Widening the Learning Circle
For the past nine years, these are the kinds of questions I’ve posed to teachers and principals in Jewish schools around the country. As a curriculum designer, trainer of teachers, and director of Avoda Arts, my goal is to help educators infuse the arts—both productively and confidently—into their unique learning communities.
My work is informed by groundbreaking research in the general education community over the last 25 years, which has expanded our thinking about how people learn, communicate, and understand the world. These findings help explain why the arts can play a vital role in improving students’ ability to learn. We know that schools that incorporate music, art, photography, film, dance, and theatre provide a range of ways for young people to access content and express understanding of ideas.
For purposes of this article, I am defining the arts in the broadest sense to include visual arts (painting, drawing, and sculpture), media arts (photography, film, and digital imaging), performing arts (theater, dance, and puppetry), musical arts (song-leading, chorus, and orchestra), and literary arts (creative writing and poetry).
Creativity, Connection, and Community
We can readily talk about the many compelling reasons for integrating the arts into education. The arts make content more accessible, foster creative expression, encourage collaboration, engage diverse learners, and build critical thinking skills. The spirit, excitement, and energy generated when the arts thrive in our schools is palpable to any observer.
I believe that the arts are an essential component to Jewish day schools because they help strengthen kavanah (focus and intention) among students and teachers, foster charitzut (diligence) around serious art-making, and build kehillah (community) throughout the school. Simply put, the arts bring joy, fullness, nuance, and connection to the Jewish classroom. They serve as a literal gateway to more inspired, thoughtful, and committed learning.
As Jewish educators, then, it is incumbent upon us to create and nurture a learning environment where the arts are the vehicles through which students can wrestle with complex concepts, translate their beliefs about the world, and make more personal connections to learning. Toward that end, I offer a framework for thinking about arts-based teaching and learning in the Jewish day school:
Clarify the Role of the Arts. At some schools, the arts serve as a basis for both general and Jewish studies. Students build proficiency in specific artistic disciplines, but the arts are used primarily as a lens through which all other subjects can be studied. At other schools, the arts are included in the weekly roster of core subjects, and in-house art specialists work in tandem with general studies and Jewish studies instructors to fulfill curricular goals. In other instances, the arts may be viewed solely as electives outside of the basic curriculum. It is important to understand the strengths and limitations of these distinctly different approaches.
Train and Empower a Network of Educators. Teachers must be provided with tools, training, and ongoing support to infuse the arts into their daily curriculum, especially (as is typically the case in the early grades) if their classroom is the sole venue for accessing the arts. Having worked with hundreds of Jewish educators in the field, I know that many classroom teachers with little or no background in the arts are initially intimidated by the idea of bringing cameras, instruments, or sketchbooks into their classrooms. First-rate professional development that builds skills and confidence in using the arts is critical to a school’s successful implementation of arts-based strategies and methods.
Engage the Community of Jewish Artists. I’d like to see our day schools host high-caliber visiting artists on a regular basis. There are a substantial number of artists—ranging from the most seasoned to emerging talents—who are exploring the depths of Jewish life through their work, and who would benefit from meaningful opportunities to share their work with young audiences. It’s a scenario that works for everyone: students get to work side-by-side with a cadre of talented sculptors, musicians, photographers and performers; teachers acquire an interdisciplinary curriculum partner; artists gain invaluable teaching experience; and the community gets to sample an array of interesting exhibitions and performances.
Build Commitment at Multiple Levels. In order to develop and expand the role of arts in our school systems, parents and administrators must see the benefits. We can’t just advocate for the arts when we’re preparing annual budget requests. Rather, we must advocate all year long. And, we have to show, not just tell. Let principals, parents, and lay leaders experience the arts for themselves. Make them use their hands to craft a piece in conjunction with a specific theme or topic. Make them talk about the film that just moved them to tears. Help them understand that art gets us in our kishkes, and that deep, memorable learning comes from participating in such experiences.
Share Success Stories Loudly and Clearly. Throughout North America, there currently exists a small group of community day schools where authentic arts-infused learning is visible in every inch of the building. These schools are led by passionate educators and administrators who are working hard and smart to actively and systematically incorporate the arts into their core curriculum. As important as it is to recognize and celebrate these exemplars, we really need to learn from them. We need to develop, document, and institutionalize a process that will enable successive school communities to create arts integration plans that are scaled to schools’ unique interests and abilities.
Motivate and Inspire Our Teachers. Retaining our best teachers remains a daunting challenge in Jewish education. I believe that schools that embrace the arts fully are perceived as havens of creativity and innovation—places where students want to learn and teachers want to teach. As we aim to improve the educational environments in our network of day schools, I believe the arts can help us retain our top teachers.
Forging Partnerships for Success
High-caliber arts integration happens when classroom teachers work hand-in-hand with talented arts specialists, and when this interdisciplinary team is supported by partnerships with professional organizations and community programs in the arts. This type of coalition-building approach enhances student engagement, strengthens teacher commitment, and builds more meaningful, purposeful learning communities.
There are critical questions about how an arts methodology fits into the constantly evolving Jewish educational system. Challenges abound, including how best to train teachers, how to tailor programs in very diverse school settings, and how to engage communal leadership to support such a new toolkit for day schools. That is why Avoda Arts continues to work with academic and community leaders to facilitate measured integration of arts-based learning across the Jewish educational landscape. ♦