Teaching Textual Interpretation: A New Look

When my nine-month-old daughter used to hear a bird outside her window she would exclaim, “Bah.” I would reply, “Yes! That IS a bird,” and we would both point to the bird.  I filled in for her sound a word that made sense in context.   Now, at sixteen months, she hears a tweeting bird and says, “A bird!” (or, to be precise, “biiirr”).

Education theorist Gordon Wells explains that this is how kids learn to talk.  They naturally make sounds in response to their experiences.  It is adults that assume those sounds to be communicative and thereby constitute them as words.  Over time, argues Wells, children internalize that which began as a collaborative effort and can apply those filled in words to new situations.

Over the last 16 months, as I’ve been raising and closely observing my first child, I’ve also been researching and writing my dissertation. In my observations of eight different elementary Jewish studies teachers, I was struck by one particular teacher who, in teaching the Hebrew Bible, seemed to engage his students in a similar process to the one I described above, except instead of rudimentary language acquisition, his class focused on textual interpretation.  Kobi, the second grade Jewish studies teacher I observed, repeatedly referenced his desire to let his students “play in the text.” He further explained that he wanted students to notice patterns, perspective, symbols, and ambiguities.

Instead of formally introducing literary devices, or modeling “expert” interpretations of the text, he let his students come up with questions about the text and discuss possible answers together as a class. Often, as might be expected of seven year olds, in offering interpretations, students would say something that was not entirely clear, a half-formed interpretation. For example, in one class I observed, students were discussing the story of Joseph.  In this story, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a portent of famine and suggests some clever resource management policies to address it (Genesis 41:25-40).  Kobi asked the class, “even if we accept that Joseph could tell the future, how did he know how to solve the famine as well?” A student, Maya, answered, “A long time ago before we read this story, it says, ‘God was in his hands,’ (Genesis 39:3). He (Joseph) did everything with God and God was in his hands. So that’s why he can read dreams because God is still in his hands.” It is not at all clear how this comments answered Kobi’s question concerning Joseph’s ability to solve the famine. It seems to simply answer the question of how Joseph could interpret dreams.

But instead of asking Maya to clarify her apparently nonsensical answer (as I probably would have done), Kobi filled in Maya’s interpretation. He decided that Maya meant that the solution to the famine was given by God to Joseph alongside the interpretation of the dream. He then asked Maya to confirm his interpretation. She did and class discussion moved forward with Maya assuming her and Kobi’s co-constructed interpretation. This happened all the time in Kobi’s class. Kobi did not stop every time a student offered a half-formed interpretation. Instead, he ran with it. He filled in the gaps in their answers and then asked his students follow up questions based on the interpretation they had co-constructed.  Sometimes students would correct him saying, “That’s not what I meant.”  But more often, students would take up the co-constructed interpretation, answer Kobi’s follow-up question, and thereby create a platform for other students to get involved. As Kobi filled in students’ interpretations, it was clear that the students felt like partners in the process of literary interpretation. Throughout the rest of that Joseph class, Maya continually referred back to “her interpretation” that God told Joseph both the interpretation and the solution to dreams.

Kobi’s teaching so reminded me of my own parenting. Given the vibrant textual discussions that took place in Kobi’s classroom, my observations left me wondering about the connection between learning to interpret a text and learning to talk. At first, students’ interpretations are only half-formed, like a baby’s sounds are simply sounds. They need teachers to play the role that I played for my daughter and fill in an interpretation that makes sense in context. It is through this co-construction of meaning, and not direct instruction, that the child can be inducted into the activity of literary analysis.

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