Vulnerable Learning by Janet Neyer

My Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, wrote about taking a risk in sharing her writing with her students on the CRWP Teachers as Writers Blog. Her post got me thinking about how I do the same in my own classroom.

guest post iconI am feeling nervous, insecure, and uncertain as my ninth graders start to file into class today. We just started the new trimester a week ago, and about half of my students are still new to me — having come from a different English teacher first term. I remind myself that I am the adult; I am the teacher. Nothing to worry about, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

You see, I am about to give a book talk and admit to my students that I have no clue what the book I am reading is about. Truly. I just don’t get it. The book is a title I was eager to read — The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — but I am 30 pages from the end of the novel and I don’t know what the real story is. In fact, all I really know is that an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, have undertaken a journey to reunite with their son. As Axl and Beatrice travel across the countryside, they meet knights, Saxons, river boatmen, and frightened citizens, but all have one thing in common: they cannot seem to remember much. Axl and Beatrice worry that the loss of their memories will be their undoing: “But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if, without our memories, there’s nothing for it but our love to fade and die.” The mist of this memory loss has the effect on me as a reader of clouding the truth in the story. In short, I find myself uncertain about what is real for the characters and what is fantasy.

I am about to reveal to these students that I don’t understand this book.

I don’t have the answers.

I don’t have a profound interpretation.

I am lost.

How will they respond?

The room settles in as I grab the book from my desk and turn to face them.

71yaTpRiJgL“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading…”

This is what I have been working on for the past several years in my practice as an English teacher: vulnerability. Through a great deal of reflection, professional reading, conversation with colleagues, and intention, I have been trying to practice what Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen in Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction, call “vulnerable learning: an inquiry-driven process that engages both intellect and emotion…” (34).  Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen explain that “Teachers who foster vulnerable learning create classrooms where “not-knowing” (Barthelme, 1997) is the norm…they create conditions in which students can claim and exercise their own power as learners, primarily because these teachers are vulnerable learners themselves” (36). I am trying to model for my students what a First Attempt In Learning (FAIL) means for me. I want to take a risk in front of them by acknowledging that I don’t have all of the answers, and, in fact, on any given day, I have many more questions than answers.

Every day when students enter my classroom, I want them to ask questions, to push back, and to wonder. I want to grow literate citizens who question what is happening in their communities and in the world. Students, however, often see school as a place where there is one correct answer, and in most cases, it is the teacher who has it. In addition, in most classrooms — despite teachers’ encouragement to the contrary — everyone knows that asking questions makes you look foolish. I understand this mindset, as I remember being one of those students as well. Though I wish I had, I did not take intellectual risks in my high school days. I let the teacher tell me how I might improve upon my writing or what meaning I should take from the novel. I wish something different for my students, though. I wish for them to acquire the tools needed to be independent learners — deep learners who are willing to take on challenges and see them through.

I recognize that I ask students every day to take risks and to be vulnerable in their learning. If they are to write something powerful and meaningful, they will have to risk putting it out there for their classmates and for me. If I am to find them the right book to appeal to them, they’ll have to risk telling me something about what matters to them.  If they are to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers, they will need to struggle and persevere. The reality, however, is that many of my students would prefer I just tell them the answer.  How can I expect them to be vulnerable if I am unwilling to take that risk?

It’s that simple…

And that scary.

In her short story “Eleven,” Sandra Cisneros writes in the voice of eleven-year-old Rachel, “…what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” And even though I am well past eleven, today I still feel all of those layers. As I stand in front of my ninth graders, I am feeling 14. I am the vulnerable one, hesitating to reveal that I don’t understand. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that is so valuable for me to remember as a teacher of 14-year-olds.

“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading because I am only 30-pages from the end, but I do not know what this story is about.” I show the students the book and the place where my sticky note holds my spot. I explain that I have read other books by this author and that I have sometimes had to hang on for a while before I understood what was happening, but never for this long.

“This is an author I trust, so I want to keep going, but I’m frustrated.”

A student in the front blurts out, “What’s it about?”

“Well,” I say, “There’s an elderly couple on a search for their son. And there’s a knight and a dragon and a lot of battles. The story takes place in ancient England, but no one seems able to remember anything very clearly. I feel like nothing in this book is as it seems, like there is something else going on here.”

“Why don’t you look it up on the Internet?”

I admit that I had thought about that, but reading this book for me has become like solving a puzzle. I really want to figure it out on my own. I have the chance today to talk with them about perseverance, about my willingness to stick with a text even if I’m unsure about the pay-off, about my tolerance for uncertainty. Essentially, I have the opportunity to remind even my most reluctant readers of The Rights of the Reader (Pennac). Yes, I have the right to leave this book unfinished, but I won’t; in fact, I might even exercise my right to read the book again after I finish it.

When one student asks, “Why would you want to do that?” I have the opportunity to explain what I gain from a second reading of a text.

When another asks if he can borrow a copy so he can help me, I have to tell him that this is my only copy, but I promise he can have it when I finish. I know he is excited to meet this challenge — to help the teacher understand a book. What better boost for a ninth grader?

This is one of the best book talks I’ll give all year — mostly because it’s a reminder that my students need to see me struggle with books, just as they might. They need to know I am willing to be vulnerable in my learning, just as I ask them to be.

In fact, tomorrow, I think I’ll share a piece of writing I’m working on — a blog post about being a vulnerable learner.

Post Script: If you haven’t read The Buried Giant, I recommend it. In fact, I gave it five stars on GoodReads. It was absolutely worth the persistence. After I finished the novel, I did turn to the Internet, and was comforted to find this New York Times review from Neil Gaiman in which he says, “Not until the final chapter does Ishiguro unravel the mysteries and resolve the riddles.” Whew. I’m glad to know I wasn’t alone in my puzzlement.

Profile PhotoJanet Neyer (@janetneyer) teaches English and psychology at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Michigan, where she is passionate about incorporating authentic reading, writing, and research experiences into all of her classes. She serves as a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project in mid-Michigan, and she is a Google for Education Certified Trainer.  You can find Janet’s Google Apps resources as well as her thoughts about teaching at


Garcia, Antero, and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, 2015. Print.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.

Pennac, Daniel, Quentin Blake, and Sarah Adams. The Rights of the Reader. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press, 2008. Print.


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2 thoughts on “Vulnerable Learning by Janet Neyer

  1. […] with my students–how I was feeling, what I was reading, how my writing was going.  I was vulnerable.  I cried.  I accepted their gifts.  I met them for coffee to talk about books.  I laughed with […]


  2. Amy May 25, 2016 at 5:00 pm Reply

    I truly love your thinking here, Janet. (I appreciate the book recommend, too.) I try to be vulnerable with my students, and you are right — it is hard and scary. I’ve learned that they trust me more when I show them I struggle with writing, and sometimes reading is difficult. Part of building a community of learners is putting ourselves in the place of our students. My principal shared a great article recently about the curse of knowledge. When we forget what it feels like to not know something, we can miss valuable learning opportunities with our students. I think this applies to English teachers as readers and writers. If we are not continually working on our craft, how can we expect our students to trust us in wanting to improve theirs?

    Thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring post! I hope to see you at NCTE.


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