Make Students Vulnerable

A student walks into a classroom, dumps his bag on the floor, and slumps into a seat. You ask if he enjoyed the reading. “I didn’t do it.” You remind him there is a test on Friday about the book. “I don’t care,” he replies.

These students can be so frustrating! You just want to shake ’em and yell, “How can you not care!? It’s a great book, there’s so much we could explore, discuss, and learn! Gosh darn it!”

As aggravating as this student is, he’s just given us an important reminder: learning is a vulnerable thing and many students, especially in those awkward adolescent years, aren’t in a position to feel vulnerable.

Learning is a Vulnerable Thing

When we are learning, we are putting ourselves out there. We are making ourselves open to new ideas and exploring different paths. Without this openness and flexibility, we can’t fully incorporate or examine new ideas.

However, this openness puts us at risk of being wrong or failing. When at school, some students enter survival mode. They fear ridicule and don’t want to stand out. They want to be accepted and don’t want to look silly or stupid. When in survival mode, our physiological response is to protect ourselves, and our brains cannot physically be in an optimal state for learning.

Inviting Vulnerability

Making a learning environment where students can be vulnerable is an ongoing challenge. For the student above, this protective apathy might be a comfortable layer he’s built over the years. Helping him emerge into a receptive learning state is going to take a consistently supportive classroom community that encourages all students to take risks.

Here are some simple ways to build a trusting learning community in your classroom:

Being Seen
We are most open to learning when we feel confident in who we are. A good but challenging exercise is to ask students to come to the front of the classroom one at a time and stand in a normal, relaxed stance. Instruct them not to say or do anything. For the rest of class, ask them to simply look at their peer without judgement, only acceptance. See them for who they are.

This will be very uncomfortable for students, especially at first. You’ll notice students want to do something at the front of the room. They’ll try to do something funny, or look nonchalant. Remember that the importance of this exercise is to get students out of their shells. You’ll hear giggling and see a lot of fidgeting, but these are common coping mechanisms and they’re a part of the process. Keep encouraging them not to put on a show, but just to be.

After about 30 seconds, they can sit down. Many will use the walk from their desk and back as another time for a show. In this walk you will see further how students hide their insecurities — making faces, scuffing their feet, and slumping. Encourage them to walk with confidence.

At the end of the exercise use Pear Deck to collect students’ feelings about how they think things went, what they learned about themselves, and even what they learned about their fellow classmates. This is a very new experience for most students, but now it is an experience they all have in common. It can be a very scary thing to be seen with one’s guard down. But the result, especially if you do it more than once over the course of a semester, is that students will become more accepting of who they are. They will get comfortable being seen. They will also become more accepting of their classmates because they’ve all let their guard down in front of each other.

Daily Questioning
Students can be afraid to ask questions because it might expose their ignorance. To counteract this fear, make asking questions a daily ritual. Start each class by asking for their questions with prompts like these:

  1. What questions do you have today?
  2. What questions do you have about yesterday?
  3. What seemed weird or unclear about yesterday’s class that you want to know more about?
  4. Ask a question about a random thing you’ve noticed on the way to school.
  5. What big questions do you have about the world?

You can use Pear Deck to put their answers anonymously on the projector screen so they can see and comment on each other’s questions. When questioning is a daily practice, students will lose some of their inhibitions and see that great questions lead to great conversations. Undoubtedly, students will find that they have some of the same questions as their peers.

Aha Moments
Ask students to share their “Aha Moments” at the end of class. By making this a regular prompt, students will see over time that passion and enthusiasm for learning is not a cause for ridicule, but for camaraderie.

Bad Idea Factory *
When starting a new lesson, asking a new question, or launching a new project, ask students for all their bad ideas about it. Examples of bad idea questions are:

  1. We need to figure out how to calculate the height of a tall building, tell me all your bad ideas for how we could figure this out.
  2. We’re going to start working on our final service projects for the school, tell me all your bad ideas for what our project should be.

By encouraging bad ideas, you begin to remove constraints and fears. Students can silence their inner critic and feel free to say whatever comes to mind. In those bad ideas, we often find gems that never would have been voiced. As an added bonus, students are putting their ideas out there and leaving that protective bubble behind.

When we see apathy or cruelty in our students, it can be a reminder to us that they have a lot going on outside the classroom that impacts their ability to learn. We can help them shed their protective layers by making our classrooms places where questions, bad ideas, and acceptance aren’t only encouraged but are daily practices.

*(Credit for the Bad Idea Factory goes to Kevin Brookhouser and this blog post).

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