As published in the Tennessee Tribune.
The Success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Students Learn, Prejudice Is Defeated!
Link to Part One
[In Part 1, Ms. Martone told how children in her third grade classes in one of New York City's most impoverished areas came to love words and reading through the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel as Teaching Method. She described exciting lessons in her English as a Second Language (ESL) classes based on this critically important principle stated by the poet and educator Eli Siegel: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Children who were once weary and angry, were thrilled to see how the English language has a beautiful structure of opposites that is friendly to them and that they could honestly like. As Ms. Martone read from Victor Hugo's great novel Les Misérables, the children began to see reading as a oneness of opposites -- ourselves and the outside world --and they were eager to learn new words and their meanings, and became kinder to each other.]
They Learned to Read
In one class I wrote on chart paper these sentences, which the children eagerly read without difficulty: "One very severe winter, Jean had no work, the family had no bread. Literally, no bread and seven children." The students remembered hearing the words
severe and literally when I'd read them — and remembered their meaning. Now, they were learning to read these words — and in these lessons they learned the meaning of many vocabulary words: pursued, steadily, supported, notice. The class met these requirements for good readers that were listed and circulated to reading teachers in my school:
They ask questions as they read. They interact or converse
with the text ....This conversation incorporates four strategies:
generating questions, summarizing, clarifying, [and] predicting.
They visualize what they are reading. They CONSTRUCT
MEANING by linking what they are reading to their own experience
While the language here is cold and academic, opposites are implied. The beauty of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is that it shows warmly, and the way a child feels it, that the process of reading is an exciting making one of opposites they so much want to put together in their lives. When you "link" what you read to your own experience, you're putting together self and world. When you "interact" or "converse with the text," you are putting together active and passive, which all reading does.
It is a hope of teachers that children like great literature — Shakespeare, Hugo, Dickens. The way my eight and nine-year-old students were affected by, remembered, and commented on Victor Hugo's sentences shows how much they want to hear what is beautiful, and, so importantly, to be able to understand something of why it is beautiful. And this, the Aesthetic Realism teaching method makes gloriously possible.
"All beauty," stated Eli Siegel, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Two of the opposites that make this book beautiful, and that affected my students most, were for and against. When I read of how Jean Valjean went to prison for stealing bread to feed his sister's children, they said: "It's not fair!" "He was poor and he needed the bread," said Pedro. "He wanted to work, but he couldn't find any work." said José. Jean Valjean is asked why he is in prison. Victor Hugo has a sentence which my students were very moved by. It is beautiful as it gives a form that is both tender and precise, to a brutal situation:
Sobbing, Jean Valjean raised his right hand and lowered it
seven times, as if touching seven heads of unequal height.
and from this gesture one could guess that whatever he had
done had been to feed and clothe seven little children.
"This makes my heart hurt," said José, who had earlier made fun of other children. Jose was proud to feel he was so much for Jean Valjean and so much against what was unjust to him. "As you hear these sentences," I asked, "do you care more for Jean Valjean and are you more against the injustice that made him suffer so much?" They were happy as they said "Yes!"
Every day they asked me to read more. Not only did the class learn both listening and reading comprehension — which is tremendously important at this time when children's inability to read is epidemic — they learned to respect each other's feelings. They stopped hitting and making fun of each other. They were eager to hear what every child had to say.
As we read further, we learned that Jean Valjean becomes very bitter; and when he finally leaves prison he goes from door to door looking for work, but is turned away because his passport is stamped convict. Then he comes to a bishop's house. "One of the most beautiful things about this book," I told the students, "is the way, when he meets kindness, he changes. What do you think the bishop does?"
They knew. "He let him in! He helped him," they said with excitement. "Right," I said. Then I told of how, when Jean Valjean leaves the bishop's home, afraid that he won't have money for food, he steals some silver. He is caught and brought back by the police to the bishop's house. "What do you think will happen now?" I asked the children. "The bishop is going to say it was okay. He's going to let him go!" they said. And then I read these great sentences:
"It's all a mistake" [said the bishop] to the gendarmes. "If
that's so," said the brigadier, "we can let him go." "Please
do," replied the bishop.... Jean Valjean felt like a man about
to faint. The bishop approached him and said, in a low voice,
"Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this
silver to become an honest man."
"Why do you think the bishop did this?" I asked the children. "Did he want the best thing in him to win?" "Yes!" they said. And Hugo shows throughout his large novel that though Jean Valjean goes through a very great deal, he is true to his word — he becomes an honest man.
During these lessons the students did not interrupt each other. There was an atmosphere of respect for the feelings of a person who lived long ago in a country far away — and for each other's feelings. Prejudice was opposed in a big way! I was tremendously moved to hear Pedro, who used to make fun of others' accents, say: "Jean Valjean is in my mind all the time." And he said when he plays baseball, he thinks of him. And Yosef told me: "When I go home and I eat, I think of how Jean Valjean was sitting there and his hair was over his eyes when he was eating the soup."
Throughout our nation's schools there is great concern in parents, teachers, and administrators about why children haven't learned to read. Huge efforts and enormous amounts of money are being spent to implement various reading programs each year — to little avail.
Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method children learn to comprehend English, learn to read, and their prejudice is defeated! And the deepest desire in a child — to know and like the world — is brought out and encouraged. Persons on the press, with some exceptions, have boycotted this efective educational method because they are furious at their respect for the honesty, the integrity of Eli Siegel and the intellectual scope of Aesthetic Realism. In keeping this knowledge from people, the press is responsible for stifling children's minds and lives. Since 1973! — children could have been happily learning.
I want this to be the year when children at last get the education they deserve! For information about Aesthetic Realism, including the bi-weekly workshop for teachers and public seminars in which New York City teachers present, with evidence from their classrooms, the enormous success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method.