HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Creativity Imperative

by Miriam Heller Stern Issue: Mission & Vision

When I was growing up, “creativity” was usually a category for extra credit. You got an A for following instructions and for getting the “correct” answer. But if your work had a little extra original thought, some artistry or inspiration, that was an added plus to be rewarded, not a requirement. But I have found that in the curriculum of life, creativity is a requirement. Creativity is not just extra glitter, paint or time spent to perfect a project. It is the disposition, intuition and skill set that allows for having meaningful ideas and combining scientific knowledge and artistry to bring them to fruition. Creativity is the gateway to possibilities that only imagination and ingenuity can offer.

Thriving as Jews in today’s world, as opposed to merely surviving, demands creativity. “Creativity is a Jewish educational imperative,” Danny Lehmann asserts in his powerful challenge to the field. “Our students and parents should feel our schools empower them through education to leave distinct and constructive marks on the world. The impulse and desire for creativity is more robust and generative than the concern for Jewish continuity among our parents and students.”

What happens when creativity is an educational objective? This question is at the heart of debates about educational reform today. The global economy and social climate demand innovators who will devise creative solutions to problems, who will know how to think adaptively, experiment and “fail forward” until their experiments succeed. Yet mainstream school structures adhere to outdated standardized measures of success which inhibit risk-taking and reward product over creative process. Our mission statements often employ the term “excellence,” and too often we define excellence by proxies such as grades, test scores and higher education acceptances. As an alternative, we should adopt Ron Berger's definition of excellence to describe the commitment to drafting, crafting and revising that truly embodies learning.

In the Jewish school, creativity can also be a tool for Jewish developmental and existential expression that sometimes gets sacrificed in conventional academic text courses where the objective is proficiency and mastery of skills and content. In God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “All creative thinking comes out of an encounter with the unknown.” If school is solely about mastering what is already known, as opposed to learning to encounter the unknown with curiosity and awe, not fear, we are missing the point.

Embracing “the creativity imperative” necessitates rethinking how we do school. Creativity is not easily cultivated during a “free period” on alternate Tuesdays when we have time for art class, or sequestered in an after-school drama club. Creativity is a way of thinking; it is a kind of constructivism that must be woven through one’s academic journey and applied in the world beyond school. Creativity is the process of creating new knowledge, expression and interpretation from the sources that have the potential to give structure and meaning to our lives.
In his book Arts and the Creation of Mind, the champion of arts education Elliot Eisner explained,

   Education…is the process of learning to create ourselves, and it is what the arts, both as a process and as the fruits of that process, promote. Work in the arts is not only a way of creating performances and products; it is a way of creating our lives by expanding our consciousness, shaping our dispositions, satisfying our quest for meaning, establishing contact with others, and sharing a culture.

Eisner suggests a vision of education in which learners actively create their lives rather than passively receive them. Moreover, that process of creation happens in contact with others, sharing culture, raising consciousness, all while forging the bonds of community. This process must be the heart of the Jewish educational enterprise.

What are the implications of such a vision for Jewish day schools? Consider these possibilities.

The Curriculum

Teachers and learners need opportunities to experiment in school, using all of the tools, materials, languages and forms of expression at their disposal. In a dual curriculum, the arts often get short-shrift. We need to integrate the arts in all of their forms—music, visual and digital art, drama, creative writing—to create a curriculum that nourishes not only the mind but the soul and the community. Unlike the ultimate Creator, we cannot expect our students to create something out of nothing. But what if they could learn to utilize the stories, images, symbols and language of Jewish tradition and history to create their own worlds?

The Teacher

Sometimes we fear empowering students because it challenges our authority as teachers and keepers of tradition. We worry: “What if we can’t answer their questions?” What we should really fear is: What if they stop asking? What if Judaism ceases to be the container that holds their wonder?

How might teaching and learning feel different if some of our co-teachers were teaching artists who could contribute additional metaphors, movement and lyrics to express the values of our sages, the struggles of our forbearers, and our search for the divine?

The Student

We mistakenly treat the arts as a programmatic break in the student’s academic routine rather than a set of sensibilities and dispositions developing in the child’s mind and heart. Creativity becomes the “fun” or less serious alternative to conventional assignments. But if we think about creation as the ultimate act of the Divine, then imagine what it could mean for a student to assume the role of “Creator” in the classroom? The student becomes a learner who seeks to make, apply, act. Creative educational tasks become daunting and humbling even while they are inspiring and edifying.

The students’ process is crucial: creativity blossoms in an environment that also encourages practicing, drafting and refining. Technology provides so many new tools for students to contribute their authentic voices to the adult world. Creating should evoke a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction and a yearning to create and refine more. Imagine the communities, workplaces and institutions they will create when they carry the intrinsic rewards of learning into the world with them.

Culture in Community

Lehmann argues, “We need to push our students’ creative content out into the global arena as a concrete demonstration of the value we place on the creative gesture.” What if we had traveling pop-up galleries of Jewish students’ art to connect Jewish communities in a chain of peoplehood across North America and the globe? Jewish student contests to design the next iteration of the synagogue and other communal spaces? Jewish arts festivals by and for kids, guided by artists-in-residence? A virtual space where Jewish kids could share their own original illuminated haggadot and siddurim, musical divrei Torah and multimedia midrashim? How might these projects forge deep, meaningful connections between Jewish students sharing their work with one another? With teachers, students and parents as partners, the Jewish Day School can be a house of thriving Jewish knowledge and a communal center for creative Jewish student and family life.

There are schools where this is beginning to happen: where artists-in-residence integrate drama and visual art into Judaic studies; where students share their original work proudly and publicly through blogfolios or other technological means; and where individual teachers are embracing the power of creativity without fear. At American Jewish University, a Dream Lab of teaching artists and arts education advocates have been gathering regularly to develop a programmatic vision to truly infuse Jewish education with creativity through the arts. The field needs a more coordinated effort to evolve this agenda into a movement.

Replacing buzzwords is not just a game of semantics or rhetoric. The word “continuity” has defined the communal agenda for a long time, and offering substitutes to define our vision demands emotional and intellectual courage. As we envision Jewish schools that foster the Jewish communities of tomorrow, we must ask ourselves a hard question about our vision for continuity: is our purpose to transmit Jewish culture and tradition by handing our children the keys to the sources and institutions that comprise our community as it exists today? Or can our schools be playgrounds and laboratories where they can experiment with the building blocks, the raw materials and the tools of our tradition, to imagine and build their own communities? We may find that in fact, certain kinds of discontinuity, sparked by creativity in community, will actually provide new paths to the continuity which so many of us seek.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is dean of the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California, and project director of Dream Lab: A Think Tank for Artists and Educators. mstern@aju.edu

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Mission & Vision

The key to a school's success is the articulation of a strong mission and vision statement and an administration and board that stick to these ideals. Mission and vision differentiate a school from its peers and proclaims the unique value proposition that the school offers. Reconsider the purpose and mission of Jewish day school education from a variety of perspectives. Then, gain advice for composing a mission statement and discover the range of uses that such a statement can serve.

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