My team and I watched footage yesterday of Aidan Thomas’ math class at Leadership Prep Bed Stuy Middle Academy in Brooklyn. This series of No Opt Outs that Joaquin Hernandez cued up for us was kind of a showstopper. It left us with a better understanding of the ways that No Opt Out could work and a really great vision of positivity, warmth and high expectations–all at the same time.
The clip starts with Aidan calling on Jahiem to plot a point on the graph of a line. He’s asking for the y-intercept, in other words the point (0, X). It looks as if Aidan thinks this question is going to be a gimme, but Jahiem surprises him and gets it wrong. Even Jahiem–who raised his hand thinking he had the answer–is a little caught off guard. “No. That’s the trick,” Aidan says. “Not anymore. Zero is what, Shawn?”
His No Opt Out is quick here. He farms the question to Shawn. Remember, he thinks this is an easy question for most of the class and is trying to keep the pace going and get on to the second part of the problem.
But Aidan is just as fast in coming back to Jahiem. Shawn tells him the y value is -1 and Aidan immediately says, “Yeah, why is it -1, Jahiem?” Here Aidan returns to Jahiem, with his expectations just as high for him as they were before. In fact, by asking Jahiem to explain Shawn’s answer, he’s arguably giving him the harder question. This gives Jahiem more than a chance to redeem himself: it gives him the opportunity to shine. It’s like he assumes Jahiem will know because, well, Jahiem is a smart kid. Of course he’ll know.
Incidentally, Jahiem struggles a bit here, but with a bit of prompting, he fixes the mistake. Aidan then tips his hat to Jahiem by acknowledging the self-correction, but he does so without excessive praise or fanfare. Instead, he pivots forward, while keeping Jahiem’s struggles in the back of his mind. He knows most of the class is pushing ahead, but he’s got to keep his eye on Jahiem and make sure he’s got this concept. There’s data to suggest otherwise.
That’s what makes the second clip so good. It occurs about eight minutes later.
“What’s the point on this graph that we know… [pause for everyone to think]… Jahiem?” It’s the same topic as before–find the y-intercept–but it’s a Cold Call. Even though it’s eight minutes later, Aidan remembers that this is an area where Jahiem was unsteady so he goes back to him for extra practice. It’s a No Opt Out with legs.
Again we see Jahiem struggling a bit. He kind of knows but kind of doesn’t. Aidan is supportive here. “You’re just using the wrong language,” he says. He’s totally neutral. There’s no judgment or frustration in his tone. In fact, he’s acknowledging that Jahiem is on the right track. But because Aidan clearly wants Jahiem to succeed and believes he’s on the brink of doing so, he avoids the temptation to gloss over his mistake (e.g., “You meant to say ‘y-intercept,’ right?”). Instead, he prompts Jahiem to use the correct term, a small yet crucial detail that he (and the rest of the class) must know in order to approach mastery.
Still Jahiem guesses wrong. Aidan again goes No Opt Out here, letting Tevon provide the answer (0,2), but Aidan isn’t done. He comes back to Jahiem again with a Cold Call, one driven by the previous question he could not answer and therefore still part of the No Opt Out in my mind—“That’s called the what, Jahiem?” Jahiem’s a little flummoxed. Then Seavy gets it wrong, too. But once DJ gives Aidan the correct answer, he circles back to Jahiem and Seavy to make sure they hear themselves getting it right.
Throughout this turn of events, any teacher would be hard-pressed to avoid revealing even a smidgen of impatience or frustration. But Aidan does something a bit surprising. His expression grows warmer and his tone a little gentler. He smiles to reassure students that their error was no big deal: that in fact, mistakes are expected when smart people are working hard at work worth doing. Aidan’s positivity and equanimity show students that this No Opt Out is not a punishment. It’s a tool for getting students to repeat the answer that will solidify their understanding–the one that’s always been on the tip of their tongues.
The clip wraps with Aidan reinforcing again for Jahiem that (0, X) is called the y-intercept. There’s still more work to do, obviously. Aidan would be hasty to assume Jahiem has the concept mastered. But Aidan has caused him to work hard and engage the problems and also recognize he has some work to do. There’s no hiding from the concept. And all the while, Aidian’s smile, enthusiasm about the content, and faith in Jahiem remain evident. It’s no wonder why Aidan’s students have posted such strong results on last year’s exams.