3 Subtle Ways to Engage Your Students

We are thrilled to have Tracee Orman join us as a guest blogger at the Secondary English Coffee Shop. Read on to see how she creates classes that students don't want to miss!

“Do your students look forward to your class? Are they excited to be there? How can you tell?”

I remember early in my career sitting in a professional development (PD) session one day when the guest speaker asked these questions to an auditorium filled with teachers. The elementary teachers in the room were shouting out and clapping, while most of the secondary crowd nodded or shrugged. Are my students excited to be in my class? Sure they are…I think. How can I tell? I mean, if my first hour seniors stay awake the entire time, that has to mean something, right? 

The speaker went on to show us all the dynamic ways we can make learning fun. His tips included a lot of singing, a lot of acting, and a lot of dancing. He kept telling us that teachers are performers and we must keep them engaged in order for learning to take place. For an introverted English teacher like myself, these were the most terrifying words spoken. I just don’t have the personality to be one of those educators who jumps around the room, acting out various concepts in elaborate ways. So now what? I thought. Was I doomed to be the boring English teacher every student dreads?

Let’s face it: being a teacher means having to entertain your students. Students will lose interest if they aren’t engaged. But who says the entertainment has to be performed by YOU?

You can still spark excitement in your students in subtle--even silent--ways. 


The first way you can captivate your students is to create mystery. I like to use props in my classroom when we are reading a story or novel. For example, before we read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee I have my students select random shoes and create a profile for the owner of the shoe as an exercise in stereotyping. I always have the shoes covered up with a sheet the day we begin that lesson so when students walk into my room, they are a little confused, but definitely intrigued. I’ve even arranged them before on a table that made them look like a body underneath the sheet (and had a student run out of the room and down the hallway yelling, “Hey Everyone! Mrs. Orman has a dead body in her room!” It definitely caught some teacher’s and even our principal’s attention).

I also cover up the following props before we use them in class (and it never gets old):

  • Two manual typewriters before we read the short story “The Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney.
  • Various rocks before we read the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. (I promise I don’t use these with my third tip.)
  • Two “Indian head” pennies, a pocket watch with knife, a ball of twine, sticks of Double Mint gum, soap dolls, and a fishing pole while we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Books that have been banned during Banned Books Week (toward the end of September each year).
If you really want to make them go bonkers, add a “DO NOT TOUCH!” sign.


Another way you can engage your students is by asking creative questions. A question like “What do you think Katniss has hidden underneath her bed?” while reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins can elicit a lively group discussion, especially when you tell your students it doesn’t have to be something tangible she’s hiding.

Other creative questions I’ve asked include:
  • “What would [Character’s Name]’s horoscope be today?”
  • “If [Character’s Name] were to break open a fortune cookie right now, what would be the funniest or most awkward or most ironic message they could receive?”
  • “If [Character’s Name] could go anywhere in the world, where would he/she go? Why? Who would he/she take with? Why?”
  • “You just inherited the Back to the Future time-travelling DeLorean that allows you to go back to the beginning of the story and change one of the events. Which event would you choose and why? How would it impact other events and characters in the story?”
Questions like these are basically asking students to provide evidence of character traits or analyze the plot structure in more appealing and unique ways.


A final way to generate excitement in your class is to allow your students to perform the material. Sometimes they just need to move around; give them the option to act out a scene from the story—preferably with props. Let them be the entertainers for the class while you and the introverted students sit back and enjoy the show.

Don’t let not having a script stop you from this activity. This is where student collaboration and writing combine beautifully: have students work in small groups to create the dialogue and actions themselves. It forces students to re-read the text for comprehension and analyze it for the author’s tone. (Don’t tell the students that’s what they’re doing. Just tell them that they need to figure out what kind of attitude the characters in the scene have. It sounds much better than asking them to analyze the author’s tone.)

If you already have a script, allow students to re-write it. After my students act out Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, they create satires of the play. This assignment is always a favorite. Small groups choose one (or more) of the scenes to rewrite. They have to interpret the text then create a parody based on it. After writing out their satires, they record their performances on video, then create short 4-10 minute movies. This activity combines writing/editing, collaborating, acting/speaking, cinematography, and video editing skills. (Not to mention time management skills.)

Just remember: you don’t have to be a performer to create enthusiasm in your class. Try out one of more of these ideas and see what happens.

If you need more inspiration, you can find over 90 creative ideas to use with any story, novel, or play (and even nonfiction) in my pack: Creative Activities for Any Book

Thank you to the all the members of the Secondary English Coffee Shop for allowing me to share my ideas on your site! You can check out their lessons for engaging secondary students here:

The Superhero Teacher: Literary Jenga
Presto Plans: Joke of the Week
The Daring English Teacher: To Kill a Mockingbird Bell Ringers

Tracee Orman
Mrs. Orman’s Classroom

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