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By Monique Michael
This paper was part of a recent public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not for profit educational foundation at 141 Greene Street, in New York City. In it, teachers from elementary school through college—teaching in some of the hardest hit areas of the City, demonstrated through lessons in their classrooms, this urgent fact: The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is the answer to the crisis in our nation's schools.  It can end the inability of children to read and the desperation of teachers. This teaching method, states the seminar announcement, "shows students that every fact in the curriculum has vivid meaning and therefore students learn with eagerness and pride"; and it continues: 
For more than two decades teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism Method have succeeded powerfully—in public schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, the Lower East Side—through these principles stated by Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism1.  "The purpose of all education is to like the world." 2.  Mr. Siegel showed a person's contempt—"the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it"—is the central thing making that person unable to learn. And contempt causes every cruelty, including racism and the hideous injustice of the profit system from which millions of children are suffering.

    I teach in East Harlem in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. The first grade students I met last year have been horribly brutalized by our ugly, unjust profit economy. They live in over-crowded, rundown, sometimes rat and roach-infested apartments. Many do not have adequate clothes and do not eat the good nutritious foods that their minds and bodies need to grow strong and healthy. They live in fear of the violence which surrounds them and sometimes hear gunshots at night. Some of my students didn't even have permanent homes and had to live in nearby shelters. They saw their parents angry and depressed because they were unable to find the work that could provide their children the safe homes they deserve. Because of what they had been forced to endure, the children I met in September did not feel that the world made sense, and therefore did not feel that the facts of the world—in the form of words, other people, numbers—had likable meaning for them. 

    Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, showed through this revolutionary principle of Aesthetic Realism, "The world, art and self explain each other, each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," that 1) the facts of the curriculum have meaning because they show the structure of the world makes beautiful, logical sense. And 2) through the opposites, facts are related to our very selves and enable us to know who we are. 

    Mr. Siegel explains in Self and World with kindness and compassion: 

    If a child is frustrated, it is because the fundamental life procedure in it of becoming an integrity, simultaneously with meeting life at more and more points, has met interference: interference which it combats most often murkily or blindly by attack or withdrawal, or confusion, having in it both attack and withdrawal. 
    This explained what I saw at the beginning of the school year. These six-year-old children had a very hard time paying attention and did not retain much of what they heard. They did not listen to each other and fought with each other. George, who had lived in a shelter for the past two years because his father was unable to find work, was very suspicious of other children. He was constantly on the defensive, ready to push and hit any child who touched him by accident. Manuel, who had recently become a foster child, looked stunned and bewildered. He went from putting his head down on his desk in frustrated resignation to vengefully hitting other children if he did not like the way they looked at him or talked to him. David crawled under the desk or hid in the closets. Geraldine looked sad and tired for her six years, yet she had a toughness that said, "I'm not going to let this world affect me too much." She was restless and roamed around as the class gathered for lessons. 

    I have learned, in my study of Aesthetic Realism, that my students' hurtful ways of meeting the world came from their using the horrible injustices they had experienced to be angry at and have contempt for everything. Contempt, Eli Siegel stated, is the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." And it was this unconscious decision for contempt that made it so difficult for them to learn the facts in arithmetic or reading. I knew that the only way to bring out their deepest desire to know and like the world was to show my students that every subject is evidence that the world has a sensible, even beautiful structure that can be liked—it is a oneness of opposites. 

1.  They Learned about the Opposites in the Alphabet
     In kindergarten, children study the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, and at the beginning of first grade the alphabet is reviewed in preparation for learning how to read. But children often feel overwhelmed by the alphabet, which can seem to be an arbitrary assemblage of symbols and abstract sounds that do not make sense. Therefore, in the beginning of first grade children have often forgotten the sounds of the letters and get confused by the letter formations, sometimes writing them backwards or upside down, mistaking a p for a q, or a w for an m. They can feel letters represent an unfriendly, strange world that wants to confuse and fool them. 

     In order to have my students see the letters of the alphabet with friendly meaning, we studied Eli Siegel's great essay "The Alphabet: a Description and Excursion Everywhere." In it, Mr. Siegel shows something completely new—letters are related to many other things and to us. "The letters of an alphabet," he writes, "are pictures as sounds." And he continues: 

A body with a self makes sounds....The sounds that a body-with-a-self or person makes, are like the sounds to be heard anywhere. The alphabet, then, is to be placed among the sounds of dishes falling, a waterfall, leaves rustling, wood crackling, wind sighing, cloth rubbing, paper tearing, iron hissing, birds singing, ocean roaring, clock ticking—and more and more. The alphabet, as used in words, goes after respecting all these sounds.      We looked at how the letters in their shapes and sounds have the opposites. First, we looked to see how straight and curve, hard and soft are in the world and ourselves. 

     I told the children that everything in the world has straight lines and curves or both. I showed them a blue rubber ball and asked if a ball had straight lines or curved lines. They said curved. "Can a curved line make a straight line?" I asked. "No," said Jenny, "it goes all around." "Look," I said, and rolled the ball to Jenny. Did the curved ball travel in a straight line? The children looked surprised. I measured the distance the ball traveled with the string and held it up straight. "Now I have a straight line but what would happen if I took this straight line and kept curving until both ends meet. What shape would that make?" Hands shot up, and Tina said: "I know, I know—it makes a circle!" The children were excited to see how two things that seemed only different were also related. 

     Then I said, "Look around the room. What do you see?" "The door has straight lines; four of them," said Danny. "My desk has straight lines and curves," said Marjorie. Other children said—the door knob, the window pane, a cup. "Do you see straight line and curves on you?" "My eyes are round," said Mary, "and my lips have curves." "My wrist bone sticks up like a ball," said Freddie. Nancy said, "My nose has both." "My legs and arms are straight," said Charlene. Freddie added, "No, legs curve too, see?" as he bent his knee and pointed to the curve it made. 

     I showed them a picture of a building in India. The children made oohs and ahhhs as they saw the beautifully curved dome of the Taj Mahal. "Are there straight and curved lines here in a way you have never seen before?" The children said yes. "Which seems sharper, the straight, pointy end of the dome or the curving part?" "The point is like a needle," Melanie said. "And the curve seems to be softer?" I asked. "Do we have sharpness and softness in us? We need sharp or hard teeth to eat our food. But what would happen if our skin was only hard?" Freddie jumped up and said, "We'd be like this"—and he froze into a statue. Geraldine, who had been walking around the room slowly approaching where the rest of the class had gathered, suddenly said, "My cat is hard and soft. She scratches but [her fur] feels nice and soft." I asked her and the class: "Do we want to be hard and soft in a beautiful way with people?" The children looked pleased and excited as they thought about these questions.

     I told the class the letters of the alphabet, like the world and ourselves, also have the opposites of straight and curved lines; hardness, or sharpness and softness. I asked: "What letter of the alphabet is all curves?" The children looked up at the alphabet at the top of the board, and I heard a shout "O!" and wrote the letter "o" on the board. "Can you see a letter that has only straight lines?" "T!" several children shouted. "Now, let's make the sounds of these two letters. Which seems to have a soft sound, and which has a hard sound?" The children said the letters out loud and agreed that the "o" was softer than the "t." Then, I wrote the word "cat" on the board and said, "The word 'cat' has harder and softer sounds." Judy shouted, "The 'c' is hard!" "And the 't,' too," said April. "Is the word 'cat' in the way it has a hard 'c' and 't' and a softer 'a' like the way a cat on your lap is hard and soft—the way Geraldine's cat has sharp claws and soft fur?" The children were amazed, both excited and composed, as they saw that letters in the alphabet had meaning for them, and represented a friendly world. 

     As we continued to learn about letters they made relations between letters we reviewed and things in the world. For example, Eddy said that the letter "m" was like two mountains; Jerry said the letter "v" was like the wings of a bird, and Andrew said the capital "A" was like a house where Indians live. As they saw these new relations, the letters had more meaning for them and they began to write the letters correctly and to remember their sounds. 

     Soon after this lesson we walked to the neighborhood nursery to get pumpkins. I was very moved when the children spontaneously and with breathless excitement began pointing out all the straight lines and curved lines, shapes and letters they saw on buildings and street signs. Barbara shouted, "There's a 't' on the church." as she pointed to the cross. "Look, I see an upside down 'u,'" said Daniel as he pointed to an archway. Tanya, carrying her pumpkin, said "My pumpkin is a 'Q'," as she turned the pumpkin stem-down and smiled. 

     Through the alphabet the children were seeing the world around them with new meaning, and this was a beginning point in their doing one of the most important things in their lives—learning to read. 

2. Reading Is Sameness and Difference

     In the Children's Guide to Parents and Other Matters in the chapter on "Books," Eli Siegel writes:

Books tell us really the same kind of thing that walking on the street does. We feel and learn when we walk on the street; we also feel and learn when we read books. When we read books our minds "go out" more, work more, to have things happen to us.      A technical aspect of learning to read is being able to see sameness and difference among words. For example, the words "can" and "pan" are the same at the end, but the initial consonant is different. But if a child feels he does not fit with the world, and does not see a friendly relation among different things, he can have a hard time seeing how letters go together in a logical way. I have seen children get very upset when they are asked to read a word, some of whose letters they have learned in a similar word, but which is also different—like "can" and "pan," because they see "pan" as only different, strange, and frightening. 

     In order to encourage my students to see how words have a friendly relation of sameness and difference, we learned how to read a book, titled Who Has a Bill? by Judy Nayer. I told the children that there are thousands of different kinds of birds in the world, but they are all the same too—they're all called birds. They were amazed at a picture of a hummingbird perched on the tip of a pencil measuring 21/4 inches. Then, we looked at a picture of an African man from Madagascar holding a gigantic ostrich egg. Miguel said, "Oh, mama!" Then, I showed them a picture of an ostrich. Their eyes were wide open with wonder. 

     I then showed them a picture of an owl, a toucan, and a parrot, and we discussed how these were the same and different in color, shape, and size. "With each new bird we see, are we seeing how the world is the same and different in a way that is beautiful and exciting. Does this make you like the world more? Would you like it better if the world had only one kind of bird in it?" "No!" they all shouted. 
     The book tells about different birds using their bills in different ways. It says the hummingbird "will sip with it." The woodpecker "will tap with it." I then told the children we were going to look at how words fit with the things they describe. We looked at the word "tap" and I asked, "Which letter sounds hard?" The children responded, "The 't'." "Is the word 'tap' in a way like the sound a woodpecker's bill might make as it taps the tree—the bill is hard and the tree trunk is hard, they meet and you hear a sound?" The children experimented as they repeated the word "tap," and tapped the floor, chairs, and desks around them, listening carefully for the sound they heard. They were seeing that there is a logical relation between the sounds of letters and the actual thing they represent. 

     I then told them what I learned in an anthropology class taught by Aesthetic Realism consultant Arnold Perey—that our physical differences come from the same kind reason that the birds are different—to have us fit better with the world. Mankind began in Africa, where people were dark to protect them from the sun. As people moved to where it was colder, they grew longer hair to stay warm and their skins became lighter. People who are Asian have an extra fold of skin on their eyes and flatter faces because they once lived where it is very cold and windy, and the extra skin protects their eyes, while the flatter shape of their faces protects their noses from getting frostbitten. You could have heard a pin drop as I told the children what I was so grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism, that when we use the fact that other people look different from us to feel we are better than they are, that we are big and they are less—we are having contempt. This is what makes people mean to each other, call each other names, and when we have contempt we feel ashamed inside. The children had thoughtful and wondering looks on their faces as one of the ugliest things, prejudice, which many of them experienced and also had themselves, was being described and opposed. 

     I told the children: "Like birds and ourselves are a relation of sameness and difference, words too are the same and different from each other—like these words from the story: 'has, tap, sip, it, bit.'" "Can we use these words to make new words by keeping some letters the same and changing others?" I asked. "For example, in the word 'has,'—if we keep the beginning letter 'h' and end letter 's', and change the middle letter, the vowel 'a'—to an 'i'—what new word does it make?" The children formed the sounds of the new word with their mouths and smiles came to their faces as they recognized it, and shouted "his!" "Can you make a new word?" I asked. "What rhymes with 'bat'?" Judy said, "sat, rat," and I wrote the words on the board. "How are 'sat' and 'rat' the same and different?" "They all have an 'a' and a 't'," said Marco. "They have different letters in the front," said Jose. Raphael, who in the first week of school cried because he said he knew he wouldn't be able to learn to read, said, "I get it! You keep something the same—right?—and you put in something different, and I can read a new word! I can really read! You know, I really like school better than staying at home. And I like the way God made this world." 

    As the year progressed, Geraldine's tough expression softened, and she looked happier. She joined the rest of the class and began to concentrate for longer periods of time—and she learned to read! David, who had been so deeply withdrawn at the beginning of the year, wanted to learn new words and to write them. After he read his first books Jim Wins, and Max, he beamed and wanted to read them over and over again. The world he had wanted to shut out was now becoming part of his mind in a way he had always hoped for. Manuel, who in September looked ready to give up, got new hope as he learned to read quickly and with ease, and he wanted to help, rather than hit, the other children. Many children did so well in their reading they were not only prepared for second grade, but, as their second grade teacher told me this year with pleasurable surprise, they knew a lot more than she had expected coming from what was called the lowest level first grade. 
     I hate the press for boycotting the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel as Teaching Method. They are stunting the lives of children. This kind and practical teaching method brings out possibilities of mind in children that would otherwise remain dormant—or worse, become crippled. That is why it is the birthright of every child!

Monique Michael was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from which her family fled in 1965 to escape the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. Mrs. Michael, who began her study of Aesthetic Realism in 1979, attends the bi-weekly workshop for teachers, "The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method," and has taught elementary school in East Harlem for five years. She and her husband, photographer and Maritime Captain Allan Michael have written articles showing how Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that can end racism at last.

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