Sunday / May 19

The Five-Word Answer to Student Engagement

Want the secret to engaging every kid in the room in less than a tweet, because you’ve got a stack of papers to grade, dinner to cook, and the need for more than six hours of sleep?

Don’t ask me, ask them! Five words. That’s it.

You can officially stop reading because you’re going to set up a Google form, ask students what makes a class feel like they want to learn and what creates the opposite effect, and soak up their answers. Listen and learn. Done.

Or, maybe dinner’s in the slow cooker, that stack of papers isn’t going anywhere, and fatigue is your new normal. If so, stick with me for a few more minutes.

Let’s listen to students, starting with our student selves. I could tell you stories of books and teachers I loved, books and teachers I did not, classmate crushes and bullies, shining star moments and times of crushing embarrassment. And between those highs and lows… many periods of flat-out boredom.

How did I get through the waterboarding-esque periods of utter Dullsville? My top three moves: watching the second hand sweep; counting (ceiling tiles, people with more zits than me, how many times the teacher said, “Um…”); and when desperate, faking period cramps at the nurse. These were done when I felt inessential to the work at hand, confused, or after I’d reached my daily quota for passive listening. What about you?

I also asked students: what are their tricks? An eighth grader tells me she has mastered the art of hiding a book she wants to read (currently The Mortal Instrument series) inside a textbook. She also cops to strategic rotations of bathroom breaks and taking the long way back to class. A tenth grader tells me she doodles mandalas, sneaks in another class’s homework, goes on websites, or plays Hangman with a neighbor. My guess is you’ve caught students out on almost all of these. But instead of calling them out, what about asking them, “Why?” and, “When did I lose you?”

Students told me they resort to these coping methods when the teacher talks a lot. Wondering how often that happens? Well, let’s look at that notebook and count the mandala doodles. Even a five year old tells me, “My body gets tired from sitting,” and that he likes to “poke Miles” when the teacher gives a lot of instructions.

Full disclosure, this was the lazy part of my research in that I asked my three children when they feel checked out. My friend, James Robinson, kindly agreed to ask his 6th grade students what makes a class engaging. I’ve been in James’ class, and his students have in-the-moment focus, coupled with marathon-training work levels, so they know what engagement feels like.

In an anonymous Google form, they said they don’t like listening a ton or going over stuff they already know. But they love working together, discussing reading and writing as a class, and reading with one another. Notice the common thread of “together”? Me too.

Another informal poll of ninth grade students said their favorite part of the day was lunch and for some, gym. 4th grade responses were similar, with the addition of recess. Further prodding revealed it wasn’t just the movement and the DOING they loved at lunch, recess, and gym, but also that there was little confusion. They are experts at eating, playing, and talking with friends. Their least favorite parts of the day: when they don’t know what to do, or have no role in the doing.

All of these students said school didn’t feel like work when they have a voice, when they learn with friends, when they’re “part” of it all. No doodles, no rush on bathroom runs. In fact, James’s students all referred to classes when they listen a lot as “work” and the times they actually do work and learn together as “fun”.

This blog isn’t an answer key to engagement. You can find a ton of excellent resources out there. Check out all the strategies on engagement in Jennifer Serravallo’s Reading and Writing Strategies books, for instance. This is a friendly reminder to start with the simplest approach. Ask them.

James remembers reading that nothing will strike fear in the heart of a teacher more than getting students’ honest feedback through an anonymous survey. It’s scary, and it’s some of the most meaningful data we ever get.

So this is a not-so-gentle reminder to listen to your kids. Ask them: what makes your day fly by? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of this class? Why? What can I do to make you feel engaged? What can you do? And then, check back in a month. See what insights you all have gained.

And while I tremble to ask, please reach out to me: @beritgordon,, or the Facebook page for No More Fake Reading. Give it to me straight: What engages you as a teacher learner? What bores you to tears? What can a literacy consultant do to help you check-in, not check out?


Written by

Berit Gordon coaches teachers as they nurture lifelong readers and writers. Her path as an educator began in the classroom in the Dominican Republic before teaching in New York City public schools. She also taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University in English Education. She current works as a literacy consultant in grades 3-12 and lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and three children. She is the author of No More Fake Reading. You can find more information about Berit’s work on

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