A Writer Writes: Reset the Hook by Folwell Dunbar

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 sheepsea­soned 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.

Dewey now
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 fldunbar@​cox.​net

One Comment

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  • Nothing has really changed for the Peace Corps experience in 50 years……marvelous!!!!

    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.

    Dennis Grubb

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