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Painting as Processing: A Picture Worth Much More Than 1,000 Words

Meredith Polsky

Artwork by Jennifer Levine

When Jennifer Levine was given the opportunity to participate in a three-year Leadership Institute for supplementary school education directors, she felt both honored and hesitant.  A joint program of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and funded by UJA-Federation of New York, this Institute had the potential to strengthen her professional skills and provide an important cohort for her in the Jewish community. It also, however, had the potential to bring back familiar feelings of frustration from other Jewish conferences she had attended.

Jennifer Levine, a prominent Education Director at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey, has Dyslexia. The frontal learning experiences typical of conferences, where an expert in the field lectures to a large group of people, doesn’t work for her.  And while in the past she may have agreed to the Leadership Institute and suffered in silence as she desperately tried to retain any semblance of meaning from the lectures, this time Jennifer struck a deal.  She met with Dr. Evie Rotstein, the Director of the Leadership Institute, and said that if she is to participate, she needs to be true to herself and to her commitment to multi-sensory education.  Forward-thinking, open-minded and intrigued, Dr. Rotstein agreed.

Jennifer arrived at the Institute’s two-week conference, armed with her drop-cloth, easel, paints and brushes and she set herself up at the back of the room.  Every day, from 8:30-5:30, Jennifer painted. She put her brushes down during small group discussions, a format that works for her as a learner, to better immerse herself with her community of peers. She became, as far as we know, the first individual to paint a Jewish conference.

Professor Norman Cohen presented a text study on Jacob and Esau in a lecture entitled, “An Essential Ingredient for Leadership: Making the Bible Come Alive through Midrash”.  Listening to such a wonderfully creative teacher unpack an extremely dense text, under normal circumstances, would have been extremely difficult for Jennifer. Through painting, however, she was able to stay connected and engaged with Professor Cohen’s seminar and come away with a product that represented the main concepts of his teachings.  Through this process Jennifer was able to identify the big ideas from each lecture during the packed two-week program. She was able to integrate it into her body, whereas in the past it would have gone in one ear and out the other. “Capturing the feeling of the main idea had a tremendous impact on me as a learner,” Jennifer said.  Now, she is able to refer back to the paintings, and those lectures come back to life.

At one point during the conference, everyone was asked to sit with paper and markers to illustrate their choice of texts. As Jennifer got to work, she experienced a personal breakthrough. Because of her Dyslexia and the struggles she needs to overcome on a daily basis, “I often feel inferior to my colleagues in an academic setting,” she says.  “And in this moment, I look at my colleagues and everyone around me is drawing stick figures!  Developmentally, I was way ahead of them! It was such a pure moment of understanding multiple intelligences. To have that experience as an adult learner will have a deep, deep impact on my work with students. To be in that moment as a learner and have that experience – it was mind-blowing.”

Reflecting on the experience as a whole, Jennifer is incredibly grateful to the Leadership Institute for their open-mindedness and for trusting her enough to grant her unusual request. Jennifer admits that at first she was nervous about what the other participants would think. But using every opportunity in her own life to better understand her students, she gained a new-found appreciation for what children must feel like when they perceive themselves to be different from their peers. Being allowed to learn in the ways that work best for her, however, Jennifer reports that she got so much nurturing and encouragement from the community, she understands on a whole new level the importance of multi-sensory education in every classroom.  “It is essential that students who may struggle in one area are given the opportunity to shine in another,” Jennifer says. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

In her role as Education Director, Jennifer has cultivated a professional relationship with Matan in order to best meet the needs of all of her students. The surprise for all of us, though, was the extent to which this partnership has benefited Jennifer as an individual.  “I have always been frustrated attending conferences and professional development programs.  In the past, I have agreed to participate in the usual ways, all the while assuming there was something wrong with me because I was overwhelmed by the information. My work with Matan has made me much more aware of my own needs. So when this conference opportunity came around, I thought I might as well ask!”

The final 45 minutes of each conference day were reserved for group reflection. As is typical at the end of a long day of intense learning, participants were exhausted. What Jennifer observed about herself, though, was that she was energized.  “I remember that feeling of being exhausted from all the work it took to just listen. But this time, my body was active and alert and I was engaged in a creative process. For me, that was the biggest take-away from this experience. If our teaching style can actually give our students energy, we’re doing something right.”

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