Nine Steps Toward Engaging a Community of Readers

circle of paper cut outs

By Yonatan Gordon

This article began as a free PDF document sent to the editors and publishers of Jewish publications. Now over four years later, we have expanded it to serve as a supplementary piece for our present discussion about the classroom of the future. As we mentioned in our previous entry, if students aren’t listening, then the teacher might as well go home. As good educators know, fostering student engagement is of utmost importance. But the same holds true for publications as well.

Just as a school newspaper serves as a stopping ground for those interested in writing and sharing ideas with classmates, a community publication can do likewise by becoming natural extensions for the creative ambitions of their community. What the teacher is for the classroom, the journalist can become for their community.

Please Note: The nine step process below does not follow the normative order of the sefirot. Instead, it is in accordance with the way Chassidut approaches the nervous system and conscious experience; as was explained by Rabbi Isaac of Homil around 200 years ago. Those familiar with neuroscience are encouraged to explain this process in more detail using the terminology of that discipline.

1. Knowledge / Da’at

This is the storyteller stage of student or reader engagement. If the students seem bored and uninterested, the teacher should begin telling over to a good story. The same holds true for writers. An author sits down to write a book because he has a story to tell. It is the story that binds the author with the book, and connects the readers to the author. In the field of education, when an educator makes the effort to relate to their students on their level, the students begin to appreciate that the teacher truly cares for about them and their betterment.

Each student has unique talents and abilities, but as long as the teacher is simply feeding over the information contained in textbooks, then the student may very well lose their appetite for learning. Only when the teacher closes the book, and chooses to walk forward together with them, do the ears and interest of the students begin to perk up.

This concept is also very important for the world of journalism. The articles that get the most attention tend to be those that best tell over the story. More than facts and figures, what connects readers most to the journalist is the experiential and storytelling elements of the article itself.

2.Foundation / Yesod

Once the teacher or journalist has begun telling their story, the engaged listener should then be inspired to act. More important than the ability to tell stories, is the ability to convey messages that foster growth and advancement. No matter how good a teacher may be, the most propitious results will be seen from the students themselves.

Many times, in the education and publishing worlds, engagement is encouraged by means of contests, prizes, awards and the like. These activities can be most beneficial, especially if it assists the engagement process. The problem arises when this becomes the focus. When grades and rewards become more important than the subject matter itself. When the diploma becomes a status symbol to place on a resume.

Kabbalah teaches that the emphasis of the Yesod stage is one of enabling creative potential. If the teacher’s words aren’t seen as a call to action, a call for the students to spontaneously write submissions of their own, then somehow the lesson was not transmitted clearly enough.

For teachers and journalists alike, great articles are those that spark whole discussions. But more than comments posted on a website, just like the back-and-forth of a healthy classroom environment, journalists should be willing to discuss the article directly with interested readers. Ultimately, the best-case-scenario, is that the readers’ themselves should be inspired to write their own articles based on the original content. This is also similar to a teacher that becomes a mentor for the next generation of teachers.

3. Crown / Keter

Now that we’ve established the dynamic, we can now venture forth to decide what the teacher or journalist should talk about. Presumably, in order to interest the listener, the subject matter should be perceived as something new. Much like a teacher who is essentially just reading from a textbook, a journalist also shouldn’t rely solely on pre-existing sources. So what then should the stories be about?

While Keter corresponds to the ability to foster a sense of wonder, it also is rooted in the superconscious aspects of the soul. Many things can’t be explained rationally, and it is with these that the Keter experience can provided the clearest levels of awareness.

People want to feel connected to the latest developments, but each person is interested in something else. These differences in preference come from the Keter level of the soul. Why does a person prefer chocolate over vanilla? The color green over blue? A rural over an urban lifestyle? These deep-seated attractions are best explained from within a Keter perspective.

The Keter approach also provides us with the secret for selecting great subjects to talk and write about. The best stories are those that convey some universal message or concept; those things that can’t be rationally explained away in the conscious or lower levels of the soul. For a story to be new and exciting, it should come from Keter, and relate somehow to all types of personalities and interests. For instance, in the chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream debate, even the pistachio or butter pecan eater finds the discussion interesting. This is because the attraction to the concepts of cold and sweet are something that relate to all ice cream eaters.

The reason for this is that we search for something new in the world, in order to discover something new about ourselves. The hope for this pistachio ice cream eater is that this discussion about chocolate vs. vanilla, will also shed light on their own flavor preference. The main point of interest is not in the particulars of the story, but in the element of universality. Everyone would like to learn more about why they prefer one flavor over another. While the article may discuss recent taste tests and neurological findings, the reason the public is interested in the article in the first place is because Keter discussions can’t be rationally explained away. Even the best articles on the subject will leave room for the next, and so forth.

Engaging discussions then don’t have to be serious. The most basic premise is that they should attempt to further some idea or concept that is universally felt. Then once the lesson is delivered, or the article written, each student or reader can then apply the subject matter to their own lives.

4. Wisdom / Chochmah

This is where research and careful deliberation come into play. Whereas great books and business ideas often start off from one great thought, the progression of these ideas is more gradually felt over time. When a student is properly inspired by the “general” lesson of their teacher, they will be encouraged to further develop the lesson as it relates to the particulars of their own lives.

At this stage, each lesson or article can then be broken down into specific tracts of creative expression or study. For instance, whereas an artist may paint a depiction of the chocolate vs. vanilla debate, the chemistry major will attempt to analyze the debate in the laboratory. In total, a complete academy can gather around any given topic of interest (this is something we call the Torah Academy).

For a publication, this is the stage when moderators are appointed to govern each subject. Taking the example of a community newspaper, a local math teacher would oversee the math section; a science teacher the science section, etc…

The intention is that these news stories should filter down through these moderated channels. Specifically, when a reader interested in math reads some general concept story, he should submit his article idea to the expert in charge of the math section. The front pages of each publication should then be spent presenting new stories of universal interest; whereas the back pages should present the particularized discussions that were submitted as a result of the previous issue.

For example, it was recently discovered that quantum entanglement (the faster-than-light “action at a distance” between two particles), may soon be used as a method to encrypt top-secret messages. The math and science student obviously would have much to say about this, but this news story is not limited to these two disciplines. For instance, we related the topic to the “discrete” or “encrypted” way Kabbalah has been past down throughout the generations. But this is still just one reading of the story. An artist, psychologist, sociologist, lawyer, doctor, and so forth, could also weigh in on this topic. Although the original story seemed to favor the realm of politics, indeed the concept behind the story is something universal. Obviously, a Jewish publication should somehow relate each topic to Jewish thought (as we attempted to do in our article).

5. Understanding / Binah

The tracts of study have already been established, and the moderators have been chosen. All that remains is that the material be developed by the students or readers. At this stage, each student attempts to formulate their take on the story, in an effort to respond to the call for submissions presented by the teacher or publication.

6. Beauty / Tiferet

What makes a classroom beautiful? When students, of all different personality types and interests, are given the opportunity to gather together and respond to their teacher’s lesson. This is similar to the pride publications place in their ability to attract a wide array of readers. Like one living organism, if the reader base is to be energized, they should be moving toward one singular objective.

In a classroom, the teacher conveys his lesson, and each group of students (e.g. the mathematicians, the scientists, etc…) huddle together to develop their own findings based on the class. For a community publication though, instead of coming from one “classroom,” the sources for stories may come from Reuters, the Associated Press, and so forth. But in truth, since each news story represents universal concepts, they are all bound together when viewed within the Keter perspective.

While a Keter approach relates to the root, a Tiferet approach shows the manifest commonality between all members of the organism. Similar to the “circulation” of a publication, the focus at this stage is making sure the news story has circulated well among each tract of study (e.g. artists, scientists, psychologists, etc…) in order to energize the entire readership.

Is each group well represented and fully engaged? It is only when the circulation is healthy, that all limbs of the body (i.e. all interest groups and areas of study) can be seen as working properly together as one organism.

7. Victory/Splendor / Netzach /Hod

Now that the community is energized, both the teacher and publication should set short-term deadlines and project benchmarks. While both students and readers should be encouraged to contribute their thoughts, unless a firm deadline is set, the resolve to contribute to the discussion may wane. It is important to reach these individuals while they are still inspired.

At this stage, the contest rules, or guidelines for submission, are established. Teachers also need to clearly define what they expect from their students, and in what form they should hand in the final materials. The assumption already at Netzach/Hod is that these students or readers are engaged. Instead of engagement, then, the teacher or publication should now focus on implementation. Getting the recipients of these lessons and stories to actually contribute to the discussion. Being open to feedback (questions and suggestions) is part of it. But providing clear entry guidelines, as well as the name and contact information for each study tract moderator, will also aid in the submission process.

8. Foundation/Yesod

While we had Yesod previously in Stage 2, now we’re at the moment when the pen finally makes its indelible mark on the paper. Stage 8 is when the winning submissions are chosen, the prizes are awarded, and a core group of contributors are selected for inclusion in the publication. Each moderator now has his “inside group” of readers, who he hopes will continue to show interest in the future news stories the publication highlights. If the initial Yesod was a test to see who would stand up and be willing to take on the assignment, now each successful contributor begins to see the fruits of their labor. We are still before the actual publication date, but all the moderators and writers already know the outcome.

9. Kingship/Malchut

At first, when a reader sends their submission in to the paper, it’s a hefty test of

faith. Will they accept it? Will they even respond? Are they going to do

anything with it? Much like a teacher builds trust and confidence by turning to their students with a listening ear, publications can also do likewise through moderators and a call for submissions.

By giving speeches to like-minded members of their community (e.g. a psychologist

speaking to a group of psychologists), each subject moderator can both become a teacher and mentor in their own right. In addition to being a writer and editor, each subject moderator should ideally become a communal leader as well.

Taking a leadership role means giving up some measure of personal identity. Each community newspaper then is really an outlet for communal activists; experts who are interested in teaching a group of students who share their similar subject of interest.

Once the core interest groups have formed, the paper should then work to encourage further collaboration through organized events, committees, coffee clubs, etc…

Of course, the paper is then published, and each publication opens the paper up to the next round of feedback and deliberations.

Love and Courage

Aside from the repetition of Yesod (as mentioned above), perhaps the most notable aspect of this model is the absence of Chesed and Gevurah (loving-kindness and severity). While there are many explanations for why Rabbi Isaac of Homil left these two out, we thought to offer one possible answer.

For a story to be compelling and popular, it needs to be told with love and courage. Looking back at the most successful movies and books in recent years, in most cases, the protagonist is faced with an obstacle that he or she must overcome (with courage). The drive and momentum to succeed, and overcome obstacles, in turn comes from a desire to attain the outcome (as manifest in the love element of the story). If then the beginning of the engagement process for great teachers and journalists is the ability to tell a great story, then Chesed and Gevurah (here translated as love and courage) need to be very much present.

What is important to keep in mind though is that the attraction to universal concepts is not something necessarily self-serving. We mentioned that great articles, or captivating class lessons, need to center about concepts. The reason for this, as mentioned, is become the root of attraction comes from the superconscious level of the soul called the Keter (crown). What we didn’t mention is that within Keter, there are three primary levels of experience. We alluded to the first and highest which is faith, or to instill a sense of wonder. The second and third are pleasure and will respectively. When we speak about a universal attraction to concepts, we are referring to this superconscious “pleasure” level instead of the emotive “love” level.

When viewed in this way, preferences between one product and the next (or in truth, any naturally inclined preference), can be explained as something meaningful from the Keter perspective of the soul. There is some deep need that leads one person to choose chocolate, and another vanilla.

This approach serves in contradistinction to the view that preferences of products (and other life choices) are simply manifestations of a person’s self-love. As we explained, these inclinations come from the superconscious realm of “pleasure” within Keter; not from the emotive attribute of Chesed.

A recent post from Seth Godin sums up the opposite viewpoint. There he cites that the reason “we can’t easily explain” product decisions is because “we love ourselves.” But as we discussed, product preferences relates to the manifestation of the soul’s need within Keter. Indeed, the reason why these preferences can’t be explained, is because these desires are super-rational and essentially unknowable.

Interestingly enough, Godin admits to this reading at the end of the post with the following: “We express ourselves with what we buy and how we use what we buy.” While he viewed this expression as a sign of self-love, our take is that these choices are a sign of something greater. Some souls are drawn to chocolate, and others to vanilla, because of the concepts latent in each (e.g. the difference between sweet experiences coming from something dark vs. something light).

Freely adapted from a class given by Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh on the nine step model of Rabbi Isaac of Homil.

 

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