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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

What's your unique gift to the world? Here's mine.

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How many ways are there to group four items?

The concept of school is kind of funny. We task kids with being good at everything. Math, languages, sciences, art, physical education, and so on. All this sounds normal, right? That's what school is, after all. But what if we were to ask adults to be good at everything? Not only at your specific profession, but also to be able to fix everything around the house, do your own taxes, change your own motor oil, adeptly cook your own meals, and maybe throw in a musical instrument?

Life is beautiful, and indeed there is so much fulfillment around us to be found. Along with that notion, we can't expect ourselves to be naturally A+ performers in everything we engage. This realization creates space for us to have empathy for students who struggle. The antidotes to such struggle, same as they've always been, are to face the lion head on, and to ask for help. I've gotten into the habit of being vulnerable at places like Home Depot, for example. I tell the dudes working there that I wish I knew more about all this stuff, how the vastness of knowledge in the store overwhelms me, and how I have to push away feelings of inadequacy imprinted in my psyche. You know the trope: men are supposed to be handy around the house. Not this guy, so much. And don't even get me started about Ikea.

My first Head-of-School and longstanding mentor Dr. Bruce Powell charged the faculty with "helping the students to find their unique gift." That is to say: what value or purpose can each person bring to the world, and how can we as teachers flesh that out of them? I’ve been reflecting on what my "gifts" are, and two come to mind. The first is math capability. It’s nice to be able to look at a page and immediately know what it’s about. The second is the layer below that, namely, my outright obsession with best practices in teaching.

For instance, here’s a thought exercise for you. Think of ten ways to say, “try again” that range from entirely shutting a kid down, up to vaguely annoyed, up to neutral, up to encouraging but not over-the-top, and finally to hyper-praiseworthy and thus counterproductive. Can you feel how slight changes in intonation affect the spirit behind our words?

This is a sampling of ideas that I sit around, think about, and practice daily with my students:

  • when to speed up for effect

  • when to slow down for clarity

  • when to repeat myself for gravity

  • when humor helps, or when it’s poison

  • when to lead, and when to follow

  • when to clam up (a true art form)

We all know that feeling when a student lights up while learning. The signs are as clear as sunshine: high energy, brightness in the face and eyes, an endless of buffet of questions asked, and then sharing what they’ve learned with others. Speaking on behalf of all of us reading this: teachers, parents, coaches, and anyone in a leadership role… I’m going on record to say:

Fostering inspired learning is one of the best life gifts we can give to the people around us.

The purpose of this message is to offer you two dynamic examples that showcase what I believe to be elevated teaching practices. They feature each of my daughters. The risk of filming the learning process with my own blood is both an advantage, as well as a handicap. Among the advantages are that I have a clear idea of what they’re each capable of, and that a deep state of love fuels all my behaviors. Among the disadvantages are contending both with an ever-growing history between us, as well as with my own subconscious narratives I have about them, or myself, as a father or teacher.

Learning how to combine groups is a vital early skill.
Learning how to combine groups is a vital early skill.

The math content I chose to impart is simultaneously thought-provoking for adults as it is age-appropriate for kids. The lessons dive into combinatorics, which I informally define as the act of playing around with number groups. I’ve witnessed time and again in high school classes how those students who have a knack for listing out all possible scenarios, hopefully through the use of a logical system, are the ones who have a smooth and positive experience while learning. Plus, half the time during my university computer science classes was spent systematically outlining every applicable situation our computer programs would encounter. Hence this focus with my 5- and 7-year-olds.

So you’re invited to watch these clips with two different hats. The first hat is the left-brain-centered focus on the math ideas at play. Such ideas include number flexibility, systematic thinking, and various ways to achieve equal outcomes. The second hat is the right-brain-centered focus on the art of connecting to the learners as individuals. Do you see unconditional love and acceptance in the air? Do you see my desire for their growth and progression, or the simple hope that I make it both productive and fun for them? Even the natural scenery adds a pleasant peace to the vibe.

To fully portray how much nuance goes into igniting deep and meaningful learning, I’ve included timestamped breakdowns of every subtle exchange between us. I recognize that what follows is a lot of text. But I asked myself, "What do I hope Home Depot dude would do if I was really intent on learning the stuff?" The answer, undoubtedly, would be for him to take his time and explain the stuff to me, breaking down every step to its basic parts, so that I can see what he sees. So I'm doing that here, because I'm guessing that meaningfully connecting to learners in your care inspires you as well.

I recommend first reading through the list, to frame the main takeaways from the videos. Then watch in a continuous flow to see those ideas carried out in action.

Thank you for the chance to share so intimate a gift with you. I hope it sparks ideas for you in your teaching practice.

Our first video features the rising star, Romielle, in the first grade. Major goals include:

  • logical thinking practice

  • extended focus on a task

  • a sense of curiosity

  • freedom to make mistakes in safety

  • connectedness and appreciation for nature

  • an air of joy, and empowerment

Here's an exact breakdown of every teaching strategy I employ with her:

0:50 – I asked HER to find her own items, to create buy-in for the activity.

2:18 – Allowing her to have momentary "space out", without stigmatizing it or demanding increased attention. Just letting her flow as she is.

2:28 – Following her lead.

3:00 – You'll notice I keep count for her. This appears to be what she needs age-wise, and is a subtle gesture of assisting and being in-tuned with her. (You'll notice that later on, at 5:56, she realizes I'm keeping count, and references my fingers to help her along.)

3:05 – I offer positive acknowledgement that she's stumbled onto a logical system.

3:24 – I allow her to finish a sequence that wasn't correct, before offering corrective feedback.

3:40 – I encourage her to start over, giving her another chance to solidify and practice.

4:16 – I took a risk with saying "Ah." to pivot her away a certain thought. Not the best choice I could have made, but it was brief and benign enough to work out ok.

4:31 – We took advantage of a natural break in the action, when she noticed that the leaf had bite marks on it. These brief respites allow the brain to reset, so that we can jump back into the next task afresh. Plus, it keeps the overall mood light and informal.

5:10 – She asks a question that would be better answered by herself, so I kindly declined to answer it, to let her thinking continue.

5:36 – She hits a milestone, befitting of a "Nice!" reaction from me.

5:40 – Again asking her to repeat it, solidifying the concept in her mind.

5:45 – I repeat her groups after she says them, as another act of assistance and attunement.

6:30 – All of sudden, we're doing addition. So I go with it!

Next, our second video features little Revi, nearly five years old in this video. Major goals are:

  • an overall approach based in love & kindness

  • following her lead

  • giving her space to think

  • no judgement nor pressure

  • when possible, including easy items around the house

  • when possible, connecting to nature

Here's an exact breakdown of every teaching strategy I employ with her:

01:30 – We begin with something easy, to build her confidence.

03:00 – She says "byoom" so I repeat "byoom" in the same tone as hers. This is a simple act of mirroring and attunement.

03:47 – She tries an incorrect approach, but I don't say anything. This gives her the chance to self-correct, which is critical.

04:20 – Simple words of positive encouragement.

04:30 – Upon seeing that she's lost, I jump in with questions to help her thinking. The questions intend to be simple, to help her regain her engagement. Thus I lead off with, "which pile has more in it?" Then the next questions are binary in nature, meaning, she can answer in only 1 of 2 ways (i.e. this pile, or that pile). Binary questions are great to help students get themselves unstuck.

05:45 – I celebrate that she asks a question. Questions must always be encouraged. In my answer, first I acknowledge the logic behind her question. Then I redirect her back to the task.

06:25 to 06:55 – I gave her a full 30 seconds to be lost in her thoughts. I truly believe that the act of extended deep thought is under attack by modern society. We need to battle to let our kids experience uninterrupted episodes of deep thought.

06:55 – I give her a reframe of the challenge, to set her up for success.

07:20 – I held back from telling her she got it right, to let her figure it out.

07:30 to 08:25 – I didn't fully let her off the hook, through asking and re-asking her questions to make sure she completely understood. Then, we moved on upon realizing that any more questions would belabor the moment.

08:48 – "Thank you for asking."

09:05 – I followed her lead, by asking her if she wanted to do one more game.

10:20 – ​I pulled the plug when she was done. So important to keep the experience positive, so that she'll want to participate in the future.

As always, please feel free to reply with any ideas sparked within you. All replies go straight to me.



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