In the many years I have been using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, I've seen students who had all but given up on school and said they hated books, come to really like reading and writing--something they never imagined could happen. Eli Siegel explained that the "purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it." And through this method students have a solid, logical basis for learning the subjects of the curriculum.
I'll tell now about a class of students who when I met them were having great difficulty reading. Because of their low scores on state exams, they were required to supplement their Language Arts class with an additional one which I taught. In the beginning of the year, many of these 13 and 14-year-olds were angry, often scowling as they came through the door. Already in their short lives they had experienced some of the most awful things. Steven Daniels told me that he did poorly in school last year because he was worried about where he and his family were going to live and where their next meal would come from. Robert Quercia came into class ready to explode. I learned that he was very poor and that his mother had not found steady work for over two years. Patrice Cook, who is African-American, would sit down and stare at me as if to say, "Come on. What can you tell me that I haven't heard before?" She was furious at the prejudice she saw around her and experienced, once exclaiming in the middle of a lesson, "White people are racist!" Samuel Williams told me he wants to go into the military when he graduates from high school because, he said, "it's easier, Mr. Gvili. I see how hard it is to get work and how many people are losing their jobs. I don't know what's going to happen to me."
When I introduced the first reading lesson, I heard groans. One student said, "Why should we read, we have T.V." Others said they had never finished a book in their lives and that "reading is stupid." At the same time, they were ashamed of the great difficulty they had pronouncing some of the most basic words.
I've seen that the cause of a young person's inability to read is described in these sentences from An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto About Education:
Behind every "learning difficulty" is the feeling that the world cannot be liked. If a child sees the world as an enemy, why should he take inside him letters...coming from that world? When a student sees the world as an enemy, he or she feels justified in having contempt for it, which, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the greatest interference to learning. Nevertheless, looking at my students that day I knew--because I have seen it again and again--that through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method they would be able to learn successfully. As the Manifesto states: The one way to like the world--a world that has wars, economic injustice, and parents that confuse us--is through seeing that the world has an aesthetic structure: it is a oneness of opposite
I. Hard and soft--words have both
I told the class that all our lessons would be based on this principle: The world, art and self explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites. In order to illustrate I picked up a piece of chalk and asked, "Could this chalk be useful if it were just soft?" "No," Samuel called out, "it would crumble." "That's right," I said. "And if it were just hard would you be able to write with it?" "No." Patrice said. Using the chalk, I drew a line on the board and said, "We see this line because the chalk has a softness which enables us to write with it; at the same time you can hold it in your hand because it is hard as well, or firm. So it is both at the same time."
I then said, "Words are like that; they put together hardness and softness in their sound. I wrote the word school on the board and said, "Take this word, for example. Does it have a soft sound? Alan Warren said, "Yes, the SSS sound of the s." "And does it have a harder sound as well?" I asked. "The letter c has the KK sound," Steven Daniels said excitedly. "How about the Ooo sound, is that more soft or more hard?" "Soft!" Jake Adams said. "The lll sound is soft also," said Samuel. "So the word school has both hard and soft sounds."
I asked, "Would there be something wrong if the English language had words with only soft sounds?" "That would be whack!" Steven Daniels said. "And do you know any words that have only hard sounds?" I asked the class. Robert Quercia shouted, "Crack!" I wrote the word on the board and asked, "Does it only have hard sounds?" "No," Brittany Powell called out, "its' got the aaa. That's soft." And we spoke about how the r sound is also soft in the way it rolls. The class was now really into it, naming words like cat and ball to see how they put hard and soft together. I told them what I'm grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism: that words put together the opposites that are in reality itself--and that we're trying to put together. I asked, "How many people here want to be tough enough to stand up for themselves?" Everybody's hand went up. "And how many would like to have feeling about things and be affected, say, by music, a really great joke, and a good story?" Many students raised their hands. "So that means we have something in common with word school and also a piece of chalk: the opposites of hard and soft."
Already on this first day of school, their cynicism and despair was beginning to change as they saw that words have a logical structure and are related to what goes on inside of them. When the bell rang, Kyle Adams walking out, said, " This is going to be a good year!" Yes, it was--and soon we would see how richly reading books would have us know the world and other people. States the Manifesto about Education, "Reading is the feelings of another person and your feelings becoming one."
II. Characters in a novel have hardness and softness, strength and weakness
I tell now about a series of lessons on The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. Published in 1967, this novel was later made into a
popular film. We read that the author's career,
began while she was still a student at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Disturbed by the clashes of the two gangs..., the Greasers and the Socs, she wrote The Outsiders...told from the point of view of a 14-year-old Greaser named Ponyboy Curtis.One of our aims in reading this novel was to study character analysis, which the New York State standard E5a describes as the
And a question this particular novel deals with is: What is true strength--trying to be kind, wanting to be affected and to know; or hardening oneself and lashing out at the world? It is this fight that is exemplified by the main characters, teenagers who are Greasers, named Ponyboy Curtis, Dallas Winston, and Johnny Cade. Early we find out that Ponyboy, the narrator, likes to read books, cares for poetry and movies, but doesn't see these interests as strong. The novel begins with him saying:
...I usually lone it anyway, for no reason except that I like to watch movies undisturbed so I can get into them and live them with the actors....I'm different that way ...nobody in our gang digs movies and books the way I do. For a while there, I thought I was the only person in the world that did. So I loned it." (p.2)
I asked my students if they had ever felt, similar to Ponyboy, embarrassed to say they like things. Many hands went up. We saw this is what another character Dally Winston feels. Says the author, "his eyes were blue, blazing ice, cold with a hatred of the world." Yet, Dally also shows care for Johnny Cade, a boy whose parents fight alot and don't seem to care for him.
At a dramatic point in the novel Johnny, trying to protect Ponyboy from a brutal attack by the Socs, stabs and kills another boy, and to escape the police they run away into the country and find shelter in an abandoned church. They are both very scared, and Johnny is in agony over what he did. As the days go on, they come to know each other better and Johnny is affected by Ponyboy's care for books and nature. One day Ponyboy wakes up early and is captivated by the sunrise, saying:
The dawn was coming then. All the lower valley was covered with mist, and sometimes little pieces of it broke off and floated away in small clouds. The sky was lighter in the east, and the horizon was a thin golden line. The clouds changed from gray to pink, and the mist was touched with gold. There was a silent moment when everything held its breath, and then the sun rose. It was beautiful. "Golly"--Johnny's voice beside me made me jump--that sure was pretty." "...You know," Johnny said slowly, "I never noticed colors and clouds and stuff until you kept reminding me about them. It seems like they were never there before". (p.77-8)
My students wanted to talk about this passage, and what Johnny is feeling. The subject of hardness and softness was continuing. To be affected you have to have softness, but is the ability to be affected strong or weak? I asked, "What do you think--is Johnny literally smarter for wanting to value what Ponyboy sees in the sunrise?" Robert Maccallum said, "Yeah, he is seeing new things like colors." I asked, "Is this true in real life: If you see value in things around you--a book, a song you heard, or a conversation you had with a girl--and say so, will you be stronger and gain people's respect?" Robert wasn't sure. But Kareem said, "Yeah, I think I can talk to my friends about stuff like that."
A turning point in the novel is when tough Dallas Winston comes to their hideout to tell them everyone in their town now knows that Johnny acted in self-defense. So the two boys decide to return and give themselves up. Suddenly they hear screams coming from the church which has caught on fire; several children are trapped inside. Johnny and Ponyboy rush in to rescue them. These same young men who earlier had wonder looking at the sunrise, were now energetically fighting to save lives. All the children are saved, but just as Johnny is trying to escape, the building collapses on him, leaving him terribly injured and burned.
My students were gripped, visibly moved, and respected the courage of these boys. "They got guts, man," Steven said, and others agreed.
Soon after, there is a big rumble between the Socs and Greasers, and the Greasers win. Dally and Ponyboy, visiting Johnny in the hospital, tell him about it. We read the following:
Dally swallowed, wiping the sweat off his upper lip. "Johnnycake?" he said in a hoarse voice. "Johnny?" Johnny stirred weakly, then opened his eyes. "Hey," he managed softly. "We won," Dally panted. "We beat the Socs. We stomped them--chased them outa our territory." Johnny didn't even try to grin at him. "Useless....fighting's no good...." He was awful white. ..." "Ponyboy." I barely heard him. I came closer and leaned over to hear what he was going to stay. "Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold..." The pillow seemed to sink a little, and Johnny died." (P.148)
This scene affected the whole class. Many students were very sad that Johnny had to die and we spoke about why the author made that choice. Robert Mccallum, earlier so cynical, said, "He's been through it all; He knows what's up; fighting will only lead to something bad." I asked, "Is there a difference between the fighting that goes on between gangs and the fighting the boys did in rescuing those kids from the burning church?" Robert said, "They were helping the kids. The other fighting doesn't help anyone." They were seeing what I'm grateful to have learned: there is such a thing as a good fight. It's for justice and has good will in it; it is a oneness of opposites: toughness for the purpose of kindness.
We also spoke about what Johnny means when he says Ponyboy should "stay gold." Is this a way of saying that he should stay true to something--have feelings about people, want to know and be kind?
As we read on we saw that while Ponyboy and Dally are both devastated by Johnny's death, each reacts differently, making a different choice. Dally uses Johnny's death to hate everyone and everything. He holds up a convenience store, is chased by the police, who, not knowing that the gun he points at them is empty, shoot and kill him. But Ponyboy, after a hard struggle, becomes deeper and kinder to people, including his brother Darry, whom he hasn't gotten along with. I asked, "Is Ponyboy tough as anything in wanting to care more about people, or is Dally the tougher one?" Kyle Adams, a young man who would fight with other students, said, "Ponyboy is the tougher one. Dally couldn't handle it." The whole class agreed.
I asked, "Do you think we always have a choice to make between feeling we'll be strong by being mean, or in trying to see what other people deserve from us?" Samuel Williams considered and said, "Choices are important." And the next day, Steven Daniels told me, "Mr. Gvili, I've been thinking a lot about what we spoke about in class, about making good choices." Studying this novel, students who at the beginning of the year felt that anger and quick-action retaliation were what would take care of themselves, came to see studying this novel that strength, real toughness, is wanting to think about what people feel!
As we continued reading, my students became more and more interested, often asking eagerly, "Are we going to read today?" and wanting to borrow the book so they could read at home. Their desire to read increased dramatically. And they wanted to discuss what they were reading, including out in the hallways.
One student said, "I wish The Outsiders was longer!" Another wrote that our study of this book "taught [me] to make right choices instead of making the wrong choices and being mad at the world." Camille Wallace, who had been wild at the beginning of the year, and would answer every question I asked with a shrug and "I don't know," now wrote: "I think the book teaches how people shouldn't treat people bad because they're different or richer or poorer than a person, and that people of all kinds can get along"
Everyone in this reading class passed the test on The Outsiders, with many getting very high grades. Through seeing that both
individual words and books put together opposites that have fought in their lives, they came to like the world more. And they
wanted to take the world in the form of books into their minds. More and more of the students who had had difficulty
pronouncing basic words in the beginning of the year, could now read on their own, understand what they read and discuss it.
They began to take books out of the class library and tell about books they liked. More homework was handed in and students'
writing improved a great deal; their compositions were longer, clearer, and more thoughtful. And they were kinder. Tasso
Papadopoulas and Michael Hoff no longer made fun of Robert Quercia. Robert Mccallum became much less angry and wanted
to participate in class discussions. Patrice Cooke who had said "White people are racist!" became friends with white students,
and was critical of classmates who were unfair to each other. She was much happier. And I'm grateful to say that 98% of my
students, including these young people who had previously some of the lowest scores, passed the state English Language Arts
exam taken at the end of the year.