Vulnerability in the Classroom
My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.
I got off to a late literary start as a teenager. I spent most of my childhood swimming in toxic masculinity and it prevented me from developing a love for reading and writing literature. Men were scientists or athletes, not writers.
So it may sound surprising that during the 2008–2009 school year I started an after-school writing club for boys. I’m not sure what I felt I could offer these boys who decided to sign up. I was young and passionate about equity work in my school. Unfortunately, since my school lacked racial diversity, I decided to focus my efforts on the persistent writing gender gap that I both felt and saw. Most boys I encountered hated writing. Like me, they were socialized to believe that writing one’s feelings, or describing something with sensory detail, was effeminate and weak. The gender binary is strong in public education. Boys play sports. The only writing boys do is in Math and Science class and by compulsion during Writing class.
I could empathize with the boys in my class, even if I didn’t know how to motivate them to write. I didn’t start enjoying reading and writing myself until high school when I began dating. My girlfriend’s father was a creative writing teacher and she grew up around literature. Everyday, they talked about the books they read; they argued about the books they were reading; they discussed characters from their books like real people they met during the day. You will never believe what Meg said today? My soon-to-be father-in-law, Mike, could discuss Shakespeare for hours and every time I came over to the house for dinner, I felt about 16 years behind everyone else. I didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time and I didn’t know why everyone at the table revered Roald Dahl. I certainly didn’t pretend to waste my time with Shakespeare. I couldn’t even understand the language. Mike would ask me about poetry and when I admitted to not having read any, he sent me home with a stack of books that he wanted me to read so we would talk about them when I came over for dinner again.
By the time I became a new teacher (and married to my girlfriend), I had spent the last ten years unlearning my preconceived ideas about gender and relearning how to appreciate literature. Looking back, I guess I thought I could help these boys start seeing themselves as writers when they were ten-years-old, instead of having to wait so long to figure that out on their own. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had just been released and my wife and I devoured the book in two days so that we could finally see how the wizarding saga would end. I was also deeply into Michael Gurian’s gendered brain research at the time and had read The Minds of Boys (2005) and The Purpose of Boys (2009). I wanted to create a rite of passage for my male students so that they felt valued and loved for things other than sports. I wanted the recruitment process to mimic Hogwarts: I wanted these boys to feel chosen to be a part of a secret society; no girls allowed.
I had a friend help me design a logo and crest and created posters, stickers and letterhead for my boys writing club invitations. I worked with my father-in-law to find a poem or mantra that would serve as an opening and closing ritual, adding to the mystique of our fledgling secret-society.
I launched The Shadows of Fergus (named after WB Yeats’ famous poem) on a Tuesday afternoon in 2008 in my classroom. The eight boys I had mailed acceptance letters to were buzzing with anticipation because they didn’t know exactly what to expect. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what to expect either. I had informed parents that this would be a writing tutoring session that met once a week and would help their child improve their writing abilities. I wanted to get the boys excited about writing and thought that if I made the writing activities “cool” or more boy-friendly, then I could get them to work on the craft of writing. I thought we could write comics, movie scripts, and poems about farts; anything I could think of that would get the boys to think that writing was worth their time and effort.
Our first meeting was clunky. The boys didn’t understand the poem. We wrote down all of the things we hated about writing (writing prompts, teachers’ obsessions over penmanship, revision, sharing feelings) on a piece of paper, crumpled them up and threw them away. I overacted a bit and ripped my sheet into tiny pieces before aggressively throwing them in the trash can. This club was not going to be about what we had written down. This club was going to be different. About halfway through our first meeting, a couple of boys saw through my ruse. Their parents had told them (despite my explicit request that they not) that Mr. Neibauer was going to tutor them in writing. These boys wanted to know if there would be grades and if I would tell their parents about what they were writing and how they were doing. I assured them that the first rule of the writing club was that we don’t talk about writing club.
This level of secrecy didn’t translate well with my colleagues and a few parents. I wanted to protect the space and assured anyone who asked that we were working on improving our writing skills and slowly gaining an appreciation of writing. Many of these boys, especially my boys of color, had been shamed into believing that they were not writers. They rejected the act of writing as a protective measure for their burgeoning identities. My Black and Brown boys saw writing as a weapon of white supremacy, not as tool for social justice. By being vulnerable myself (to the process of creating a boys writing club and my own adolescent shame about writing), we excavated a lot of hurt.
Dr. Brené Brown has been studying shame and vulnerability for twenty plus years. Her 2010 TEDxHouston talk: The Power of Vulnerability has been viewed more than 56 million times. Her work on the importance of vulnerability and confronting shame directly, has led to a series of books and podcasts. Brown explains that vulnerability is “not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage” (Brown, 2017, p. 135). Shame, she explains, is the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brown, 2010). Shame, which is ego-centric and directed inward, is different from guilt, which is directed outward toward a certain behavior. For example, I am not a writer versus I should have worked harder on that essay. I asked these boys to be vulnerable in the Shadows of Fergus. I asked them to show courage. All of the boys who participated in The Shadows of Fergus carried a heavy burden of shame around writing and struggled with communicating effectively. By sharing my own shame story, I was able to develop a collective empathetic learning experience that helped us all heal.
The definition of vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (Brown, 2017, p. 135). Teachers need to be vulnerable in the classroom in order to build authentic relationships with their students and facilitate impactful learning experiences. In Rising Strong, Brown explains that vulnerability requires courage because we know that we will fail and yet we still persist. “When we commit to showing up and risking failing, we are actually committing to failing. Daring is not saying, ‘I’m willing to risk failure.’ Daring is saying ‘I know I will eventually fail and I’m still all in’” (Brown, 2015, p. 5). I had no idea if my boys writing club was going to be successful. In fact, I had serious doubts that I was going to be able to help boys unlearn and heal from years of toxic masculinity and gender binary. Whether it was due to my naiveté as a novice teacher, or my stubbornness to follow the status quo, I took a risk with my boys writing club. Brown defines a leader as “anyone who holds themselves accountable for finding the potential in people and ideas, and has the courage to develop that potential.” Teachers are important because they “allow students to breathe, be curious, and to explore the world and be who they are without suffocation (Brown, 2018, p. 13). Brené Brown’s 2018 book Dare to Lead has inspired an educational movement to create more daring classrooms. I believe that creating culturally responsive learning experiences for students requires courage because there is no guarantee for success. Those early days as a new teacher were filled with discomfort. I made lots of mistakes. With every mistake, I owned it and learned from it, and kept going. This is “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice [my] values rather than simply professing them” (Brown, 2015, p. 123). If we want to be impactful, anti-racist teachers helping our students grow to their fullest potentials, then we need to create learning experiences where “they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale” (Brown, 2018, p. 13). Teachers are the most important leaders in the lives of students and, as educators, we need to take this calling responsibility. Our action (or inaction), our engaging learning experiences (or boring lesson plans) can change the trajectory of students’ lives. We encourage students to be lifelong learners, so we must do the same. We are on a path to be our best selves so that we show up every day for the students in our classroom.
I’m not saying that being vulnerable in the classroom is easy. I am saying that it’s worth it. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown recounts a conversation she had with Jen Hatmaker, a writer, pastor, philanthropist, and community leader. Brown asked her about being vulnerable in decisions while navigating hostile environments. What Hatmaker said, I believe will resonate with any educator struggling with the idea of being vulnerable in their pedagogy. She said, “I’m convinced that discomfort is the great deterrent of our generation. Protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged because the underdogs and outliers and marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness” (Brown, 2017, p. 133). Our students, especially our most vulnerable students, need us to disrupt the status quo. The status quo in education has historically harmed marginalized students and communities, and it continues to do so. As educators, we have a duty to set aside the privilege of comfortable and experience the discomfort of designing learning experiences in the classroom. We need to practice courage and vulnerability. By having both, we are cultivating a hard back and a soft front. It is going to be uncomfortable. It is going to be scary.
It’s important to note that no matter how many years you have been a teacher or how many learning experiences you have created, there is no such thing as the perfect lesson plan or perfect learning experience. I think educators need to let go of the idea that we need to strive for perfection. Oftentimes, those outside of education are critical of all aspects of the educational system. Teachers bust their butts for their students. They put forth levels of effort that only other teachers can appreciate. I agree with Brené Brown and how she personally resonates with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt:
It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is in the arena. Whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…
She uses this quote to form the framework in her book Daring Greatly. Instead of worrying about creating the perfect lesson plan (or learning experience) and appeasing faceless critics who are not in the classroom with us, we should focus on holding ourselves accountable to our students. They are the only ones that matter. In fact, “just because we didn’t measure up to some standard of achievement doesn’t mean that we don’t possess gifts and talents that only we can bring to the world. Just because someone failed to see the value in what we can create or achieve doesn’t change its worth or ours” (Brown, 2015 p. 83). I want to be the teacher that takes chances in my classroom for my students. I may not get it right every time, but I want to be the one that keeps taking risks. Unfortunately, our system does not allow teachers to take chances. Instead, it penalizes risks, especially those that are not successful. If there is one sweeping change that is most vital to improving the health and wellness of our teachers and students, it is to encourage more vulnerability in the classroom. Vulnerability is important for building trust and inclusivity. Brené Brown states clearly in her 2019 Netflix special: Call to Courage: “No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.” I may not have realized it at the time, but creating The Shadows of Fergus was one of my first vulnerable and courageous acts as an educator. I created something that didn’t fit the status quo of an after-school club. I created something that allowed me and my students to be vulnerable with each other. As I learned more, I did more and tweaked more. We need a culture of vulnerability in public education.
Brown, B. (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability [Video]. TEDxHouston Conference. https://www.ted.com/talks/Brené_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en
Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong: How the ability to reset transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Random House.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York, NY: Random House.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York, NY: Random House.
Restrepor, S. (2019). The Call to Courage. Retrieved from http://netflix.com/
Equity Defined: Liberatory Design
One of the most responsive and exciting collaborations in design thinking was the partnership between The National Equity Project (NEP) and K-12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school during the 2016–2017 academic school year. Liberatory Design, an equity-centered approach to design thinking, emerged through a collaboration between Tania Anaissie (Beytna Design Founder), David Clifford (DSX Founder and Equity Designer at Equity Meets Design), Susie Wise, Victor Cary, and Tom Malarkey, and their respective organizations, the Stanford University d.school and National Equity Project. The Liberatory Design Process is adapted from the Stanford d.school’s design thinking process and builds from the tradition of human-centered design (design thinking), which “shifts traditional power dynamics related to decision-making and brings forth deeper innovation and agency amidst institutionalized norms and structures” (National Equity Project).
David, Susie, and Tania, as designers, wanted to rethink design thinking because they felt it was not equipped to address complex societal challenges such as inequity, address systemic root causes, or equitably practice power sharing. Victor and Tom, the equity leaders, were craving a way to support others to take meaningful action towards equity.
Liberatory Design, as a framework for design thinking work, rests on a set of core beliefs. Tania Anaissie explains:
We believe that racism and inequity have been designed, and thus can be redesigned. In order to do that, we need a radically different approach to design, one rooted in sharing power, recognizing oppression, embracing complexity, and centering those most impacted by inequity. We co-created a new form of design called Liberatory Design which combines the innovative potential of design thinking, the systemic lens of complexity theory, and the healing powers of equity practices to do this work. We believe Liberatory Design can foster more liberating experiences for the individual, team, community, and system. Liberatory Design is a combination of Mindsets that guide how we see the world and act within it and Process which offers tangible tools to bring equity to life.
They start with the design question, How can design thinking powerfully serve as a force for equity and address the effects of oppression on education? David Clifford first coined the name “Liberatory Design” and included Notice and Reflect. These additions help anyone using design thinking to first recognize our own implicit biases before entering into a design challenge.
The Notice phase helps designers “develop a self and social-emotional awareness before entering any context or practice of empathy” (K-12 Lab). It is important to improve the practice of self-awareness by examining our own identities, values, emotions, biases, assumptions and situatedness. Instead of starting from a place of assumption, you can accept and build from what you don’t know so that you, as designer, can truly empathize with humility, curiosity and courage. When we begin with a context of Noticing (instead of assumed Empathy) this allows for a more authentic human centered design experience.
The Reflect phase (although it may be at the end of the design thinking hexagonal framework) is ongoing and transparent throughout the design thinking process. It allows you and your team the time to notice, focus and reflect on your actions, emotions, insights and impact as designer(s) and human(s) on/with your users/context. David Clifford refers to this intentional pause as an “Equity Pause” (EquityXDesign).
When designing culturally responsive learning experiences for your students, it is important that you are more self-aware, more inclusive and inspired, and share your design practices with others. If not, design thinking and decision-making processes will default to reproductive patterns that are harmful to our most vulnerable students. Design thinking (especially through a culturally responsive lens) must create conditions for liberatory thinking. It must be explicit about how oppression and power in our society imbalance the shape of the design context within our classrooms and public education as a whole. Using design thinking to create learning experiences is an opportunity for any educational leader to transform their own understanding of why persistent patterns of inequity exist in education.
This incredible partnership has spawned a handful of amazing equity and design thinking resources for teachers. The K-12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school offers free resources for using an equity-centered design thinking framework. The National Equity Project offers a variety of liberatory design services such as training in liberatory design, facilitation of a liberatory design process, and liberatory design partnerships with your school district or organization. They have also developed a free Liberatory Design Card Deck that you can download at their website: https://nationalequityproject.org/.
The K-12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school and The National Equity Project are only part of a growing community of educational equity and justice-centered designers. These include Tania Anaissie’s Beytna Design, Antoinette Carroll’s Creative Reaction Lab, David Clifford’s Design School X. See more resources below.
Equity Design Resources
equityXdesign (Christine Ortiz, Michelle Molitor, Caroline Hill)
Reflex Design Collective (Brooke Staton, Pierce Gordon & others)