This article was published first in New Orleans in The Lens, an on line investigative reporting site, on the 19th of June. It was brought to my attention by Carol Scott (Ethiopia 1965–67). Thank you Carol for the heads up. Folwell Dunbar is a writer and educator now living in New Orleans, but he served in Ecuador from 1998 to 2002 where he raised sheep, trout, bees and guinea pigs. Since then he has worked as a teacher, coach, trainer and consultant.
Reset the hook
by Folwell Dunbar (Ecuador 1998–02)
THE FIRST LESSON I EVER TAUGHT was in Pachamama, Ecuador. I was a wet behind the ears Peace Corps Volunteer, and it was my first charla, or workshop. I was delivering a presentation on the importance of cropping sheep tails to a group of seasoned campesinos, who obviously knew far more about ovine management than I ever would. They were native Quechua speakers who understood un poco español, while I only knew two indigenous terms* and garbled a rather rudimentary version of Spanglish. If that weren’t bad enough, I was also suffering from an explosive case of Atawalpa’s Revenge, South America’s counterpart to that of our old friend Montezuma. Needless to say, it was going to be a tough sell.
Daunted and somewhat delusional, I decided to pull out all the lanolin and start with an attention-grabbing (I hoped) skit. Dressed up like a ruminant Casanova, I pretended to court several fetching ewes, some with tails and others without. I bleated out love poems and ballads, strutted my stuff like a wooly John Travolta and, of course, told inappropriate sheep jokes. Finally, like a peacock contestant on “The Bachelor,” I picked my brides. (Note: since mochos, or rams, can mate with up to 20 ewes, polygamy is acceptable in the cud-chewing world.) For aesthetic and sanitary reasons better left unsaid, I only selected those with cropped tails.
Maybe it was the cultural divide or perhaps the language barrier, but my charla went over like a mercury-filled soap bubble. My jefe, Jorge Delgado, straining to find some glimmer of promise, turned to me after the flop and whispered, “Me gustó el skit.” Clinging to that feeble compliment, I vowed to start every future lesson with some kind of “hook.”
Later, teaching middle and high school history (an equally tough sell by the way), one of my goals was always to get kids jazzed about learning. To accomplish this, I experimented with all kinds of lesson starters. From Monty Python clips and Bob Dylan** songs to “What if…” scenarios and historical improv, I tried everything in my arsenal to pull back their little iron curtains.
When I found myself supporting teachers in under-resourced, low-performing schools, basically Peace Corps with a paycheck, I continued to cast the hook, even devoting entire workshops to the strategy. In a few cases, I actually convinced principals to incorporate them into their school improvement plan: “By the beginning of the 2005 academic year, 100% of teachers will incorporate hooks into all lesson and unit plans.” More importantly, teachers started getting results. I felt like I was finally winning the battle for Pachamama!
All Work and No Play
In the early days of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, a handful of reform-minded schools, including those of the “No excuses!” variety, started to employ what they called a “do-now.” Done at the beginning of a lesson with little to no prompting from the teacher, it usually involves a short, highly structured activity tied to a specific learning objective. Examples of “do-nows” include sample test questions, sustained silent reading, and, more often than not, worksheets — a far cry from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail!”
As these schools experienced success (and in the rising wake of Race To the Top), their practices quickly spread to places like post-Katrina New Orleans, the poster child for the latest incarnation of education reform.
As a principal here in New Orleans pointed out, “Our students are behind. We need to catch up. There’s no time to play!”
Extended day and year, a relentless focus on academic achievement, value-added evaluations for teachers, data-driven decision-making, and others were scooped up by schools impelled to keep up with the Joneses’ College Prep. The “do-now” was definitely part of this magic elixir.
Over the past five years, I have reviewed approximately 100 schools, many here in Louisiana. Of those, more than 90 employed “do-nows,” while only two were tied to hooks. And, at those two, only a handful of teachers still embraced my Pachamama obsession.
A review of curriculum resources at one particular school revealed that on average, a student would complete as many as 6,000 “do-nows” over the course of a single year. Apparently, these are not limited to the classroom either. I recently attended a conference where several presenters used them as well. Even my boss launched a meeting the other day with one. Obviously, we are doing “do-nows” a hell of a lot.
When I shared this revelation with a colleague of mine, he responded rather tersely: “So?”
“In the bigger scheme of things,” he said, “does it really matter?”
I thought about it for a second, and then begged to differ.
On the surface, “do-nows” and hooks are little more than variations on a theme. They both occur at the beginning of a lesson, and they are both designed to increase student engagement*** and shape the learning culture.
Claw a bit deeper though, and subtle but significant differences arise. For example, unlike the hook, the “do-now” isn’t meant to get kids fired up about learning. Instead, it’s generally used to get “scholars” on-task quickly and to cover content efficiently. It also promotes diligence and a culture of lockstep compliance. As one principal explained, “The ‘do-now’ is one of our routines. It’s a daily reminder that we have to work hard to accomplish our goals, pass the test and go to college.”
Meanwhile, the culture nurtured by hooks is more about intrinsic motivation and self-discovery. Hooks help students find their own muse; they promote the elusive notion of learning for learning’s sake. In other words, hooks lead students to water, while “do-nows” make them to drink - a lot of the same. In my opinion, the difference is the “bigger scheme of things.”
More than a century ago, John Dewey, the philosopher and educational pioneer, founded a lab school in Chicago. There, he built a curriculum around the experiences, interests, and abilities of students. He believed that education should promote and support the country’s democratic ideals. His progressive ideas emerge in practices such as problem- and project-based teaching and learning, scientific experiments, student-led conferences and portfolios. They can also be found in hooks.
Education reform is like Newton’s cradle, after every jarring crack - Sputnik, A Nation At Risk, the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment - the momentum shifts. Unfortunately, Dewey now is about as far away as he’s ever been.
The art of inspiration
When my father was a young boy, his parents took him on vacation to New York City. One afternoon, they dropped him off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alone and bored — he would have much rather been playing football in Central Park — he started to wander, eventually discovering a few things that stirred his imagination: Greek sculpture, Medieval armor, and Renaissance drawings. When his parents finally returned to pick him up, he was reluctant to leave. Over the course of the visit, he had become hooked on art.
My father went on to study art in Philadelphia, Paris and Mexico City. He ran an art school in New Orleans and helped found the city’s first gallery for contemporary art, and his paintings and sculptures can be found in homes, businesses and museums around the world. Today, at the age of 84, my father is still making incredible art.****
I sometimes wonder, if he had only been exposed to the work and not the wonder of art, would he have been as successful or as fulfilled?
I would propose that one of the things we do, NOW, is reset the hook.
*The two Quechua terms I knew were ¡Achachay! which means “I’m freezing” and chuchaqui which means “hung over.” Needless to say, in the high Andes they were often uttered through chattering teeth with shot glass in hand.
Not surprisingly, the folk singer with the gravelly voice was not a big hit with the middle- and high-school crowd.
In Robert Marzano’s latest, The Highly Engaged Classroom, the researcher does not mention do-nows, but he does give numerous examples of potential hooks.
My father was recently the Artist in Residence at Isidore Newman, a private school in New Orleans. The program calls for master artists to model techniques and to inspire impressionable young apprentices. One of the school’s slogans is: “We don’t teach kids what to think; we teach them how to think.” Dewey would be impressed.
Folwell Dunbar can be reached at email@example.com