Reprinted from The San Antonio Register

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Is the Solution
to the Crisis in Education—Teachers Tell Why!

By Helena Simon

Part 1

NOTE:  The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is based on these principles by Eli Siegel

1. "The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it."

2. The central cause of the inability to learn is dislike of the world or contempt for it: "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

3. Through the following principle students see how each subject they study is related to themselves and the world outside them in a logical and beautiful way: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

This educational method has been used with documented success for over a quarter of a century. Young people see, for example, that words, numbers, facts are friends. They welcome knowledge into their minds and learn.

Helena SimonTeaching third grade at PS 57 in East Harlem has been one of the biggest experiences of my life. I thank the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method which made my first year of teaching so good and useful. I know firsthand that this educational method can and will end the crisis in American schools—the fights in classrooms, the low reading scores, the dullness and despair I saw in many of my young students. 

I am proud to have seen something of the importance of this principle, which Eli Siegel stated: "The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it."

Every fact in the curriculum, I have learned, represents a world whose structure we can honestly like—the oneness of opposites. As I studied along with my students reading, writing, math, and science, we saw that each of these subjects is an exciting relation of opposites—the same opposites we are trying to put together in ourselves. And I saw these young people change, become excited, and learn! 

The eight- and nine-year-old children in my class were from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Yemen, North Carolina and East Harlem. A number of them had been left back. Many of them had endured terrible hardship. I was very much affected by how angry and sad they were. Several lived in foster homes, and one child, Roberto, was living with his mother in a shelter-they had lost all of their belongings. At the beginning of the year he refused to do any school work, would spit in children's faces, grab them and put them into headlocks, and would scratch his own hands until they bled. 

I was told that another boy, Bryan*, had scratched a child's face in kindergarten, and had been suspended several times. Sometimes he came in without having eaten, crying because his stomach hurt, and I sent him down to the cafeteria for a sandwich. Tyquan had lost his grandmother, who had taken care of him. Almost every day he would get into arguments or hit a child in gym or during recess. Before the school term began, Janice's father had died. She seemed both resigned and bitter, said no one could understand what she felt, and often yelled at other children. Shaniqua Thomas was unable to read at all—she either talked loudly, or sucked her thumb while playing with her hair. Mona and Selina would wander around the classroom, sometimes stealing other students' belongings, and Selina often hid under tables. Stephanie Jackson was in her own world, hardly ever speaking. 

Because of what they had been through so early in their lives, these children already felt the way to take care of themselves in an unkind, confusing world was to protect themselves by lashing out, or by retreating, and this was hurting their ability to learn. Every child, Aesthetic Realism shows, has a fight all the time between wanting to see meaning and friendliness in the world and hoping to have contempt for it-and these children had this fight intensely. I knew I needed to show them that every subject we would study represents a world that can honestly be respected. And the means to this is through this principle stated by Eli Siegel, which was the basis of my lessons: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

We Begin with an Aesthetic Realism Object Lesson—
What Can We Learn from a Sunflower about the World and Ourselves?

Part of the third grade curriculum is descriptive writing, in which among the things we study are objects in the world around us, including growing things. Early in the year I brought several large sunflowers to school, and asked the children to describe them—saying they would get to draw and write about them. As I held one up, it was clear the students liked it very much, and several children said, "It's beautiful." I told the class I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a thing is beautiful because of the way it puts opposites together—for example, the way the stem is so strong and also very graceful. "Is it strong enough to hold up the head of the sunflower," I asked, "and flexible enough to bend gently and gracefully?" I saw a look of wonder in the children's faces and many said Yes! The class was very attentive; everyone was looking at the sunflower, and all the children were raising their hands to speak. 


One student said, "The flower has yellow petals and the center of the flower is brown and black." "So, does it put together dark and light?" I asked. "Right!" they said. "Does the world have both?" I asked. "Have we felt we were in the dark sometimes, and at other times thought things looked light and friendly?" "Yes," said Tyquan, who had lost his grandmother. "Do you think this flower puts these opposites together beautifully? Do the dark part and light part add to each other?" He said "Yeah!" And Stephanie Jackson, who had been so separate and hardly spoke, added excitedly, "There are many petals and one stem!" It is amazing to see how together they make a single radiant flower. 

As the children described the sunflower, I wrote the opposites they spoke of on the board: hard and soft, dark and light, one and many, strong and gentle. "Do we want to be strong and gentle," I asked. "And does this sunflower show us we can be both?" Yes, they said. During the lesson nobody was fighting. They were seeing that this flower, through the oneness of opposites in it, stands for the world that makes sense and is friendly. Now they wanted to draw the sunflower, and it is important that everybody wanted to write sentences describing it and why they liked it. Laura Vega, who had said she didn't like to write, wrote four sentences: "I like sunflowers. They are bright yellow. They face the sun. Their eye is black." 

* The names of the children have been changed.

—September 21, 2000 

 Part 2  The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: Click here
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