Friday, January 31, 2014

21st Century Classrooms: Engage, Empower, and Teach

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words could never hurt me.”
    And this I knew was surely true
    And truth could not desert me.
    But now I know it is not so.
    I’ve changed the latter part;
    For sticks and stones may break the bones
    But words can break the heart.
    Sticks and stones may break the bones
    But leave the spirit whole,
    But simple words can break the heart
    Or silence crush the soul.

Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning
by Peter H. Johnston. Stenhouse, 2004

     The Power of Words
Changing Minds and Changing Worlds

Today’s guest post by high school Math teacher Daniel O’Neill challenges us to deepen our students’ experience of learning by infusing a simple engagement technique into our lessons and by considering the phrasing of language we use with our students. In making this leap, we can transform students’ negative statements to positive statements to create a more memorable and rich learning culture for them — something that could hopefully shape their future. Please read on to see how Daniel incorporates these ideas into his teaching! Daniel can be reached at

Student Engagement—
Do not accept “I don’t know…”

Image used under Creative Commons
               Part of being engaged is being willing to be engaged.  Some students use coping mechanisms to avoid the stressful situations that often accompany being engaged.  I empathize with them, but I also know that allowing those avoiding coping mechanisms to work is allowing students not to learn, which reinforces and perpetuates an unfortunate cycle.  

             I have been reflecting on and trying to notice some of my habits and tendencies I have created over my career with regard to those students. I noticed that I have developed a way of being that causes students who are not engaged to be very uncomfortable by taking away their negative coping mechanisms.  I do not allow my students to say “I don’t know” during class discussions.  

            In my classroom, students don’t have to have the correct answer, but they do have to offer up something rather than “I don’t know.”  Here are their choices: They can tell the class something they do know that is in some way related to the original question.  They can ask a meaningful question.  They can reference their notes to gain clarity.  The only way a student can escape these stressful situations is to think and engage. Those situations while awaiting a student’s response and the awkward silence that accompanies the wait are painfully uncomfortable until the class culture is developed to the point where this is totally natural.  

             This strategy works for most students because they realize that they can think and that they do know more.  They usually quickly abandon the negative avoiding mechanism of saying “I don’t know,” and realize that the only way to feel comfortable is to engage.  Sadly, there are some students though who persist in focusing more on their stress and fear rather than making the shift.  

               My very direct approach does not work with a small percentage of students.  So, what I am working on now is trying to imagine a way of being that both challenges every student to be fully engaged, holds them accountable for their engagement, yet still is supportive enough to help even the most math afraid students grow “more comfortable being uncomfortable” without pushing them away. I have not figured it out yet, but I have gotten past placing the blame on students.  I am taking my share of the responsibility. I want to be right about why students can learn rather than be right about why they can’t.     

              In my experience, many students are quick to identify what they are not good at and what they cannot do.  Many students choose negative language to describe their academic situations.  After they state, as fact, what they cannot do, they seem to stop thinking.  Oftentimes, after a student has stated that they cannot do something they look at me with an-almost challenging look, “What are you going to do about it?”  

              We want our students to be honest with themselves. We want our students to respond even to their admissions of weaknesses as evidence of their desire for strengths. In others words, its okay to be wrong or to make a mistake since it is vital to the process of learning. Here are some examples of how to reshape the language students’ use with honest and positive rephrasing in order to stop their fixed negative self-talk. 

Negative Student Statement
Positive Honest Rephrase
“I am lazy”
“I want to feel motivated to improve”
“I’m not good at reading”
“I need to practice to become a better reader”
“I don’t know the quadratic formula”
I know that the quadratic formula is used to solve quadratic equations, but I need to spend more time working with it before I know it by heart”
“I’m not good at math”
“I would like to be better at math.  I want to be smart”
“I’m going to fail the test”
“I need to spend more time learning and mastering concepts before I can perform well on the test”
“I don’t try hard”
“I would benefit from asking questions, practicing skills, and self-assessing my own level of mastery”
“I hate school”
“I want the experiences I have in school to help me feel stronger.  I know that I’ll have to experience struggle.  I am ok with the struggle as long as I am struggling toward success”

               I realize that when you first read this, you might think, “Yeah, right.  Students don’t talk like that.” Students do talk like this once they’ve learned how.  Ask them to rephrase every single negative statement you hear them say.  In the beginning, some of them may say the positive statements with a mocking tone.  Just embrace the fact that they are practicing the rephrasing.  They’ll soon lose the mocking tone.  Also, recognize that some students will genuinely struggle with rephrasing positively.  Respect their struggle and help them.  Do not accuse them of being unwilling to rephrase when they say they can’t. Encourage them and let them know that you believe they can. I have been working on this for years. It is effective.

Listen closely to your teacher talk 
Do not say “Class, I want you to…”
               Observe any classroom and you will most likely hear, “I want you to…” over and over again.  Stop for a moment and recognize where the focus is.  School is supposed to be about students’ learning and self-empowerment, so our language should reflect that.  Rephrase “I want….” with positive and empowering words:
·         You will benefit from…”
·         “If you…, then you’ll learn…”
·         “You’ll learn most from…”
·         “Now you have the opportunity to…”
·         “You can show that you learned… by ...”

               Use any other phrase that is focused on student learning rather than complying with the teacher.  Trust me!  A teacher can live out an entire career without ever uttering, “I want”.  This might seem like a small change, but the impact on the culture of learning is enormous.  Again, be ready for this to be an extremely difficult change to make.  As began making this change in my classroom language, I would experience horrible embarrassment when I “slipped”.  It just sounds so selfish once you become aware of it, but I kept habitually doing it. 

               I decided to enlist the help of my students.  I got a Nerf ball and told my students if they ever caught me saying, “I want”, then I’d give them the Nerf ball, close my eyes, and give them a free shot.  It was funny the few times they caught me, but the sad part is that they rarely catch me even when I notice it myself.  Students are so used to hearing, “I want” that they don’t even realize it. Please make this change, give up the “I want”. 

Keys to a Successful Rephrase

              Our goal is for students to feel more powerful, so it is extremely important that they feel their original idea was not lost in translation.  The rephrase cannot negate the validity of the original statement.  We are not making them think altogether different thoughts.  I am trying to help my students without covert manipulation. This is important because students can tell, consciously or subconsciously, when we try to manipulate them.  Keep in mind; we want them to feel empowered.   

              Another reason to recognize the fundamental change that occurs in the rephrasing is that while most students will immediately flourish in this new environment of positive phrasing, like someone moving from a smog congested city to the fresh air of a mountain town, a few people will feel an initial increase in stress. By using language and positive directed statements, we are creating an atmosphere that inherently contains the expectation to constantly get better. The expectation for growth and endurance of struggle toward growth will cause a significant increase of stress for some people.  Be aware of that and be compassionate and empathetic to their discomfort.  Maintain your expectation that they engage and grow no matter how uncomfortable it might make both of you. They want to be smart.  Be patient, most of them will come around eventually.  

Respect the Challenge of Changing Fundamental Habits

               In order to stay determined to make this most important change, we need to respect and be aware of how difficult the change may be to make.  Here is the key to helping your students learn to phrase positively: lead by example.  You will see how difficult it is.  Always direct your students by telling them what to do and how to do it correctly.  Always follow telling students to do something in a particular way by explaining the learning benefit, short term or long term, they will experience.  The answer to why a student must do something is always what the student receives from the experience.  If a student asks, “Do I have to…?” answer, “NO, you don’t have to, but if you do you’ll benefit from…”  

               Embrace the opportunities that arise when you catch yourself phrasing something negatively when talking to students. Stop yourself mid-sentence, genuinely apologize for phrasing negatively, and rephrase positively.  I can’t emphasize enough how important these moments are.  When you begin your original negative phrasing, an emotion will be cast over your students.  They probably won’t even notice it because they are so used to hearing such statements.  

               When you stop yourself and apologize, you will grab their attention.  When you rephrase the original negative statement to a positive one, a different emotion will be cast.  It is the contrast of cast emotions that is important.  If the contrast seems to be significant and you think that a large portion of the students also recognize it, bring conscious attention to the contrast by talking about it briefly to your students.  Not only will your students notice the difference in how they feel, they will actually have respect for you rather than just having to show respect to you because you are a teacher.  

             Once again, many thanks to Daniel O'Neill for sharing and caring. I have been interested in teacher talk for two decades, but my perspective has been linked solely to an explicitness and thoughtfulness surrounding the teaching for comprehension. I really had not thought about talk through a social-emotional lens. Daniel will be back again soon to share his thinking on teaching  struggling math students. Next week, one of my former college students and now friend shares how her school is currently implementing a year-long campaign on grit. Can't wait.

               As always, thank you for stopping by. Hopefully, today's blog has inspired you to think about the language you use with your students and the fixed-mindset, their beliefs and perceptions, your students  have about themselves as learners. We have so much influence. Granted, never as much as we would like. Hope it's a great day and Happy Saturday.

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Additional Resources
  1. Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston first chapter available online here
  2. Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives by Peter H. Johnston available for complete online previewing here
  3. Peter Johnston's handout from his Iowa Keynote this last fall

Pictures used today:


  1. Thank you for sharing I am going to try very hard to change how I communicate. I am the QUEEN of "I want"

  2. Best of luck...come back and revisit Daniel's words when you need to. He will be the first to say it isn't easy, but it is possible. If you need cheerleading contact Daniel or myself. Glad today's blog inspired you to want to make a change.