Between the Echoes: What Real Classroom Engagement Sounds Like
An offshoot of Ed Trust’s Echoes From the Gap series, drawing stories of students from behind the statistics, this blog series shares shorter narratives — brief glimpses into classrooms and hallways — that give readers an opportunity to examine educator practices and policies through the intimate lens of student experience. All stories are based on interviews or first-hand accounts, but are shared with respect for the privacy of students and the adults around them.
She was a 20-something female version of the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, lacking equal parts affect and awareness as she droned through an entire chapter of a book. Lips pursed around words as if they just might escape her mouth and get unruly. Or even just interesting.
She was more than a third through the book, and the deep creases along its spine left one only to imagine how many times this same “lesson plan” had been recycled. Her eyes never left the page; her feet never left the graying linoleum square on which she stood. Their silence was confirmation enough. She had them.
This room full of seventh-graders.
Had her eyes wandered she would have seen the two girls to her right engrossed in a drawing contest to see who could create the best lavishly lashed, disembodied eye. She might have caught sight of the boy with the fuchsia flash of hair engaged in an impressive game of miming with another boy across the room. She might have noticed — scanning the room — that no one, not a single student, was with her.
The classroom was like a three-ring circus on mute. A million acts playing out at once, none having anything to do with whatever it was the class was reading — or rather what she was reading.
I lean over to the boy rocking the fuchsia hair, interrupting his Marcel Marceau impersonation.
“What book is this?” I whisper.
His face twists into a cartoon question mark. Eyes rolling up underneath eyelids and returning with nothing.
He elbows the girl next to him, causing her steady pencil line to skid off the carefully traced eyelid on the margin of her paper. She twirls her head around, sending a focused death ray in his direction.
“What book are we reading?”
She has no clue either.
From the look of things, only the teacher knew. And if she could have mustered an ounce of their energy, or perhaps even acknowledged their existence, she — and the book — might have had a chance.
Instead, she read to the pre-adolescent students as if it were story time.
But the thing that made me saddest, the thing I couldn’t stop thinking about when I left the classroom, was the silence.
The silence of students asked to contribute nothing to that classroom that day — or perhaps any day.
The silence of students who had learned to accept it.
There were no protests. No groans even. Just resignation.
No one spoke out. No one was put out of class for being disruptive. Perhaps that was the unspoken agreement between teacher and student.
And if this had been the first time I had ever witnessed a scene like this — or even the 10th — I might think it an entirely rare occurrence in the American classroom. But the truth is that, in too many classrooms and on too frequent occasions, this is essentially what middle grades students get — and how little they are asked to contribute to the classroom and learning. As if it can go on just as well — perhaps even better — without them.
In interviews with teachers, I often hear protests that it’s not assignments or instruction but somehow technology that has destroyed today’s young people’s ability to engage in a classroom setting. And while I do acknowledge, working with teenagers, that young people today are indeed more accustomed to constant and multiple sources of stimuli, I also know that educators don’t need instructional Xboxes or Instagram memes to engage students in learning. Because I’ve seen it in even the most cash-strapped, technology-bare schools.
I think of the classrooms I’ve entered where it’s the voices of students — not of teachers — that fill the room. Where students are invited into the lesson, not just as passive recipients, but as active contributors. Where literature comes alive through text-centered discussion and debate, and thinking and comprehension is stretched through analysis and writing.
In those classrooms, and for those teachers, silence is rarely an indicator of engagement. In those classrooms, engagement sounds like awakened, exhilarated-by-learning, beautiful noise.