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"The Gasp" and the Growth of a Child

Children in classroom

My elementary school kids desperately want to please their teacher.  So much so, they frequently let their emotions get the better of them.  Actually it's daily.  And here's how I know: Each and every day that I'm in the classroom I hear the "gasp"!

A little background: Good teaching requires a high level of engagement between teacher and student.  And one of the best ways to build such rapport is through questioning.  Active questioning helps ensure-nothing completely ensures!-that the students are paying attention and "taking in" the curriculum content.

So when the moment comes and the questions begin-no matter what the topic-the gasps begin.  Collectively, the gasps make quite a noise.  Short, quick intakes of breath, tinged with fervent desire, accompanied by small grunts and gurgles and vigorous shaking of raised hands-these all convey an eagerness to contribute.

The hands are always raised with supreme confidence.  If you were visiting the class for the first time you'd be assured that every one of those kids has "the" answer or "an" answer that the teacher is seeking.  But here's where emotion overwhelms the child.

My decidedly unscientific estimate is that 1 out of every 3 kids that she calls on doesn't have anything to say!  Nada!  She calls on them and they say nothing.  They heard the question, saw that as a signal to contribute, but they forgot to take the time and consider what their response was going to be when called on.

See also: A Handy Trick for Learning to Read

My teacher regularly reminds all the students that they need to put a thought "in their head" before they raise their hand, but the gasps continue-- day after day, month after month.  Of course, not all students are unprepared when called upon.  Many have been paying keen attention and can move the classroom conversation along.  However, even these children emit "the gasp" when the question gets posed.

These are simply kids that have a common need: To be accepted into the classroom community.  And often, that emotion puts them in the awkward position of "gasping" at the opportunity to contribute--mindlessly flailing their hand to answer a question that they have given absolutely no thought to.

Every time I hear the "gasp" I am both amused and humbled.   To me, it is incredibly sweet and a wonderful proof point of how our characters take shape.  We all want to be accepted, and the "gasp" is a daily reminder of that fact.

You can learn more about how to get involved on the  Experience Corps website.

Robert Hodder is blogging about his first year as a volunteer with AARP Experience Corps, helping kids in a Washington, D.C. elementary school with their reading skills. AARP Experience Corps will be expanding into its 20th city, Chicago, in the 2013-14 school year and is in the process of recruiting volunteers. You can also follow Robert and his experiences on Twitter. For information on how to volunteer, please contact Patrice Gerideau at


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