stories aloud and were happy to listen and learn from their friends’ stories. One day Gianna asked as she often did, “How much longer until we go home?”  But it was a happy surprise when this time she responded with a smile, “Oh good, we have 4 more hours to learn!”

     Isn’t this what all teachers are hoping to hear?   ♦


Lori Colavito has also taught kindergarten and 3rd grade in New York City. In March she will co-teach a SCOPE course: “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—Bringing Out Every Child’s Intelligence.”


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