Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.02.14A Tale of Two Affirmations

Teacher 2104I just realized something small but possibly important about narrating positive behavior in the classroom.

Let’s say I’m standing at the front of my classroom as students enter and i want to acknowledge a student, Afonte, who’s met my expectations: come in, got out his stuff, got to work right away on the Do Now–just right.  It’s a classic case of a place where I might want to acknowledge (not praise) in a manner that is both genuine (i.e. I am sincere and honest in what I saw to Afonte) and that has the ancillary effect of causing other students to see the normalcy of behavior like Afonte’s more than behavior that’s not as productive.

I was thinking about the difference between using these two sentences in that situation:

  • “Afonte is getting right to work”


  • “Thank you for getting right to work, Afonte.”


I think I have a strong preference for one over the other.  Want to guess which one?

The answer is that I prefer the second sentence for the simple reason that in it, I am speaking directly to Afonte rather than about him to others. That’s a more normal and natural interaction between two people and thus it makes my words feel more sincere and genuine.  It accurately portrays the fact that I am thanking him and also see some benefit to it if others overhear that remark.  That’s a bit different from talking about someone aloud to others. There the emphasis is on causing other to observe Aphonte and with Aphonte overhearing that secondary.

I still think #1 is a fine and useful thing to say in the classroom. I’m not saying it always has to be #2 and never #1. They’re both doing the same work of Positive Framing. I think that what I am saying is that I hear some added ingenuousness to #2 and over time–daily doses–it is likely to sustain and build a more positive relationship with my students– Just by a tiny bit, but a tiny difference repeated a few hundred times over the course of the year can have a pretty big compounded affect.

Any sense to that? What do you think?

7 Responses to “A Tale of Two Affirmations”

  1. Dennise O'Grady
    April 2, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    Yep. Especially (or really, only) if you are thanking him one human being to another and not merely to manipulate behavior. I do think intention matters.

    • Doug_Lemov
      April 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Yeah, i think that’s what sometimes wrankles me–and what i’ve so far probably been unsuccessful in describing in writing… when talking to one person about their behavior and helping others to atune tothe positivity around them starts to feel (and be) manipulative. It’s hard to describe the rule but when it happens it’s painful and counter-productive to relationships. I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts on “rules” for this if you have any. Thanks for posting.

  2. Alexa Miller
    April 2, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Reflecting on this, I definitely use a mix of both. I wonder if #2 has the potential side effect of making other scholars wonder, “I got right to work too, why didn’t I get thanked?” #1 is an observation about one student and doesn’t imply that there aren’t many other scholars getting right to work as well.

  3. Dennise O'Grady
    April 4, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    I think the way to avoid having others wonder why someone specific was noticed and not themselves (for doing the same thing) would be to really set up your classroom to be a place where feedback is immediate, on-going and specific and not intended to “get others doing the same thing.” If others begin doing the same great thing, then let it be because you are setting an expectation and noticing it when it happens in a very human way as one human being to another. It’s hard to write about this well because I have seen copies of the book “Choice Words” (Johnston) passed out at PD meetings and what using choice words looks like when practiced with alternate, underlying intentions. Words matter; I agree, but intentions matter first and can be completely understood regardless of the words deliberately chosen.

  4. Seth Vaught
    April 15, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    I certainly see your point of view, and have used that wording before. However, I actually prefer the first statement because the teacher is simply stating a fact, and therefore is not disingenuous. With the statement of fact, students will naturally infer what the expectation is. The second statement is attached to the emotion of the teacher (thankful) which can fluctuate. When emotion fluctuates, so then does the expectation. I want a teachers expectations to be consistent and not based on how the teacher is feeling at the moment.

  5. Guest Guy
    June 14, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Neither should be said, unless it was perhaps individually and quietly said to Afonte (more acceptable is the latter sentence). Saying that he is getting to work is an either obvious statement that doesn’t need to be stated, or else it is an unusual occurrence, that Afonte is working, and bringing attention to it is mocking his normal behaviour or even the student. I absolutely agree that a class should be thanked when they display good habits. “We have a lot to get done today – thanks for getting down to it, guys (when they start). / Thanks for the effort today – I saw a lot of good changes in your writing(at the end).”

  6. Ann
    July 13, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    I use the tone of voice that I’m listing good behaviors on a list that really has not end. Sort of a lilt up in tone. It may be annoying to students – not sure? – , but it makes me feel like I am keeping a running list of positives going and keeping a lookout to add on to it, so no specific comment is really the end of what I am saying.

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