Works of art by their very nature invite us to slow down, look carefully and wonder about them and, when explored, using some simple yet powerful strategies, can invoke higher order thinking. In addition, works of art have many stories to tell and visually connect students to a wide range of content areas. So how can we create experiences with art images that strengthen students’ thinking and learning across the curriculum?
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Art and Aesthetics
The study and practice of the arts can serve as a powerful vehicle for learning. This issue presents ways that the arts can deepen intellectual inquiry as well as sparking creativity, engage students' hearts and minds in science, literature, and all aspects of Jewish studies, expose learners to provocative, contemporary issues of culture and politics, and draw meaningful connections across the curriculum and among people.
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“Art is the most effective mode of communications that exists.” John Dewey
Due to their expressive nature and the possibility of multiple interpretations, works of art allow for conversation from a variety of points of view, experiences and different ways of learning. Contemporary artists often address social, religious, political and cultural issues, providing a framework for exploring challenging and difficult subjects.
Memory is fickle. Some painful moments in our lives—a childhood transition from one school to another, teenage love relationships—become dimmer as the years pass. But memories such as physical abuse or the death of a parent can reappear continually in the mind. Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander notes that when memories surface, we may be able to reconcile events, bring closure or establish some sense of healing, as did some Holocaust survivors.
Barefoot, students spill out of the classroom, and gather on the field outside. Wandering about—slowly, methodically, each aware of how the surfaces they traverse each day actually feel—soft grass, squishy mud, concrete and gravel. Their meanderings lead them to a circle where slabs of clay have been prepared awaiting their bare feet.
In an era of choice, it is essential to understand that current and prospective parents and donors must feel inspired by the work we do in our schools. One study showed that, “where schools are concerned, [parents believe] that a visual impression can afford an accurate means of assessing the performance of the school. In other words, even if parents rely only on visual cues, they can still make a reliable assessment of the school’s educational quality” (Emily Van Dunk and Anneliese Dickman, School Choice and the Question of Accountability).
Much attention has been given to the “whole child” approach to learning, as each child has a unique blend of cognitive, sensory, social, emotional, physical and creative abilities. As Jewish educators, we are privileged to take that concept a step further. We are called upon to teach the “whole spiritual child.”
Can the visual arts redefine and ignite a new approach to learning Jewish texts, ideas and history?
Someone has covered a wooden gallery floor at the Yeshiva University Museum (YUM) with plastic sheeting and a long roll of canvas. A group of Jewish day school teachers, dressed in aprons and shoe covers, fidget on the side before grabbing brushes and paint cans. They are instructed to do whatever they feel with the paint and the canvas—pour, splatter, drizzle—to create a final product that reflects their movements. The allusion to Jackson Pollock is not subtle, nor is it intended to be.
In our role as educators we are constantly searching for ways to engage our students in the learning process, to offer them tools for their personal growth both as individuals and as members of society.
What do you remember more:
• What you saw at your last museum visit or the book you were reading the day you went to that museum?
• The chapter on Ancient Egypt in your world History textbook or your trip to the Egyptian wing of a museum?
• The picture, painting, or collage you last created or the last email you typed?
The visual arts are an excellent medium for maintaining and deepening high school students’ interest in Judaic studies. Art produced by the students themselves will make Judaic material more meaningful and memorable to them, as it requires the application of both independence and creativity. Frequently, teachers assign art projects as assessment of learned material: posters, dioramas, illustration-laden book reports, and the like. But art has great potential to develop student abilities even more deeply.
ART AS DIALOGUE
Art is an additional mode of interpreting Jewish texts and practices. Beyond that, it expands and enriches the dialogue between students and ideas. An artistic source can be seen as an additional commentary, a link in the chain of commentaries on a specific topic.
I am captivated by the idea of remix. Not just the musical definition, of sampling disparate musical tracks and recontextualizing them with new backbeats and vocals to create entirely new songs. Rather, the broader idea of remix: innovation deriving not from enigmatic strokes of genius but from the skillful copying and combining of pre-existing ideas into new creations. As Kohelet put it, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
RAVSAK, like Jewish community day schools themselves, has been an exciting if imperfect experiment—an attempt to define and actualize surprisingly complex ideas like “excellence,” “community” and “pluralism” in ways that ultimately enrich the lives of students, support serious Jewish teaching and learning, and strengthen the Jewish community. We have focused on the challenges that face schools that operate independent of a single Jewish perspective, and have made a mission out of helping them tune divergent voices into nuanced harmonies.
In the spring of 2012, Kadimah middle schoolers were treated to a tour of the Darwin Martin House, a landmark designed by the preeminent American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Built between 1903 and 1905 for a wealthy Buffalo businessman, this house is considered by Wright scholars to be one of his finest and has been extensively renovated in recent years. The visit was sponsored by a Kadimah parent who is a Martin House donor.
Teaching midrash at Kehillah presented a multifaceted challenge. The classroom included learners with vastly varied levels of familiarity with the material. Some were fluent in Hebrew, previously studied Tanakh, and had some sort of exposure to the hermeneutic practice. Others were opening Tanakh for the first time. Not all students were Jewish, either. Inasmuch as it is impossible (and unproductive) to divorce the midrash from the religious goals of its makers, it was clear to me that those goals would not resonate with most of my students.