I tell how my 9th grade students who struggled with reading came to love it through lessons on rhyme. It includes discussions of Robert Browning’s poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was originally part of a public seminar titled “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: Students Learn & Prejudice Is Defeated!”
It is my fervent hope that teachers throughout America know the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. It can end, once and for all, the failure to learn, the pervasive anger, and the prejudice in our nation’s schools. Eli Siegel, who I see as the most important educator in history, explained that the purpose of education is to like the world, through everything we study and teach. The young people I teach at Norman Thomas High School have themselves met prejudice and economic injustice. But when they see through this teaching method that the English language has a sensible, beautiful structure which stands for the world itself—they learn, and they don’t want to be against other people who look and sound different from them.
Aesthetic Realism shows that the cause of prejudice is contempt. This is described by Ellen Reiss as “the ordinary yet infinitely dangerous feeling, ‘If something different from me is less—if I can look down on what I am not—I am more!'” I saw this feeling in many of my students; it is what has young people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds brutally go at each other, with words and weapons, in schools every day. And contempt is against the very basis of learning. Ms. Reiss continues:
Eli Siegel has shown that all real growth, all education, arise from the fact that we come to be ourselves through finding meaning in—even becoming one with—what is not we: air, food, the alphabet, numbers, sights, sounds, words, books containing the thoughts of other people. . . .It is possible to feel powerfully that what is different from us can thrill us, teach us, make us larger. [The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #1115]
This is what occurred last year in my 9th grade English class, as we studied the meaning of rhyme, and looked at a great play. I will tell about two lessons I taught—in the fall and spring semesters. These students were in a special class for students with low reading scores. When I first met them in September, they had great difficulty in reading and writing, and though they tried to show this didn’t matter, I knew they were ashamed.
And they looked at each other with suspicion and anger. Students of different backgrounds mocking each other with ethnic insults. Those whose first language was English mimicked those who had accents. When Felipe from Mexico tried to read, there were snickers. This was true of Shu Lan from China also; she kept away from the Latino and African‑American students, who in turn dismissed her—except when they forgot to do their homework. Then, as she handed in hers, I’d hear sarcastic murmurs, such as: “Those Asian kids are nerds. They always do their work.” Students from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico taunted each other with assertions of their own culture’s superiority. Kisha Banks ridiculed the young men, seeing them all as stupid; this made them angry, and then she would act innocent.
I knew from my own life, and from the many years I have used the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, that despite the blasé and scornful attitude they showed, these students desperately wanted to learn. And I am proud to say that they did learn—and became kinder. Among the lessons that make for this were those I gave early in the year on the meaning of rhyme. My students saw how rhyme puts together opposites which are one in reality itself, but which are used horribly against each other in prejudice: difference and sameness.
What Does Rhyme Have that We Need?
Rhyme has given pleasure to people of all ages—in nursery rhymes and children’s games, in hip-hop music, and in some of the grand poetry of the world. I learned in the course The Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry, taught by Ellen Reiss, that rhyme is so popular, so loved, because it answers fundamental—and usually unarticulated questions—of every person: How can I see the different things in the world as also coherent with each other? And: Am I just different from other people, or am I the same, too? In one class titled, “Rhyme: The Difference and Sameness of Earth,” Ms. Reiss gave this succinct definition of rhyme: “Words that begin differently and end the same.” “This matters,” she said, “because this is what the world is—a constant oneness of sameness and difference.” I have seen that how kind we are and also how intelligent, depends on our doing a good job with these opposites.
Early in the fall, my class studied rhyme in a wild and wonderful English poem, loved by children—and adults—for over a century: “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” by Robert Browning. As it begins, Browning describes the terrible problem facing the town of Hamelin. I asked the students to listen to these beginning lines:
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
For a town to be infested with rats is awful; and it is a horror many of my students have to face. Does the speedy way Browning takes that ugliness and gives it an energetic, lively form, contradict the horror—even as we feel it vividly? My students loved these lines. “What stands out?” I asked. “The way it rhymes!” said Carla. Danny pointed out that “rats,” and “cats” rhyme: they are different at the beginning, and end in “-ats.” Ramon said, “There are more! ‘Vats,’ ‘sprats,’ ‘hats,’ and ‘chats’!” “And ‘flats,'” said Carla. “As you hear these words, are you hearing sameness and difference?” I asked. They said yes. “And while each is a different word with a different meaning, do they each add to the intensity of the same unbearable situation?” “Yeah,” said Danny. “There must be millions of rats. Ugh!”
They pointed out another pair of words that rhyme: “shrieking” and “squeaking”—two words describing how beings, either human or animal, emit sounds. This brought up something important: in the English language, where the same sound is spelled in different ways, students often have trouble recognizing and pronouncing them; many of my students had this difficulty, and would give up in frustration. At first glance, “shrieking” with its “i-e-k” and “squeaking” with its “e-a-k” do look different, and a person could see them as having little in common—until you hear them. I asked: “Is this a little like how one person can sum up another—feeling his skin color or accent makes him just different from oneself?” They felt it was—but they began to see through our study of rhyme, that difference and sameness add to each other, bring out something good in each other, and make for honest pleasure. And as the class continued, their oral reading improved greatly.
In the poem, the mayor and town leaders, who wear “gowns lined with ermine” are trying to figure out how to solve the problem of the “vermin.” Just then, the Pied Piper appears. He says he is the man for the job—that he can play his pipe or flute, and lure the rats into the river—and when he asks for the modest fee of a thousand guilders: “‘One? Fifty thousand!’—was the exclamation / Of the astonished Mayor and Corporation.” However, when the job is done, and Hamelin is blessedly free of rats, these town officials are horribly cheap and ungrateful—forgetting their earlier desperation. They feel superior to this “wandering fellow / With a gipsy coat of red and yellow.” They patronize the Piper, see him as low, and dismiss him without keeping their promise. My students were angry: “That’s not fair!” they said. “They promised to pay him.” And they were glad when the Pied Piper, through the power of his music, teaches the people of Hamelin a sad but useful lesson, by piping all but one of the children away into another land where, it is supposed, things are kinder.
I told my students what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: as we think about other people, we need to be fair to the opposites which are together in a good rhyme, sameness and difference; but that often, people use what they see as their difference from others to have contempt. Students gave many instances of how they saw this: Eneida, from a small town in the Dominican Republic, said people from the capital were prejudiced against people from the campo—the countryside. “Rich people think they’re all that,” said Carla; “they look down on people from the ghetto.”
These young people—mostly Latino and African-American—are rightly furious at the ethnic prejudice they meet. And they were affected as I told them what I learned: that prejudice begins with something in every person. “Who here has felt you were completely different from everyone else?” I asked. Every hand went up, and they were surprised to see how much they were like everyone else in the class in feeling this! “When we see other people as just different from us,” I asked, “are we being exact?” They were thoughtful. “No one is completely different,” said Miguel. “We all have feelings.” “Have you also felt ‘Everyone’s the same—no good’?” The unanimous answer, in words and facial expressions, was “Yes.” It was exciting to see that both are forms of prejudice: we make up our minds about something before we know it. “Have both made for trouble?” I asked. “Yes,” said Eneida, and others agreed—and gave examples.
Like my students, and like most people, I saw myself as very different from everyone—superior, and much more sensitive. But I didn’t know that as I made people unreal, I was making my own mind duller. I am enormously grateful for what I have learned from Aesthetic Realism on this subject. For example, in a consultation I was asked: “What’s the greatest insult you get from everyone?” I wasn’t sure, and my consultants said,
It’s that they’re not you. That’s the way our ego is insulted by every other human being—they’re not us, and they seem to think they’re important anyway.
That is exactly what I felt! And it is why, I regret to say, I had sometimes been ill-natured in the classroom: every day, I met 150 students who weren’t me!, who had the nerve to have their own lives, thoughts, personalities, moods. My solution had been 1) to get annoyed; 2) to try to make them listen and do things my way. It didn’t work. What did work was having a good time seeing how my students and I were both different AND alike—and that I needed them in order to know the world and myself. This has made me kinder, more flexible, more good-natured in the classroom with every year.
They Asked to Read a Play of Shakespeare; or, Sameness and Difference Are Dramatic
By the spring semester, their feeling about reading had changed so much that these young people, who had found words on a page so difficult, asked me if they could read a play by Shakespeare. Peter had heard the story of Romeo and Juliet, and wanted to read it; others did too.
And so we began our study of this great, deeply moving play which has been loved for over 400 years. Right from the opening lines, my students were struck by how sameness and difference are all through the elements of the play. They saw this in the Prologue’s description of the two families—the Montagues and Capulets—who were “alike in dignity,” but differed in a big way, through an “ancient grudge.” These 14- and 15-year-olds were especially moved learning how Romeo and Juliet, who were around their own age, felt about each other: “This person different from me has big meaning for me, is like me, despite the differences between our families.”
We saw that while the play is principally in blank verse—iambic pentameter lines that do not rhyme—in many parts of the play Shakespeare also writes in a form my students came to love: couplets. We learned: a couplet is, dramatically, a oneness of sameness and difference, as two consecutive lines rhyme. I asked the class what they saw in the word “couplet.” “Couple!” they said. A “couple” is two things or people different from each other who have something big in common. “That’s love!” exclaimed Peter. We saw that the same thing happens when two different lines, which are close to each other, end in rhymes. For example, in Act I, scene 5, Romeo and his friends, wearing masks, steal into a party given by Juliet’s father. It is here that Romeo sees Juliet for the first time. He says:
The speech ends with this famous couplet:
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
My students loved this, and wanted to hear it again—especially Miguel, who said, “Wow! She must be beautiful!”
Writes Ellen Reiss: “The rhymed couplet, when it is good, is a oneness of neatness and turbulence, teemingness and trim unity.” (The Right Of 959) This describes so accurately these lines of Romeo. “This passage is full of big emotion,” I said, “but also neat, orderly, as each couplet rhymes.” “Is that what we want to feel, that all our different, swirling emotions can make sense, and be related to each other?” “Yes,” they said.
Many students eagerly volunteered to read, and read with greater care, fluency and pleasure—even as the Shakespearean English was unfamiliar. While all the young men wanted to read Romeo, they especially liked hearing the part read fervently by Armando, a young man who’d earlier annoyed the class by making fun of everything. Miguel, who had often slurred unfamiliar words or skipped them altogether, substituting “whatever,” was careful to look at and sound out words he hadn’t seen before. And when it came time to choose someone to read the stage directions, everyone in the class called out, “Shu Lan, let Shu Lan read them!”—because she was always right on cue and they liked it! This was the same girl from China they had made fun of last semester.
These young people were proud to read one of the world’s great dramatic works. I told them Eli Siegel had shown that the opposites of sameness and difference we were speaking of are at the basis of all drama. “Drama,” he said, “is. . .difference and sameness. . . .The most important thing about drama is the idea of fight and friendliness.” “How are fight and friendliness in Romeo and Juliet?” I asked. “They love each other and want to be together,” said Carla, “but their families are fighting.” And when two words rhyme in a couplet, we saw, they seem to fight, and are also friendly. Ramón of Santo Domingo, who likes reading poetry in his native language—was thrilled by this, and he gave two rhyming words in Spanish, which are dramatically different in meaning: amor (love) and dolor (pain). “That’s like Romeo and Juliet!” he said; “they love each other, but they have pain because they can’t be together.”
The more my students saw how the oneness of sameness and difference makes for beauty in this play, the more fully they were able to learn—and the more they could truly be for each other. I asked them to give examples of how different people work well together for the same purpose. Peter, who loves baseball, said, “On a team!” “So, do you need difference? Different people, doing different things, are adding to each other?” “Yes,” they said with pleasure.
Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method my students loved learning about this great English play; it had them feel what Ms. Reiss described: that “it is possible to feel powerfully that what is different from us can thrill us, teach us, make us larger”—words, ideas, characters in literature. What they learned had my students do just that; they all had more confidence, the jeering and sarcasm stopped, and they worked together, encouraging each other.
It is radiantly clear to me that this is the teaching method of the future!