How you can use student discourse to instill a positive classroom climate

We all want our students to be respectful of each other, of us (their teacher) and of their learning. We also want our students to understand and appreciate the viewpoints of others and to appreciate what they are learning and why they are learning it.

So how do we get there?

We use the power of student discourse. Students love to talk, they do it all the time. They are naturally social beings. Our job is to tap into their social nature and give them opportunities to use that skill to learn.

Academic discourse is not innate. We need to provide our student with the tools to effectively communicate with each other academically and in a respectful way.  If we don’t, they will dictate the direction of the conversation.

Here are three key components to engaging your students in respectful academic discourse:

  1. Provide students with meaningful opportunities to engage with each other in relevant conversations about what they are learning and how they know they are learning it on a daily basis. Create opportunities for them to talk in a variety of ways: whole group, small group or pairs. Be sure that all students have equal opportunity to engage in these conversations.
  2. Listen, yes… Listen to what students are talking about.To do this you must be actively involved and dipping in to their conversations as they happen. Stop, engage with the students by repeating what you are hearing – this is not a time to take a break!

Repeating what students say in partners or groups shows students:

    • That you care about what they are saying
    • That you are validating what they said
    • That you are willing to hold them accountable for what was discussed.

It is also a great opportunity for you to support students that are struggling by modeling questioning and thinking strategies to scaffold the process.

  1. Provide structures for students to engage in meaningful conversations:

Here are 3 structures to try…

    1. Provide a list of sentence stems to get the conversation started and response stems they can use to practice questioning and active listening skills. Students will become more confident in sharing their thinking, asking questions and presenting information in front of the class once they are familiar with how to effectively use these conversation starters.
    2. Use the Partner Oral Fluency strategy to get students processing, organizing and integrating information. Students take turns summarizing a reading selection of text and then check for understanding with their partner during a structured time frame. This process can be used with the reverse Jigsaw strategy where students become the expert of a section of text and report back to the group a summary of its main points.
    3. Reverse Jigsaw: This is an effective strategy to use when working with longer readings such as a chapter review in Science or reviewing the first 5 chapters of a novel study. Choose 5 sections of text: create groups of 5 students, all the 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s get together and use partner oral fluency to summarize text as a group, then return to their original group of 5 and share out their section in order. As a group they summarize the text as a whole.

When we tap into students’ social nature, give them tools to converse academically and provide opportunities for students to utilize new discourse strategies, an amazing thing happens… They engage in their learning; they talk about what they are learning more and less about what they are doing on the weekend. In addition, students learn to understand and appreciate the viewpoints of others and to appreciate what they are learning and why they are learning it.

Academic Optimism

The one thing that all classrooms with a positive climate have in common is “academic optimism” according to Eric Jensen in his book Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind.

Students that experience a classroom filled with hope and positive energy try harder, learning is more fun for them, it helps sustain their energy and efforts, and the positive cycle continues.

Building a positive classroom climate takes TIME. While you can begin to establish a positive climate from day one, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it will not maintain itself.  It is a continual cycle that you continually build on and foster throughout the year.

Remember, the time you spend building a positive climate is never time wasted – it is time invested.

Whether you are a brand-new teacher or an established veteran, here are 3 guidelines that will help you build and maintain a positive climate in your classroom.


It’s important to truly believe that ALL kids can learn and that you demonstrate high expectations for all students. They will rise to the expectation.

Adjust your language…focus on little ways your language reflects a lack of expectation and reframe your words, so they reflect high expectations.

Be sure to design learning focused instruction and establish clear learning outcomes. When designing lessons focus on the standards and how you can increase the level of rigor for student instead of creating lesson that are simply fun. When students know it is their job to do the learning, not to do the activity, buy in will increase.

Begin with the end in mind and show students what mastery of the learning outcome looks like. Use rubrics and exemplars so they can see what success looks like.

Provide opportunities for students to self-assess. Establishing personal goals and monitoring their own progress builds self-efficacy.


First and foremost, get to know your students as individuals. What are their likes, dislikes, fears, insecurities, and strengths? What is life for them outside of school?  Do they have an adult they can talk to? Do they have friends in school? What hobbies or interests do they have? Taking time to get to know your students inside and out communicates to them that you truly care about who they are not just how they learn.

Creating time to come together as a community daily to set the stage for learning, problem solve, share and connect with one another communicates your class is a family unit. Communicate with each and every student with care and respect. If students are struggling to address you with respect, show patience and teach them more appropriate ways to respond.

Ensure you are providing opportunities for student to develop relationships with each other. Working in collaborative groups or in partners give students an opportunity to engage and support each other’s learning. Monitor student to student interactions so that you can facilitate conflict mediation, and help students develop true friendships. All students in your classroom should feel included.

Model respect for students by working with fellow teachers in a professional and respectful manner.


Celebrate small wins in the classroom. Encourage students to share appreciations, successes and point of pride with the class.

Praise positive behaviors. Positivity reduces stress, improves cognition and behavior, and increases student’s resilience.

Pay attention to how students are feeling as they are entering your room. Shaking hand with students first thing in the morning will provide you valuable information about your students learning mindset as they begin their day. This will give you an opportunity as well to connect with those students and see what you can do to help them set the stage for learning.

Pay attention to the signal’s students are sending you during instruction. Are students bored, frustrated, or not engaged? Adjust your instruction, take a brain break and re-engage your students instead of trying to plow through the lesson.

Remember: Your expectations set the measure of success your students will achieve. It is important to truly to not only believe in our students but to demonstrate it daily through our words, actions and the rigorous lessons we plan for them.

Nobody rises to low expectations! Think about it.

Want Achievement? Build Community!

When it comes to Building Community, most teachers get it all wrong. Why? Because they were led to believe that it is simply something you do the first two weeks of the year. You know… name games, establishing initial procedures/routines and engaging in community building activities. Yes, those are important first steps, but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building a TRUE effective learning community.

Building Community is the foundation of teaching and it is a yearlong process. It involves reflecting on your teacher mindset, building authentic relationships and fostering a culture and climate that enhances and supports students.

Building Community is the number one thing you can do to ensure student growth.

Yes, the NUMBER ONE thing! Let me explain…

Have you ever had a class that just seemed like they were never going to get along?

Did you ever have students that constantly interrupted your instruction or other students while they were trying to learn?

Have you ever found yourself constantly repeating directions or expectations?

Have you ever had students that never participated, were withdrawn and unmotivated?

Have your students ever made unkind comments “I don’t want to work with him/her!” or refused to include certain students?

I think at some point we all have.

And to be kind of in your face about it, all these actions are sending a very clear message….


It’s like the parable of the house built on sand vs. the house built on rock. There is a BIG difference in what happens to those two houses when a storm comes. When the wind comes and waves crash, things get tough and don’t go as planned…one house falls apart, and the other stands firm. What’s the difference between the two houses?


Think about it for a second… If you only focus on community for the first two weeks of school and then move on, you haven’t established a sustainable community. If your classroom isn’t built upon an unshakable foundation of community, then when things get rough or a new student arrives, your classroom will more than likely crumble and fall apart.

I’ve been there. I have had the class, “the house” that fell apart when things got hard.

I had the misconception, like so many others that community was something you did the first two weeks of school. After my first year of teaching, where it felt like everything was falling apart around me, I knew I was missing something.

So, I set out on a journey to discover how to build community, but not just your average, run of the mill community. I wanted to give my kids MORE. I wanted to build the kind of classroom community where when things got tough, we would withstand the storm, and not just survive, but THRIVE.

And that’s exactly what I did.

I immersed myself in research and every professional development I could get my hands on. I observed teachers that I admired, and I asked questions. Here is the one of the BIG things I discovered…. You can build relationships and not have management, you can incorporate cooperative learning and not have cooperation, you can teach procedures/routines and then not monitor them, you can demand respect and only get compliance. I discovered that Community is not a set of steps we take the first few weeks of school. It is a series of well thought out practices we incorporate, intentionally and on a consistent basis, that when used in concert with each other builds community.

And you know what? Bit by bit, my community grew. And before long I had Unshakable, storm-weathering classroom community, where all my students were making massive growth!

And guess what? People couldn’t help but notice!

They began coming to ME because they wanted to have a foundation of an Unshakable Community too!

I started sharing with others what I discovered on my journey, and before long, they started to see improvements in their classrooms too!

As a school Principal I encouraged my teachers to make Building Community their #1 focus. Yes, curriculum is important and there is a ton to go through in a single school year, BUT I know the MASSIVE impact that an effective community has on achievement.

How do I know this? Because it worked! With the students I taught, with my colleagues’ students AND for my school. Yes, my school! Building an effective community reduced our discipline issues by 75% in just the first two years and our academic achievement grew from underperforming (F) to performing plus (one point from an A).

Because of my success in building unshakeable communities I knew that what I discovered was meant to reach more teachers. Teachers JUST LIKE YOU…who are READY to build a firm foundation for an Unshakable Community.

So, if you haven’t already, sign up for the ETP Blog. Here I will be sharing with you weekly inspiration, tips, tools and strategies for building and sustaining strong effective classroom communities. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite books, pod cast and giving you advance notice of my upcoming webinars and on-line challenges.

Let’s do this!! Let’s build community!!

With Grit and Gumption,


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