Interview with Ziva Hassenfeld

When the pandemic hit and everyone scrambled to take their teaching online, you saw an important need for research. Can you explain why and what happened?

Over the last decade I watched an ever-rising tide of technological optimism about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Khan Academy and this idea that online education was going to supplant in-person education, or, in Jewish education, bring down tuition costs. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and we were all sent home, an opportunity emerged. Even as everyday life shut down, Jewish education institutions didn’t miss a beat. They moved their programming online and in so doing launched an incredible set of experiments in moving education online. As an educational researcher, I couldn’t help but want to document how these experiments unfolded. I sought a grant to create a professional learning community of researchers to document and analyze a wide range of educational contexts from early elementary school students in a full-time online program, to a hybrid high school course, and one-off programs offered to adults. This became the Online Jewish Education project. Together we produced a suite of empirical research papers appearing in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Jewish Education, and we shared our research with the broader community in a two-part Mandel Center webinar series called, “Teaching Choices That Stay With Us: Pandemic Teaching Decisions and Their Lasting Impact for Jewish Education.”

You’ve created an educational research lab that focuses on Jewish education as a case study for the development of students’ literacy skills. What is it, what happens there, and why is it important?

My SCRoLL lab is a space where I work with 4-8 undergrad students each year. I train them in my approach to collecting and analyzing qualitative data about teaching and learning and then involve them in every step of the research. We collaborate on everything from designing the project, recruiting participants, developing data and assessment instruments, to conducting ethnographic observations. It’s a chance for these students to develop a research community and to discover what they find most exciting in education and research. SCRoLL lab is unique in its focus on classroom research and specifically classroom research in Jewish educational contexts. For this reason, it attracts students from a number of different majors and disciplines including education studies, NEJS, psychology and religious studies.

Before I came to Brandeis, I had a postdoc in the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University, and I had the opportunity to be part of a large research lab under the leadership of Marina Umaschi Bers. It made me realize that qualitative inquiry can be bigger and better when it’s done as a team, especially when that team is cultivated, developed, trained, and cared for in a thoughtful, intentional, and pedagogical way. When I arrived at Brandeis, my first research assistant showed me how amazing Brandeis undergraduates were. I knew that having a team would help me conduct larger, more robust projects that could answer the biggest questions in Jewish education and in classroom-based literacy instruction. For example, our Children Read Biblical Joseph project. This study looks at young readers outside the context of the classroom. Through ongoing think-aloud interviews with a set of students coming from three different schools and communities: Orthodox Jewish, Evangelical Christian and secular public schools, it seeks to understand patterns of textual interpretation among children broadly, and how they understand the biblical story of Joseph specifically. By having students from each of these religious communities in SCRoLL lab we are able to collect data in a consistently sensitive and engaged way.

Last year, we met virtually, but this year, students come to the Mandel Center for 2-5 hours a week to move our research forward. Over the last year, we have published a piece in Jewish Educational Leadership, the Journal of Jewish Education, and have a piece under review in Reading Teacher. Our initial success demonstrates that an educational research lab like SCRoLL can both be a mentorship and development opportunity for undergraduate researchers while also advancing the fields of Jewish education and education more broadly.

Your primary area of scholarship is the teaching and learning of Tanakh. What are you trying to learn through your research, and how do you hope your work can help teachers and schools?

It is true, I study a very particular context of text education, Tanakh classrooms in Jewish day schools. This topic can seem narrow and only of interest to scholars of Jewish education or religious education. But I believe that Tanakh classrooms offer an instructive case in the teaching, learning and interpreting of all texts, a major responsibility of schooling. Tanakh teachers often feel strongly that they want to teach the “right” way to read Tanakh, but also they often face a group of students with extraordinarily different conceptions of sacred text. How does a teacher navigate this? How does she create an interpretive community in her classroom that can make sense of the text within particular interpretive boundaries while acknowledging that others might draw different boundaries around the same biblical text?

I believe the dynamics of interpretation one finds in a Tanakh classroom exist in all text classrooms. The English teacher who wishes to focus solely on the words of Silas Marner may face a student who insists on considering George Eliot’s identity as a woman in Victorian England. Is this a moment to enforce the classroom’s way of reading (interpretive rules) and ask the student to ignore their background knowledge? Or is it a moment to be flexible with ways of reading and allow the conversation to go where it may?

Thinking carefully and deliberately about these pedagogical questions is essential to creating strong, dynamic and flexible readers in our students. The final point I want to say is when I talk about readers and my research around developing good readers I don’t simply mean readers of print texts but I mean readers of all signs and situations in our world.