Keeping it positive in your classroom

Ever felt like your classroom was the arena for a tug of war between you and your students? Chances are that, looking back on that time, you can see that you were focusing on correcting individual students’ behavior, while not doing much to acknowledge students who were meeting expectations.

How do teachers get “unstuck” when we find ourselves in such positions? How do we improve the classroom environment?

This blog originally appeared on Teaching Channel on 4/18/13 as part of a publishing partnership with CTQ.

Ever felt like your classroom was the arena for a tug of war between you and your students? Chances are that, looking back on that time, you can see that you were focusing on correcting individual students’ behavior, while not doing much to acknowledge students who were meeting expectations.

How do teachers get “unstuck” when we find ourselves in such positions? How do we improve the classroom environment?

At times like these, the “positive framing” approach can be especially helpful. Doug Lemov shares this concept in Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. He refers to Positive Framing as “narrating the world you want your students to see even while you are relentlessly improving it, making corrections consistently and positively.”

Assess yourself

The first step is to get a clear picture of the language you are using with students. Don’t count on your own general impressions—instead, record lessons via audio or video. (If you are new to using video to capture your practice, I recommend viewing Using Video to Improve Practice: Do It Yourself!).

Then go back and listen. Sort your language into two categories:

  • Language of Positive Framing, which might include language that directs students what to do (not what not to do) and acknowledges students’ positive choices and the meeting of expectations; and
  • Language of Redirection/Consequences, which might include individual student corrections and rhetorical questions.

This will help you see how your own language might be contributing to a less-than-positive environment. Do your words emphasize the negative over the positive? And if so, what can you do about it? How can you step outside your default reactions to respond to students in productive ways?

This is when it helps to see other teachers in action for inspiration and ideas.

Learning from positive reinforcement for class participation

This Teaching Channel video demonstrates Jen Saul’s approach to positively reinforcing student behavior. She rewards and acknowledges students’ positive behavior and their rigorous thinking through a classroom currency system. This system is effective at reinforcing students’ positive behavior for several reasons:

  • She giveth—not taketh away. The system is additive rather than based on deductions. Students can earn bonus points throughout the day. Although Ms. Saul does not specify what she gives points for, a teacher could choose to tailor points to specific behaviors the class is working on. Since points are only given, not taken away, it is less likely to feel subjective for students.
  • Easy to manage. Ms. Saul recognizes students by number and only uses a small part of her white board. The coin amount is determined at the beginning of the day, so students know what to expect in terms of the money they can earn. The items Ms. Saul contributes to the system are relatively low cost (coin stamps, notebooks, treasure box prizes) and some are no cost at all (assisting a teacher, having more time for a test).
  • Student ownership. Students get to decide when they want to use the coins they have earned. Do they want to save for a more expensive item? They have that choice.

Setting the tone from day one

Of course, a reinforcement system won’t work on its own. Sometimes teachers put a reinforcement system into place but are frustrated by some student behaviors that continue to persist, like talking at inappropriate times.

What’s going wrong? The truth is that Positive Framing only goes so far. If a teacher fails to hold students to expectations, his or her authority will be undermined over time.

Ms. Saul’s positive reinforcement system is effective because she uses it consistently. Her students know she will hold them to the classroom expectations.

In another Teaching Channel video Setting the Tone from Day One, Nick Romagnolo makes an incredibly important point: “Our expectations are what you allow them to do, not what you say.”

We must clearly state our expectations and hold students accountable by having them do a procedure again when necessary. Only then will our students see that our words match our actions.

How do you use Positive Framing techniques in your own classroom? What are some examples of how you hold students to classroom expectations?

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  • Amy Musone

    Positive In The Classroom


    Think you have struck upon something important here…teacher language. Not only is it important to understand and practice positive language, it is important to reflect upon it. Something that I have done, but not via recording (which would be beneficial). Thank you for bringing this to my attention as it will be something to consider as the new school year approaches. 

  • KrisGiere

    How I try to…

    Over the past few years, I have been wrestling with this concept, and I have been trying to find a way to do more than just change my language.  Often times, the messages sent in the types of courses I teach are not just negative but heard by the student before I ever meet them.

    My name is Kris, and I teach remedial college English.  “Remedial,” “developmental,” even “preparatory” all carry unintended meanings of deficiency with them.  And though words should gain meaning from how they are used, it is more common that the word will color the meaning before the meaning is ever expressed.  Too often, the students that I have the pleasure of working with in my classroom are measured (placement tests) and identified by what the assessment says they lack.

    Please note, I am not trying to debate the value of placement tests or to shift the conversation of this thread to standardized assessments.  We have many of those conversations started already with some great insight on each one.  What I am attempting to do is frame the mindset of the student who walks into my classroom to hopefully aid in illustrating why I do what I do and why I still need help from the great minds here in the CTQ community.

    As an English teacher specifically in composition and literacy courses, it is easy to focus on areas of improvement.  And conversations on improvement must be had.  However, I have noticed that many students hear improvement and interpret it as “not good enough.”  Corrections or areas of improvement or things for next time or <fill in the blank> will always send a message of not good enough if a positive and healthy atmosphere is not first created.  Creating this atmosphere  will always be a work in progress for me.

    To Carrie’s point, I conciously choose to do the following in my classroom:

    • I start by trying to establish a sense of community and community pride.  My classroom is not individuals who are there to complete tasks; we are a community of learners who attend each session to explore ideas, share our expertise, and assist each other’s journey.
    • I avoid language and assignments that focus on any concept of deficiency.  If skills need reinforcement or reteaching, I compare the activity to golf or cooking, meaning each student competes only against himself or herself to get better and focuses on what can be learned from the experience that was just explored.
    • I am recently implementing a strengths-based approach using StrengthsQuest by Gallup.  For those of you who are not familiar with StrengthsQuest, the core element of it I focus on is that there are only strengths, no weakness.  Some strengths are not refined, and even some are rarely if ever activated.  Instead, we use the strengths that are most authentic to who we are in order to accomplish our goals each and every day.

    I have found success with most of my students by framing my teaching this way.  The “I am not good at English” excuse disappears quickly, and a sense of pride in one’s work appears by semester’s end.  I am still learning better ways to reach more students and to foster a long lasting desire to “Do my best.”  Whatever ideas you all may have, I welcome them.

  • marsharatzel

    Hall of Fame board

    I love this video and the idea of stating what you want to exist and come into your classroom.  I guess it’s true that if you can imagine it, it can become a reality.

    In my room, I imagine positive framing taking place as I see students venturing forth and being brave.  I just saw an article that talked about teaching “grit” so that you have something deep inside you that lets you hang in there.  I would love to have a Hall of Fame wall and when I catch them displaying this tenacity and grit, I’d celebrate that moment on the wall.  But I wouldn’t want to put names b/c then it gets to be about who is on the board and not the what is on the board.

    Going back to read those….especially right before I know we’re going to do something tough could be real inspiration for the kids.