Making meaning: What does that actually…mean?
Categories: Practices, School Crisis Recovery, School Crisis Renewal, Trauma-Informed & Healing-Centered Schools, Workplace
If you are a part of the SCRR community, you’ve heard us say “meaning making” a lot. “Meaning making” is a central tenet of the “fourth R” of the crisis continuum: renewal. But what do we mean…when we say it? And what could that term mean…for us as school crisis leaders?
When we say “meaning making,” we are inviting us as school crisis leaders to both 1) understand and be attuned to how a crisis is informed by the global meaning of a community (e.g., their belief system about the world, their goals) and the situational meaning of a community through and after crisis (e.g., the degree to which a community experienced the crisis as a threat, the degree of loss, centrality) and how they are processing the experience whether that be cognitively, emotionally, physically or more (Park, 2010).1
Interestingly, author David Gurteen distinguishes the difference between “sense making” and “meaning making” in that “sense making” is about how crises can impact how we see the broader world and “meaning making” is how we interpret the crisis to impact us:
- Sense-making is the process by which we make sense of the world, especially complex situations for which there are usually no simple, apparent explanations.
- Meaning-making is the process by which we interpret situations or events in the light of our previous knowledge and experience.2
Meaning making involves reflection: how does the big thing that happened relate to me? To us? Oftentimes, meaning making creates new mental models (new ways of thinking about the world) after a crisis. For example, if a teacher has never experienced a student violent death before, their worldview after that experience might be changed (e.g., “life is unpredictable” or “my job as a teacher is profoundly different now”). Teachers’ meaning making is found to be interrelated with how they perceive or understand their students’ environments, their own personal narrative or experience with violent death, and or latent beliefs about their students (Wolf-Prusan, 2014).
In Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (2020), David Kessler offers “meaning making” as an essential sixth phrase of grieving, and reminds us that:
- Meaning is relative and personal.
- Meaning takes time; you may not find it until months or years after loss.
- Meaning doesn’t require understanding; it’s not necessary to understand why someone died in order to find meaning.
- Even when you do find meaning, you won’t feel it was worth the cost of what you lost.
- Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing; loss is simply what happened to you in life and meaning is what you make happen.
- Only you can find your own meaning.
- Meaningful connections heal painful memories.
In the blog piece below, Michelle Kurta and Judee Fernandez, founders of the Meaning Makers Collective and SCRR community members, share how and why they as former teachers and school administrators bring this concept of meaning making to school communities.
As they say, “We are aware that “meaning making” has been researched and written about academically in the psychologies of learning, of grief, and of healing. However, we intentionally source our definition and practice of meaning making in the experiences and wisdom that emerges from the people we work and build relationships with. This community-defined practice of meaning making is an evolving thing – it is oriented towards diverse perspectives, inclusivity, and creativity. For us, that is purposeful.”
Their words are poignant for school administrators, instructional coaches, the school community members who hold and inform the culture of schools– always, after, and through crises.
Meaning Making as a Community Defined Practice that Informes Our School Cultures
By Judee Fernandez and Michelle Kurta
We started Meaning Makers Collective to provide direct support to people who, just like us, were having a hard time sustaining their well-being while being responsive and visionary guides for their students. We came to call ourselves “Meaning Makers” because we realized that the thread which ran through all of our most satisfying and impactful experiences in schools and life was the practice of coming together with others to share experiences, ask questions about those experiences, and source meaning and ways forward from the collective wisdom of the group. Making meaning together.
We feel, as perhaps many of you do, that we are living in times of heightened uncertainty, stress, and grief – maybe not new, but particularly intense.
We ask ourselves and our collaborators: What does it mean to be trauma informed? What is healing and how do we heal in systems that are causing harm? We ask ourselves: What does it look like to focus on doing our small part in a way that actually affects the larger systems that we seek to change?
What we find is that people of all ages don’t necessarily need more content or more knowledge, but spaces to share and listen about all that we already know and feel.
We need meaning making practices that can carry us through the profound shifts we are experiencing at the levels of self, society, and planet.
So, what is “meaning making”?
One way to describe meaning making: it is not just something we do, but what we are. Our evolving sense of who we are, how and where and with whom we belong, where we come from and where we are going.
Meaning making is storytelling and story-crafting. It is creating, visualizing, and image-making. Meaning making is conversation and dialogue – listening and speaking. Meaning making is the way that these practices re-weave or untangle a sense of belonging, of connectedness, and of order from the ruptures and knots that we embody when life overwhelms us.
As collective wisdom about trauma and healing deepens, we are seeing that what sets patterns and experiences in our bodies and spirits as “trauma” is often the absence of significant opportunities for holding, processing, and making meaning of these experiences where our worlds are rocked and ruptured. In some of our initial learning about childhood trauma, we were told that the presence of one caring adult can make the healing difference for a child who has experienced trauma. While we no longer subscribe to understandings of trauma that focus on individualized understandings of hurt and healing, we still deeply feel the core sentiment of this idea. That the presence of caring and the experience of feeling seen, heard, and held, are the conditions for healing. We also believe that the creation of these conditions is more than any one person can do or carry alone; it is the work of collectives and communities and the resilient webs of care and meaning they can weave.
How we “meaning make” is collective and cultural, and it also creates culture. Having robust cultures and stories that set the often tumultuous happenings of our lives into a cosmos of meaning can be understood as a protective factor when it comes to the prevention of certain forms of trauma; if we have beliefs and practices to hold us and help us navigate and narrate what is happening we are, perhaps, more deeply rooted for when the storms do come. What are yours? Where and who do they come from?
And then, there are the times where what we experience in life exposes, disrupts, or even destroys the stories we have been taught and been telling each other. In these times, the practices of meaning making are needed to weave new worldviews, new orders, a new sense of belonging that can include all that we have been through. Global pandemic is perhaps one such experience. And so is puberty. The need for meaning making does not discriminate between “big” and “small” happenings, it is simply necessary to sustain and expand well-being throughout life.
But. And. Our society, and thus our schools, are places where cultures, stories, and cosmos of meaning are not one thread but many. When we talk about addressing trauma in our schools, when we talk about “healing”, we must consider how our schools become hubs of meaning making. At these hubs, the stories and practices carried by the students and educators in that community – made by the people and places they come from, made to process and renew life after and in the midst of crisis and rupture – must be invited in and given space to work their healing magic.
Everyone who gathers in a school environment brings stories and cultural ways that renew and sustain life in the midst of rupture and change. What we are seeking here is not the restoration of one story, one worldview, or one particular identity after experiences of rupture. This is because many of the ruptures we are living through are also the moments of reckoning and collapse of dominant systems of ideas and identities that have excluded and harmed too many for too long.
The alternative to returning to a single story or to “business as usual” is renewing and reweaving our ways of being and learning together. It is to center processes of meaning making. When we layer our collective lives with reflection, storytelling, dialogue, and co-creation, life-affirming culture tends to emerge.
Schools as intergenerational meaning making spaces – what might this look like?
As educators, we don’t owe young people the answers for the complex and difficult uncertainties we are all facing. Which is a relief, because of course, we too are in the process of seeking stability and meaning! But these times do call us to show up as guides, weavers, and builders in the lives of our students. We can create, with them and with each other, welcoming spaces and ways to question, to wonder, to find – and find again – answers that feel meaningful to them and us, that connect us all to life. That is how we embrace the role of meaning maker.
In our current work, we don’t interact directly with students. Instead we create space for the adults who work in schools to have the felt, embodied experience of meaning making practices which they can then adapt, re-vision, and bring into their relationships with youth.
While the possibilities for this kind of creative work are limitless, we want to share just a couple concrete examples from our own practice to spark inspiration and curiosity in yours.
Working with timelines: A practice of creating a sense of order and time in the wake of disorienting and confusing experiences.
As educators, we might all be able to relate to the frustration and stress of being subjected to “new initiatives” that require all sorts of adjustments and changes, only to lose funding or disappear within a few short years. When we have worked with educators to understand trauma informed practice, we know we must honor this reality and ensure that trauma informed practice does not become another buzz word or fleeting initiative. We have felt it important and necessary to situate this relatively recently named “trend” in the long history of movements for equity in education.
So, in these sessions, we create a timeline across the walls in the room that visually lays out some of the historic and recent landmarks – actions, protests, court rulings, policies – that make up the ongoing movement for educational equity, including the emergence of “trauma informed practices”. Then, we ask people to take sticky notes and place themselves on the timeline in various ways. We will say, “place a sticky on the timeline when you first attended school,” and, “place one when you first entered the field as an educator.” If we are seeking to open a conversation about intergenerational trauma and resilience, we might say “place a sticky when your parent or grandparent first entered school.” What follows are opportunities for reflectively walking the timeline, feeling what it brings up in our bodies, and having meaningful dialogue about how we each have been shaped by our experiences of inequity in schools and how these experiences continue to play out in our lives as educators. What emerges is an embodied understanding that “trauma” and trauma informed and responsive practices belong in the lineage of the long movement toward equity.
When we engage in this conversation, we know that there are always people in the room for whom a conversation about equity is always also a conversation about lived experiences – potentially traumatic experiences – of inequity and harm. Co-creating the timeline invites these stories into the room, rather than suppressing them by only focusing on the future.
We also know there will be people who might never have considered the ways that the events on this timeline interweave with their lived experiences, or never felt personally connected to equity movements. In these cases, the timeline weaves new stories and new identities about how we are each responsible to systems of inequity and struggles for equity.
In the above example, we situate ourselves in time, recognize how the lives and struggles of those who have come before us are intimately woven into our lived experiences. We open the possibility that people will find deep meaning and purpose in understanding and practicing trauma informed ways.
As we think about the early days of another school year in the midst of pandemic and all surrounding consequences and responses, we see a place for creating and relating to time in a similar way.
What might it look like to co-create a timeline of the pandemic with other educators and even with students?
What questions might you ask to invite people to locate themselves and their experiences in the often disorienting flow of the last few years?
What effect might it have on the culture of your classroom or school to have a public record of many of the personal and collective moments of these significant years?
How might we learn about what wounds still need attention and care, and also the ways we have grown, changed, and are healing?
A timeline gives us the opportunity to wonder about and name just how far back our roots might go. It invites us to imagine who and what we might be becoming. It situates our experiences in a meaningful flow that connects us more deeply with ourselves and others.
Ritualizing Our Days: Slowing down to reflect upon and witness the depth and significance of everyday experiences.
Ritualizing, in the way we use the term, simply means to draw a circle around a particular space and time as different. Practicing ritual means marking spaces and times to pay a different kind of attention in order to find new visions, new questions and new feelings that can revitalize us once we leave the ritual and return to the rest of life.
In our work with educators, we have found it very helpful to create rituals around arriving in a space – virtual or in-person – together. We know that no matter how clear our agenda or objectives for the meeting or the day, each person will be arriving in the midst of their own life, emotions, needs, and stories. Without acknowledgement and space to “land” in the room, these unacknowledged landscapes of personal experience will make authentic connection, learning, and collaboration impossible.
So, we treat the experience of arriving as a ritual. We open the moment with gratitude for everyone’s presence and for all it took to get here, now. We acknowledge that it is a choice to be here and not elsewhere, and that we value and honor that choice. We say that needing some time to arrive is normal, and that it is our intention to offer that time and space today.
Then we offer an Arriving Activity. In these last years of virtual gatherings, this has most often looked like a slide with six or seven images of animals with various kinds of expressions, doing various activities. We ask the simple question, “which of these images best matches your current mood, and why?” Depending on the size of the group and on time boundaries, we either hear briefly from each person, or invite people to share with a partner or small group. This simple activity creates an opportunity for people to find a mirror – in the form of an animal – of the complex, hard to name, mixture of emotions and experiences they are carrying, and to share with others in a way that allows them to choose how vulnerable they want to be. It is often easier to say, “I feel like the bear that got its paw stuck in the beehive,” than to say, “I am feeling completely overwhelmed and attacked by the people in my life.” The group might not be quite ready to hold the intimacy of the latter share, but will undoubtedly be made more sensitive to the speaker’s experience by imagining the surprise and sting of the former.
After this activity, we always close the arriving ritual with our intention. We find that speaking and sharing these same words, each session, allows for an experience of feeling rooted in consistency and also open to new things.
May we slow down, listen to our bodies, and relate to each other in mindful ways.
These are the words we share, and we invite you to try them or consider crafting your own intention for the spaces you might be facilitating and co-creating.
Ritualizing our days does not mean adhering to rigid, unchanging routines. Rather, it is about being consistent with honoring the small moments that ultimately make up our lives.
To that end, our current school structures are already abundant with opportunities to practice.
Here are some examples:
- Arriving into a new day/week/month/unit/year
- Ending the day/week/month/unit/year
- When marking transitions throughout the day: moving between subjects/activities, pulling students out to do something, like SPED meetings, intervention classes, counseling sessions, etc.
- When marking the loss of a student
- When marking an arrival of a student (new to class, new to school)
- When something needs to be celebrated.
- When something needs to be mourned.
- When something is big and complex.
- When something has been accomplished together.
- When we eat and nourish our bodies.
- When we spend time with nature.
- When we notice a change in weather patterns/natural disasters.
- When seasons change in nature and in our bodies
- When something is very new!
- When something is very old!
- When we don’t know something
- When we hope for something
When we look at the school days, months, and years as a collection of moments to ritualize, we create an ongoing calendar of connection to ourselves and each other. We can pass on to our students the value of slowing down, even and especially in complex times, and creating meaningful lives.
In Closing: Your Practice Matters. You Matter.
We like to say that schools are intergenerational meaning making spaces – ripe for bringing the wisdom of old ways into dialogue with the freshness of youthful perspectives. And what we have now in our schools – particularly as we integrate the ongoing changes and losses and lessons of these last couple years – is an opening. A space to practice meaning making, to cultivate the emergence of fresh, loving, and just possibilities for our shared reality.
We invite you to release the expectations of perfection, expertise, and having answers for all the complexity you and your students are facing.
We invite you to embrace your capacity for meaning making, and to fill your days, weeks, and months with intentional practices that breathe life and connection into the spaces you share.
With love from the Meaning Makers,
Michelle and Judee 💗https://meaningmakerscollective.com/about-meaning-makers-collective/
1 See more about the model here: https://spiritualitymeaningandhealth.uconn.edu/meaning-making/
2 See more here: https://conversational-leadership.net/sensemaking/
3 Allyson Drake offers this helpful recap of Kessler’s book: https://fullcirclegc.org/2022/01/03/finding-meaning-from-grief/