By Nawal Qarooni Casiano
“What ARE you wearing?” Shayla said, pointing to my matching tank and shorts outfit in the school hallway, where I shoved binders into a backpack for class. “It’s SO ugly. It looks like someone threw up all over you. And it shows your hairy legs.” I remember my quivering lip. I remember trying hard not to cry. I remember looking around quickly to see who might have heard. It was a top and bottom in dusty colors with squiggly lines and geometric shapes. My mother had bought the outfit for me after I told her everyone in sixth grade had getups in patterns. Theirs were from the GAP and the Limited Too. Mine were not.
This is a story I often use when modeling small moments with students in elementary classrooms, and its result almost always leads to students writing about bullying, difference and identity. My vulnerable storytelling opens doors for students to share their emotional moments. Teacher vulnerability in writing workshop builds connections with students, generates trust that primes students to learn, and cultivates a learning stance in students that reaches beyond classroom walls.
The power of storytelling exposes vulnerability for the most valuable learning: the kind of learning that lingers beyond a single conversation. When I was a newspaper reporter, my editor would say “ You’re the best street reporter we’ve got,” which he attributed to my delivery of personal anecdotes before interviewing others, leading to instant connections with strangers. My unintentional vulnerability opened doors to discussion and aligned me with humanity, whether I realized what I was doing or not.
Bring Authenticity: Connecting Through Story
When teachers make connections to students in little and large ways- from preferences in food to bigger reflections from their lives- students are more likely to feel comfortable, safe, and as a result, ready to learn. Teachers’ abilities to think back to their own childhood experiences and bring those moments alive in writing workshop paves the way for students to voice their own similar moments – from times they were bullied to when their behaviors were unkind; from when their pets died to when their birthday parties felt euphoric; from when they fell into a snowbank to when they broke a bone as a result of roughhousing. When teachers boldly brainstorm opinions they have, it gives students license to be equally assertive. Thinking across writing genres, teachers can pre-think their vulnerable moments, creating a bank of ideas that will feel useful in instruction and relationship-building.
“Psychologists have long known that self-disclosure is one of the hallmarks of intimate, trusting relationships,” writes Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. She calls this move “selective vulnerability,” connected to “trust generators.”
“Turns out storytelling is one of the universal ways people connect and get to know each other around the world. The human brain is hardwired for stories,” Hammond writes.
Bringing authenticity to teaching amplifies the content. Welcoming humanity in school spaces instead of relegating personhood to lives after the bell rings gives permission to students to bring their full personalities too.
“Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well,” Hammond writes.
There is no need for perfection. There is a need for authenticity. During the pandemic, when teachers and students are coping with the weight of multiple traumas, when educators feel pressure to combat false narratives of learning loss, it is even more imperative that we slow down and lay bare our humanity.
Cultivate Idea Generation: Mining Your Stories
Oftentimes, teachers I coach say they’re not prepared with stories from their pasts, particularly from the age group they teach, that can be called to mind readily in front of children. Or, educators worry their ideas will run dry when modeling live writing during mini-lessons. In my work as a classroom teacher and literacy coach, I have thought about ways to pre-plan and think through purposeful moments of vulnerability.
A colleague and accomplished public speaker recently shared that he has several stories from his life written out and depending on context, pieces are moved like Legos in an architectural feat. Like a puzzle, with pre-brainstormed ideas of meaningful moments, he is able to build a story of significance that stays in the minds of participants long after the speech has ended.
This is why it’s useful for educators to brainstorm outside of the classroom moments, opinions and expertise from their lives they would be willing to share and write about in literacy instruction. Alongside teachers during planning sessions, we share stories and jot down our most hilarious or tear-jerking moments. This exercise strengthens my relationship as a coach to my teachers, and it also serves as a model for teachers connecting with students in instruction too.
While I use this mapping template to guide our thinking and conversations, simple lists work just as well. The purpose is to isolate nuggets of color and interest from our pasts that make us the beautifully varied, unique individuals we are. We might even leave a brainstorming bubble blank, without a heading, and allow for free-flowing idea generation. You’ll see several examples from teachers in Illinois schools below.
We use a general list of guiding questions to support our thinking, and I am careful to nudge our story collection back to when we were students’ age as often as we can. Though valid and worthy wedding and baby delivery moments inevitably bubble up, I use those gems as opportunities to get to know my teachers better – not necessarily for writing instruction. When modeling vulnerability stories with students, they are able to better relate when our moments are not from our adult lives, so recollecting about the time I threw gum in Abby’s hair on a dare then felt deeply remorseful (still haunts me) and telling of the time my sister and I bathed our dolls in the toilet (big, big trouble) prove more valuable for students.
- When I was in the grade(s) I teach, what moments stood out to me?
- What moments do I seem to come back to over and over again?
- When was a time as a child when I felt a strong emotion?
- What moments have felt hard for me, where I overcame a challenge or consistently struggled?
- What lessons did I learn about life when I was a child?
- Where in my life can I model for students my humanity and emotion?
- What opinions do I have that I want to share?
- What can I teach students about life – outside of curriculum- that I can weave into conversations?
- What hobbies or interests am I an expert in that I can share with my students?
- What places have I been that I want my students to learn about too?
When a teacher I coach knew two students in her class were coping with divorce, she purposefully modeled in writing workshop about the time when she, as a child, was forced to wear pants she hated because she lived between households. She not only built trust and connection between herself and her students, but made space for her students to share their own emotional moments connected to separating parents.
Another teacher shared about the moment when her husband told her their dog couldn’t walk anymore because he was really sick, spurring students in her class to write with specificity about losing their own pets. Her modeling allowed for students to tell of their emotions with a level of detail and introspection she felt was attributed to her willingness to share so emotionally first as a model.
It was in the texture of their storytelling that students were primed for learning and connected on a deep level to the instruction as a result.
Model Perseverance: Highlight Moments of Challenge
One of the most vulnerable types of stories to share with students is when we dealt with adversity and moments of challenge. In addition to building a more trusting classroom, opening a door for children to be vulnerable with their whole selves, stories of grit, in particular, have implications for the learning brain. Beyond strengthening writing instruction, powerful storytelling around struggles and mistakes enhances all areas of instruction by serving as a model of perseverance for students. Furthermore, there is research to show that students can grow the part of the brain that controls emotions, vulnerability, and fear if they venture into unfamiliar situations and push themselves to try.
In the first decade of life the neuroplasticity of the brain allows for the most stretch and growth, says JoAnn Deak, a neuroscientist and author of the children’s book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. When things are hard, our brains signal the part that needs more practice. In the book, she likens the growing brain to a rubber band; when an activity or emotion feels most difficult, that is precisely when we must work harder. Sharing this with students in the context of storytelling about challenges we faced helps students see that imperfection is ideal; hardship breeds growth; and continued practice cultivates strength.
A classroom teacher I coach recently told me when he shared stories of dancing tap and jazz as a child, a student opened up about taking dance too. When he shared vulnerability about being a boy who loved musicals and dancing, so too did this young writer in his classroom. Together, they talked about how they might avoid their fears, even if it felt uncomfortable. “He opened up to me…even if he wasn’t comfortable opening up to classmates.” These are the trust generators that cultivate spaces where students feel more comfortable expressing themselves, taking risks, and learning, particularly in instances of resilience.
As teachers, we must be willing to share what feels difficult for us, and tell students stories about times we overcame – or continued to struggle. This form of selective vulnerability breeds familiarity and connection but moreover, allows students to see teachers as human and imperfect. Vulnerability is necessary for deep learning to occur, as it breeds curiosity, relationship building, trust and understanding of our more complete humanity.
Build Trust, Grow Minds
When I was young, in a desperate attempt to assimilate and be just like everyone else in my class, I ceaselessly begged my parents for a gerbil. After months of pleas, they finally relented, and when I was in Kindergarten, we brought home a dark brown, palm-sized gerbil. We named him Brownie.
He would be dead less than 24-hours later, drowned in a too-big water bowl. My sister and I found him floating face down. When we discovered him, we woke the household up with our screams.
This is a story of sadness and quite frankly, of horror, as we went from elated and jubilant to devastated, sickened, and riddled with a heavy guilt- in such a short amount of time. We felt deeply irresponsible for having caused an end to Brownie’s short life. Even writing about it now makes my stomach roil. But I use it in the classroom to share with students why and how I grew from those feelings. I use it to connect, cry, and question.
Oral storytelling traditions go back long before humans could read or write. Because the human brain is hardwired for stories, when teachers share personal anecdotes in the classroom, trusting bridges are built, and students are better positioned to learn. Being vulnerable spurs students to share more easily stories about themselves. Educators can pre-plan vulnerable moments to share outside of live classroom time, behind the scenes, as part of curricular planning. In fact, keeping a bank of anecdotes and opinions at the ready is useful to purposefully build community and classroom relationships.
As teachers, our instincts might be to present ourselves to students as the all-knowing sages without flaw or fault. We often aim to show ourselves as perfect, maybe even without colorful histories and experiences. But unveiling our vulnerabilities, trials and travails through storytelling not only primes students for learning, it cultivates space for students to be unguarded too. And in that space, powerful learning happens.
Deak, JoAnn. Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. Little Pickle Press 2010.
Hammond, Zarretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Corwin 2015.
Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an award-winning journalist and educator with experience in New York City and Chicago schools. Forever passionate about growing readers, writers and thinkers, Nawal was a classroom teacher, curriculum developer and literacy coach before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team at NQC Literacy facilitate tailored professional development, coaching and staff learning experiences around literacy practices in schools and districts. You can find her in Chicago’s Logan Square or online at NQCLiteracy.com and on Twitter @NQCLiteracy.