|I have seen, in the English classes I teach, that the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method can change the pervasive dullness, cynicism, and lack of interest in both students and teachers—and make classrooms dynamic with real learning and pleasure! —Leila Rosen|
THROUGH AESTHETIC REALISM
I teach at Norman Thomas High School in midtown Manhattan. The area, filled with high-rise office buildings and luxury apartments, is very different from the economically ravaged neighborhoods from which most of my students travel each morning by subway: the Lower East Side, Washington Heights, East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Brooklyn. Many of the young people in my classes—mostly of African-American and Hispanic backgrounds, with families from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Ecuador, have endured a great deal, including tragedy, in their 14 or 15 years. They feel unsafe walking around their neighborhoods, where friends or family members have been hurt, even killed, in gang- or drug-related shootings. They have also met horrible racial and economic cruelty which encourage bitterness and despair.
At the beginning of the term the situation was one familiar to many teachers. These students had a mingling of interest and a cynical "Yeah? Show me" attitude. The class met eighth period—for most of them, the last period of the day—and the atmosphere was chaotic. Many students came late every day—then sat dully until I reminded them to take out their notebooks. Clarisa and Mayra, who were best friends, came in talking loudly, and continued to do so well into the period, even though their seats were on opposite sides of the room. Ten minutes after the class began, Kaseem would bang loudly on the door, which was unlocked, come in, and immediately start talking about some other subject than the one we were studying. I had to repeat myself several times before they would listen, and often, when I asked for their assignments, they looked puzzled: "We had homework?" Most of these students had difficulty reading and writing and were below grade level. I saw they were tormented, feeling they couldn't stay still or listen very long. Even as it was hard sometimes to go on with a lesson as I planned it, I knew these students wanted desperately to respect themselves for how they used their minds.
We began to study adjectives during a week when a huge blizzard had blanketed the city with over a foot of snow. I asked the class what they thought of the snow—did they like it? Most said, "Yes!" "How would you describe it?," I asked. "It was really cold," said Manuel Santos. Mayra said she liked the big flakes as they fell. Several young men said they liked playing football in the snow: when you fell, it was soft. Lots of hands went up to say more about the snow. As I wrote their observations on the board, I wanted them to see they were using adjectives. "It was soft and fluffy," said Sandra. Other students spoke with pleasure of the tall snowdrifts; how the snow seemed dry, but was wet as it melted; how it was "shiny in the moonlight." When Roberto said he liked how pure and white it was, Carmen scoffed, "Yeah, but only in the beginning. Then it got all gray and dirty." Other students objected to her cynicism. Meanwhile, I pointed out "gray" and "dirty" are adjectives, as are the other words they mentioned, all aspects or forms of the snow: "cold," "tall," "wet," "dry," "shiny," "white."
We read the definition in our textbook: "An adjective is a word that tells more about a noun or pronoun." I asked: "As soon as you start to tell more about something, does that show you're interested in it?" They saw it does. Then I read these sentences from Eli Siegel's great work Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World (The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, # 305):
"If there is an indefinite number of adjectives telling what a thing can be, while it is still just one thing," I asked, "does this show we can see greater and greater meaning in it all the time?" They answered definitely: "Yes!"
This idea is powerful opposition to the life-sapping desire to dull things, which stops students from learning. My students began to see that the structure of language itself is against a person's desire to flatten things, take them for granted, put them aside. Aesthetic Realism is terrifically scientific and kind in showing that even the most painful things—including many that young people meet today—can be described exactly, and that adjectives, which were developed over hundreds of years by people we never met, enable us to do so.
One result of this contempt is how I wrote of myself:
My students were learning that like a noun, every person is both one and many, has thousands of aspects, and can be described with vividness and exactitude with adjectives—each showing what that person is and can be. The more I wanted to see this, the more I saw how truly interesting people are, and I respected myself. The fact that this continues to happen with every year of my life is cause for unending gratitude.
I divided the class into groups and gave each group a piece of fruit and a plastic knife, and asked them to 1) spend about five minutes observing the outside of the fruit—its weight, texture, color, smell, shape—and then, 2) write down their observations, using adjectives as accurately as they could. Then, they would do the same for the inside. Some students were annoyed: "Do we have to? I know what an orange tastes like."
I said we would look at one fruit together first. I took out a yellow-green, unusually shaped fruit none of my students had ever seen before and which I had never tasted. In seconds, half the class was gathered around my desk, looking at it with great interest. "What's that?" they asked. I held it on its side, revealing its star-like shape and asked if they could guess what it was called. They did—a star fruit. Everyone wanted to look at it, feel it, smell it. We started to describe it, and they asked, "What does it taste like?" My students looked on with anticipation as I cut carefully into its smooth, shiny, dry skin. "Wow! Look at all that green juice coming out!" said Carmen. I cut and peeled some small pieces and many students wanted to taste it. "It's kind of sweet," said Denise. I said I thought it was a little bit tart, too. "It's crunchy," said Roberto, "but it's also soft."
I pointed out, "These are opposites and they are also adjectives—sweet and tart; soft and crunchy. Do these words describe both things in the world and yourself?" They said yes. Carmen said she was hard and soft—her skin was very soft, and her fingernails were hard. "And are you stubborn," I asked, "and also gentle?" She smiled. Seeing this opposes the cynical feeling, which Carmen had intensely, that nothing and no one can understand or explain us. "If the same adjectives that describe things outside ourselves can also be used to describe us, does that show we are deeply related to what is outside us, and should be interested in knowing it?" They said YES.
For homework, I asked them to write a composition describing what they observed about the fruit they had been given, using adjectives to show what it is; and then, to say how they had the same qualities in themselves. When they handed in their compositions the next day, they looked so proud. These were the longest, most careful and most detailed pieces of writing most of them had done all term. This is from Manuel's composition:
The orange is sweet and sour. Its skin looks smooth, but it has rough bumps around it. The orange is one unit on the outside but is broken up into different parts on the inside. It is dry on the outside but the inside is very moist. The orange is very much like me. I'm a sweet person, but at times I can be very sour, meaning mean or bad. Most of my skin is smooth but parts are very rough. I'm one unit on the outside, but on the inside, my body is separated by bones and by organs. I'm dry on the outside, but on the inside I'm surrounded by liquids.
My students came to love adjectives, to use them with pleasure in their writing and also to recognize and care for them in sentences they read. I love the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method for strengthening and bringing to life—in students and teachers alike—real interest, honest excitement about the world and what is in it! That is what will happen everywhere when this beautiful, kind method is standard in classrooms across the nation. The future of education depends on it.
[Volume 49, Number 1, Fall 1998]
Siegel, Eli. Aesthetic Realism Class, 26 Feb. 1977.
—"Aesthetic Realism: A Tripartite Study," The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #247, 21 December 1977.
—Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism. New York: Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 1967.
—"Literature and Interest," The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #309, 7 March 1979.
—Self and World. New York: Definition Press, 1981.
—"We Approach Grammar," The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #305, 7 February 1979.
|Further Important sites and articles on education
Aesthetic Realism Foundation
141 Greene Street
New York, NY 10012
A not-for-profit educational foundation
© Copyright 2007-2013 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation