About the Prize Winners: Xani Pollakoff

Meet Xani Pollakoff

Xani Pollakoff won the Kohelet Prize for Development of Critical and / or Creative Thinking, as part of a team of three at JPDS-NC, The Jewish Primary Day School of the Nations Capital. You can view their entry, Kindergarten Community Library Project, here:

In your experience, what is the greatest challenge facing students/teachers today?

Students are coming into Kindergarten already feeling academically and socially behind as they say, “I can’t” or “I’m not smart enough”. With these observations and realizations, I think the greatest challenge right now we have as teachers and students is to build our collective growth mindset as a community of parents, teachers, and students. Developing a growth mindset creates an environment where community members push each other, take risks and challenges in their learning, and know that with effort, empathy, responsibility, and problem solving we can reach higher levels of achievement. With a new shift in this mindset, students will not only achieve in higher academics but will gain confidence, engage with meaning in learning, and develop deeper relationships within their communities.   

In implementing your winning project in the classroom, was there a moment when you knew that you had hit upon something really powerful?  If so, describe that moment.

During the library project students in our classroom designed individual prototypes to think about how our “comfy” area in the library would look. When finished, each child in our class shared about their own prototype. When the students were explaining their ideas these Kindergartens were not only about thinking themselves but the students were thinking about the visitors that will be going to our library and how they will feel, what they might care about, and what they might need. During this moment I knew that this project was powerful as students were true empathetic community members using the design thinking process to build something new and meaningful.

What advice would you give teachers who want to attempt something new and different in their own classrooms?

Reflect, reflect, reflect. Every time we have an opportunity to try something new we always carve out time to reflect on the work and experience. I try to answer these questions:

  • What skills did it accomplish? Were these the skills I planned on reaching?
  • What did the children get out of the experience? What did the teachers learn from this experience?
  • What can I do next time to make it even better?

Reflecting on these experience not only makes me a better teacher, but also more empowered learner to take risks during lessons and try new ideas.

What’s your favorite part of your teaching day and why?

My favorite part of teaching Kindergarten is the opportunity to laugh! Anytime when when my students and I are in a belly-laugh mood while we learn and explore is my favorite time of the day!

How do you ensure that you’re always growing professionally?

Take every opportunity to learn something new, and TRY IT! Often when I learn about a new concept I try to find a time to try it out. Some of these experiences included multiple drafts or using Thinking Routines. As we explore and try new approaches I notice that each experience will bring a new prospective of teaching, and each prospective will provide a new experience.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a new teacher walking into his/her classroom for the first time…

Have fun while you get to know your students! One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is listening to my students share about their life, tell me about a favorite toy at home, listen to a book on a tape that they brought from home, or even learn about a new Pokemon card. These snippets into their life creates an beautiful bond of trust and love, and makes us more empathic teachers.

What are some ways in which you motivate your students to become lifelong learners?

We motivate our students to work together. In the beginning of the year we provide the opportunities for students to work together but the goal is by the end of the year collaboration is apart of the environment of our classroom. Collaboration is a tool of life long learners as we have to work together in our families, at work, and as a member of our communities. It is a skill that is important for our students to observe teachers doing, and represents that we all have opportunities to learn from each other, and teach each other as well.