Well, s*!t, I blew that!

I’ve been working on my language lately.

No, not that language. My teaching language. I’ve come to realize that language is a powerful teaching tool, and I’ve been working for years on improving how I use this tool in my class. For example, I’ve worked hard to make specific rather than general comments about student work– comments that focus on the skill used rather than on my personal approval . So, instead of saying, “I really love your character”, I might say “Wow! Describing all those small actions really brought your character to life!” I’ve also made concerted, though much less successful efforts, to consistently reduce the rate of my speech.

After attending a four day workshop before school started, I’ve been thinking about language again. Specifically, I’ve been trying to use reinforcing, reminding and redirecting language à la Responsive Classroom. Please note, I’m going to sum up as best as I can, but my words reflect my understanding of these terms and that is still evolving.

Reinforcing language is just what it says. When they see positive things happening, teachers use reinforcing language to help students recognize and build on their successes. So, with an upbeat, encouraging tone, they give specific feedback. Instead of a vague “Great job!”, it’s “Everyone got in line quietly and calmly so we can get out to recess on time.” The idea is to focus on the positives, draw attention to them, and build off those successes.

Reminding language helps students as they get slightly off track or when the teacher anticipates they might. It’s direct, brief and calm. It prompts students to remember for themselves what the expected behavior is and to alter their behavior accordingly. So, instead of a long interjection from me about what they should be doing, I try to make a statement or ask a question and put the onus on them. “Remind me what you should be doing right now.” or “What is our rule about classroom materials?”

Finally, redirecting language is when student behavior has gone farther afield, and they need to hear briefly, specifically and calmly what they need to do. For example, instead of “We’re wasting time. We need to get started.” It’s more like, “Stop. Put your folders on your desk and sit down. Then we’ll start.” This type of language also comes into play when students need some external support with their behavior so they can be safe and move back into more productive behavior.

I find it fascinating to think about how I use language and the impact it has on my classroom and students. Right now, I may be overthinking it a bit, and I’m sure I sound a bit stilted sometimes, but it’s early days. The goal is to use reinforcing language the most, and overall, I feel pretty successful with that. Giving specific feedback has become more natural over time. It definitely helps that our ongoing Reading and Writing PD with Teachers College has had a similar focus. My own goal recently has been keeping reminders brief and to the point. If you read my blog regularly, you probably know: Brevity is not my forté.

Last week, I was thinking about all of this at recess. In between navigating critical ball shortages, four-square fiascos, and friendship squabbles, I was reflecting on how my language work was going.

I need to look back at my workshop notes. I’m doing okay with reinforcing language, and am being specific (most of the time), but what about the reminding language when kids aren’t following expectations? Or is that redirecting language? When does one become the next? Maybe I should look at some of the examples again…

My internal thoughts continued as we lined up to head back to our classroom. As we started moving, I noticed Y and Z tossing a football around in line. This was something we’d clearly discussed earlier in the week.

“Y and Z,” I said, “Remember we don’t throw a ball in line because it’s not safe. Please hold onto it.”

Turning back, I grimaced. Ugh. I was calm and matter of fact. Brief? Not really. I’m also pretty sure I was supposed to prompt them to think of what they needed to do in line to stay safe, not tell them.

Changing my language is tough! I turned back and kept walking. I’ll do better next time.

A blur of movement caught my eye.

Wait? What was that?

No way!

Yes way!

Sure enough, once again, Y and Z were veering in and out of line, tossing the football back and forth, over the heads of a few of their classmates.

I turned around again, thoughts about effective teaching language fresh in my mind. My voice erupted, deep and resonant. Actually, it emerged a bit differently than I had expected. Huh? A little louder (a little?), firm and definitely a bit …well, maybe more than a bit…gruffer. Maybe even rumbly. Actually, it sort of sounded a bit as if a demon had entered my body and taken over.


They froze. Their eyes widened. They grabbed the ball, held it tight, and scuttled back into line.

Brief? Yes. Direct? Yes. Calm tone? Not so much.


I turned around, facing away from them, and had to laugh.

Yikes! Where had that voice come from? Well, I guess the pendulum swung too far the other way that time. I’ll keep working on it.

For now, at least, the ball was firmly in hand, and we made our way back to the classroom with no further incident– of either the football or demon-possession variety. I’ll count that as a win and in the meantime, I’ll keep working on my language.

21 thoughts on “Well, s*!t, I blew that!

  1. Ah, the voice. (and yes, I agree, about thinking about language before we arrive in the teaching moments when we need to speak the words is so important)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. haitiruth says:

    I love the way you had an immediate do-over. That’s the teaching life, all right! There’s a lot to think about here. Working on how I use language in the classroom is a constant preoccupation of mine, too. Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahhh- redirecting versus reminding– I remember that part of the workshop, but I’d forgotten about it until reading your post. I thought you were going to add some expletives, maybe even alliterative ones to that football redirection!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Erica J says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the ideas until reading your blog. Thank you for sharing them. It’s difficult some times to remember all that — especially in the heat of the moment. But like all things I’m sure you’ll get better at it with practice and at least you are conscious of these decisions. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Responsive Classroom? I just looked over some reminders I had printed out last year of some sentence stems for each that I wanted to share with my new team. So powerful to notice the differences and be able to call up what you want (and I know I need the reminders). Sometimes you get too in the moment to grow those new muscles.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. margaretsmn says:

    I think my daughter with the 2-yr-old toddler in my house needs some lessons in this. 2-yr-olds are a special breed of child and he is so testing the boundaries of calm responsive talk. I think you did a great job moving through these lessons with those football boys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mbhmaine says:

      We all benefit from using language thoughtfully. I always say I think I’m a better teacher for having been a parent first, but I’m sure I’d have been a better parent if I’d been a teacher first.


  7. jcareyreads says:

    Our language is out most powerful tool! Years ago now, I was being trained to become a RC trainer. I had a coach who came and tallied my language, according the the three r’s. I though my language was pretty good. But, I had a lot of work to do to make my reinforcing language the thing I used most. It changed my teaching career.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ann Beeghly says:

    They used to have a paddle hanging in the Vice Principal’s office for boys like that!😂 (assuming Y & Z were boys).

    Liked by 1 person

    • mbhmaine says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Ann! It’s hard to believe paddling was once an established and accepted part of the educational system. Oh, and you were right, Y and Z are boys.


    • When I taught in Phoenix, Arizona, the principal had a paddle for miscreants (always boys) that had holes in it for a swifter swing. Boys grabbed their ankles and the principal (always a male) let the kid have it in our elementary school (K-6). He brought in the nearest teacher (unfortunately me from time to time) to witness the battery. Not public education’s shiniest moment.


  9. I love that you are so serious and reflective about how you are communicating with your students. I agree with you in that it does matter – so much. I applaud your efforts and really wish more educators would focus on this aspect of their practice. Thanks for sharing your work!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Love your quoting exactly what you said when dealing with Y and Z. Though I wasn’t always successful being specific with my language in writing conferences, I had that idea in my frontal lobe. On your “hold the ball” declaration, I remember being taught that when a scuffle or a physical interaction was occurring to use a loud voice to get everyone’s attention. It was particularly effective since I rarely raised my voice. “I want J to move to the lockers, and K stand by me. L go to the office to get the principal.” Geez, I am improving on giving specific examples of my points. The loudness basically stopped everyone in their tracks, even the combatants. Later, I was briefly self-impressed with my powerful delivery.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s