User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

An Educator Responsibility: Setting Up Conditions for Learners to Have Glorious, Aha Moments

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Since I have very strong convictions about what constitutes a “good” education, I am often asked how I got to this place of thinking.  I begin my story by relating to my summer camp experiences as powerful learning and my school ones as being a big, long blur.  The power of hands-on, experiential, and authentic learning was reinforced during my senior year of my undergraduate studies.  I took an outdoor education course.  As a requirement for the course, we were asked to be counselors at an outdoor education center, where students from local public schools spend five days at the residential center.  My co-counselor, Eric, and I were given a 6th grade group.

It was an amazing, life changing experience for me; and hopefully for the kids in our group.  All of the learning activities we did had experiential components.  We learned biology by walking through a stream and collecting water samples to view under a microscope.

pic 1

We learned history by visiting an old, local cemetery to study the family lineage and by making our own butter and ice cream like the pioneers did.  I keep thinking how engaging and exciting these learning activities were and continual wondered why public school couldn’t be like this.  These were all glorious, aha moments, but the biggest glorious, aha moment occurred for me when we spent an afternoon doing the team building course.  The group worked well together as is evident in this photo:


One of the last activities was the porthole. The Porthole is constructed by suspending a tire between poles or trees. The objective is to cross from one side of the porthole to the other. The group must create a plan that takes participant physical ability and size to lift, pass, and spot participants in order to get them through. See for more information.


The biggest challenge of The Porthole is getting the last person through as there is no one to boost that person up to get through The Porthole.  Darla was a member of the group.  She had some developmental disabilities and was larger, older than the rest of the group.  The members of the group didn’t make fun of her, but she was a bit invisible to them.  Flash back to The Porthole.  Not unexpectedly, the group got every through The Porthole leaving Darla on the original side by herself.  One of the smallest kids in the group, Henry, quickly noticed and said, “I can help you, Darla.”  He asked the group to pass him back through The Porthole to help her.  He then got on his hands and knees and instructed Darla to stand on his back so she could reach The Porthole for the others to grab her from the other side.  Henry was half of Darla’s size.  I could see the pain on his face as she stood on his back, but he cheered her on as she did so, “You can do it, Darla.  Go for it, Darla.”  This act of generoisty from Henry was so touching that after the kids finished, I asked to take a moment and went off into the woods to cry.

The epilogue of this experience came in the form of a letter from Darla (with corrected spelling):

Dear Jackie:

Thank you for a great week at Stone Valley.  At first I was nervous and scared but I could tell you knew that I was.  You and Eric taught me lots of things I didn’t know. You taught use how to play games and find nature right under own feet.  You have taught use so much neat things that I can go on writing forever.  But the best thing I like about your and Eric is that you are both wonderful counselors and no one can take your place in our family group.

I hate it when we had to leave.  I wish our family group can stay there forever, but all have to go sometime.

I didn’t do much over the weekend.  The only thing I was doing was thinking about what we did at Stone Valley.

Lots of Love,


. . . concrete evidence of glorious, aha moments experienced by Darla.

The core of my educational philosophy and pedagogical creed is that all educators should attempt to develop the conditions for glorious, aha moments for their learners every time they meet with them.  So a simple, powerful question all educators can ask to determine his or her effectiveness in teaching a lesson is, “Did my learners experience aha, glorious moments during the instructional activities?”

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 21, 2014 at 6:25 pm

2 Responses

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  1. If students can’t get to an AHA moment, then I venture to say that no deep learning has happened. I work in an arts-integrated project-based school and I can attest to the excitement that electrifies the air when I begin with the AHA moment I expect and then use backward planning. What surprises me most often is the difference in the AHA moment that I expected and then the one the students actually experience. The learning is deep as long as I put the effort into the path to letting the students change course if need be. Being open to THEIR outcome is essential.

    Susan Brightman

    January 22, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    • Thanks Susan – I especially love your connection between AHA moments and deep learning – nice!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      January 22, 2014 at 4:02 pm

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