Failing (in order) to Learn

This is a post by Ziva Hassenfeld, a student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education:

    “No one cares what you have to say, outside of a few dear friends, your family, and your teachers, at least until you graduate. But if you can speak through texts, wow, the world will be listening. And if you can speak through the Biblical text, the most cited text in history, well, more power to you!”

Inevitably this line would come out of me every year that I was teaching. Usually it was the rhetorical climax of an emotive speech about how much stronger our voices could be when we spoke through texts, and how this truth motivated me in teaching my students to be the closest, most careful, skillful readers of Hebrew Bible. I wanted to teach my students an interpretive process that would allow them to craft readings of the text that expressed their own ideas and values. I urged them to reread Eve, Moses, Pharaoh, Tamar, and Miriam to generate creative interpretations that expressed their worldviews and values.

I found, to my confusion, that this message seemed to fail in my “lower level” classes, but succeed in my “high level” classes. The latter group of students thrived on the directive, but the former group had no interest in these close reading skills, despite my promises of textual empowerment. The students in the “high level” class uncovered remarkable ambiguity of meaning in their grammatical and syntactical analyses. They produced lengthy papers in which they carefully crafted the text’s meaning to reflect their most strongly held ideas and convictions. They debated each other, trying on interpretations that they could defend, even if they despised them. It was everything I had hoped for.

And so I spent my years in the classroom crusading to get my “lower-level” students to do the same.

With the space and time to reflect, I have become convinced that my struggle to engage and excite those students was a product of my unwillingness to compromise in my conception of textual interpretation and what counted as a productive discussion around text. As a teacher I was so convinced that the procedural tools that I was teaching my students could empower them, that I could not hear my “lower-level” students telling me, implicitly and explicitly, that they did not feel empowered. In all my efforts to help them, I did not heed the most obvious feedback I was receiving: there are other ways to access a text. I was too convinced that my flexibility in textual meaning justified my rigidity in interpretive process.

I’m beginning to acquire a language to explain this phenomenon. In the field of literacy education, there exists the concept of dialogic instruction. The theory of dialogic instruction argues that students benefit from the opportunity to evaluate texts without teacher evaluation. Professor Maren Aukerman, a leading proponent of dialogic instruction, explains that implicit in dialogic instruction is a critique of teacher evaluation of student interpretation on any level. For students to engage with texts, textual interpretation and evaluation must matter socially, beyond whether a teacher approves of the student’s answer or process of answering. Only when a student needs interpretive tools for social purposes, in order to convince other students of her interpretation, will she have a reason and motivation (beyond getting a good grade) to acquire the tools being taught.

The theory of dialogic instruction offers one possible explanation for why I failed to excite my students in my “lower level” classes. They were not willing to go along with my authoritative discourse. And with this as the only option in my classroom, I denied them the role of textual evaluator. In my effort to empower them through a set of interpretive tools, I prevented them from feeling empowered. If I had heard them out, regardless of whether or not their thoughts on the text demonstrated the textual rigor I wanted, perhaps they would have felt empowered. And had they felt empowered, perhaps they would have felt invested in convincing their classmates of their interpretations. And had they tried to convince their classmates of their interpretations, most likely they would have increasingly come to rely on the text in order to evaluate and revise their textual hypotheses.

Ironically, if I had given them more room, allowing them to take on the role of possible knower in the classroom, regardless of their process for textual interpretation, they would very well have ended up with the skills I was so vigorously, and yet so unsuccessfully, trying to teach them.

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