Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.23.18Narrating Positive Behavior: Talking To Students vs Talking About Students

“I love that book, too” vs “I see Brittany is into her book!”


Recently I visited a school that used a lot of Narrate the Positive.

Class would start. At the beginning of class a typical teacher would say, “Please take two minutes to answer question #1 in writing. Go!”  As kids started working the teacher would say something like. “Charles has pencil to paper. Anjulina is getting those ideas down. Love that energy from Josefina!”

This was useful in some ways. But something clanged for me about it. Later I realized that there was too much talking about students and not enough talking to them. Especially for this late in the school year.

A bit of explanation: Narrating the positive that focuses on talking about kids is most useful when you are installing a system… you are trying to call attention to the behaviors that are (or will be) normal ‘here,’ with here being this room or this school. You say, “Go!” and you want to reinforce Charles, Anjulina and Josefina and you also want others to notice the normalcy of their effort and commitment and seek to copy it.

A heavy proportion of talking about implies trying to socialize and spread understanding of and follow through on the right behaviors. “Charles has pencil to paper” means both “Nice job, Charles” and “The right move in this classroom is to have your pencil moving right away on writing prompts.”

It says, “This is who we’re going to be” but in that sense it also to a degree says, ‘We’re not there yet.’  And that’s something to be cautious about.

Generally that seems like this kind of Narrate the Positive (talking about kids in the third person) is most effective during the implementation phase of building culture and procedures. If that’s true then we would expect it to reduce over time.

In the mature phase of building culture and procedures–i.e. when strong culture is established and we want to maintain it–teachers should seek to maximize academic and relationship building interactions.Talking to kids addressing them directly (and probably more quietly) does that more genuinely and directly.

So over time talking to kids should become a much larger proportion of a teacher’s Narrate the Positive than talking about kids. In a mature system the former should crowd out the latter (not entirely perhaps but mostly). This is because interactions that build long term value and relationships involve speaking directly to someone:

  • “Nice start, Jasmine. Can’t wait to read that…”
  • “I like where you’re going with that Jayden…”
  • Even a quiet “Ooh, Carla you are fired up about this chapter…”


Too much talking about kids not only misses that opportunity but suggests (in May) that maybe we still don’t think you know what successful behaviors are. It says, ‘You still need lots of reminders,’ or ‘I think you still need lots of reminders.’ (Notably these are very different things).

So I think my Narrate the Positive rule of thumb would be: 1) as much about kids as necessary; as much to kids as possible; 2) as academic and relational as possible. Given the choice, in the long run it’s better to talk about the idea on the paper or ‘I can tell you loved this chapter…” than ‘Thank you for having you pencil moving,’ even if in the short run we may find the other productive to build culture and habits. That is, I’m not saying that some proportion of public narration of behavior isn’t necessary and good but over time the proportion should reduce and we should be talking in greater proportion directly to each student just for themselves and therefore more quietly.

By May, for example, I’d want to lean much more heavily on “to” than “about.”

, , ,

2 Responses to “Narrating Positive Behavior: Talking To Students vs Talking About Students”

  1. July 22, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    Thank you very much, Doug. Your post focuses my attention on students again. You know, when preparing a new class it is so easy to fall into the material – a comprehensive knowledge to provide, interesting exercises to remember the concepts, etc. However, it is meaningless if you have not a conversation with the students, they will not engage. Thanks again.

  2. Theodore
    July 14, 2023 at 3:24 am

    I read Teach Like a Champion about eight years ago. Thanks for this refresher!

Leave a Reply