Why We Got Serious about the Arts

Miriam Heller Stern

Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D.
National Director, School of Education and Vice Provost for Educational Strategy
Founder of Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust

Creativity is serious work. We are documenting what it looks like to teach and learn creative practice as we enter our third academic year of a signature grant from the Covenant Foundation for Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust, an initiative that integrates artist-scholars into the coursework and learning experiences of our various graduate programs in education at HUC-JIR. Why? In short, because we want to expand and enrich our educators’ capacities for creative thinking, teaching and leadership, and disseminate models of creative pedagogy to the field. Our faculty through the generations have long believed that becoming a professional educator is not just about gaining a set of content and skills to use on the job. Our students develop the dispositions, or habits of thinking, that guide successful educators in not just “doing the job” but defining what education itself can be.

What are the benefits and desired outcomes of integrating the arts deeply and rigorously into the School of Education graduate programs? Here are a few illustrations of some of the core capacities of educators that are strengthened by engaging with the arts in the Beit HaYotzer laboratory:

Jewish educators need to model thinking through different interpretive lenses. 

Interpretation and commentary are essential skills for engaging with core Jewish texts and making meaning. Artistic representations hold up a mirror to what we are learning or think we know and help us access ways of knowing, some which may be different from our own.

Here is an illustration: our students listen to Alicia Jo Rabins perform “Snow/Scorpions and Spiders,” a song that depicts her imagined experience of the Biblical Miriam being banished in the desert for speaking ill of her brother. The students engage with the original text, with Alicia’s version, with Alicia’s explanation of her version, and respond to multiple pieces of art that represent Miriam in different traditions, eras and genres. This exercise is not about knowing or mastering six different Miriams. It is about empathizing with Miriam and the range of her possible emotions: courage, emotional anguish, ambivalence, frustration, resignation, responsibility. The learning invites them to see the Miriams they would not have known otherwise, meet the Miriams in their peers’ imaginations, and join a millennia-old conversation about the meaning of Torah – a conversation that now has space for their take on what this Biblical heroine teaches us about the human condition and our relationships to self, God, family and community.

Jewish educators need to be multilingual.

I am not referring to English and Hebrew, or any other Jewish vernacular. The arts are a language of expression with many “dialects:” gesture, dance, paint, melody, poetry, and so many more. Recent writing on culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogy (an effort to include the languages and modes of expression of all learners for the sake of equity and affirmation) gives creative students a voice and a method of communicating ideas when words limit us. Educators have the unique opportunity to hear their learners when they are truly open to what they have to say. Learners may find opportunities to express themselves through the arts when the primary language of the classroom is intimidating, unfamiliar, or new. In other words, arts integration provides an opportunity for us to create more equitable, inclusive and affirming learning environments.

When theater artist Jon Adam Ross invites students to communicate just with their eyes, and then through gesture, he slowly builds comfort and trust in “speaking” differently than they are accustomed. In an exercise where Ross engages participants in learning only through movement without speaking for 45 minutes, they practice “listening” to movement – that is, really observing what another person is doing, experiencing the sounds of the room without speech, trying to understand and build upon their moves, and collaborate without speaking. At the end of the exercise, they realize they have now experienced what it feels like to be the outsider, while at the same time, suspending fear of judgment and courageously bringing their own expression to the cohort.

Jewish educators need to create a safe environment for risk-taking and new, original ideas to be born.

Innovation and invention often involve bold risk-taking. In arts-based teaching, participants practice trying new moves or methods outside their comfort zone. Aaron Henne teaches our students theater techniques designed to make learning more welcoming and accessible, but also to generate new ideas. He utilizes signature moves that create comfort in risk-taking: Short, easy warm-up exercises build comfort. He increases the level of complexity and difficulty gradually. Instructions and expectations are always clear. Every activity has options, offering different ways of responding so learners can personalize the experience and find a stretch that feels right for them. When asking someone to participate, he leans forward toward the learners and smiles, gesturing graciously. He also welcomes them to pass if they are not ready to share. Students are invited to move around, changing position and space, to allow them to shake off any anxiety and find a comfortable location for themselves. Whether students are creating dance moves or human tableaux to tell a story, the elements of choice engage the learners in finding their own capacity for joy and playfulness as well as managing the awkwardness or discomfort of trying something new. With Aaron, students have engaged in interpreting images and texts to derive new insights, and they have also used movement to awaken their own visioning processes as they map their own careers and aspirations for Jewish education.

Jewish educators need to create a microcosm of the culture they want to see.

This is a reflection of Dewey’s oft-cited principle that schools are a microcosm of society and Deborah Meier’s assertion in the Power of Their Ideas that “schools embody the dreams we have for our children.” A setting for learning – however formal or informal the space, in-person or virtual – holds the possibility of creating culture. How we show up in a Jewish learning environment signals the culture of the whole experience of being Jewish, the invitation to participate with a sense of wonder and curiosity, and how to hold creative tension.

Ariel Burger uses stories, photography, art and nigun to create a culture of striving toward moral courage. In one learning exercise, he asks students to examine several pieces of art and each offer a story that they imagine is told by the images. In the process, they air the variety of perspectives and truths that co-exist in a single image and he invites them to get curious about those truths – especially when they grow from different assumptions and judgments. He models this curiosity by sharing a poem by Mary Oliver:

“The man who has many answers
is often found
in the theaters of information
where he offers, graciously,
his deep findings.
While the man who has only questions,
to comfort himself, makes music.”

Making music becomes a tool for holding difference. When language fails, he tells the students in the name of Rebbe Nachman and his teacher Eli Wiesel, we can turn to a nigun, a melody, to hold the space. In Burger’s classroom, learners confront the madness of the world through a variety of artistic lenses and stories, holding the intellectual and emotional as an arts-integrated approach uniquely can. When we can’t instantly create the world we want to see, we can at least fashion it in the spaces we inhabit, and strive from there.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which the Beit HaYotzer artist-scholars use distinctive, intentional pedagogies to engage learners in perspective-taking, culture building, expansive expression, and risk-taking. These dispositions are essential for successful Jewish educators and 21st century Jews. Our students have the dual benefit of expanding their own creative capacities for themselves while practicing ways to weave these habits into their own teaching and leadership. Over the next few months, we will begin sharing vignettes of how our students and recent graduates are applying their learning in the classrooms, programs and communities where they work.