Lesson Hooks: How soon can you get (them) started?

Think of every start to your class as a first impression.

Call it a hook, bell ringer, lesson opener, anticipatory set, or warm-up.  It’s the first thing the students experience when class starts, sometimes before it starts. It may be the most important 10 minutes of your class because if you get it right, you have captured the students attention which is half the battle.  What makes a good hook?  Does it have to be content based? Does it have to be funny, ironic, student-driven, aligned to standards, an image, video, audio, interactive, tactile, kinesthetic?

Let’s look at the worst class starters that I’ve ever seen and the best.

Please DO NOT start class by

  • verbally taking attendance (believe it or not I’ve seen this done in November!) — Think Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher.
  • handing out devices like laptops, Chromebooks, or iPads. Have them on the students’ desks already.
  • checking or collecting homework.
  • taking notes.
  • lecturing students about how poorly they did on their test.
  • handing back tests, quizzes, or projects.  If a student does poorly, they’ll be preoccupied with their performance the whole class and probably act out as a result.
  • recounting your weekend — unless it is relevant to the topic and you are a captivating story teller.
  • conducting student presentations.
  • having students read or write something lengthy.

Please DO start class by

  • posing an interesting question or perplexing statement — “If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?” Or, “The color of laughter is purple.” Use this statement to prompt a discussion in which students talk to each other and then share with the class.  Of course, it’s best if this somehow relates to your lesson objective.
  • show an amazing video.  Let’s say you are doing a lesson on friction, drag, forces, acceleration, gravity, velocity, estimation, number sense, surface area, or teamwork.  Show this video of Navy SEALS parachuting into a football stadium.  The students have to work together to estimate how high they were when they jumped, how far they traveled in free fall or for the whole descent.  Doing a lesson on anatomy or bone structure, show this video on how to survive falling without a parachute!  Students can analyze whether or not the suggestions in the video make sense anatomically. These videos peak curiosity, generate wonder, interest, conversation, and engagement.  Now have students critically think through the questions in groups.  What information do they need to know to answer the question?  How can they get that information?  Is it possible to solve at all?  There is a great article and video by Robert Kaplinsky that shows how students try to answer a nonsensical question, “How old is the shepherd?” by using tricks and shortcuts rather than critical thinking skills.  Students need to understand how to think through open-ended problems without a clear road map to the answer.  Some of the best learning comes from these activities in which the teacher DOES NOT give the students all the answers or walk them through all the steps.
  • ask for volunteers to demonstrate something.  Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a Pirate” and more, had a great hook to his TEDxLitchfieldED presentation in which he starts by saying “I would like to set a world record this morning.  Could I set a world record for you?”  Then he asks the audience to participate by using their stopwatch.  Of course, his energy and rapid-fire delivery is contagious and captivating, but it’s also his choice of activity that draws you in.  Who wouldn’t want to set a world record?  How many presentations start with the speaker talking about their prior experience, qualifications, certifications, and family?  Yes, these are all important, but I don’t think it’s the best way to hook the audience into your message which is, of course, why they’re there.

  • taking students on a field trip.  This doesn’t have to be a big deal with permission forms, buses, and chaperones.  Take an in-school field trip.  I took my geometry students to the second floor windows overlooking the baseball field.  I asked them to discuss with a student next to them all the geometric shapes they recognized.  How could we find the distance of a throw from home base to second base?  What is the angle of the top of the backstop and why is it that many degrees?  Is the wall in a circular shape?  elliptical?
  • having students work together to solve a problem.  Breakout boxes are toolboxes with various locks on them (number locks, key locks, and word locks).  Students solve clues to open the locks and get the “prize” inside the box.  This is a great way to review before an assessment in a fun, interactive way.  Checkout BreakoutEDU for more information.  I got a grant to purchase my own DIY breakout boxes.  Here is the supply list.
  • video conferencing with another school or expert.  Check out platforms like Mystery Skype, Mystery Hangouts, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  I have tweeted experts (like Dave Burgess) to ask for an opportunity to video conference.  You would be amazed at how many people will say “yes.” (like Dave)  Interacting with groups or experts outside of the normal experiences of our students opens them up to a larger world with more possibilities and role models for their futures.
  • applying the content that the students will learn in the lesson.  I know the typical progression is learn the content before you apply it, but applying it and asking “Why did this happen?” can capture the students innate curiosity of the world so they are motivated to solve the mystery by learning the content.  A quick demonstration by the teacher with a student assistant or a student-led lab experiment really helps them see the reasons behind learning your content
  • making it personal.  If you are about to read a book about someone moving to a new place without no friends, ask your students to put themselves in that situation.  What would you do to fit in?  What if it didn’t work?  They could answer by writing, making a video, drawing a picture, or discussing it with a classmate.  If they feel comfortable enough, they could share their actual fish-out-of-water stories with the class.  We all know that students are usually more likely to listen to each other than the teacher.
  • letting the students create.  Use this play dough to create a scene from the chapter you read over the weekend.  Be ready to explain your scene to your classmates.  Use Flipgrid to create a 15 second summary of what you learned today about osmosis.  Every student is creative but it’s like any other skill.  You have to practice it to get better.  Even those who don’t quite get it will be inspired by the creations of others.
  • play music.  If you are teaching about Vietnam.  Why not start the class with a song of the times?  Try “Fortunate Son” by CCR.  Use the one with lyrics so students can follow the lyrics to analyze later.  After listening, what stood out to them.  What was the musician trying to communicate?  How does it relate to the war?
  • bring a prop.  Read Dave Burgess’ Teach Like a Pirate to learn more about the Prop Hook.  Show the class the prop and ask them to identify what it is, what is it for, how was it made, why is it relevant, so on and so forth.  I did a small orientation lesson on being responsible with technology and rather than talk about keys missing from a laptop keyboard, I showed them.  The reaction was a lot more powerful than if I had used words alone.

So this is a short list of the myriad ways you can start your class.  Imagine if every class started with something interesting!  Would students be more motivated to attend your class and show up on time?  Would they be more engaged throughout your lesson.  There was a saying I have heard many people express in motivational videos and books that goes like this, “Win the morning, win the day.”  For educators, I modify it to “Win the first 10 minutes, win the class.”

Please share with me your favorite hooks in the comments below.  Thank you.

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