The Role of Creativity in the Classroom

As many Jewish educators can attest, one of the primary problems that we face is engaging students in faith based texts. The challenge of all educators is to engage students in text, but the struggle becomes particularly attenuated when we ask students to move beyond understanding the text, and allow it to shape their daily lives. Moreover, if we expect the learning to touch not only their minds, but also their hearts, shouldn’t we demand more of ourselves when we teach the standard curriculum?

In light of the above, over the last few years I have consciously shaped my teaching to include more creativity in the hopes that the learning will impact them more deeply. I had the privilege of being selected to visit High Tech High (1) and was blown away and inspired to see the level of depth and engagement on the part of the students because of the emphasis on using creativity in the classroom. I began to research the importance of using creativity in the secular classroom in hopes of applying these findings in the Jewish studies classroom. From my research it seemed to me that the goal of using creativity in the secular classroom was to enable students to be better equipped to meet the challenges of a new demanding workforce which will emphasize ingenuity and innovation. (2) (3)   As a Jewish educator my focus is not so much on preparing the students for the future work force, but rather on preparing students for the future of the Jewish people. Would the successes of the use of creativity in secular school settings be applicable to the Jewish day school setting?

From the experimentation I’ve done in formal and informal classroom settings, I
believe that using creativity has allowed my students to engage far more deeply in their work and has enabled them to reconnect on a deeper level with their faith. My students' work is what keeps me going when I have those moments of self-doubt.

Their work pushes me to forge ahead and continue to align my practice with the literature about what will best serve our students when they leave our classrooms.
In my experience, the minute I use the word creativity in my classrooms, many
students freeze up and say: "I'm definitely not creative, so you can't give me this
assignment, because I will fail."   What I will typically do in my classrooms at this point is to ask them: what does creativity mean. Often students associate creativity with arts and crafts.  What I try to convey to them is what I believe creativity is at its most basic level: it’s about solving ANY type of problem in an original way. It can be a challenging math problem, distilling the main idea of a chapter, arguing that one peirush or literary analysis is more compelling than another, or coming up with a new interpretation etc.  Moreover, another feature of creative work is that it demonstrates deep analysis of material as opposed to simple regurgitation of material. These two features are discussed by Tony Wagner who is the author of many books on educational innovation. (4) He interviewed hundreds of successful business leaders and created a list of seven survival skills for professional success. One of those skills he listed as essential was:

Curiosity and Imagination – An example of its use in the job market is explained as
"Our old idea is that work is defined by employers and that employees have to do
whatever the employer wants… But actually, you would like him to come up with an
interpretation that you like- he's adding something personal - a creative element." -
Michael Jung, Senior Consultant at McKinsey and Company

I would like to argue that in teaching Jewish studies, it is critically important to
ask students to suggest answers to problems that are original (at least to them) which enable them to think deeply about the material. If we would like students to feel that their voice matters too, and that they aren’t being forced to believe or accept a faith based system against their will, then we need to ensure that students can have the opportunity to feel that their own interpretation matters. When we ask students to think of original solutions to (often their own) questions then we inevitably demand that they think deeply.

As a Jewish educator I would also like my students to be exposed to classical
Jewish perspectives on the topic – even if they choose to dismiss them. Another
essential skill that Tony Wagner found in his interviews was that employers are looking for employees to be able to access and analyze information.

The importance of this skill is explained in the following way. He quotes from the
following people:
"There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren't prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps." -
Mike Summers, Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell.

I would like to share one creative assessment that that I believe did a good job at
generating very creative products from a group of 11th- 12th grade female students.
We had studied the first four chapters of Genesis for the first semester of the year.  This alone was a huge change in how I had taught the Sefer many times before.  Usually at this point in the semester I was somewhere around perek 15, well into the Avraham stories, as opposed to this past year when we had just completed the story of Cain and Abel in chapter 4.  But I was committed to teaching at a much slower pace in order to ensure that my students were constantly given the opportunity to think deeply about complex problems by analyzing a whole array of sources.

I was also teaching a group of exceptionally motivated, bright young ladies.
(Incidentally, they were the non Honors track). I was feeling very proud of my students’ achievements but fairly nervous that I hadn't taught them "enough" chapters, though I knew that I had given them the skills and desire to learn independently.  I wanted to assign them something which showed me that the skills and the stories that I had taught them, had really pushed them to think rigorously, deeply and that they could synthesize new and old information connected to the perakim (chapters) independently.  It was a tall order, but they passed with flying colors.

Here is the copy of my final along with the grading rubric that I gave out:

Bereishit final: January 2015

Why should every committed Jew (or every human being) learn the first 4 chapters
of Sefer Bereisheet?

A) Write a paper that answers that question well. You must use at least 10 pesukim
from perakim 1-4, 4 peirushim, and 1 new peirush from anywhere in perakim 1-4.

B) Make anything creative that demonstrates your answer well OR learn the next
topic on your own in depth and explain why this perek is also of extreme
importance for any committed Jew to learn. (30%)

Grading Rubric:

A) Write a paper that answers that question well. You must use at least 10 pesukim from perakim 1-4, 4 peirushim, and 1 new peirush from anywhere in perakim 1-4. (70%)

/18- You have a strong thesis that is stated clearly and is original. THIS IS THE
MOST CRITICAL PIECE. Even though it’s worth 18/70 points, you can’t do
a good job with the rest of the elements if your thesis is weak.

/10- 15 pesukim from perakim 1-4 were QUOTED IN HEBREW, and the perek and
pasuk were written beside it, and they were used appropriately to support your

/32- 4 peirushim were incorporated well into the essay to support your thesis.
Each peirush was cited appropriately. (i.e., book and page number or pererk and
pasuk). Each peirush was explained thoroughly and accurately.

/10- 1 new peirush was brought to support your thesis. The peirush was cited
appropriately. The peirush was explained thoroughly and accurately.

B) Make anything creative that demonstrates your answer well.
/15- product looks polished and very impressive. It could be put on display
anywhere and you would be proud.

/15- product accurately reflects your paper’s thesis.

I would like to present two of the most impressive pieces that I graded.  This
assignment was done independently (she was one of the only people to work
independently on this project).  Her essay's concluding sentence very succinctly
captures her unique articulation of the importance of studying the first 4 chapters of Sefer Bereisheet:

“Ultimately, the dynamics established in these four perakim have not changed
from biblical times until today. In our lives, existing in a modern world, it is not
only possible but necessary to reflect back on these perakim, in order to glean
lessons on how we are to relate to God, our romantic partners, and our fellow

Her next piece of the assignment - the “creative” part- was even more impressive
than her essay.  She is a very serious student of theater and is planning to study it in college. She performs regularly in plays and is herself a very talented actor.  She
decided to write a play that would be a "modern day version" of the first four chapters of Bereisheet. In this play she took her essay's thesis and extrapolated it to a modern day scenario which explores a family dynamic where one of the sons commits a form of "murder" to his brother out of intense jealousy.

Ellen Galinsky states in her book, "Mind in the Making," that one of the seven
essential skills children need to learn in life to succeed is making connections.  She
quotes Adele Diamond as explaining that: "the essence of creativity is to be able to
disassemble and recombine elements in new ways.” (5)   She quotes researcher, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek as stating: "in a Google generation, where there are facts at your fingertips, the person who will later be called boss will be the person who can put those facts together in new and innovative and creative ways. (6) " This young lady’s work did all of the above: she dissembled what we had learned together about the first four chapters of Bereisheet and created her own unique interpretation which she then articulated beautifully. Then she created her own innovative "version" of the story which was in the form of a very compelling and moving dramatic monologue.

Anecdotally, this student was struggling with very real faith based questions throughout the year. During this assignment and afterward, I noticed a shift in her attitude and willingness to be open to religion.

The second project was created by two young ladies who argued that the major
ideas of the first four perakim of Sefer Bereisheet are to teach us about dialectical
principles that the world is founded on: God is both vengeful and compassionate; man is both ruler and servant to God. Again, this was their own interpretation and exploration.

Their written work was good, but their art piece was what really impressed me.  They created a picture on canvas out of melted wax to capture the feelings of their complex thesis.  I honestly felt that their writing skills held them back from properly expressing the complexity of their thesis.  However, they were able to capture the essence of what they were trying to say much better in their art work.

This opportunity to express themselves in a different way is another obvious reason that assigning creative assignments is important: students who are not necessarily as strong in one intelligence, have a different way to shine (7).

Here is a picture of their artwork :

I am still in regular touch with the students who graduated 4 years ago from our school. Their commitment to Judaism is still strong (in a class where they believe 50% of their classmates are no longer practicing Jews) and they often remark that this class enabled them to have a fresh perspective on Judaism.

Professor of learning research at MIT, Mitch Resnick, thinks that the ability to make unusual connections- to think creatively- is fundamental not just to children’s success, but to our society’s success. He says: “For a number of years, people have realized that our society is going through a transformation from the industrial society of the nineteenth century that was sparked by the steam engine and the rise of factories. People have been searching for ways of thinking about the nature of this new society. There’s no doubt that information is much more important than it ever was before. We also know that we’re drowning in

We’re now talking about the ‘Knowledge Society,’ [but] it’s not just about our access to information but our ability to build knowledge based on the information we have access to. As I look ahead, I think the key to success in the future (and the key to satisfaction in the future) is not just going to be how much we know, or what we know. I think that the ability to think creatively will be the key distinguishing
quality that will allow people to succeed and be satisfied with their lives.” (8)

As our Jewish students are drowning in all the information of the outside world,
and deciding whether or not to stay observant, I believe that encouraging our students to make unusual connections and find their own voice in the material being taught to them- is essential.

Having creative assignments as a regular part of any curriculum is essential for
enabling our students to have life- long professional success. Moreover, creativity at its core is what distinguishes humans from animals. Only humans build off of the creations of others to create something else. Six days a week we are told:

שמות כ,ח: ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית מלאכתך
-Exodus, 20,8: “Six days a week you shall do ‘melacha’-

we are commanded to be creative and to enhance creation (the technical definition of melacha is NOT work- it is any creative addition to our world). On the seventh day we are told to cease from this activity to remember Who the ultimate Creator is. Teaching students HOW to think creatively and HOW to be creative is one of the holiest pursuits that we can be engaged in with our students. If we are to expect that our students stay committed to Judaism beyond the time that they spend with us in the classroom, then we must challenge ourselves to teach in a way that asks students to solve their questions in an original way, and to find their own voice in the material. May we all live up to our Divine charge to “be creative” and to teach our students how to be creative as well.


(1) High Tech High is a: “San Diego charter school exists to prepare students -- all kinds of students -- to be savvy, creative, quick-thinking adults and professionals in a modern world. It has scrapped a lot of what's arbitrary and outdated about traditional schooling -- classroom design, divisions between subjects,  independence (read: isolation) from the community, and assessments that only one teacher ever sees.” Real World, San Diego: Hands-On Learning at High Tech High- Students prepare for the real world through technology-enabled projects. Grace Rubenstein, Former senior producer at Edutopia, December 3, 2008. In November of 2015, our school sent a small delegation of teachers and administrators to learn from the educational approach of High Tech High.

(2) Ken Robinson, Out of our Minds- Learning to be Creative. Capstone Publishing Ltd. 2011. “New forms of work rely increasingly on high levels of specialist knowledge, and on creativity and innovation. The new technologies in particular require wholly different capacities from those required by the industrial economy… Given the speed of change, governments and businesses throughout the world recognize that education and training are the keys to the future, and they  emphasize the vital need to develop powers of creativity and innovation.” p. 6.
Will Richardson.” Stop Innovating in Schools, Please…” Huffington Post. April 12, 2016. “…Which is why despite the shiny new tools or the seemingly unending string of new learning approaches (flipped, blended, collaborative, personalized, project-based and on and on), nothing has really changed. Kids are still bored in school. We still assess the stuff that’s easy to measure at the expense of attending to the more important stuff that isn’t, things like creativity and curiosity and determination.”

(3) In the year 2011, global levels of unemployment among young people aged 15 to 24, were the highest on record. ILO Global Employment Trends for Youth 2010, ILO Genevea, Copyright International Labor Organization, 2010. “We not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college- more education- but we need more of them with the right education. Our schools have a doubly hard task, not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.” Friedman, Thomas L(2007), as quoted in Out of our Minds, Ken Robinson, p.11.

(4) He has written many articles and five books. Such as: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World. It has been translated into ten languages. His 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap continues to be an international best seller with a Second Edition recently released.

(5) Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, 2010. P. 9

(6) ibid

(7) On a different but very similar note, Shaviv, Paul, ('THE JEWISH HIGH SCHOOL: a complete management guide" / principles and practice for Principals, Administrators, School Presidents, Board members and education professionals, p.97, 21010.
Paul Shaviv writes about the importance of a creative arts program in Jewish day schools. “A lively Creative Arts program will immensely enhance the quality of the school, and the quality of the educational experience available to the students.
There will be students for whom the Creative Arts program will be a life-saver, and who will find opportunities for self-expression that are simply not available to them in other parts of the school program.  These students will haunt the art room, the drama studio, or the music room at every available spare moment.  A wise Principal
will be grateful for the built-in 'safety-valve' thus provided, and will leave well alone.” From the introduction.  In my opinion, the same fundamental point that Shaviv stated also applies to providing artistic expressions even within a non “art” class for students who excel in this way.

(8) Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, name of publisher, 2010. p. 183