Who Really Needs to get Comfortable with Discomfort

This post was written by Ziva Hassenfeld, a PhD student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies

Over the past two weeks, my colleagues Jonah Hassenfeld and Matt Williams have been writing about the idea of productive discomfort. Matt broached the idea that teachers should resist the urge to keep their students comfortable and pointed out that a certain degree of discomfort is necessary to promote intellectual growth. Jonah articulated one example of productive discomfort in the field of Israel education. I would like to challenge the notion that it is only students who might benefit from discomfort, and suggest that teachers, too, should strive for productive discomfort in their own practice.

In my previous blog post I discussed the importance of allowing students to take on the role of textual evaluator. I argued that students benefit from the opportunity to evaluate texts without teacher evaluation. What I did not acknowledge is just how difficult and uncomfortable a charge this is for most teachers. After all, most limmudei kodesh teachers love the texts they teach and enter the classroom hoping to share the insights of the texts that they have found so meaningful. In order to make space for students’ interpretations, limmudei kodesh teachers will have to tolerate the discomfort of holding back their own thoughts about the text. This means separating the teaching of texts from the teaching of certain interpretations of those texts, which makes it a murky and potentially uncomfortable endeavor, indeed.

I recently had the opportunity to see what this productive discomfort might look like in action. For the past five months I have observed a fourth grade Jewish Studies class in the Bay Area. Encouraged by their teacher, they ask as many questions as possible of the texts they read and they take to this task heartily, often uncovering questions that I have noticed and more.

In one particularly fascinating class session, the teacher was pushing an interpretation Bamidbar 12:1. “Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe concerning the Cushite woman that he had married.” The verse uses the singular feminine conjugation of the verb “spoke,” and the teacher explained that perhaps the reason why the verse used this conjugation of the verb was because only Miriam, and not Aaron spoke. This, he offered, explained why only Miriam was punished for speaking out against her brother, and not Aharon.

The students would have none of it. One student brazenly declared that being a bystander was as bad as being an offender and so Aharon was not off the hook. A second student admonished the teacher that she was not correct if she thought Aharon was not punished- watching a loved one become sick is a terrible thing. Given how passionately the teacher expressed her reading, I was impressed that she backed off and allowed the other students to pursue their classmate’s idea. It was clear that this these alternative interpretations made her uneasy, but she nevertheless displayed an incredible sensitivity to her students’ needs.

Nechama Leibowitz, one of the leading Orthodox scholars of Hebrew Bible in the 20th century, discusses the relationship between an individual and her interpretation of a text in her essay, “How to Read a Chapter of Tanakh.” Leibowitz writes:

Shouldn’t each individual attempt to establish his/her own reading, a reading suitable to his/her spirit and soul? Just as it comprises a unique and one-time phenomenon in this world, shouldn’t his/her reading of Tanakh, his/her understanding of the text, be a one-time phenomenon — uniquely his/hers- and not an imitation of something else which one was?

In this remarkable essay, Leibowitz boldly declares the very imperative that I have gently encouraged — we must make room for the students’ unique interpretations, regardless of whether they fit our understanding of the text or not.

While teachers must help students gain the interpretive tools necessary to build strong, compelling readings of texts, teachers must also recognize that each reading is intrinsically legitimate simply as an expression of a student’s “soul.” I don’t mean to say that students should supplant the text as the focus of the class. Instead, I am suggesting that the teacher’s job is to create a classroom where the students are focused on the text and where the teacher is focused on the students. Creating this text-centered classroom for the students will require teachers to get comfortable with discomfort as the students take the text in surprising and unanticipated directions.

  1 comment for “Who Really Needs to get Comfortable with Discomfort

  1. Tamara Beliak
    February 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    I also wrote my doctorate on teachers and difficult texts. The milieu of the conversation is also important. The philosophy of the school also informs whether or not teachers and students can try out personal interpretations and publicly discuss in the classroom concerns with the text.

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