Questions and Answers About Jewish Art 1

by Laurie Bellet

I’ve been writing this column — ideas on art projects and how to integrate quality arts education into your curriculum — for a few years now. One thing about being a Jewish arts expert is that you get lots of questions from people. This is a column of questions and answers. The questions (five of them, in true Carol Starin style!) are those I am asked most frequently:

  • “Do you have a project for _____?”
  • “How do you get your ideas?”
  • “Where do you shop?”
  • “How do you balance process and product?”
  • “Does your administration support the arts?”

So, without further ado, here are the answers to my most frequently asked questions.

“Do you have a project for_______?”
The simple answer to this question is “Yes, I do.” No matter how the questioner fills in the blank space, I do have a project that fits the bill. Actually, when I have difficulty coming up with something easily, I realize that I wrote a book and, happily, the activities in The Reluctant Artist are adaptable to many content areas. It is rare, though, that I give a straightforward answer to the “project” question. Generally I respond, frustratingly enough, with a different question: “What is it you want to teach?” The art experience, the “project,” is the learning activity to reinforce the ‘big idea’ of the lesson. A teacher must always identify what learning a student should ideally take away from the classroom before determining the activity or project(s) that will meaningfully accomplish the task. This summer, at CAJE 33 in Vermont, I will be giving a session that will give you enough tools to never have to ask the “project” question again!

“How do you get your ideas?”
When I first began generating ideas for learning activities, I was studying every general education teaching guide I could find. If the subject was phonics, I substituted Hebrew. I discovered that Social Studies activities translated well to Judaic Studies and Literature to Tanakh. I did the same with classroom decorating resources. Now, it seems that I get ideas everywhere I go. I look around at daily life and consider how to create it Jewishly. I listen to what my students are discussing. I look at what they wear; how they adorn their backpacks and show interest in their recreational pursuits. If I want my students to love what they learn, I have to learn what they love!

“Where do you shop?”
For my big art supply orders, I look first to Nasco (www.eNasco.com). I place a large order with which to begin the year and plan to stock up again in January. I am always seeking new surfaces for my students to use as an ‘alternative canvas,’ something other than paper on which to paint, write or decorate. I find the best selection for this type of product at Oriental Trading Company. I buy silk fabric products and fabric paints and dyes from Dharma Trading Company (www.DharmaTrading.com). For specific, Jewishly themed stencils and wood shapes, I look towards www.tjssc.com. One of my favorite shopping spots is a local warehouse type store called Smart and Final. This is where I buy paper plates for paint palettes, French fry holders to hold 3-D student work ‘in progress,’ small cups for glue, ketchup squeeze bottles to dispense paints and any other products that strike me as being convenient for art or classroom functioning. Conveniently, I can now look to Torah Aura for Crayola supplies and Judaic foam shapes. I have a handout available, detailing each vendor I use frequently. I always enjoy directing shoppers to their desired products and I am very quick to answer reader requests for resources.

“How do you balance process and product?”
The process/product equation is a delicate one. I believe that a product, without substantial learning content is just a ‘thing,’ and is easily forgettable. Likewise, an activity process that results only in a messy, confused outcome is quickly discarded. Generally, my students do not engage in art experiences that have only one correct finishing point. I offer materials, suggestions, alternatives and opportunities. At the conclusion of an art activity, especially one that is purely process driven, my students each write an “artist statement.” These statements encapsulate how a student approached the activity; the statements explain how and why choices were made; they describe significant learning the student experienced and demonstrated in the activity. My youngest students either write their own statements, confident that spelling is not my area of concern or, they dictate their statements.

“Does your administration support the arts?”
Absolutely! When I began my current position, my Director was very clear that he wanted to see the art curriculum grow and flourish. I am given a good deal of freedom in developing my program at Oakland Hebrew Day School. I maintain the confidence of my administrators by carefully researching established wisdom in arts education. When I introduce a new program component, I begin with a small sampling of students and am scrupulous about quality control. I document student efforts with photos, artist statements and update my Director with written reports of my attempts, rationale and results, whether successful or not.

Do you have questions. Send them in! You can email tapbb@torahaura.com or leave your questions in the comments section below.

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