When Creativity Nourishes the Mind, Soul and Heart

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern

A group of sixth graders fans out around the school building with their smartphones, in search of God. Their teacher, a professional photographer, has tasked them with taking photos that reveal where God is present in their surroundings. The subjects they choose (a tree, a Torah, a view from the pews in the sanctuary) combined with their choices of vantage point, focus and lighting, tell an emerging story of their conceptions of the divine presence in their world.

And yet, a gallery of their works leaves so many questions unanswered. What was this student trying to express? What choices were intentional? What did they learn through the act of creating those photographs?

Over the past several months, I have been studying and analyzing what it means to teach and learn through creative process with American Jewish University’s Dream Lab Teaching Fellows, a cohort of midcareer creative practitioners who are incubating artistic teaching modules in Jewish settings. As we debrief their pioneering work with learners, it is clear how much social-emotional development, deep thinking and community building is happening around the creative process. Here are just some of the ways that creativity is cultivating learners and learning communities.

Creativity that Furnishes the Mind
Leading psychiatrists Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson describe the brain as having a “downstairs” and an “upstairs.” The amygdala, located “downstairs,” develops early in life, controlling our most visceral emotions and responses such as fear and survival. The “upstairs,” where our more sophisticated thinking and decision-making happens, develops during childhood and into young adulthood. We have tantrums, the experts say, when the “downstairs brain” closes off the stairwell to the still emerging “upstairs,” where more nuanced, controlled thinking can happen.

Artistic work is both therapeutic and stimulating, and can serve as that stairwell to reflection and cognitive stretching. When they dialogue about their creative projects, students learn to witness and wonder; they practice giving and receiving critical feed- back, which builds confidence and self-awareness. These conversations essentially give our students a housewarming party for their upstairs brains, furnishing new corners, designing and adorning the space.

The common assumption that thinking is divided neatly into “right brain” and “left brain”—as if every person can only operate on one side or the other—obscures the possibility of combining the two fruitfully. A combination of analysis and amazement, design and improvisation, can flourish when creative process is shared with a learning community. It is the learning community that holds up the mirror so that we can see our own work through another’s eyes and appreciate our own potential. The mirror often reveals hidden meanings that we may have produced, but may not have even articulated or seen on our own.

Creativity that Feeds the Soul
Depending on the setting, Judaic curricula are often caught between two poles: a desire to teach skills and a desire to make the text relevant to the learner. Too much dry skill-building and we fail to pave a pathway to the soul; too much personalization without access to the text may leave the soul adrift without a reliable anchor. The most effective soul-building Chumash lessons I have observed recently began with close textual reading and utilized creative writing, painting or drama games to fill in the white spaces between the words with a colorful or moving reflection of the soul. Thinking through a different medium or metaphor sparks new understandings and questions. The artistic reflection creates a container for learners to go beyond “What does this text say?” They wonder: “What does this text say to me?” and “What does this text say to the world?”

Our reflection muscles need exercise and practice in order to stretch and function; often the time-constraints of school and the emphasis on grades shortchange reflection in the drive to just get the project done. Finding time to slow down the pace of learning—even if it is just a matter of inserting 10 minutes of journaling, sketching, watercolors—helps students learn how to learn for the sake of learning as opposed to learning to complete the task. When the thought process counts as much as the product, and we prize the quality of wondering and reflection, we pave the path to lifelong soul-searching and learning.

Creativity that Expands the Heart
Creative acts involve risk. To create in the presence of others without fear requires embracing vulnerability. When I share a draft of my writing, hold up my painting, or tell my story at an open mic, I need to know that I can plunge into the trust fall of put- ting myself out there, experimenting with new ideas, modalities and languages. The learning community has to step up to provide a safety net of empathy to catch me; I am emboldened by taking the risk, and the community is emboldened to take risks by witnessing my safe landing.

Superficial tolerance is not empathy, nor is empathy merely an emotional gesture. Empathy stems from understanding that bridges the emotional and intellectual. That means I need to give my fellow creator the stage to share his or her creation. I need to witness it with a whole heart. I need to use constructive language to express what I notice and wonder. The discussion around our creations can breed the kind of rigorous emotional and intellectual care famously professed by philosopher Nel Noddings and implemented by education reformer Deborah Meier. Caring is the heartbeat of a community.

Imagine the communities we would have in the future if our Jewish schools were places where educators modeled, and students practiced, the kind of empathy that allows learners to take creative risks without fear of being teased or judged. When playing with new materials, such as words that become poems, or pieces of paper that become collages or beats that become rhythms, we may have an intention, but the execution may display something  else, perhaps something  we didn’t even know we could do.

The act of creating, and the galleries and performances that feature the work, demonstrate only a portion of the learning. Dedicating time to witness, notice, wonder, interpret, critique and perfect each other’s creations nourishes the mind, heart and soul. In those reflections, the divine spark of creation is revealed.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016