Tag Archives: vulnerability

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 upnorthlearning.org.


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.


A Yearlong Community

The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year.  Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement.  Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.

Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.

…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.

Or a student teacher.

Or a six-day block of testing.

Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.

All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community.  This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be.  Here are four reasons why.

Passion.  I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers.  But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.

Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school.  Yours was the first class I came into.  You were yelling and all excited and stuff.  I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’  Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”

The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content.  Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building.  With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.

Vulnerability.  Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me.  About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away.  I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why.  I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.

Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me.  “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.”  Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.

Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject.  I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them.  Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.

Guts.  This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks.  When she left, state testing began almost immediately.  After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.

Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day.  As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet.  The stillness and silence was deafening.  After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again.  Their enthusiasm was back.

“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.”  The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful.  This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.


Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.

Humor.  We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun.  Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.

A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh.  A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.”  Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.”  These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.

Talk.  Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons.  Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper.  He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not.  As a result, he is soaring.

“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.”  I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later.  I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him.  Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.

Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with.  What do you do to keep your learners unified?

“Going There”…and Hopefully Bringing Others Along With Me!

Our Compass Shifts 2-1

I thought for sure my first post would be about my classroom library and books.  My library, which takes up my entire classroom, is my pride and joy.  I’ve worked hard to make it my place of zen (to borrow from Amy).  But it is also my comfort zone; helping students find books they can connect to is one of the few things I know I do well.

In the first two weeks of school, I’ve experienced the familiar joy and success of matching students with books. I’ve connected with students who are devouring books at breakneck speed. I’ve also gladly and eagerly taken on the challenge to find that perfect book for the stubborn “I don’t read” holdouts.  This challenge energizes me like no other!  But I have taken on another challenge, and that is what I want to share about today.

Given I am part of the “Our Compass Shifts” project, you all know that this summer I took a class with Penny Kittle at #UNHLit13. [I will save my fangirl post for another time!] That class totally CML* (Changed My Life). I received affirmation, direction, and practical ideas on how to shift my class to a reading and writing workshop model. But the most important experience from the class was becoming reacquainted with the struggle and vulnerability involved in authentic writing.

Our final project was a non-fiction narrative piece incorporating information or research. I chose to write about my grandfather’s suicide five years ago. I knew it was the story I needed to get out, but as my friends can testify, my writing process was mildly torturous, fraught with resistance, paralysis, and self-doubt. In the end, I “went there” (in the words of Erika, aka “Brooklyn”). I poured much of my own self into the piece, and crying through the read-aloud to my newfound friends and Professional Learning Community took a lot out of me emotionally. It was cathartic, to be sure, and in some ways the beginning of needed processing and healing, but I realized that if I want my students to write the stories they need to get out, I am going to have to commit to “going there” with them all year through writing beside them. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it!

DaringGreatly_coverRight before school started, I began reading a book called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown. [Aside: If you haven’t seen her amazing TED Talk: “The Power of Vulnerability“, you simply must!] Right away, I knew this was a book I needed to read. I started highlighting like crazy, typing out quote after quote.

Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (34). What’s more vulnerable than “going there” in my writing, and then sharing it with others? This summer I learned that I need to model process, not product. That means tons of vulnerability before my students.

My first opportunity came the fifth day of school, as we were writing in response to the poem “Days” by Billy Collins. I chose a particularly happy day from my junior year of high school. As I talked through my own writing process, I showed my students that as I wrote, I remembered more details. My goal was to show my students how you can start out writing one thing, but find kernels of other stories during the process of revision. Through the process of rereading, I noticed a particular detail was much more significant than I had thought initially. In fact it was ominous foreshadowing of the tragic loss of my dearest friend to suicide a year later. But as I explained this, I ended up choking up and crying in not just one, but all five of my classes that day.

Initially I felt embarrassed and really…vulnerable.  I was most definitely emotionally exposed before 150+ young people I had basically just met.  People I had been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching this year.

But later that day I came across a particularly timely gem in Daring Greatly.  Brene Brown’s vulnerability prayer is “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen” (42).  I was able to push out the feeling of embarrassment and worry that my students perceived my display of emotion as weakness, and instead recognize it took courage to let myself be seen by them that day.  I didn’t only model for them my writing process, but I took the risk to be the first one to “go there,” and modeled placing trust in the safe space of the community we were beginning to build together.

photo-1Taking that first step has made it easier for me to continue writing authentically with my students. This summer, I circled around the topic of my parents moving away, the difficulty of my relationship with my father, and the “grief” of saying goodbye to my childhood home. I wasn’t ready to write about it then, but I began to today. I’ve experienced personally how courage begets courage, increasing connection and building community. Accepting the challenge to write through my vulnerability, rather than resist it, has signaled to my students that it is safe for them to go there as well. And though I haven’t won over everyone yet, there are definitely some who are beginning to take the risks to tell the stories that matter to them.  The stories only they can tell.

*You will get used to some of my go-to initialisms! 

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