Monday, January 17, 2005

Teaching the Miracle Worker - Part One

I wrote this paper eight years ago and I am proud that it was part of a seminar on education at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. William Gibson's powerful, moving drama about the childhood of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan has been tremendously popular, and is often taught in junior high school and high school English and drama classes. This paper was published by the New York State English Council, and I presented it together with my colleague Leila Rosen in the yearly NYSEC conference. I am proud to serialize it here. (The names of my students have been changed.)

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Explains Why Students Don't Learn And How They Can!

In New York and elsewhere, teachers are concerned, perplexed and even bitter about their students; in the lounge they ask each other on their prep periods: "Why don't they learn?" They try various new techniques, introduce rap as a means of learning math, read articles about current issues in English class, but are discouraged again because the dullness and restlessness return--something big doesn't happen. The beautiful, sought- after answer is right here. In my eleven happy years as a New York City teacher, 8 of them in Bushwick, one of the most hard hit, toughest areas of Brooklyn, I have seen unequivocally Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, has explained with infinite kindness and clarity why students don't learn and how, with real ease and pleasure, they can!

Aesthetic Realism scientifically explains the cause of a person's inability to learn at any age--it is, as the flyer for this seminar states, "the ordinary, yet devastating desire for contempt"--the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." Students can feel, furiously, that in a world that has racism, where it is so hard to make enough money to live, where your family cannot afford to pay for a doctor and medicine, that you are smart not to be affected by things, that reading plays, writing compositions, or studying English grammar is useless junk, a waste of time.

Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism Ellen Reiss explains with compassion in The Right Of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #1184:
[Contempt] is the cause of all learning difficulty; for there is a feeling in people, This messy world is not good enough to get within me. Peter, age 10, now looking at letters, does not see what they spell because he unknowingly feels they are representatives of a world he should despise and keep away from.

The students in my English class last fall at Norman Thomas High School come from all the boroughs of New York and their neighborhoods are very different from the one the school is in on Park Avenue and 33rd Street. They have seen their families struggle just to get by; some have even seen people killed on the street; and they are very worried about their own future. When they walked into the classroom, I saw two things--students sized each other up suspiciously, ready to be against somebody, insulted by a look; and there was also a general dullness and weariness in these 14 and 15 year olds. Julissa sat staring listlessly in front of her, and when I asked her a question, she looked at me and said nothing at all. In both their outward anger and their inward retreating, I saw they had already made up their minds that this world was against them--and the way to take care of themselves was to be against it.

Many of my students had trouble reading and retaining what they read. For example, when reading aloud, Sonya and Miguel often would say correctly the beginning of a two or three syllable word, but then, not understanding, make up the rest. Some students, coming across a word they didn't know, would get a look of fear, say "whatever," and go on. Arnold Cintron loudly groaned, partly in scorn and partly in real pain, at any suggestion of reading or writing: "Do we really have to?"

What would have my students like words, see them as mattering, and want to get them in their minds--to read with pleasure and excitement? I learned, and this is the basis of the method I'm proud to use, that no matter how cynical, indifferent, scornful, against the world a young person is, his or her deepest desire is to see value in the world, to be honestly for it, to like it as much as possible. Every subject in the curriculum is a means to do this, and that was my purpose as my 9th grade English classes studied the drama with this great principle, stated by Eli Siegel as our basis: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

Coming Soon:

For and Against; Closeness and Clash--in an American Play and Us

More Information About Aesthetic Realism:

For classes and events, go to the website of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. You can also learn about the current Terrain Gallery exhibition.

The writing of Rosemary Plumstead on science education, Donita Ellison on art and Leila Rosen on English are essential. Each of these educators is an authority on the crisis in education and what can have young people really learn in America today.

The Aesthetic Realism Online Library contains essays, lectures, and critical works by Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism. There you can see articles in newspapers and journals about Aesthetic Realism. There is also information about the Eli Siegel Collection, Eli Siegel's 25,000 volume library.

In 1955 Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? was published. I have carried this broadside in museums in New York and London and these 15 questions, beautiful in themselves, have opened my eyes to what you find there.

Find out more about Eli Siegel. Read my statement in Countering the Lies. This website was created to tell the truth about Aesthetic Realism. Here you can see the statements of many many people, giving their careful opinions- including the mayor of Baltimore, and a member of Congress.

The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known ,edited by Ellen Reiss, is a bi-weekly journal which serializes lectures by Eli Siegel. The editor's commentary relates what is in the lectures to our time.

Ellen Reiss teaches the Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry Class and professional classes for consultants and associates. Barbara McClung and Lauren Phillips tell about one of these on a subject of great importance, ADHD. Read more here.

In Racism Can End Ms. Reiss describes the state of mind at the root of all racism and what must be seen for that to change permanently.

The great English poet, John Keats was maligned by the press in his day. Ellen Reiss uses this to give perspective to current matters.

Renowned columnist Alice Bernstein writes on civil rights and culture. She is the editor of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism.

Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology is the website of Arnold Perey. He is the author of Gwe, a novel against racism, and the children's book, Were They Equal? published by Waverly Press.

Aesthetic Realism Resources has articles on love, the arts, economic justice, the questions of men, women, parents, and many other topics of interest.

The photographs of Len Bernstein are powerful, beautiful, often very surprising. Len Bernstein: Photographic Education Based on the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel. He tells of how his artistic eye has been educated by Aesthetic Realism.

At Lynette Abel: Aesthetic Realism and Life you can find out about the great education for women that is in Aesthetic Realism and her report of a class on a play about World War I, The Miracle at Verdun, is one of the most stirring anti-war statements I have ever read.

Miriam Mondlin is a writer on economic justice, unions, and she is an authority on the subject of stuttering. Go to Aesthetic Realism and Self-Expression.

The beloved Scottish poet, Robert Burns, is a person whose art and passion Ellen Reiss shows the relevance of for our time.

More links

Steve Weiner's blog has a terrific paper: Simplicity and Complexity: Roy Lichtenstein's “Stepping Out.”

For my website go to Aesthetic Realism & Our Lives by my husband, Christopher Balchin, and me.

How Can Racism End? is Christopher's blog in the US. In the UK, it is Aesthetic Realism Is True.