Reading Sacred Texts in the Classroom: The Alignment Between Students and Their Teacher’s Interpretive Stances When Reading the Hebrew Bible

Mar. 27, 2016

Source: Journal of Jewish Education Vol. 82, No. 1, pages 81-107  

This study investigated the voices of students interpreting Hebrew Bible texts in one fourth-grade classroom. Through think-alouds on the Biblical text with each student, exit interviews, teacher interviews, and classroom observations, this study found that those students whose interpretive stances were more aligned with the teacher’s were given greater voice in classroom text discussions than students whose interpretive stances were misaligned. Drawing on neo-Vygotskian education theory, I argue that Jewish educators need to take students’ interpretive stances seriously; attempting to force students into an interpretive framework that is set by the teacher will only undermine student learning and engagement.


This study examined students’ interpretive stances, their alignment with the teacher’s, and how alignment and misalignment found expression in the classroom. I chose a student-centered classroom where the teacher taught the Biblical text from a literary stance. Students, however, employed four different interpretive stances. This study had limitations. First, it only examined a single text-unit in a single classroom. It is possible that interpretive stances don’t persist. Given another text, teachers and students might adopt different interpretive stances. Second, perhaps the fact that students participated in think-alouds changed the way that they read the text. They had more time to think about the text in a one on one context with a person they perceived as a teacher.

That being said, during think-alouds and in class discussions, students’ questions and comments about the text exhibited clear patterns. Students with a literary stance noticed fine details of the text, ambiguities, apparent lacunae, and repetition. Students with a theological stance asked questions and made comments about God in the text. Four of the focal students aligned with the teacher’s stance. Three of the focal students were misaligned with the teacher’s stance. The teacher gave aligned students more talk time and validation. The differences in the teacher’s treatment of students suggests the importance of addressing misalignment in the classroom.

In truth, James, Jonathan, and Grace, the three misaligned students, did not seem aware of the disadvantages that they experienced due to their misalignment. They were still eager to participate in class and continued to ask questions rooted in their own interpretive stances throughout the unit. In their interviews, they spoke very enthusiastically about the class. They did not evidence feeling pressure to yield to the literary interpretive stance. But they also expressed confusion about the pattern and purpose of Eitan’s authoritative discourse. When asked in their exit interviews whether they could predict which questions would be deemed two-stamp questions, they all expressed a sense of bewilderment. As Jonathan put it, “You might think it’s really good and it’s perfect, but then Eitan might say it’s not that good or something. Or you might think it’s terrible, and Eitan says it’s good. So you really don’t know.” Unlike their aligned classmates, Jonathan, James, and Grace saw the two-stamp system as arbitrary. This evidenced their lack of understanding that literary analysis and character analysis were Eitan’s preferred interpretive stances.

Jonathan, James, and Grace have barely begun their study of Biblical texts, yet one can imagine that it won’t take too long before they begin to notice how much more talk time Kate gets in class, and how she seems to always get more stamps than them and the bigger prize at the end of the unit. And when they do notice, they will be faced with the choice: yield to Eitan’s interpretive stance and start making literary comments and asking literary questions, despite their interest in the theological interpretive stance and their reservations about, and misunderstandings of, the literary interpretive stance, or accept their diminished voice in the classroom.

An alternative approach would be one in which the teacher cultivates a greater sensitivity to students’ interpretive stances and is willing to give equal space to comments and questions rooted in different interpretive stances. Instead of choosing an a priori orientation, teachers would notice students interpretive priorities and agendas and make space for them even when they cut against the teacher’s. This might mean closing the text for a moment and having a discussion about God or the relationship between the God of modern theology and the God of the Bible. As demonstrated in James’ question, it might also mean pausing for a discussion about the veracity of the Biblical text. Or it might mean having a more intentional discussion about what it means to understand the Biblical text as literature.

When teachers learn to create space for students’ interpretive stances, and let go of their promotion of their own orientation as the authoritative discourse, then all students will be able to participate equally in textual interpretation. Misaligned students will not have to face the choice of submission or alienation. And, perhaps, with time, and continued engagement and investment, these students will even adopt new interpretive stances as part of their internally persuasive discourses.

Updated: Mar. 30, 2016