For an update on Starr’s student impact, click here.
In Limestone County, AL, 82% of the citizens are white. That percentage jumps to 96% when looking at the student body of Ardmore High School where Starr Weems teaches. Fearing her students’ first encounter with racial, cultural and religious diversity would be on the job, in college or not at all, Weems designed a Fund for Teachers grant to study three of the world’s major religions in Jerusalem. Her goal was to create a combined art/foreign language curriculum that introduced her homogenous students to the beauty of diversity and tolerance.
“As the only high school art teacher in the county and the only foreign language teacher at my school, it’s my responsibility to bring the cultures of the world to my students – many of whom will never leave our state. Somehow, I needed to inspire them to learn about the world around them so that they can be prepared to take part in a diverse society. It’s this responsibility that inspired my fellowship,” said Weems.
For one week last June, the holy city of Jerusalem became her classroom for intercultural studies. After journaling and sketching at the Dome of the Rock and surrounding gardens, she ventured to the Souq al-Qattanin to experience the colorful markets. In the Christian quarter, she followed and documented the Stations of the Cross on the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Weems spent an afternoon plein air painting at the Wailing Wall, explored the Western Wall tunnels and toured the Ophel Jerusalem Archaeological Park. She also collaborated with Israeli educators through pre-arranged visits to the Hebrew University High School and witnessed the Holocaust’s impact on art at Yad Vashem. Lastly, she met with Isareli working artists at the Huztot Hayotzer Artists’ Colony before viewing Chagall’s stained glass windows at the Chadassah Medical Center.
Three days after returning home, she boarded a plane to Rochester, NY, where she attended a symposium on the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions at Nazareth College – also funded by her $5,000 grant.
Finally back in Ardmore, Weems implemented her new art/foreign language curriculum this fall (schedule and budget restraints necessitated the combined class). As part of the curriculum, her students heard from a local Holocaust survivor and experienced the Darkness into Life: Alabama Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art exhibit at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center. After the field trip, students created their own art to reflect on what they witnessed (see below).
“A Hebrew proverb says that children are not vessels to be filled, but candles to be lit. How can a teacher light the fire of curiosity in her students if her own spark has grown dim?” said Weems. “Teaching is rewarding and exciting as no other career, but success comes only when educators take care to stoke the fires of creativity and inspiration. Guarding the spark (as I did with my Fund for Teachers fellowship) is an obligation that protects our longevity and influence as educators.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the function of education as teaching others to think intensively and critically. “Intelligence plus character,” he said, “that is the goal of true education.” In honor of Dr. King’s birthday today, we also celebrate Starr Weems’ work toward building students of intelligence and character for a future of tolerance.
You can learn more about this fellowship and download the resulting new lesson plans from Weems’ blog Art in Jerusalem.