Here’s how my 9th graders became more interested in the world and people, and liked learning about grammar, through the Aesthetic Realism method.
As the school year progresses, teachers everywhere are taking stock: “Am I getting through to my students? How much are they really learning?” When the answers are not encouraging, it is easy for teachers to become cynical and “burned-out”—and to feel they’ve gotten far away from their original enthusiasm about education.
This feeling can end through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method! Hearing teachers who use this method talk with such excitement about their classes, made me decide to become a teacher myself. That was nearly 18 years ago, and with each year I, I care more for my students and my subject. Every teacher can feel this! I have seen, in the English classes I teach, that the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method can change the pervasive dullness, cynicism, and lack of interest in both students and teachers—and make classrooms dynamic with real learning and pleasure!
The Aesthetic Realism method is based on the philosophy Eli Siegel founded in 1941. This method is taught in a bi-weekly workshop for teachers at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation in New York City. “The purpose of education,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is to like the world” (Self and World, 5). Further, the reason we can like the world is that it has a structure that is interesting, sensible, even beautiful—and is related to our very selves. That structure is described in the following principle, stated by Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites” (Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism).
I’ll illustrate briefly with an example about roots, prefixes and suffixes that shows how opposites that are often confusing in students’ lives can be beautifully one: sameness and difference, order and disorder. Young people can feel the world itself is chaotic, doesn’t make sense; they can see their own feelings as turbulent and disorderly, or feel painfully bored—that everything is the same. However, when they learn that words they saw as different and unrelated—like “gradual,” “progression,” “grade”—are related through the same Latin root, grad– or gress-, meaning “step”, they are amazed and pleased. They see the world as having order and surprise, as they see that different prefixes and suffixes added to a root make for new, different words, while the meaning of the root stays the same. They see the subject as interesting, and they learn!
As teachers, we are always asking, “How can we encourage our students’ interest in the subject?” Mr. Siegel defined interest as “the state of a self in which it wishes to be of something” (The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #309). But Aesthetic Realism explains that there is a fight raging in every teacher and student between interest and cynicism; between enthusiasm about learning and the feeling “Who needs this?” I have seen students drift away in their minds, mock each other, cut classes, drop out; and teachers, bitter themselves, speak sarcastically about students, and discuss retirement incentives with more energy than the subjects they once cared for. The cause of this cynicism rampant in schools today is contempt—defined by Mr. Siegel as the “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self” (The Right of, #247). The desire for contempt, I learned, is also the great interference with learning, because if a young person sees the world as hollow and meaningless, it is difficult for him or her to want to see meaning in words, numbers, facts of science, which come from that world, and take them in.
I feel so fortunate that, as I’ve studied Aesthetic Realism, I have heard what every teacher needs to hear—clear, kind criticism of my contempt, my desire to meet young people with smug superiority. I’ve seen that this is an occupational hazard of a teacher, and I am proud that I can criticize it in myself. Not so long ago, as I was grading a test, I saw that many students were doing poorly. I got increasingly irritated, and thought: “I understand this. Why don’t they? They just didn’t try.” The next day, as I handed back the test, I spoke to the class in a haughty, admonishing tone—but as we went over the answers, I realized it was a bad test. It was much too long, and a number of questions were convoluted and unclear. I told them I felt I’d been unfair, both in how I made up the test and in how I spoke to them, and I apologized. My students were so relieved, and were actually eager to take another test so that they could really show what they had learned, which was a lot! Hearing a teacher criticize herself countered their desire to be cynical, and had these young men and women feel more that this was a world they could respect.
Adjectives Encourage Interest and Oppose Cynicism!
I describe here what my freshman English class learned as we studied a subject that has made for many groans of “Who cares? What do I have to know that for?”—grammar. I told my students what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: the very existence of language arose from the drive in people to like the world by giving things names—words that can stay within us even when the object is gone. Words arose from the feeling: “I want these things outside me—say a flower, or the moon—also to be in me in a permanent way, and I want to be able to tell other people about them.” Adjectives stand for one of the great ways people wish “to be of something.” “An adjective,” states our Macmillan textbook Grammar and Writing, “is a word that tells more about a noun or pronoun” (Loban, 40). My students would come to love adjectives as they saw that these words stand for a world that is interesting, and beautifully combat the cynical feeling that the world is dull and doesn’t come to much. When a noun like “street” can be seen as having many different qualities—it is busy, it is wet, it is crowded, it is colorful; and with each adjective this thing, this noun, this street is seen with greater exactitude and wonder—it is interesting!
I gave this lesson at Norman Thomas High School in midtown Manhattan. The area, filled with high-rise office buildings and luxury apartments, is very different from the economically ravaged neighborhoods from which most of my students travel each morning by subway: the Lower East Side, Washington Heights, East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Brooklyn. Many of the young people in my classes—mostly of African-American and Hispanic backgrounds, with families from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Ecuador, have endured a great deal, including tragedy, in their 14 or 15 years. They feel unsafe walking around their neighborhoods, where friends or family members have been hurt, even killed, in gang- or drug-related shootings. They have also met horrible racial and economic cruelty which encourage bitterness and despair.
At the beginning of the term the situation was one familiar to many teachers. These students had a mingling of interest and a cynical “Yeah? Show me” attitude. The class met eighth period—for most of them, the last period of the day—and the atmosphere was chaotic. Many students came late every day—then sat dully until I reminded them to take out their notebooks. Clarisa and Mayra, who were best friends, came in talking loudly, and continued to do so well into the period, even though their seats were on opposite sides of the room. Ten minutes after the class began, Kaseem would bang loudly on the door, which was unlocked, come in, and immediately start talking about some other subject than the one we were studying. I had to repeat myself several times before they would listen, and often, when I asked for their assignments, they looked puzzled: “We had homework?” Most of these students had difficulty reading and writing and were below grade level. I saw they were tormented, feeling they couldn’t stay still or listen very long. Even as it was hard sometimes to go on with a lesson as I planned it, I knew these students wanted desperately to respect themselves for how they used their minds.
We began to study adjectives during a week when a huge blizzard had blanketed the city with over a foot of snow. I asked the class what they thought of the snow—did they like it? Most said, “Yes!” “How would you describe it?,” I asked. “It was really cold,” said Manuel Santos. Mayra said she liked the big flakes as they fell. Several young men said they liked playing football in the snow: when you fell, it was soft. Lots of hands went up to say more about the snow. As I wrote their observations on the board, I wanted them to see they were using adjectives. “It was soft and fluffy,” said Sandra. Other students spoke with pleasure of the tall snowdrifts; how the snow seemed dry, but was wet as it melted; how it was “shiny in the moonlight.” When Roberto said he liked how pure and white it was, Carmen scoffed, “Yeah, but only in the beginning. Then it got all gray and dirty.” Other students objected to her cynicism. Meanwhile, I pointed out “gray” and “dirty” are adjectives, as are the other words they mentioned, all aspects or forms of the snow: “cold,” “tall,” “wet,” “dry,” “shiny,” “white.”
We read the definition in our textbook: “An adjective is a word that tells more about a noun or pronoun.” I asked: “As soon as you start to tell more about something, does that show you’re interested in it?” They saw it does. Then I read these sentences from Eli Siegel’s great work Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World (The Right of, # 305):
An adjective is a word showing the world as form. . . .A noun can have an indefinite number of adjectives, each one of which shows what the noun can be, or what the object for which the noun stands can be.
We saw that a noun like “snow,” while interesting in itself, can seem general. I asked, “As we began to describe it, say more about its color, texture, temperature, size, using specific adjectives, were we heightening its meaning by seeing the snow more as it was, or adding things to the snow that it didn’t have?” They were interested in this question and said, “More as it was.”
“If there is an indefinite number of adjectives telling what a thing can be, while it is still just one thing,” I asked, “does this show we can see greater and greater meaning in it all the time?” They answered definitely: “Yes!”
This idea is powerful opposition to the life-sapping desire to dull things, which stops students from learning. My students began to see that the structure of language itself is against a person’s desire to flatten things, take them for granted, put them aside. Aesthetic Realism is terrifically scientific and kind in showing that even the most painful things—including many that young people meet today—can be described exactly, and that adjectives, which were developed over hundreds of years by people we never met, enable us to do so.
What Adjectives Can Teach Us about People
These students, like those in many classes, liked to complain—frequently about each other. When Kaseem spoke out during a lesson, I heard: “Why don’t you stop doing that? You’re always interrupting!” Two of Carmen’s favorite expressions about people were: “They don’t know what they’re talking about” and “That teacher is so stupid!” James mimicked or mocked people as they talked. I told them that when I was in high school, I was also very contemptuous and it hurt me, stopping me from being affected by things. Though I had varied interests, mostly I acted as if nothing mattered too much; my desire to mock everything and everyone made me feel dull and empty. In a journal I kept for a short time when I was 15, the same age as my students, I wrote: “I hate people who can’t act their age. They don’t even try. What they call serious and mature sounds like something from a worn-out t.v. rerun.”
One result of this contempt is how I wrote of myself:
Lately, everything seems blurred. I walk out on a clean, bright day expecting to see the sun, fresh snow, a clear sky. Instead I only see slush, and clouds woven throughout the sky. People are merely animated objects moving around me. Then I see my reflection and it’s a blurred, fuzzy picture.
I am more grateful than I have words to say that only a few years later, I had the tremendous good fortune to begin studying Aesthetic Realism and to learn the reason I saw the world and people as a meaningless blur and despised myself. In the second Aesthetic Realism class Eli Siegel asked me: “Have you found people dull?” I said yes, and he asked: “Do you think they are? Aesthetic Realism has a phrase: ‘the miracle of exactitude.’ The idea is to see a person exactly as he is.” I love Mr. Siegel for teaching me that the world I had scorned has a structure that makes sense, is exciting, beautiful—and that people whom I had dulled in my mind are, in fact, interesting.
My students were learning that like a noun, every person is both one and many, has thousands of aspects, and can be described with vividness and exactitude with adjectives—each showing what that person is and can be. The more I wanted to see this, the more I saw how truly interesting people are, and I respected myself. The fact that this continues to happen with every year of my life is cause for unending gratitude.
My Students Begin to Write with New Interest!
Early in the term, I saw that many of the sentences my students wrote were short, and seemed constrained and flat. They also used few or no adjectives. In order to have my students feel the world, and therefore write about it, with more deep interest and freedom, I asked them to describe the qualities in a particular object. For this purpose I brought in various familiar fruits—oranges, two kinds of pears, and several different kinds of apples.
I divided the class into groups and gave each group a piece of fruit and a plastic knife, and asked them to 1) spend about five minutes observing the outside of the fruit—its weight, texture, color, smell, shape—and then, 2) write down their observations, using adjectives as accurately as they could. Then, they would do the same for the inside. Some students were annoyed: “Do we have to? I know what an orange tastes like.”
I said we would look at one fruit together first. I took out a yellow-green, unusually shaped fruit none of my students had ever seen before and which I had never tasted. In seconds, half the class was gathered around my desk, looking at it with great interest. “What’s that?” they asked. I held it on its side, revealing its star-like shape and asked if they could guess what it was called. They did—a star fruit. Everyone wanted to look at it, feel it, smell it. We started to describe it, and they asked, “What does it taste like?” My students looked on with anticipation as I cut carefully into its smooth, shiny, dry skin. “Wow! Look at all that green juice coming out!” said Carmen. I cut and peeled some small pieces and many students wanted to taste it. “It’s kind of sweet,” said Denise. I said I thought it was a little bit tart, too. “It’s crunchy,” said Roberto, “but it’s also soft.”
I pointed out, “These are opposites and they are also adjectives—sweet and tart; soft and crunchy. Do these words describe both things in the world and yourself?” They said yes. Carmen said she was hard and soft—her skin was very soft, and her fingernails were hard. “And are you stubborn,” I asked, “and also gentle?” She smiled. Seeing this opposes the cynical feeling, which Carmen had intensely, that nothing and no one can understand or explain us. “If the same adjectives that describe things outside ourselves can also be used to describe us, does that show we are deeply related to what is outside us, and should be interested in knowing it?” They said YES.
For homework, I asked them to write a composition describing what they observed about the fruit they had been given, using adjectives to show what it is; and then, to say how they had the same qualities in themselves. When they handed in their compositions the next day, they looked so proud. These were the longest, most careful and most detailed pieces of writing most of them had done all term. This is from Manuel’s composition:
The orange is sweet and sour. Its skin looks smooth, but it has rough bumps around it. The orange is one unit on the outside but is broken up into different parts on the inside. It is dry on the outside but the inside is very moist.
The orange is very much like me. I’m a sweet person, but at times I can be very sour, meaning mean or bad. Most of my skin is smooth but parts are very rough. I’m one unit on the outside, but on the inside, my body is separated by bones and by organs. I’m dry on the outside, but on the inside I’m surrounded by liquids.
My students came to love adjectives, to use them with pleasure in their writing and also to recognize and care for them in sentences they read. I love the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method for strengthening and bringing to life—in students and teachers alike—real interest, honest excitement about the world and what is in it! That is what will happen everywhere when this beautiful, kind method is standard in classrooms across the nation. The future of education depends on it.
This article was published in The English Record, the journal of the New York State English Council.
Loban, Walter, Grammar and Writing. New York: Macmillan, 1983.
Siegel, Eli. Aesthetic Realism Class, 26 Feb. 1977.
—”Aesthetic Realism: A Tripartite Study,” The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #247, 21 December 1977.
—Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism. New York: Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 1967.
—”Literature and Interest,” The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #309, 7 March 1979.
—Self and World. New York: Definition Press, 1981.
—”We Approach Grammar,” The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #305, 7 February 1979.