The Hook: 4 Ways to Dynamically Engage Your Students from Day One

How do you start your class every day?

Some teachers simply take attendance, others jump right into the their lesson. Many have no structured way they start class every day. However, the most effective and connected educators purposely plan a creative, engaging “hook” that grabs the students' attention, and sets the tone for the rest of class. Hooking your class from the start is vital to the overall success of the lesson.

When students walk into class, they must be immediately engaged. Otherwise, they will get bored, mentally wander, and turn their young minds off to learning completely. Even worse, the “difficult” students become behavior problems and wreak havoc on the classroom environment.

There are many different methods and techniques you can use to dynamically hook your students once they walk into your classroom. Many teachers I work with call it the “Initiation,” “Bell Ringer,” or “O-YO” (Own Your Own).

Here are four easy suggestions any teacher can quickly implement into their daily lesson plans to make the classroom a positive environment.

 

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1. Create "Do Now" sections to begin each class

I call the initial part of my lesson a "Do Now." From the first day of school to the last, my students are trained to make it a habit to immediately open their notebooks and write their Do Now assignment for the day. This year, every student in our school received their own laptop computer. So now, my students create a spot in their digital class notebooks to record the daily Do Now. Usually, I check their daily assignments during the end of each unit, and give them a classwork grade for their effort and answers.

Using the technology available to me is a huge advantage in making this a daily ritual. For years, the Do Now was projected onto my SmartBoard.  Now, when students walk into my class, I have a hook waiting on the TV screen in the front.

So what, specifically, is a Do Now? It’s an activity students have at very beginning of class that helps set tone for that lesson. Usually, it’s a picture or graphic connected to our unit of study. Sometimes it’s a primary source, like a famous historical quote or political cartoon connected to the era we are studying. Other times, it’s a table of historical data with questions, or a short YouTube video connected to the daily lesson. I know several math teachers that use a "Problem of the Day" as a Do Now to activate their students' thinking.

Remember this – your Do Now can be ANYTHING that creatively starts the class and engages your students. And they should only take five or ten minutes to start!

2. Activate prior knowledge with your hook

When creating my daily Do Now, I think about the most engaging way to spark interest in my kids with the lesson, so they can be immediately connected to the topic. Often, my goal is to activate students and have them recall any previous knowledge about the topic I'm about to teach. Research indicates “what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information!” (Marzano 2004). Therefore, it is critical that teachers begin to spend more time with focused instruction to check background knowledge. 

Here are two examples of PowerPoint slides I use as Do Now activities to test prior knowledge in my U.S. History classes:

This slide will be on the screen the moment students step into my room during our World War II unit. Now, I am already aware of what my high school juniors have studied during their freshman and sophomore years. They previously studied the Pacific Theater of World War II during their Global Studies course their freshmen year.  I ask them to write down what they remember this “deadly” plane was called and define its characteristics. As they quickly and quietly write down the term and definition (if they remember), I take attendance. Then I ask the class, “who remembers this dangerous type of aircraft from when you studied Japanese history with Mr. Olander?” Usually half of the class will remember. I call on students to answer until the correct answer is given. The next slide will give the exact word and definition:

This nugget of previous information is a hook and preview for my students on this next unit lesson. As they learned two years earlier, the kamikaze is symbolic of how desperate the Japanese were in 1945 to stop the American island-hopping offensive, and, eventually, another example of why the U.S. decided to use the atomic bomb to end World War II in the Pacific.

The second example is, again, an advantage of really knowing what your district’s overall curriculum consists of. I know my students in tenth-grade Global Studies studied modern European history and the Great War. Therefore, they should be able to activate previous knowledge using this diagram before my lesson on the un-American attitudes in 1914 after World War I.

I ask for a volunteer or volunteers to come up to the TV, use my three-foot-long, old-school wooden ruler, and explain trench warfare using the knowledge stored in their “schemas” from Global Studies.

My students love to move around and get out of their seats so I ALWAYS have them ready to raise their hand to participate. It gives me a sense of how much each class remembers, and, if necessary, this will also help me adapt the beginning of my unit.

3. Introduce new content

How do you start a new unit or introduce your students to a new topic? Your hook could determine how enthused or excited your class may get about the new material.  Again, remember with any Do Now you make, be creative, differentiate ideas, and try ANYTHING to see if it works.

To start my unit on the 1920s, I have this double Do Now on my PowerPoint slides to hook my students and introduce new content.

“Does anyone know what this is a picture of … sometimes its called the 'car of the century'?” I ask the kids. Usually, at least one of my students will be able to help me identify and introduce the Model T to the class. Then, after a very brief lecture on mass production, the assembly line, and Henry Ford, the students work on this:

When students are working on this interdisciplinary Do Now, I am taking attendance, but they are fully engaged, working and connected to the classroom and the lesson for the day! After several minutes of individual work, we come together as a class to discuss and share responses.

The very best “hook” I ever saw in my 18-year educational career came in 2005 at Har-Bur middle school, the location of my first job as a seventh-grade geography teacher. As I walked to the copy room during my typical morning routine, I saw an eighth-grade science teacher taping the outside of his door with a huge piece of clear plastic sheathing. I had to check it out. As I walked through his door, he had turned his classroom into a gigantic cell! The outer walls and ceiling were covered in this massive plastic sheathing and different colored objects were taped all over them. Some of these colorful images were mitochondrion, others were the Golgi apparatus, and the biggest was the nucleus. Some 14 years later, the juniors and seniors that I teach ALL remember Mr. Samudosky’s cell lesson years later because of his creative Do Now idea and amazing implementation.

4. Double check to see what students know

Besides initial engagement, the most common way I use my Do Now is to check for student understanding and learning growth. Again, this method can be used in many different ways to fit the class.

How many times do you assign homework when you know, based off years of experience or difficulty of work, that your students will struggle no matter what? When faced with this scenario, start your next class by checking to see what your students learned (or did not learn). Here is a visual example:

After projecting the above image, students know to begin discussions. They will “turn and talk” to each other as I circle the class and listen to student’s explanations. Listening to the various discussions, I can gather information about what students know, and which students may have had trouble with the assignment. Sometimes, I'll hand a small note card to students as they enter my class and have them write a brief answer down. I collect and quickly read them. Often, I’ll ask a student to come up front, use my pointer, and explain the diagram to the class. 

Another Do Now that I love is a writing activity, which helps to assess learning and concurrently practice writing skills. Have you ever given your kids a "RAFT"?  Students write from a different role in history for a specific audience with a format, usually a diary entry or letter, about a topic they have to share. R.A.F.T.  These powerful writing simulations not only help students think critically about the subject matter, but gain the perspective of another person in history.  

Below is one example of a RAFT assignment used after a two-day, powerful lesson on the Holocaust:

Teachers can get creative with these writing activities to assess student learning and understanding of a variety of social studies topics and content. Below is another example of how I use the RAFT as a Do Now to check if students get it.

Why is checking for understanding so important early on in the class period? First, you can immediately identify and confront misconceptions that interfere with student learning and redirect when needed. These activities are also an easy, informal approach to formative assessments. Not every formative assessment needs to go into your grade book. Sometimes, like in the examples above, you can simply check in with your students on their progress towards your learning targets.

IT’S ALL ABOUT ENGAGEMENT

The entire idea of creating a consistent “hook” within your lesson plan is tied to dynamic engagement.  The 21st-century student can be tough to excite and connect with if you do not plan properly.

The Do Now format will engage your students from the beginning of class, setting a positive learning tone for the day, minimizing behavioral problems, and cognitively challenging your students to critically think and perform.


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Mr. Dennis Fowler is a high school social studies teacher at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT, youth soccer and basketball coach, and motivational speaker. His professional development program is called “Connecting with Kids: Ideas to Engage Students and Build Relationships."  His blog, called “Dynamic Engagement,” explores better ways and methods to create a positive classroom climate through motivating actions and activities. You can connect with Dennis Fowler here.


References

Marzano, R. (2004), Building Background Knowledge. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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