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As Teachers, Our Words Matter

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
March 17, 2021

Openers and Closers

When I was first creating Organized Binder the first aspect that coalesced was the Weekly Lifeline. It became clear to me that my students would be more successful if I provided a clear starting and ending routine that both maximized class time for teaching and learning while giving my students daily practice with metacognitive strategies and retrieval practice. I wanted my starting and ending routine to put my students at ease, lowering their Affective Filter. I worked hard to design this new technique in light of Lisa Depits’ work in Other People's Children - I wanted to make that which was implicit in my classroom very explicit so my students knew what was expected of them and could rely on the consistency of the rhythm and routine. 

The Kick-Off

Our starting routine is pretty simple. Students arrive to class, they open their Organized Binder to section “B” - the Weekly Lifeline, and when we start class I reveal the Kick-Off. We call our starting routine a Kick-Off deliberately, you can read why by clicking here. Most teachers using our program use this starter to revisit to reteach the previous lesson’s content standard, objective, or goal. For students, the Kick-Off is a safety net, of sorts. Our starter gives them a chance to interact with what was previously learned, get their questions answered, and to build upon that knowledge moving forward - but it is absolutely okay to be incorrect when responding. The Kick-Off is not a quiz, a designed characteristic that is really important. Click here to read the four reasons starting class with a quick does not work. The intent of the Kick-Off is best explained in Powerful Teaching

“Based on a century of research, in order to transform learning, we must focus on getting information out - a strategy called retrieval practice.”

Agarwal and Bain, Powerful Teaching - Unleash the Science of Learning

As Marzano explains in Classroom Instruction That Works, the more opportunities we give students to revisit and retrieve the more likely they are to retain what they are learning. “Teachers should find ways to expose students to details multiples times - at least three - ...ideally no more than two days apart.”

Question and Answer

I stumbled upon an interesting phenomenon when I first implemented the Kick-Off as my classroom starter. A bunch of really positive things resulted - I had fewer tardies, off-task behavior was diminished, students were more engaged, we wasted less class time getting started, and students could get their questions answered about the previous lesson, which proved to make them more successful as we moved forward. Another thing I learned is that our words at teachers matter. The names I had first chosen to describe our routine were actually causing my students stress. When we started class I would reveal a question that I designed to give students the chance to interact with what we learned in the previous lesson. This actually made me a more effective teacher because it mandated that I knew the objectives of each of my lessons. The Kick-Off is usually a question so when designing it I named it “Kick-Off Question” on the Weekly Lifeline. Students, of course, responded with their answer so I named the section where they recorded their response “Answer”.

Although engagement was high with the Kick-Off I discovered that some of my students were hesitating to respond. I would remind my students that it was simply a Kick-Off, not a quiz, and it was okay to respond incorrectly (assuming the question had a correct answer). But my encouragement did not seem to change that fact that some students were unwilling to respond. I even made a point to ask my classes about it, but I did not get any meaningful feedback. 

Always Ask Your Students

Then I had another epiphany, I should use the Kick-Off itself to find out why students were not responding. Unless I asked to pair share or share their response with the class, their Kick-Off response is completely private between me and each individual student. My hope was that my students who were not responding would feel safe enough to tell me privately as opposed to sharing with the class. 

My Kick-Off “Question” the next day was asking students to honestly and openly share why either they personally were not responding until we reviewed the answer, or, if they were responding, why they thought students may be unwilling to do so. When I collected the Weekly Lifelines to read their responses it was overwhelmingly clear that the titles I had assigned to our opener, “Question” and “Answer”, insinuated an assessment, or in my students words “a quiz”, and they did not want to get the answer wrong. To be honest, this came as a shock because, like a mantra, I had told my students that it was okay to respond incorrectly. I explained every day that we were just kicking-off the class, just like a soccer match, and what was most important was that they were ready when we started. 

Prompt and Response

That weekend while I reviewed my student’s responses I made a change to Organized Binder’s Weekly Lifeline. Instead of naming each section of the Kick-Off “Question” and “Answer” I opted for “Prompt” and “Response”. The next week in class I unveiled the newly updated Weekly Lifeline and we jumped right back into our starting routine. To my surprise, there was a significant change in the number of students responding and overtime the issue subsided completely. 

Our words matter as teachers. With one simple change engagement increased. However, what is most important in this story is that this simple change was predicated entirely on having open and safe lines of communication with my students. Without a Kick-Off, as well as Organized Binder’s the Learning Log, I would have not gained the formative insight needed to adjust my instruction. This is true in every aspect of every teacher’s practice, when we establish ongoing, no-stakes, reliable formative assessments we receive from our students the necessary feedback to adjust our practice to be more effective. 

Have you had a similar experience? When you thought your plan was going to work only to realize it needed adjustment? Also, what mechanisms do you use to gain formative feedback from your students? I would love to hear, please leave a comment below!

Be well,


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