Students dish out mixed grades

New York Post/February 1, 1998

Most people have never heard of the late Eli Siegel, the little-known winner of a 1925 national poetry prize.

But his name and philosophy ring loud bells for many students at Fiorella LaGuardia HS in Manhattan.

The reason: art teacher Donita Ellison and biology teacher Rosemary Plumstead, who wear "Victim of the Press" buttons to school and weave Eli Siegel and his Aesthetic Realism into class discussions.

"She talked about it quite a few times in class," said senior Maurice Tyne, 18, who had freshman biology with Plumstead. He said he enjoyed the class.

"We were not only learning biology, we were learning about a new philosophy called Aesthetic Realism," he said. "It focuses more on why people do things and what makes them do it."

Tyne said he didn't fully understand Aesthetic Realism.

"I'm not sure exactly what she was talking about," he admitted. "I guess we were too young to understand exactly what it was. But we got a basic grasp of it."

The teacher told the class she attended seminars on Aesthetic Realism, Tyne said.

"She told us there was such a thing as an Aesthetic Realism discussion group, and if an individual wanted to know more about it, she'd be happy to answer their questions."

Vera Radunksy, 16, also liked Plumstead and enjoyed lessons peppered with Aesthetic Realism.

"She [Plumstead] explained how it helped her. She told us she was a negative person before and that she's really positive now."

Vera said Plumstead told the class that the place where she learned Aesthetic Realism "is accessible if we wanted it."

Heide Krakauer, a former city teacher who studied Aesthetic Realism for 15 years, said a popular teacher can draw students into Aesthetic Realism.

"It's really the personality of the people who present the ideas that wins people over," she said.

Krakauer argued that high-school students who are insecure or have suffered setbacks are likely to be attracted.

"What the Aesthetic Realism followers say is that through AR, you can resolve your inner conflicts."

Some LaGuardia HS students were not won over.

Eric Sanchez, who took art with Ellison, said he felt he had to understand Aesthetic Realism and its theory of opposites to pass the class.

"I asked her to explain it 20 times," he said.

Another student, Yana Suzanova said Ellison seemed to favor students who showed interest in Aesthetic Realism.

"I think she pushed that on us too much," Suzanova said. "She'd tell you that that's the way everything is supposed to be."

A Board of Education official said the high school has received no complaints about Plumstead or Ellison's use of Aesthetic Realism in the classroom.

In fact, he said, other LaGuardia HS teachers asked Plumstead and Ellison to give a presentation on their method. Six to eight teachers attended the workshop last November.

But he added that educators should not step over the line in espousing their personal beliefs.

"Every teacher brings their individual personality into the classroom to some extent," he said. "That becomes a problem only when it reaches the level of proselytizing or dogma."

Aesthetic Realism Foundation followers refused to be interviewed by The Post. Instead, they sent letters defending the organization.

They refuted suggestions that their group is a cult.

"One can accuse anybody of anything -- and no matter how preposterous the accusations are and no matter whether they are denied, an impression has been given to people," foundation officials wrote in a Jan. 19 letter to The Post.

"You can even make a course in political science at Yale look like a cult by labeling the students 'members' and the teacher 'the leader.'"

In response to allegations by former followers that the foundation controlled their lives, the letter suggested that the grievances could all be traced to "an individual who has been trying to smear Aesthetic Realism."

"She resented the scholarship of Aesthetic Realism and its ethics" and wanted to use the foundation "as some vehicle for personal power."

"She has been on a vendetta, which has consisted of trying to present us as a cult," said the letter.

The foundation praised its philosophy.

"Aesthetic Realism explains: the economic agony in America and how it can end; the cause of prejudice and racism and what can stop these; what real love is and what interferes with it; why children can't learn and how in New York City classrooms through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method they do."

The letter concluded by saying that Aesthetic Realism is "not only great, but loved by many, many people. We are immensely proud of the integrity of Aesthetic Realism!"

Another letter stated, "There is no greater friend to children than Aesthetic Realism.

"The insinuation that through Aesthetic Realism hurt is coming to children is sick and a complete malicious lie.

"It is also damaging to the reputation of teachers who, with pride and gratitude, use the Aesthetic Realism teaching method in New York City and elsewhere and to many other professionals known for the study of Aesthetic Realism and the use of it in their work."

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