Iron Teach: Where’s the hook?

Tom got an interesting comment on his blog about our Iron Teach challenge that I think needs more than a comment to discuss:

Todd Says:
To me, this is too broad: too much time, not specific enough of a demand. To write plans for two weeks worth of lessons on the novel given only a narrative of the make up of the class, I feel like there’s too many ways to go and I have no idea what the teacher is looking for. I dig the idea and did the first time I heard about it (there’s a comment from me on some blog somewhere saying, “Great idea!”). I’d love to be in on this, but this is too much freedom, not enough limitations, not enough specificity. A shorter time frame would help as would a more detailed explanation of what is desired. But maybe I’m the only one who feels that way.
Seriously, I can barely plan two weeks for my own class (and typically change the plan by day two).
Socratic seminars, debates, student-created tests, content review games, character posters, so many ways I could go.

Todd’s right, there are a dozen ways to go with the challenge as it was issued.  However, instead of revamping the challenge, I’d like to think about rethinking our own outcome.

Most teachers know how to write a lesson plan. My job when I work with them is to find strategies to engage students in content at a higher level.  I work in a High School that’s struggling to break out of the “lecture-homework-repeat and test” mode. Every day, I get issued a challenge similar to the one above from a teacher and what they’re looking for isn’t a fully developed lesson. Instead, they’re looking for the “hook” – the strategy, idea or tool that will get their students to care, communicate and create something of value around the curriculum.

Here’s an example of one I was given by a teacher last year. The teacher was reading Great Expectations with her students, who hated the book and had no chance of passing the test she gave at the end of the unit because most of them hadn’t even finished reading it.  She came to me looking for an alternate way to have students hold discussions.

We came up with the thought of having them portray characters from the book and write letters to one another.  The students would leave the letters out for the next class to pick up and then write back to one another. Many were handwritten, but a couple that were typed I’ve copied and pasted into a Google Doc along with the general guidelines we created. So, not only were the students motivated to delve into the book, they were interested and excited about communicating in character, and even took their discussions outside of class.

Another example came from a music teacher who wanted students to create presentations on the instruments during the semester, but also wanted them to know the facts about other instruments.  Each day, one student would present their instrument, so by the end of the grading period, they had learned about every instrument. She complained that every year, the students did well in remembering what they had written, but never listened or took notes when others presented and as a result failed the test at the end of the quarter.

We came up with an idea to build an instrument Wiki where every student created a page about the instrument they were assigned, but then had to compare their instrument to three others outside their family and contrast to three instruments inside their family. The students would then cross link between pages to show the connections. In addition, they had to either accept or nullify any links that others made to their page depending if they agreed or disagreed with the connection made. They were graded on three aspects:
1. Their own writing about their instrument
2. The quality of the links they gave to other instruments
3. The quality of the links they allowed to their page

Again, a nice way to build connections and conversations and even have them self-censor the quality of work of  their fellow students while reinforcing the content they’re learning.

So, instead of asking for a lesson or unit plan, maybe we should ask instead for ideas for the “hook.” That’s what my teachers struggle to create for themselves. It’s also the skill where Tom Woodward excels and one that I struggle to put into words. Once they have the hook, I find teachers can usually create the lesson and devise a timeline.

They just need something to cast out at the end of their line that might reel in a few more reluctant learners. That’s what I hope the Iron Teach challenge can help provide.


Photo courtesy Debi Long, Flickr Creative Commons Pool

8 thoughts on “Iron Teach: Where’s the hook?

  1. So these requests all seem like teachers wanting help on a specific skill, not a specific text or task. They aren’t asking for resources on how to teach the novel or the various aspects of the instruments, they want ways students can talk about those things.

    Then it sounds like a bank of discussion methods would be useful. Maybe you’re looking for a list of, say, 100 different ways to spark a conversation about something among elective nonreaders — a resource full of hooks. The idea of writing as one of the characters and leaving the letter out for the next period to respond, that’s solid. The wiki with compare tactics built in, that’s solid.

    But even that request has to be further defined. If it’s just a general hook one is looking for, that isn’t enough. What do you want out of this? What should your students get out of all this? Is it understanding character? If so, your Great Expectations idea fits the bill. Is it some kind of jigsaw so that every student knows about several different things? If so, then the instrument wiki might work.

    So should this be a skill-based conversation? Other requests surely will be text based, but this request about A Separate Peace doesn’t sound like that’s the case.

  2. Thanks, Todd,
    My answer to your question would be both yes and no. I think it goes back to what I’m being asked to do more and more. Not to create a lesson plan, but to help a teacher take an outcome and make it into something students can get involved in. What I’m really interested in is the thinking you’d put into the activity planning. It goes back, too, to the struggle mentioned in Tom’s blog entry on Bloom’s that I think is somehow still at the core of what we’re trying to accomplish. I also think there’s some magic between finding a perfect match of outcome and activity that a generic list of strategies can’t accomplish.

    This first challenge we’ve been offered doesn’t go any more deeply than the fact that a teacher is struggling with 50 students who dislike reading and dislike even more having to talk or write about what they’ve read. She’s hoping to find something – anything – to get them involved and interested in learning.

    My goal is to have master teachers talk about what and how and why they plan the activities they do. How do you teach a teacher to develop lessons outside the norm? How can teachers learn to be creative within any curriculum area? Why do you select the tools you do and why do you think they will work better than other possible choices? I’m struggling to think about my thinking and trying to get Tom and other teachers to do the same so we can learn from one another.

    When I think of what I’m trying to do with Iron Teach, I keep thinking of the saying “Give a man a fish…” and it keeps coming out like this:
    “Give a teacher a lesson plan and they’ll teach well for a day. Teach them how to innovate and they’ll teach well for a lifetime.”

    I’m hoping you’ll join us.

  3. Right, so the problem we’re actually dealing with is getting students, who otherwise don’t want to, to talk and write about what they’ve read. So I think the challenge can be better worded to revolve around ways to bring students into a conversation, the skill students should exhibit at the end.

    Because this doesn’t happen overnight, it might be that what’s suggested here is just one step in the process of getting students to talk. And that might make this seem like it fails, even though what’s done here is what allows something later on to work. You know?

    Still seems to me like this kind of trouble would benefit from a whole host of possibilities from which to draw, what I suggest in the second paragraph of my first comment here. It’s not about A Separate Peace curriculum; it’s about plans that stimulate students talking, no matter the text (though the themes listed might drive some suggestions). That’s the kind of discussion I get involved in with my colleagues, too. It’s about ideas to try out to serve a certain skill.

    Oh, and I will be joining you. No worries there.

  4. Pingback: Teachers as Taskmasters | Reflections of the TZST Teacher

  5. Todd, that makes sense to me.

    I think we can still use A Separate Peace as the example. So if we’re pitching a particular way to motivate student writing we can use the specific elements of ASP to illustrate the fine details? Seems that might help make things more concrete for people who’ve never done it before and make it a skill that’s more likely to be found by teachers.

    I see in my referrer logs that people tend to be looking for very specific things – how to teach commas, Outsiders vocabulary, stuff like that. If we have something like – discussion starters for ASP or something like that I think people are more likely to find it and then see how it can be adopted more generally.

    That make sense? It may not.

  6. Yup, that makes sense. I don’t mean to drop the text entirely, only to drop its importance in the challenge because the really important piece is the skill being addressed. That’s the question teachers are *really* asking when they ask, “How do I teach this?” They are at a loss for ideas on how to teach the skill(s) they want students to work on as a result of the unit. But, yeah, I can see how having a text attached to it makes things more real, in a way.

    Those things you find in your referrer logs, that’s probably how the submitted lessons should be tagged, but also tagged in a way to make the ideas available for anyone looking for a better way to discuss ideas with a class (and all of us should be looking for that from time to time!). And the same idea should be followed through with regard to the challenge itself: make it open to those lessons specific to the text, but also open to others with ideas about the skill. I don’t teach ASP and, in fact, have never read it, but I do run conversations, so I’ve got a way into this challenge, right? The bigger the audience the better.

  7. Todd and Tom,
    Agreed – the more the merrier. I’d love to see a diversity of ideas and designs in the mix. I also agree in future challenges, it would be helpful to focus on the skill rather than the specific content. We truly are making this up as we go along (or at least I am – for all I know, I’ve become part of a plot Tom’s been angling for for years…)

    In math (which I taught for many years) texts often give students a series of sample problems that are worked out from start to finish. They were designed to show the strategies and skills needed to complete a particular task and to help students learn to apply the skills independently. The best of the texts gave the reasoning behind each step, so that a thoughtful student could see the logic.

    I’m thinking this exercise will give teachers something similar. A series of lessons referenced across subject areas, instructional strategies, and Bloom’s levels that include the rationale and reasoning behind their design so a thoughtful teacher can see and apply the logic.

    Plus, I’m hoping it’ll infuse a bit of fun into the mix. And a little fun never hurt anyone, right?

  8. Great ideas, I think that something could be done in the mode of “Ideas to Inspire” Let’s start a Google Doc Presentation and let the ideas flow. Am I being too utopian to think that the ideas and inspiring lessons would be continuous and productive? With critical sets of eyes and obviously intellectual educators watching we could really get some amazing things out to our schools and districts a little bit at a time.