Peeling Back the Layers of Meaning Mining: A Taxonomy
I do not think a Jewish studies teacher, in the 75+ year history of Jewish day school education, has ever said to themselves, “I don’t want my students’ learning to be meaningful to them today.” By implication, on some level, every Jewish studies teacher, every time they walk into their classroom has, at least implicitly, the intention that their teaching be meaningful to their students. Yet counter-intuitively, perhaps in part because of the lofty and ever-present nature of this aspect of our teaching, the goal of meaning-making has often been taken for granted and relegated to the realm of imprecise and unreflective thinking. Because we hope (and assume) that “it” will always be happening, it is all the more challenging to pin down and break apart exactly what “it” is.
As teachers, we know that accuracy and specificity in defining our goals are essential for determining the extent to which we are meeting them. And so, if it is our goal that students’ learning be meaningful, we certainly have to articulate exactly what that means, how it can reasonably be accomplished, and by what measures we are going to know if we are succeeding. Meaningfulness in our students’ learning does, of course, possess an undeniably ineffable, subjective, “I’ll know it when I see it” dimension. However, educators in the field of Jewish education ought to address these qualities of meaning-making in order to develop a more consistent and professional approach to successfully infusing our teaching with meaning.
A quick side note, while we are on the subject of the importance of precision of language. For some years now, my colleagues at the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators have taken to using the term meaning mining instead of meaning-making. The shift stems from the desire to convey our deeply-held belief that the texts of our tradition inherently contain a tremendous amount of meaning for all contemporary readers, including our students. Therefore, we do not need to “make” nor conjure meaning from thin air when we learn or teach Torah, but rather we do the work of drawing out or mining the meaning that is already there, in the text. Consider for a moment if this minor semantic shift affects the way you mentally frame or approach this topic. For the remainder of this article, I will use the term meaning mining.
In order to help educators determine whether their goals for meaning mining in their classrooms are clear and achievable, my colleagues and I would like to offer a taxonomy of several of the various possible aspects of meaning mining that we might hope to incorporate into our teaching. This chart aims to classify different aspects or facets of meaning mining and offers additional categories intended to help educators think about the role each of these aspects might play in their schools and classrooms. This taxonomy is not intended to be decisive or exhaustive, but rather a provisional attempt as part of an ongoing process of better defining and comprehending what we intend to accomplish when we mine meaning from our texts together with our students.
Reflecting on the Taxonomy
Presumably, certain elements on this chart will seem more or less novel to different educators, depending on how they have conceived of meaning mining until now and what techniques they already regularly utilize. The aspect that might be most surprising to many is “Textual Empowerment”—after all, biblical grammar tables, vocabulary lists, charts of Rashi script, and vav ha-hipukh exercises tend not to be the most inspiring elements of one’s teaching or learning day. Yet, while this aspect of meaning mining might not always feel especially meaningful moment-to-moment, the acquisition of text skills over time opens the doors for students to create their own meaning from our textual tradition.
It is worth noting that several possible aspects or categories of meaning mining discussed amongst my colleagues did not make it into this version of the taxonomy. I offer them here briefly, in case they might help some readers further clarify or expand these categories. We debated whether “engagement” on the part of the students qualified as an aspect of meaning mining. Is the disposition of being interested in and enjoying something the same as finding it meaningful? On the one hand, it would seem that cultivating a love of Torah study might be one of the most essential things we do, and yet, we can all think of engaging and fun activities conducted in our schools or classrooms that would almost certainly not qualify as meaningful. Ultimately, we determined that joy and interest in learning Torah was a product of the seven aspects we did identify on the taxonomy. What makes studying texts enjoyable and interesting? The fact that we empathize with the characters have our values refined, feel competent, and/or have our identities fostered (to name a few) in the process. A similar discussion ensued over whether “enduring/impactful” was an aspect of meaning mining. We came to a similar conclusion as above. Impactfulness doesn’t stand on its own, but rather is likely (and hopefully) the result of the other aspects included. Nevertheless, it is certainly conceivable that others in the field will perceive this differently and could use these reflections to sharpen their own conception of how these terms might relate to meaning mining.
Some final food for thought regarding the taxonomy, in the form of questions. Hopefully, these will spark some worthwhile discussions:
Do any of these aspects of meaning mining fully stand on their own or, in some way, are they inherently interconnected with one another? Will it help us further refine our goals if we keep in mind how some of these aspects interconnect?
If we continue to struggle to assess some of the longer-term or subjective aspects of meaning mining (such as: “developing middot” or “cultural identification”), can we legitimately employ them in articulating our goals? Despite the challenges, are there nevertheless measures we can put into place to determine whether our efforts and strategies to foster these aspects of meaning mining are successful?
Is there value in placing more attention or energy on the aspects of meaning mining that are more uniquely Jewish (such as: identity formation) as opposed to the aspects that could conceivably be achieved by general studies teachers (such as: empathizing with characters in a literature class)?
Some Practical Take-aways
We anticipate that there might be several practical and tangible benefits to breaking down the term meaning mining into these seven aspects. As mentioned above, the language of the taxonomy might help a teacher articulate clearer, more specific, and more attainable goals regarding meaning mining in the classroom. Once our goals are clear, teachers can create assessments that truly provide insight into the extent to which these meaning mining goals have been achieved. As such, a teacher can seriously consider and find evidence for whether her students made steps towards clarifying their values, identified with the characters in the text, or were able to connect their learning to something in their own lives, rather than a more general, “was the students’ learning meaningful today?”
Additionally, having this language laid out should encourage teachers to expand their conception of meaning mining by aiming for aspects of meaning never before explicitly included in their teaching. Hopefully, in working towards these newly conceived goals, teachers will draw from the suggested activities component of the taxonomy and expand their meaning mining repertoire. Lastly, we hope that having a shared language around meaning mining among faculty at the same school might provide collaborative conversations with more depth and definition and enable greater mutual support between colleagues as they explore new ways to foster meaning mining in their classrooms.
For many Jewish studies educators, what we have called meaning mining is a central reason they entered this field and a prime motivator in their daily work. After all, this is the aspect of our work that endures and shapes lives long after our students leave our classrooms. Any passionate, committed Jew involved in their community today is almost certainly the product of at least some meaningful encounters with Jewish learning in their past. Therefore, defining this aspect of our work clearly and setting ourselves up for success in this domain are essential. We hope this taxonomy will prove useful in that endeavor, and that the language and structure of the taxonomy will provide further clarity when engaging with other ideas presented in this issue of Jewish Educational Leadership.
As stated above, we anticipate that this taxonomy would take on a life of its own as it gets added to, re-structured, and re-purposed by different schools and educators. The goal is that this version will serve as a starting point to help institutions and individual educators think more systematically and precisely as they engage in the ongoing work of mining meaning from and within our rich Jewish tradition, together with their students.
Rachel Friedrichs is the Assistant Director of the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators. She holds a BA in History from Brandeis University and an MA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University and is an alumna of the Pardes Day School Educators Program. Rachel has taught Tanakh and Rabbinic literature, most recently at Gann Academy in Boston.