The Book Fort

Instructional Ideas for Immediate Implementation

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Welcome to The Book Fort!

Volume 2, Issue 2

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Week 37: Embarrassment

The Emotional Underlife of Learning

What is the greatest impediment to learning? Is it poverty or racism? Is it teacher burnout or underfunding? This is the question that Thomas Newkirk tackles in his book, Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning. He argues that most of these seemingly insurmountable disadvantages are “experienced as ever-present embarrassment or shame — the sense of being an intruder, being unfamiliar with routines that seem second nature to others, fumbling for words and appearing unintelligent” (15). Perhaps this is true no matter if we’re students, teachers, parents, administrators, or serve students in some other way; we all feel embarrassed when we don’t understand the “code” and the behaviors that result from the associated negative emotions are often very unproductive.

I came upon this text because it was a book study last month for NCTE’s leadership group, CEL, of which I am a member. While I didn’t read it in time to participate in the book discussions, my leadership cohort decided to take a closer look before the annual conference and I must admit, it’s given me a lot to consider about the way students learn, what we can actually do to remove barriers to that learning, and how we can help create lasting, positive academic experiences for them. Whatever your role in education — parent, teacher, administrator, advocate — take a look at the quotes I’ve selected below and consider your own practices. Then, buy the book and share with colleagues of course!

Newkirk, T. (2017). Embarrassment: And the emotional underlife of learning. Heinemann.


“How can we create conditions of support so that students can fail publicly without succumbing to embarrassment, or more likely, finding ways to ‘hide’ so they can protect themselves? What allows some students to fail publicly and maintain a healthy sense of competence?” (15)

In short, Newkirk suggests in this chapter that we deeply consider the risk and benefit of the educational experiences we create for students, the underlife. Think about it: if the potential benefits outweigh the perceived risks, we generally take the leap, right? We must do our best to remove the stigma associated with asking for help and empower students to advocate for themselves without feeling weak or less for doing so. Here are a few ways we might do this in the classroom.

Asking and Receiving

“We can also forget that openly seeking help can itself be an act of generosity. We can easily fall into the trap of seeing help seeking as a game of subtraction — there is the giver and the receiver. The receiver subtract from the giver. We are taking something. We imagine the giver as generous, but fail to see the generosity in our very request. We fail to imagine that the help seeker is also a giver. The offer of vulnerability and trust is precious, something we as teachers treasure…” (63-64).

Teachers are also very often thwarted and inhibited by fear of embarrassment. Asking for help can be seen as a weakness, and it might cause a teacher who is completely overwhelmed to jump ship or shut down rather than appear “weak” enough to ask a colleague or (worse) an admin or coach for help. Not so different from our 14-year-old selves in this way, are we? We MUST break free of the isolation we often create and hold on to when times get tough (or even when they’re good). Here are a few suggestions (Newkirk and me).

Embarrassment and the Three Rs

Newkirk speaks in generalities about embarrassment and shame for students, educators, and people, offering vignettes and anecdotes to exemplify points in the first two sections of the book. The third section is dedicated to a more specific examination of embarrassment in mathematics, reading, and writing. Experiences in the academic realm in these three areas, often very early on in the K-12 journey, can shape our identities as learners, for better or worse. Here are a few take-aways from each.

Website of the Month

AllSides for Schools

Tired of fake news and need new resources for students to have civil discourse on current topics? Look no further! AllSides offers a school membership in a no-cost pilot delivers online and in-class programs for healthy communication and understanding of diverse perspectives to foster dialog, collaboration and critical thought. Even without the free pilot, you can take a bias survey, check out news stories from various sides, and even use their balanced search feature to research. Content is geared for grades 6 - 12+. Follow them on Twitter @AllSidesNow for up-to-date resources and news.
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Ed Tech Tool of the Month


BoomWriter is one of the coolest tools I have seen in awhile and I hope every ELA educator will check it out. Setup to serve grades 2 - 12, this site promotes creativity and collaboration as students build on each others’ work to create a final writing product. Students start with a story prompt, then contribute successive chapters which are reviewed by the teacher and assessed by their peers, who vote for their favorite to add to the ongoing story. Once a book is completed it may be published online or purchased in hard copy format. Resources such as story starters and other ideas for educators add to the unique features of this site. Bonus -- it is FREE! Check them out on Twitter @BoomWriter_ for cool ideas.
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Reading Recommendations

Missed Previous Issues?

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Kristie Hofelich Ennis, NBCT

In an effort to systematically study relevant research and stay connected to the teachers I greatly respect and with whom I have worked for years to successfully implement independent reading, this newsletter came about. It will offer research and practical ideas for quick implementation and may prompt further discussion or study with your colleagues. I hope you'll find it useful and thought-provoking; I also hope you will stay in touch if you implement any of the ideas with your students. They are, after all, why I do what I do!