Sep 27 2011

Meaningful Adjacency in the Classroom

By Allison Cook, Research Associate in the Beit Midrash Research Project

Just a few weeks ago our nation commemorated the ten year anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2001. For many of us it was a heart-wrenching return to images and feelings that we keep at bay most days. For many of us it was also the first glimpse of a new image, the World Trade Center Memorial with its inverted tower-shaped waterfalls framed by the River of Names, an accounting of the people who died in the attacks. Many months ago, I heard the principal designer of the Ground Zero Memorial, Michael Arad, speak on NPR about the process and the outcome of many years of thought and struggle to rebuild Ground Zero as a place of life-giving memory.

An important feature of the memorial is the particular placement of the engraved names. After much thought the design team decided to pursue a complicated but significant design principle which he called “meaningful adjacency.” As opposed to a neat alphabetical list or some other more efficient rendering, the 3,000 names are engraved according to the connections the people actually had to one another in life and in death. Relatives, co-workers, friends, and those who spent their last minutes together are clustered with one another in interconnected groupings created out of the memories of their surviving families and friends. The memorial then, marks not only individuals but suggests and invokes relationships between people purely through the physical proximity of their names.

As educators, how often do we reflect on our own roles as the designers of meaning-making potential through the structural decisions we make? In Jewish education we seek to nurture spiritual, emotional, social, ethical as well as intellectual growth in our students while honoring and participating in the living vibrancy of our subject matter. One way we can do this is taking seriously the principle of “meaningful adjacency.” What and who do we physically bring together in potential relationship so that meaning may emerge?

In the Beit Midrash Research Project we are seeing through our work with teachers how important the structural design aspects of havruta work (and text study more generally) can be. Two people, a text, a study guide–Which two people? Which text? What study guide? How will these subjects be physically positioned? Where in the room? What other environmental artifacts might surround the havruta in proximity that might influence imagination and discussion? What are the aesthetics of the texts, materials, and classroom formation? We have learned that these structural and often physical decisions are not merely the concern of the novice teacher trying to figure out the basics, but can instead be understood and drawn upon as an elevated dimension of student learning and experience, a powerful source of connection and meaning through thoughtful adjacency.

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