Israeli schools have produced some incredible minds.

There is the physicist at Tel Aviv University who predicted the existence of quarks, and then there are the scientists at the Technion who developed a conductive wire a thousand times thinner than human hair. You might think that these high-profile successes represent the typical education available to Israeli students. However, many schools, especially in development towns and neighborhoods, tell quite a different story.

As an art teacher with Counterpoint Israel, a program of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, I have spent many years conducting art workshops for Israeli youth at risk. Students in intermediate and high schools in the south where I teach spend a lot of time hanging out at the mall, texting friends, and updating their Facebook pages. They are fascinated with American youth culture. Some Ethiopian boys have come to identify more with African-American “hood” ideals than with Israeli Jewish culture, often using African-American slang.

The author with a student (photo: by permission)

The author with a student (photo: by permission)

Typical adolescent activities, one might say, but the predominant culture these children experience reflects the isolation and segmentation that often comes with heavy exposure to social media and little actual positive human interaction.

A recent study by Yossi Harel-Fisch of Bar Ilan University concludes that young people in Israel are spending an unprecedented amount of time watching TV and playing computer games – in fact, when it comes to these leisure-time activities, they outstrip their peers in Europe. They also have a more negative attitude towards their schools than their European counterparts. Such attitudes often result in academic failure.

While some of the blame for shortened attention spans, compromised self-discipline and dulled imaginations must be placed on the rise and power of the Internet and mobile technology, students in development towns and neighborhoods also struggle with parental unemployment and underemployment, a factor that often leads to weakened family ties. And distracted parents have a difficult time exerting the strong influence they must to counteract negative outside influences.

It is for this reason that art education is so important for this segment of the population. I will explain.

I believe that most people have a creative impulse that they suppress as they mature. I also believe that creating artwork instills a love of beauty, patience and calmness. Students who are exposed to art and are allowed to create works of art on their own while they are still young will internalize what they learn in the classroom and allow the unleashed discipline and creativity to seep into many other aspects of their lives, including their academic endeavors.

With little state funding for art education, many Israeli kids have lost the chance to learn even the most basic – and satisfying – manual/visual tasks. I incorporate these tasks into my art lessons. My students must attempt to cut precisely with scissors, to form well written letters, and to draw parallel lines with a ruler. With soft colored pencils, my students have produced a beautiful range of tones. It may seem simplistic, but these rewarding (and, yes, basic) tactile experiences are otherwise lacking from their education.

My classes also have demonstrated the power of art to instill inner discipline in children. Time and again, I have seen the most rambunctious students become mesmerized as they work. Last summer, for example, I taught a troubled student in Kiryat Malachi. During drumming class, he would run out to the hall and beat his drum wildly, disrupting the entire camp. A desperate administrator placed him in my art room. Within moments, he settled down and worked enthusiastically for the duration of the program.

Creating artwork instills patience and calmness (photo: by permission)

Creating artwork instills patience and calmness (photo: by permission)

In order to achieve such results, thoughtful and intentional lesson planning is critical. Adolescents are emotionally preoccupied with defining their gender role and their place in the world. Lessons that take adolescent psychology into account have a good chance of succeeding. For example, graffiti art is the untamed expression of the teenage self. A collage project that combined art and graffiti language is always a big hit. I’ve had comparable success with art projects I called “Me in My Fantasy World,” “Me as a Monster” and “Me by the Sea.”

This month, YU’s Counterpoint Israel is taking the concept of self-definition a step further. “This is My Story,” a project I co-designed with YU staffers Kiva Rabinsky and Gila Rockman, will challenge 500 students in three Israeli schools to develop personal narratives with coordinated artwork. The project will promote a heightened form of self-expression and will require a sustained effort – and intense, elongated creative process – as they complete four projects during the week-long class.

I’m excited because I know that this project will open the eyes and change the lives of so many of these children. A mass transformation will occur in Jerusalem, Kiryat Malachi, and Dimona, and it will be brought about through art.

My experience has shown that students who take pleasure in creating art also enjoy attending school. And, amazingly, they also come to have a greater respect for the institution itself (“school” and their specific schools). A basic art education will help Israeli students lengthen their attention span, tap into their creative capabilities, and produce work – school work and works of art – that everyone can be proud of.

In my opinion, it is time for Israeli educators to incorporate art as a serious educational – and socialization – tool. It may just be that missing piece of the puzzle they’ve been searching for.