Conquering the Math Beast
by: Leah Welch (Fall 2012)
A video camera, a classroom full of screaming kids, and a chicken suit: this is a list of tools high
school teacher, Robert Ahdoot, incorporates in his daily lessons. They are not the oddest things
in his arsenal however. When his students get a problem correct they shout out in unison, “Yay math!” and their excitement for something as unpopular as math is what is uniquely captivating.
Yay Math! is a collection of free math tutorials Ahdoot, 34, video tapes during his math classes. Ahdoot got permission from his school to videotape live and unscripted performances of him teaching his students. Videos are taped when new material is being introduced to students. They include algebra, and geometry to the more complex problems in mathematics. When the videos went up on YouTube the first year saw upwards of 100,000 views. Now in its fourth year Yay Math! has over 2.4 million views which is more than the population of Manhattan.
“…In my view what that says is that’s 100,000 … possible scores on a test… relief anxiety for a student whether they’re 16 years old or 46 years old going back to school after many years.” Ahdoot calls this the multiplication effect and it’s rare for videos that typically last over 20 minutes. And it was this effect that changed how Ahdoot viewed his pet project, “…it turned Yay Math! into a movement as opposed to an idea.”
The origins of Yay Math! began when Ahdoot was on a trip in the Caribbean. Reflecting back on this he said, “I was like, ‘What would it be like to just record what happens in that room raw; the way it just occurs and everything that goes with live programming? All the spontaneous moments, all the magic, all the imperfection of live recording…” He came back from his trip and proposed the idea to his students that following Monday.
The students ran with it.
The idea of Yay Math! came after Ahdoot had already been teaching for four years. In that time he perfected his teaching craft, which came naturally to a man who has always been a tutor or a coach throughout his life. After that milestone of finding his flow in the classroom and seeing his students first struggle then respond to his teaching, everything clicked.
“You have to be in tune. There is no success without being present. It doesn’t work. It will never work. There’s no being fulfilled [that way]…you have an outer sphere of what people do, [such as,] ‘I sell computers, I teach classes, I fix cars,’ that’s the what. The circle inside is how, ‘our employees went to the best schools, we have training, we hire only the cream of the crop,’ that’s how we do what we do. And then the very inner circle at the core is the why; why we do what we do. We either want to help people, we want to serve people, we want to make a difference in this world. Or we want to take your money, or even still, even if people want to help, the question should always start at the inner circle; from the why…The what should come last. Why I’m here? I’m here to help you. How? I will instruct. I will give you my attention. I have this degree. I have this experience. What? I am a teacher.” Ahdoot gets this inspiration from Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” philosophy.
That is why Yay Math! exists: to help people. Since social media is beginning to play a major role in people’s everyday lives, Ahdoot is extending its use by implementing it in the classroom. Despite the videos being geared to learning high school level math, a lot of Ahdoot’s viewer-base is students returning to school after a period of absence. “…we have people in their 30’s that are going back to school after being intimidated and put off by math – giving up based on many different valid reasons... There’s so many people that are coming back from their tours in Afghanistan and Iraq…a lot of them are trying to [take] their entrance exams. I learned that math as a topic is very much a gateway topic. Sooner or later they’re going to have to face the math beast.”
Yay Math! as a social media entity has attracted millions of views. During one video tutorial, Ahdoot’s cellphone interrupts the lesson. Ahdoot pauses to answer the call and it’s a teacher from the Midwest wanting to congratulate Ahdoot on creating something as engaging and informative as Yay Math! With union constraints on the amount of time teachers are allowed to stay after school to tutor, Yay Math! is a flagship toward students taking a tutor home with them, “It’s like the perfect formula is begging us to take action. And that formula is huge need on one hand with use of social technology, or social media on the other hand. It comes down to that; there’s a better way of tutoring.”
There is no doubt that the large part of the videos’ success is Ahdoot’s energy and sincerity. One anonymous online reviewer stated, “This teacher needs to teach other teachers how to teach.” This sentiment is also found with his colleagues at the high school. Fellow teacher Roger Blonder, 45, has seen Ahdoot in action, “A good teacher is …somebody who makes a connection … and hopefully create(s) a transformative experience in the student’s life that will help them to grow as a human being…the differential matter with Yay Math! is that his (Ahdoot’s) personality comes through and you feel that you’re one of the class and some of his personality comes through…and arguably personality plays a role in the comfort level that a student has…so there’s a greater possibility of Yay Math! impacting a student who responds to the human touch.”
Ahdoot’s success with Yay Math! is just a small glimpse of the effort that he puts into his career
as a teacher. Doing both sometimes has Ahdoot pulling 12 hour days if not longer. It’s a schedule that keeps him from traveling as much as he would like to and from public speaking – another avenue that he’d like Yay Math! to go. Despite these long hours, Ahdoot’s wife, Rinat, 33, said, “We look forward to where else it’s going to take us – every day is like a new opportunity. Yay Math! is opportunity.”
For the future of Yay Math! Ahdoot also said he’d like to take it on the road and introduce the concept of teaching his craft to other teachers, “I would like to get a Yay Math! seminar which I would teach teachers and give a seminar to get that vibe in the classroom that they see in the video. I have it down to a recipe.”
Essentially, it’s the rapport Ahdoot has with his students that makes Yay Math! so genuine, “…there’s no replacing an energy that’s positive between educator and student…[it] can’t be fabricated. It takes real time to develop. It takes me being an advocate of the student. It takes me…staying after school to help them if they need help and other students hearing that I agreed to do that with the kid and then they automatically gain respect because they see that it’s authentic and so, they elevate themselves for the cause as well. Whereas if I were blowing hot hair, then it wouldn’t work and it would play out on camera…So that to me is what makes every clip. Every session that we do, the second that the camera cuts off there’s this big sigh through the room. And the next day they’re like, ‘I was focusing more than I ever do.’”
As part of the rapport, sometimes Ahdoot dresses up in costume. Depending on the day’s lesson, videos have him dressed up as the Mathemagician, a king, and in the famous chicken suit. A former student of his said that the costumes help them to remember specific problems,“ [Ahdoot is] a very energetic person. That’s what really keeps your attention for videos and [even] while you’re in class, just paying attention to the lesson. And so one day when he walks in … with a chicken suit…I remember focusing so hard on this lesson because I thought it was so funny because he was in a chicken suit. It keeps your attention. And you think, oh, this is a chicken suit problem.”
It’s this type of fun and personality that viewers can expect to get when they contact Ahdoot personally. The Yay Math! site was created for free by a woman Ahdoot helped who was going back to school. Other users express similar experiences about Ahdoot from him giving them his personal time. And in this way, Yay Math! is an organic thing as there is no marketing; it got over 2.4 million views by word of mouth and YouTube searches.
Ahdoot’s verve for life and teaching is very present in his classroom and on his videos. Asked what his best moment in class is, he said, “Without fail, when we’re synchronized in thought. I walk into the room and the time of day is right; it’s not early in the morning, and not late in the day. They’re not too full, they’re not too hungry…so everyone is in tune with each other. And so, I’ll come in and we’ll talk for a moment and I’ll ask them if they want to film this one and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, let’s do it’…and I’ll push the record and I’ll say, ‘Yay math?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yay math!’ and the wind knocks me to the board. And I say, okay, this is going to be a good one. And so, I in turn get more energy from it. And then, the next 20 minutes are flow.”