One Word Can Build a Mindful Class Culture

A MiddleWeb Blog

Amber-logo-250A few years ago, my teaching colleague Laura and I decided that instead of being pathetic as we’d always been with keeping our New Year’s Resolutions, we’d instead do a One Word Challenge.

The idea wasn’t our own, but it was created to be shared and even co-opted. The authors of One Word That Will Change Your Life are Jon Gordon, Dan Britton, and Jimmy Page, and they wrote this book expecting teachers, leaders, pastors, and coaches to use their idea to motivate those of us who don’t quite hit the mark when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions.

Like many fabulous ideas, the premise is pretty simple: instead of creating a list of self-defeating resolutions which usually are limiting in some way (Quit Smoking, Stop Procrastinating, No More Dessert), the authors ask us to choose one word, only one, and to invest our energy into that word.

My first daring word

That first year I chose “Dare.” I had noted, more than once, that I had a horrible habit of only doing things I knew I’d be good at and leaving anything that involved an uncertain outcome on the table. How could I teach students to take risks when I was the ultimate queen of the safe choice?

Mouse on MissionThroughout that first year, every time an opportunity or situation came along when I was tempted to just hedge my bets and stay safe, I asked myself to Dare.

I know this seems overly simple, and I wasn’t much of a believer at first. At first it just seemed like an excellent alternative to torturing myself with another year of failed pronouncements.

Over time though, I started to see the power of this seemingly minor shift in thinking. I knew I had to use this concept with students, and with all of the work around the Growth Mindset, it seemed a natural fit.

So we tried it with students in mid-year

As fate would have it, last year I was co-teaching with the colleague who introduced me to the idea in the first place, and as New Year’s Day rolled around, we decided that we’d use this as our “first day back from Winter break” activity.

We knew that students would be excited to be back, but also way out of the habit of school, so we kept it short and sweet, with the intention of spending the day on the activity and returning to our normal routine the next day.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 4.36.44 PM

But something really amazing happened: our students were intrigued! They didn’t want to slap their word on the quarter sheets of posterboard we’d given them and put them up in the hall. What had started out as a transition activity gained a life of its own, and students ended up sharing their words in brief but powerful presentations.


So now we’re thinking: Classroom culture builder

Flash forward to August and I’m planning with Laura, and it occurs to us that the One Word challenge is a great classroom culture builder.

Last year, we did “I Am” poems, as well as the Six Word Memoir, and we definitely plan to use those types of activities again. However, there is a special power in the One Word Challenge because it sets a focus and a tone. By the simple act of choosing a word, we are beginning a journey together.

by teacher Jennifer Laffin

Luckily, because I have entered a school building every fall for 37 consecutive years, my real New Year’s Day is September 7th. From the moment I entered kindergarten in the fall of 1979 with my first day dress, crooked bangs, uncomfortable new shoes, and Snoopy lunch box, I knew where I belonged, and I never looked back. I make it my goal that all students feel that same sense of community that I’ve loved.

This year, in my first day dress (minus the uncomfortable shoes), as my students start their 8th grade journey, I’m going to use the One Word Challenge as a baby step into my Project Based and collaborative classroom.

This is the slideshow I’ll use to help them visualize the types of words that students have chosen in the past. This serves to connect them to a greater collective experience of other 8th graders, further supporting their experiences.


If you do this, do it early on

I highly recommend doing this activity early on because it places teenagers in the position of raw vulnerability (where growth happens) within the context of a safe classroom.

Each student will create one slide with his/her particular word, share it with me, and I’ll create a slideshow set to their music, further validating the important journey that they are on. It offers a great touchstone to return to as the year progresses.

For those of you who might feel like this “touchy feely” activity is a waste of time, I promise you, the energy you use on the frontside will pay massive dividends that can’t be underestimated.

amber-bk-cover-144-200If it feels like “fluff,” take a few minutes to come up with your own One Word, examine how a small shift in your thinking could impact students over time, and then think of that small shift exponentially.

Take it from someone who knows, Dare to try something where you aren’t sure of the outcome, and you are modeling the growth mindset from day one.

Enter the coupon code MWEB1 when you order Amber Chandler’s book The Flexible ELA Classroom from Routledge/MiddleWeb and get a 20% discount.

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school teacher and the author of The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8 (2018) and The Flexible ELA Classroom (2017). Amber blogs regularly for ShareMyLesson and Getting Smart, contributes to AMLE Magazine, and provides NBCT candidate support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Follow Amber on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and join her website Amber Chandler's Flexible Class for practical tips and resources.

10 Responses

  1. Laura Klein says:

    Amber – I am so lucky to have co-taught with you!! The One Word project is incredibly special and I am so glad you are sharing it with other teachers!!

  2. Jennifer Yocum says:

    I love this. We have to be one community right away to share our vulnerabilities and cheer each other on. Our middle school is using the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens this year. I wonder if this could open up that thinking – a hook of sorts – to personalize the process.

    • Anne D'Andrea says:

      This is my second year using 7 Habits with my 8 th graders!! It is awesome. Haven’t found a lot of resources for it – have you? And I would love to know how you pace it and plan it out! Thanks

    • I think this would be a great to use to hook kiddos before 7 Habits. It sort of encapsulates it, right? I’d love to know how you integrate it!

  3. Anne D'Andrea says:

    I really want to do this with my 8 th graders. So after they each make their slide do you string them all together for the class to view? With music? Thanks for the idea!

    • Yes–I just make a slide show and add a song or two. It is pretty easy, and it is a great end of year artifact to look back on! Let me know how it goes.

  4. Jennifer Garinger says:

    I love this one word idea, especially for the beginning of the year! I am going to try it! Thanks for the idea!

  5. Lane says:

    Hi Amber! Thanks for sharing this. I plan to adapt the idea to mini-videos for HS and set my students’ work to music. I think it will be great for seniors!

  6. Stephanie Young says:

    This is awesome. I’d really like to do this with my third grade class this year. I will be starting the year teaching online and this might be a way to build community. I can even have them create their own slide with their word. Do you have any suggestions for making it appropriate for their age?

  7. I think that the best way to help the younger kiddos would be to provide multiple examples and bring it to their developmental level. The “one word” examples should simply be in kid language and then spend some time discussing what success looks like. For example, if the word is “patient,” lead students through how that would look in practice—listening when you want to interrupt, waiting your turn etc. Hope that helps!

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