The Ability to Learn
By Barbara McClung
It is urgent that the Aesthetic Realism teaching method be known in schools across America, for two reasons: 1) it brings out and strengthens, as no other method can, a young person’s ability to learn; and 2) through it, students honestly respect the world more—including the feelings of people they’d seen as different from themselves.
I have used the Aesthetic Realism teaching method in New York City public schools for three decades. Because of this great method, again and again I’ve seen faces that had looked bored and angry brighten with excitement, and hands shoot up to answer a question—because these students now were seeing there is a relation between the subject and their very selves. The basis is this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Seeing that a subject in the curriculum is about them, that it puts together opposites that are in their own lives, they want to learn the subject—and they do!
As an example, I’ll tell about a series of science lessons I taught to middle school students on New York’s Lower East Side.
They Had Seemed to Be Against Learning
The middle school science curriculum includes the study of fossils. When I announced this subject to my students, there were rolled eyes and some audible groans at the prospect of studying something so seemingly remote and dusty.
Many of these young people had low reading scores and struggled in most of their subjects. They themselves were very worried about their ability to learn, though they tried to act as if it didn’t matter. The students would insult each other, talk during lessons, or sometimes simply put their heads down on their desks. They were of various backgrounds—Latino, African American, Asian—and they all had been affected horribly by the cruel, unjust economic system that has made nearly a third of New York City children live in poverty. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism I knew that their mocking, their constant talking during lessons, their ignoring homework assignments came from a way of seeing the world itself, a way of seeing it that crippled their ability to do what they were yearning for: to learn.
I am very grateful to Eli Siegel for identifying with scientific exactitude and compassion the thing within the self that stops a person from learning. Dislike of the world, contempt for it, is what makes a student feel deeply that a fact about that world, a scientific datum, does not deserve to get into oneself and affect one in a big way. I knew it was an emergency for these students to see that despite the awful injustices that have taken place in it, reality itself, its very structure, can honestly be respected. And the means to see that is the opposites—in the first of these science lessons, the opposites of past and present, momentary and permanent.
As we began our study of fossils I asked the class, “Does each of us have a history, a past?” Some students said, “Yes.” “How do you know?” I asked. “I have photographs,” said Maria.† “Through stories I’m told about my family,” added Jordan. “I have stuffed animals from when I was a baby,” said Maritza. I asked, “Does the earth have a history too—a past?” They thought for a minute: “Yes.” And I asked, “How do we know? What’s the scientific evidence?”
I explained: Just as we may have photographs that show what we looked like, or objects from our past that have meaning for us, the earth has fossils. A fossil, says Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, is “a remnant, impression, or trace of an animal or plant of past geological ages that has been preserved in the earth’s crust.” Without fossils we wouldn’t know about the things that lived millions of years ago, because 90 percent of the species that existed are extinct. We know about them through fossils. For instance all our knowledge about dinosaurs is through fossils—after all, there was no one around to paint them or take their picture.
I handed out various fossils I had brought, and asked the students to examine them. “Mine looks like a snail!” shouted Ephram. “This looks like a giant bug,” said Kin Yip with some dismay. “I think I have a leaf,” observed Javier.
They were surprised to learn that what they were looking at was not the actual organism. It was (for instance) the impression of the organism cast in rock, or imprinted on rock, or—as in the case of an ammonite that they were holding—the once living organism had been replaced molecule by molecule over at least tens of thousands of years by minerals so that it changed into hard rock. I said, “We are holding the past in our hands, right now.”
This affected my students very much, and a big reason why is that there was a tumult about past and present in them. A person of any age can use his or her past to be angry at the world. A child can use memories to be a cynic by the age of 12. A young person can also feel, “The only time that was good was years ago when I was little. Things were nicer then.”
But as we studied our fossils and talked about how they came to be, students who had earlier looked dull or annoyed, now were clearly interested. The fact that something coming to us over all that time could be held in our hand, made for a feeling of wonder, largeness, and friendliness. The world as having a tremendous past came together with the present.
Are the Transitory & Permanent Friendly?
Many of these students are from single parent homes. Some have lost a father or mother. Often they move from one place to another, feeling like transients, and have come to feel that affection is fleeting, that nothing has lasting goodness. They came to love our study of fossils because, through the Aesthetic Realism method, it met with solid logic a hope in them to feel that things can and do last, even 65 million years.
In a hands-on project, we “made” imprint and mold and cast fossils. Both, we saw, are a wonderful relation of another pair of opposites: hard and soft.
In Fossils & Us—Hardness & Softness
An imprint fossil is the impression or image left by an organism; perhaps the outline of a leaf pressed into mud, or a dinosaur’s tracks imprinted on the surface of the earth. The second kind of fossil, mold and cast, is the kind that arose from an organism’s having been embedded more deeply in the earth, where the space within the deep impression, or mold, is filled with sediment, which hardens.
To make our imprint fossils we poured plaster of Paris, to represent the impressionable earth, into plastic container lids. We carefully placed a leaf or shell on the very top of the wet plaster, letting it rest a few moments, then removed it, leaving the plaster to dry completely.
To make a mold and cast fossil, we started with small milk cartons, rinsed out and with the tops cut off. To represent a layer of earth we placed some modeling clay on the bottom of the container. Everyone chose an “organism”: we had a large variety of shells, and small plastic dinosaurs, and several young women wanted to use their necklaces. We firmly pressed the object into the clay, making a deep impression of it, and removed the object. That was the mold. Then we poured plaster of Paris (our “sediment”) into the mold and let it dry overnight. This represented, in a short period of time, the process that takes the earth thousands of years, even millions, to accomplish. The dried hard plaster became the “fossil” of the object. When the students gently pulled the clay from the hardened plaster to reveal their cherished fossil, there was such a sense of excitement and discovery.
In our discussion, people were thrilled to see how softness and hardness are inseparable in the coming to be of a fossil. For example, the material, like mud, has to be soft enough to take the impression of the object, yet becomes hard enough to retain the impression for millions of years.
Students and teachers alike are distressed by the way we can be inaccurately hard and soft. As a teacher, I regret the way I once could be stonily impervious to what the people in my class were feeling, or I’d get into contests with students and be determined to have the last word. Later I’d feel tearfully sorry for myself—“Nobody wants to listen to me!” This bad relation of hard and soft certainly did not bring out my students’ ability to learn. Also, students can act tough, as if nothing were going to impress them, yet feel agonizingly that their minds are like mush and can’t retain facts.
As the students in the class I’m telling of saw how the earth’s softness and hardness worked together to preserve the forms of plants and animals that would otherwise have been lost, they thought it was beautiful. It met their deep hope to feel they, like the earth, could be both firm and affected at once. I said, “A fleeting moment becomes permanent, for us to see now. And do we want to have things firmly, lastingly in our minds, give them a permanent home?” So the study of fossils was an encouragement to welcome the outside world, in the form of knowledge, into our minds.
I asked if our study of fossils made for more feeling about the past. There was a unanimous “Yes!” And students saw that it also made for more respect for life now, people now. That’s because, when you feel more related to the world different from you, you also feel more related to people different from you, who represent that world. Their increased respect showed in how they were with each other. And it showed in their desire—and ability—to learn.
At the end of this unit, I wanted my students to hear how the possible feelings of human beings in the distant past were written about by Mary Leakey. She is the paleoanthropologist who, in 1976, discovered the oldest fossilized footprints of early humans on the plains of Laetoli, Tanzania. This was the earliest definite evidence that the ancestors of modern people were walking on two feet, over three and a half million years ago, pretty much as we do today. From Traces of Life, by Kathryn Lasky, we read this description of the footprints Mary Leakey discovered:
The prints go for seventy-seven feet and end suddenly where streams have eroded the fossil record. But at one point...one of the walkers stopped, paused, and turned to the left....“This motion,” wrote Mary Leakey, “so intensely human, transcends time. Three million six hundred thousand years ago, a remote ancestor—just as you or I— experienced a moment of doubt.”
There was a feeling of respect in the class as I read this sentence by Mary Leakey about the walkers so many years ago: “Across the gulf of time I can only wish them well on that prehistoric trek.”
The students in this class changed enormously. Representing that change was Maxine Morales, who had always been quick with a put-down. Now she wrote with feeling: “Studying fossils makes me respect the past. Everybody likes to be respected, even animals—they were something that was alive once, just like us.”
The change in my students has powerful meaning for our nation: you don’t want to hurt the world and people different from you when you see they are deeply like you too. I love the Aesthetic Realism teaching method for bringing out the ability in students to see meaning and value in the world, for enabling them to learn with ease and pride.