A Brené Brown quote is painted on a 4’ wooden sign at the front of my room that reads:
“There is no courage without vulnerability.”
I say it multiple times in a week. Try to model it. Explicitly point it out to kids when I’m trying to model it! Then encourage them to do the same.
It’s almost to the point where I’m expecting a student to one day say, “Enough about vulnerability!!!”
But they haven’t.
And I think it’s because it’s a message that rings true: we all need encouragement to keep us going on a regular basis, but when do you need it MOST? When you’re stepping outside your comfort zone.
When you’re putting yourself out there.
Where vulnerability happens.
Last week I tweeted out how I invited seniors from our community into our ELA30 classroom, not as guests, but to be side-by-side with students. To do everything that we did. Read. Write. Discuss. It was risky on paper and so maybe I was marginally relieved that, despite my best recruiting efforts, I only had one person agree to come back to school.
What’s one extra person in a class of 30? Lol.
Oh, but the reality was much different. The first day that Herb came into my room, I wasn’t just feeling vulnerable, I was scared sh*tless. It’s one thing to have a lesson go sideways with just the kids there. They’re usually forgiving, and I’m pretty honest when something hasn’t worked. It’s another thing to have a lesson not work with another educator or administrator in the room. But I work with some supportive colleagues, and I know that they are there for feedback, not judgement, so I don’t stress when people walk in and out of my room.
But a grown-up-non-educator-adult in the classroom is a WHOLE other thing.
In the end, the experience was amazing. As Brené Brown says, “I am a traveler, not a mapmaker. I’m going down this path same as and with you.” There were days that Herb probably wished he hadn’t come on this path! But he never said so. In fact, he contributed to discussions, shared his writing, and modeled vulnerability every week, just by stepping into a packed room of teenagers.
The kids appreciated his perspective, as did I. One of my hopes was that we would learn from each other, and when I wrote Herb to thank him for his time with us, his reply affirmed that for me.
I really appreciated the invitation to participate in your ELA30 class. I am pleased to hear that my presence was a positive thing for your students. It was certainly a positive learning experience for me. I enjoyed preparing and presenting the TED talk, and would have enjoyed hearing the TED talks done by your class. I have no doubt that they were excellent. Also, my compliments to you on your creative teaching style. English class is certainly different than it was in my day.
That's not there as a humble-brag. It really is how modelling vulnerability comes home to roost. As Herb demonstrated first, we did TED-style talks on social issues (with a personal connection if they were comfortable) and positive lessons to share with their audience.
Almost without exception, they spoke from their hearts.
Handling bad news. Disease. Divorce. Alcoholism. Death of sibling. Death of parent. Teen fatherhood. Childhood trauma. Helicopter parenting. Social Media dangers. Overcoming fears. Car accident. Truck accident. School bus accident. Losing our pets. Poverty. Suicide.
Lessons learned from grandpa. Civil rights movements. Dangers of artificial intelligence. Industrial society and the future. Animal habitat loss. Hunting changes affecting families. Fishing bringing us together. How the world has gone to crap but here’s why it’s not all bad.
It really ran the gamut of experiences.
And then this.
I had expected a speech on the impact of technology. But he made a last-minute change, and when he got in front of his classmates, he instead talked about his years in foster care. How many homes he had been in. How his mom had died, and how he hadn’t been allowed to go to the funeral. How he was estranged from his father aside from a single hospital visit. And how, just the day before, he had a phone call from an uncle he’s never met telling him that his dad had died. He spoke of how he didn’t know what to do, or how to feel.
He shared that with us all.
It was without exception, the most courageous thing I have ever seen a student do.
I shed a few tears right there, and struggled finding my voice and wrestling with what words to say to the class.
I thanked him.
At the end, for the umpteenth time, we spoke again of courage and vulnerability, about the things we learned from our classmates (and about our classmates) that we didn’t know, despite having been together for years and years. For my part, I acknowledged that this might have been good to do earlier in the semester, but we also wouldn’t have been ready for it. In Brené Brown’s words again, “We can’t expect people to be brave and risk failure if they’re not prepped for hard landings.”
That trust was built slowly. Using the words repeatedly was important for students to understand and take them to heart. Adults modeling them was even more important. But most important was the strength and support that they took from each other…as each student made themselves vulnerable, those who were wavering had the courage to do the same.
After this experience, I have a new Brené Brown sign to make now. It’s one that my students can probably relate to, after finding meaning in their experiences and having the vulnerability to share what they’ve learned with others:
“When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending.”
Well, my entire weekend was spent marking final exams and assignments, and so I really don’t have the brain capacity to actually string a blog post together! However, it was mid-afternoon that I started to pick up on the thoughtful responses to one small question on an exam. It was really a non-descript question, just one of a series of response questions on one page, but it actually yielded some of the most reflective moments of the assessment.
And they were short enough to type here!
In no particular order, here’s some of their thinking about social issues and personal responsibility:
“Because I was born in Canada, and born a white boy, I automatically have privilege. Even though I don’t feel like I have it, I do.”
“The fear to admit your privilege has been created by society, who have conditioned us to believe that saying this is essentially admitting that we are ‘better’ than everyone else. That is, however, not the case. Admitting privilege shows that you understand your advantages. How you use these advantages reflects what kind of person you are. You can be ignorant and snotty, abusing your privilege, or you can choose to be a good person and use your privilege for good.”
“The courage to do something is often the hardest part to overcome, as the fear of being vulnerable can take over our plans.”
“My privilege stems from my birth and my luck.”
“You cripple and burden yourself with what you’ve been told is true and you become as toxic to yourself as anyone on the outside is.”
“Now this is a quote that we’ve heard a lot in this class. ‘There is no courage without vulnerability.’ In terms of social justice, I believe that this means we could end many social issues if we were all open with ne another and vulnerable, we wouldn’t feel as much aggression towards each other. In my experience being vulnerable towards someone highly decreases the chances of them being mean or judgemental.”
“Growing up in our town has shaped my perspective greatly. Racism, sexism, and homophobia is very common out here, and its easy to become desensitized to that kind of thing.”
“The privilege of being white is something that gives me an advantage in everyday life. I won’t be judged in public for being a criminal or lazy. Nothing like that. Eyes will pass over me like normal.”
“When you try and help people, then you deserve those privileges. It still is a shame that some don’t get privileges at all.”
“I know it’s small, but I’m trying my best to get my family to be fully accepting. I think it’s better to do something small instead of nothing at all.”
“Lots of people first need to realize that they are racist or have biases before they can change for the better.”
“I know being a white male alone is a privilege. No one will be staring at you and no one will question you.”
“I have tried to be less racist. I never have intentions of being vocally racist but after this class I realize I may have been without even knowing. I had a warped perception on Black Lives Matter movements, but as I learn I see that I didn’t even know, what I didn’t know.”
“I always make sure to try to find the most neutral source to get facts from. This definitely made me reconsider the struggles of inner city American youth.”
“Willful ignorance is the backbone of polarization. People refuse to listen to people they disagree with, and just label them as villains. This has led to a rise in extremism, such as white nationalism. People need to be more openminded.”
“Make sure you know the person before you make a judgement. Go and seek that information out. I was like that before the class.”
“I used to not be so accepting towards transgender people, but now that I know someone going through that I am much more accepting now that I know more about it.”
“Well I’m in this social issues ELA class and it has definitely made me open my eyes on First Nations and their community, and I learned more in depth and what they go through, so though there are differences, I’d say this made me view them more positively.”
“I’ve learned a lot more about sexism, I used to think it was just how things were. Now I realize that sexism is wrong because everyone has equal rights in everything.”
“Since dealing with addiction personally, I understand that addiction isn’t a ‘choice.’ I used to blame my dad for choosing drugs over me before I seen how powerful they can be.”
“Dealing with mental health made me learn more about it and now I look at it from a different point of view.”
“I have also been taking Native Studies and well, I didn’t realize how poorly they have been treated over the years. Deep down there is a lot of false information out there about them.”
“Gender equality - I’ve learned more about this and now actually see it as an issue for people.”
“Probably homelessness. I didn’t know about any of that before. I know now that a lot of those people that are in that, it’s not their fault.”
“This is hard to say, I don’t think it’s a good thing to completely shift my opinion but I feel there are things I see with more understanding.”
“That’s one of the biggest problems is racism that our society sees today. The fact that I otherwise would not have know that they go through copious amounts of racism and potential danger every single day, and a lot of people have no idea that it’s going on. That doesn’t even make sense and is almost unbelievable when you see the platforms we have (social media) to be able to spread this awareness.”
“I haven’t really learned about social issues until I took this class. I think about gender identity, because many things have changed for the people.”
“I stopped being racist or making racist jokes with my friends. I see racism way worse than I did before, after hearing that girl speak is when I saw it differently.”
“What I have done personally, is that I have done my best to keep an open mind when talking to others. There is no specific issue I have considered differently, it is mostly just myself trying to live among these different issues rather than live against them.”
Whew. This semester was a roller coaster, not going to lie. A lot to reflect on, but after going through these final assessments, I have a greater understanding of things myself.
And I think, if nothing else, the kids have a greater understanding of themselves.
Here’s one last thing to leave you with this week. It came off Instagram and I can’t find where! I’ll keep looking. But here is the story:
“The thing with villages like ours is for us, we are an entire universe. For us, nothing exists outside our universe. Politics, religion, global affairs. Nothing.
The last thing he wrote on the village board was ‘A star first then a part of a constellation.’
The last evening we sat in his courtyard, he seemed to have aged a thousand years but his eyes still looked like they carried stars in them. That evening, we heard him for the last time. ‘All my life I was taught to be kind to people. to not shout at them, to forgive them for their mistakes, to love them for who they are.
When I look around myself, I don’t see people who are cruel to others. I see people who are so harsh on themselves that they end up turning cruel to others. School and everyone around us have forgotten to teach us the most important lesson.
So, I want you to place a hand on your heart and learn to love it every day. I want you to look in the mirror and not see your flaws but the beautiful smile that is the reason for someone’s happiness. I hope you learn to build up a good relationship with yourself first.
Learn how to shine and then worry about all the constellations you are a part of.’”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy...okay website template!