The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method and Its Success!
By Ruth Oron
At this time of crisis in our schools--which I see first hand in my work at the New York City Department of Education--I'm very glad to tell you about an interview with Lauren Phillips, second grade teacher in East Harlem, New York. Ms. Phillips, who uses the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method in her classroom, has had tremendous success with young people in one of the hardest hit areas of our nation. What she told me can give real hope to every teacher, parent, and student!
"The seven-year-old children I met at the beginning of the year," she said, "had already experienced great difficulties--seeing their parents worried about money enough for food and a place to live. They often came to school tired and angry. Some would simply put their heads on their desks with resignation, and others would yell and interrupt each other during a lesson. As the term progressed," she continued, "these children, who were so turbulent and unable to concentrate, began to learn with eagerness. They've also become kinder."
Ms. Phillips is one of the New York City teachers using this method. It is based on the following principles stated by Eli Siegel, the American educator, founder of Aesthetic Realism: 1) "The purpose of all education is to like the world through knowing it; 2) The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."
"Every teacher has been looking for what will have children learn best," she told me, "and through these principles students are able to learn reading, math, social studies, and science with ease and excitement. They see that each subject is related to themselves through the opposites."
Ruth Oron. Can you give an example?
Lauren Phillips. Surely. Let's take reading. The New York City Department of Education requires a child to be able to make what is called "self-to-textconnection," that is, relate himself or herself to the text. I've learned that opposites like motion and rest, or speed and slowness, are the means of relation. In phonics lessons we've looked at how individual letters put these opposites together. The letter "m" in "home" is more at rest than the "c" in "cat," which is faster.
Motion and rest are crucial opposites, as every teacher will recognize, in children. A child can go from being frantically in motion to being lethargic in a way that troubles him or her. They saw how the same opposites that may be fighting in them are composed beautifully in the sounds of words. And in learning how to write a complete sentence--something they earlier had a hard time with--my students saw that what is called the naming part or noun stands for the world at rest, while what is called the telling part or verb stands for the world as active. A complete sentence has to have both.
Ruth Oron. Do you study other subjects using this method?
Lauren Phillips. Yes! Let's continue with rest and motion. In a geography lesson, for instance, the class saw that the bed of a river stays put, while the water moves. Then, in a science lesson, Juan's noted excitedly, "While we are sleeping our hearts are beating and our blood is going through our bodies." The class loved talking about opposites in their subjects. They eagerly pointed out rest and motion in a butterfly, a plant, a bus--and they also listened during discussions, asked questions during lessons, and liked learning from each other! One day my assistant principal walked in and was so impressed with the change she saw in these students, she said, "The way they are listening to one another-they're like a different class!"
Ruth Oron. These are such important results. Would you like to add anything to what you have said about teaching reading?
Lauren Phillips. Yes. I show my class that every time we read, we are taking the world, in the form of letters, words, and sentences, into our minds, and through that we become bigger. I read this from Mr. Siegel's book, Children's Guide to Parents & Other Matters: Little Essays for Children & Others:
"Every time you read a book, someone else's feelings meet yours, and mix with yours. You are always being affected by other people's feelings; but books are the big way of bringing to a person the feelings he might never have otherwise."
And Ms. Phillips told me about one book her students like very much, which brings to them feelings they like having, is The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.
"In the story," she said, "the Rainbow Fish is haughty because he has glittering rainbow-like scales. When another fish asks for one of his scales to wear, he indignantly refuses. I asked the class, 'Has anyone here ever felt like this Rainbow Fish--that we're better than other people?' Many children said, 'Yes.' And they saw how this makes the Rainbow Fish feel lonely, which they have felt at times.
But later, after many things happen, and he decides to share his radiant scales with other fish, and sees them happy, he feels good because he's been useful and it makes him proud. I asked the class, 'Does the Rainbow Fish show how we want to be?' Many children said, 'Yes.' I think a large reason this book is popular is the ethics in it. It shows in a lovely way that kindness makes us stronger."
And Ms. Phillips told me she wants people reading this to know that she's tremendously grateful to have learned--both as a teacher and mother of a young son: "The biggest cause of a child's failure to learn is the desire--which is in every person--to have contempt, which Eli Siegel described as 'the addition to self through the lessening of something else.'" She continued:
"The children I teach, as thousands all over the country, endure a great deal. They meet terrible injustice; they see their parents go through so much, and they often feel, 'This is not a world I want to learn about.' And children can also use the injustice they've met to feel justified in having contempt themselves. I have seen many children over the years who dreaded school, were angry, separate, dull, agitated, have a new excitement, and keenness, as they learn through the Aesthetic Realism method that every subject puts opposites together and stands for a world worthy of respect-one they want to find out about. I passionately feel that for the children of America to have their hopes met, this method should be implemented in all our schools."
*The students' names have been changed.
For more information, including the bi-monthly Aesthetic Realism and Education Workshop for teachers, contact the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, 2127774490, www.AestheticRealism.org