9 Hooks and 6 Powerful Ways to Deliver Them for a Bulls-Eye PBL Launch

10 03 2016

It’s an educational holy grail to have a classroom full of engaged students, telling us what they want to study and hitting all the marks that we know they need to in order to be ready for their futures. We dream of being able to walking a classroom where we ask, “Hey y’all! What do you want to learn this semester?” and we’re met with a clamor of student-generated thoughts and ideas coming straight from the students’ passions! And lo and behold, those thoughts and ideas all have perfect handles on which we would then hang our Social Studies and Science and Math, and Reading, and Writing and … standards! Wow! What a wonderful world this would be.

*snap back to reality*

Does this ever really happen? Is there such a magical, captivating classroom? A splendid and supernatural school?

"What do you know?" hook

“What do you know?” hook

Actually, yes, I think this — or a very close approximation — can and does happen in pockets around the US. But is it the norm? Can we expect it to ever be the norm? Weeellll…we can hope, but I’m not sure we can expect it to be happening in every classroom with every teacher any time soon.

So then if you’re a normal teacher who teaches normal kids (whatever that means) and especially if you’re new to PBL, you know you aren’t going to just hand them your challenge. You know we want to grab their attentions first to warm them up to the challenge or question ahead. And that means that you’re going to want to kickstart your PBL units at first. And yes, these units might also have to smell a little bit like school in places because if you’re normal, you probably have certain academic standards and expectations to uphold in your classroom, right? Yep. Me too.

A question I get from teachers is how to vary those kickstarts, or PBL launches, those moments where we hook the kids’ interests; where we create a story, scenario, challenge, or question that begs to be answered. We want a variety of ways to grab kids’ attention and there’s no better way to figure out what hooks our kids than to look at the media that grabs them daily. Consider their sense of humor. Consider what makes their eyes wide and jaws drop. Consider what evokes various emotions. The one thing you will learn by varying your launches is what makes your kids — and may kids of that age group — get excited. What a wonderful opportunity and a powerful tool for any teacher to have in her pocket.

Below I’ve outlined 9 types of dynamic launches, 6 powerful ways to deliver that compelling launch, and a handful of pro-tips to remember when setting up your launch for your kids.

Questions that lead to a powerful hook:

  1. Is it a movie or video game trailer that shows some exciting action?
  2. Is it a trailer that provides some intriguing scenario or question that we just have to dig into?
  3. Is it a story that pulls at our hearts?
  4. Is it a story that leaves a piece of the puzzle unsolved?
  5. Is it a challenge handed to us from some outside person or entity?
  6. Is someone hiring us for a job?
  7. Are we saving lives?
  8. Are we saving the world?
  9. Is it something that matters?
"Hmmm and what do you think we could do about that?"

“Hmmm and what do you think we could do about that?”

Ways to deliver that hook to create the perfect launch event:

  1. Tell a scenario story yourself. Bonus points if it’s a true story that kids can confirm online. If you’re telling the story, be sure you’re a good story-teller. Get into it! Get silly or dramatic. It’s ok. You know your a nerd, right? All teachers are. And if you’re not a storyteller like that, find a colleague who is and ask them to help. I’m thinking your friendly librarian does this sort of thing all the time with book talks, right?
  2. Find a video online that you know will hook the kids. Be careful — this seems like an easy solution, but the video must be tuned to your kids’ interests as well as your goals for the project. Be sure it’s a bullseye, because a near miss will only cause the kids to roll their eyes and your PBL will fizzle on the launch pad. It’s better to have a little more effort on your part at the beginning, making your own video to ensure a spot-on powerful launch than to take the easy route and create a lukewarm interest.
  3. Invite someone in to tell a story or to provide the challenge. Could it be a total stranger (think education faculty at a nearby university) or could it it be a parent in your school? Or an administrator? Or a colleague at another school? If the hook is interesting and the kids recognize a parent pretending to be the Secretary of the UN or the President of the US, they’ll often forgive you and go along with you just because it was unexpected and funny (true story). Just write a script for that person so they share what you need them to. DO NOT make them make it up themselves or the chances are they’ll go off-mark and the PBL is dead in the water.

    "Gather round as I tell you a story..."

    “Gather round as I tell you a story…”

  4. The story or situation being shared by another person doesn’t have to be in real time. It can be a video. Tell the kids you received the video instead of a livestream because the person … is in another timezone? Or isn’t able to talk in real life for some tasty reason.
  5. Set up a “found scene” and have kids come take a look at it (i.e. crime scene or location-based challenge). Now the hook is getting tangible.
  6. Pro-level launch: get a kid involved in the scenario. Have them play along with you to corroborate the story. Or to even deliver the story. Consider having an older talented student launch a scenario for younger kids. What a great opportunity for both levels!


Important tips to remember about designing your launch:

  • Keep the launch short. And “short” is relative. Sometimes a 30 second video is all that’s needed. But more likely, we’re looking at 2-7 minutes as a ball-park figure. Long enough for them to sink their teeth in. Short enough to leave them wanting more. And if you’re using a guest, do NOT let him/her ramble on. This is where pre-planning and even possibly you writing their script is very useful!
  • Keep the stakes to failure high. We want to succeed. We have to succeed. Will there be mistakes along the way? Yep! But ultimately, what we come up with has to be the very best we can make it!
  • Keep the launch scenario interesting to the kids — not necessarily interesting to us. We’re nerds. We LOVE our subject areas and think that there are really interesting parts all over it. But do the kids love our subject as much as we do? Look at it through your kids’ point of view. If it’s not interesting to them, start again. Spoiler alert: sometimes we have to be a bit immature (can we say middle school boy?) and way outside the box to capture their minds and bring them back to us.
  • The launch event must cause a need to know in the kids. They are compelled to want to dig in. They can’t help themselves! “Let me at it!”
  • Do something different each time you launch a project. Novelty attracts and holds attention. If you get into a rhythm of predictability, the kids’ interest will wane.
  • If you use a guest to launch, be sure to provide a script for them in advance and quickly release them from further questioning by saying to them (in front of the kids) that you know they’re very busy people and that you received their memo with all the extra details in your email. Thank your guest for their time and let them go quickly so you can answer the kids’ additional questions from the “memo you received” from the guest. In actuality, you wrote the script and the details, but the kids won’t know that. And if they do know that, laugh and ask them to go along with you. They usually will if the launch event has been fun.
  • Lastly, your launches will get better the more you do them. Try out many different ways to grab the kids’ interest and see what works for you and for them. Above all else, keep trying!

And now you have them launched, it’s time to help them set the expectations to ensure high quality work because they know it matters! But that’s another post for another time… 😉

What are some of your favorite ways to launch kids into their learning?


15 Common PBL Mistakes | mistake 6: treat all kids the same

2 12 2014

I have the best job in the world. On a regular basis, I’m given the extraordinary fortune to talk with teachers who are embarking on a PBL journey with their students. To dig into the smaller, everyday details of how to make this type of learning environment work. To answer the tough questions about sustainability, rigor, behavior management and then take the questioner further…that’s like chocolate to me! I can’t get enough.

Over the years of starting my own PBL school and learning in a baptismal fire, I’ve been able to find a way to talk with new or reluctant teachers about their concerns. Additionally, there are things that excited, energetic teachers might want to consider as they take their first steps into the PBL fire as well.

In the next month or so, I’ll be publishing a regular series to include 15 common mistakes that educators make and some solutions they might consider. Here’s the next one in the series:

Fair: a place where you ride rides

quote from Vicki Schweinler, graphic by Brian Housand

Mistake #6:
Continue to treat all kids as if they’re the same and need to be treated the same.

Problem: Currently, we feel that in order to be “fair,” all students need to be treated the same, when in actuality, there are very few students who have the same ability, experiences, or skills as others in the class. Everyone is traveling their own journey many of us know nothing about and children and teens are no different.

Solution: To be truly fair, or equitable, with students, we must look at them as individuals. Each will move faster or slower, according to her abilities and interests. We might consider grouping students based not on their “date of manufacture,” but instead upon something much more appropriate. Some students might make a mistake and need one type of consequence while another student is better served through other consequences. On a broader, school-wide system, this might lead to a slippery slope to favoritism within a time-based, “everyone’s the same” school. But in a school that focuses on services and support for individual students as humans, this is a readily understood concept. But how to go about re-visioning our own environments is a challenge for local communities to solve. Many schools will choose to implement the flexibility on a classroom-level scale first before re-visioning their entire building or district. Regardless, personalized learning must trump the one-size-fits-all curriculum of today. 

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning?

In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  

Inserviced Learning: a radical recommendation

8 10 2014

professional learning, differentiating, differentiatedI’m considering making a radical recommendation to school leaders and admin for when I go out to keynote and consult in schools and districts:

Every once in a while, I find some teachers who might already know a good deal of the material I’ve been hired to present and teach to the staff. And like a good teacher who teaches strangers every single class period and who keeps potential advanced learners in mind, I always have additional, deeper challenges that I keep in my back pocket, ready to pull out to keep an advanced learner moving forward on a topic. But sometimes, even the advanced material isn’t enough to challenge those who already know even more.

So I’m toying with the idea of making this radical recommendation to the leadership when I find those teachers who truly do know all and more than I planned to address during my visit(s). After visiting with the teacher and seeing what they want, I might recommend they just leave the room (if they want–if they don’t that’s ok too) and allow them the freedom and professional courtesy to let them go on about whatever they’d be doing if they weren’t required to be with me. And I want to see that they still get full credit for the day just like their peers who stay, because it’s obvious they’ve already spent their own time learning what others are catching up to.

How many times have you sat through an inservice of info you already know? And that you already practice? I’m looking at you, you EdTech fiends. Ever had to sit though a social media day, learning the importance of connecting?

Additionally, I don’t want to waste these teachers’ time using them as “helpers” unless they truly want to help out. Of course I want to try to challenge them first with deeper material. The best case scenario is that the person hiring me will tell me I have advanced learners before I’m boots on the ground that day. But that almost never happens. So if I am truly unable to challenge them, given my lack of prep time and Freedom and Responsibilityknowledge of their existence, and within the confines of the leader’s expectations of the day, I cannot in good conscience hold any teacher hostage.

I want to — I am compelled to — honor the teachers’ previous learning. I want to — I want their leaders to set them free to continue the path they’re already traveling.  I want to teach their supervisors that independent learning should be 1) recognized, 2) valued, and 3) and appreciated — oh, and 4) rewarded.

But perhaps my most important lesson of the day will be that sometimes, the most important thing we can do with any independent and motivated learner, regardless of her age, is to simply get out of her way.

FAQ: Grade-Skipping, yes or no?

4 09 2014
It appears that the last week of August and the first week of September have become “Ask Ginger” weeks and I love it! I’ve been receiving a lot of great questions from people who care about their kids and about education. Every once in a while, I come across one that needs to be shared. Here’s a question I received about grade-skipping. My response is below.
My son has a September birthday, which puts him right on the cusp, but he should be in Kindergarten this year by age. He can read and write pretty well in both English and Spanish, so we couldn’t see sending him to Kindergarten and have them try to teach him his letters. We decided to homeschool him this year after investigating the differentiation available at our local public school. We tested him for the curriculum we are using and they suggested starting with first grade, and skipping ahead as needed.
We have always heard not to push the kids ahead, and that was part of the reason for homeschooling. We are pretty excited about homeschooling him right now – he is a self starting learner, and very excited to dig into stuff. But if we look at switching him back to public school at some point we will face the exact same problems – I imagine he is likely to get further ahead of his age the more we homeschool him.


So I’m curious what your thoughts are on skipping, and if you know of any other resources to look into.

I get this question or a similar version of it on a regular basis and it’s a topic that is very close to my own heart. I’m a big believer in acceleration in all it’s forms — for the right kid in the right situation. And often, the situation can be modified. Rarely can the kid be modified while still meeting his/her intellectual demands.
Here’s my response that’s modified a bit from what I sent the parent:
modifications were made to protect identity and clarify some points
When we hear people talk about grade skipping, I try to remember that each decision whether to (or not to) accelerate a learner in a lesson, unit, subject, or grade level is very individualized. What one person (or a hundred people) might’ve experienced in their lives may not have much bearing on the child and situation in front of us now.
When making the decision to accelerate or not and to what degree do we need to accelerate, we want to look not only at the academic readiness of the child but also of the social readiness. Sure, he can do the work. How what are his maturity levels? Would they increase with older students? Or decrease?
We also want to look at the environment of the receiving school and teacher. Is the school/staff prepared to pick up any small missed skills in order to keep moving the child forward with the big picture? Are they prepared to see this child as academically advanced, but socially-aged appropriately?
Outside of the academic classroom, we might want to have the child regularly participating in non-academic activities with his own aged peers. Activities such as sports, music, scouts, or on another team or group of similar social peers can provide the socialization that kids of that age need. We can “feed” his academics at one level, and feed his friendships at another. But then again, depending upon the individual child, that might not be a need, due to advanced social skills too. Some bright kids find that even socializing with aged-peers is tough because they don’t enjoy the same jokes or like the same things. Grade-skipping is a radical modification that ultimately is a very individualized decision; one that should not be pushed nor should it be impeded if it is in the best interest of the child.
The best recommendation I can make is to read the book: A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students. This book takes a look at the disparities between the research on acceleration and the actual educational beliefs and practices, which are not always in sync. You can download a free pdf here. This resource will really help you prepare for anyone who might have misinformation about the process and results of acceleration. While you’re there, take a look around that website. The Acceleration Institute at the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development is terrific!
Additionally, I have found success with the Iowa Acceleration Scale. This assessment does a great job of looking at academics, social, and family and school supports to compile a recommendation for acceleration. It does need to be administered by a qualified professional, but there are often universities who have psychologists who are licensed to do this. BUT I recommend you select someone who has some background in gifted learners and gifted education.
I’m not sure where you’re located, but you may also want to look in to your state gifted association. They should have resources and specific information about supports in your area. They may also have anecdotal (or harder) data about successful stories in districts near yours. You can find a list of state gifted and talented organizations here at the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut website. Caution: You might look to the state organization website directly, because in looking over the information here, I can see a few state listings are not quite up to date.
I hope this helps. I’ve successfully grade-skipped students before, but I also know that it is a team effort. Be sure to find someone at the school, district, or in your area who can look beyond the “I had a sister…brother…uncle…friend…grandma who was grade skipped and it was the worst decision of his/her life.” I know there are terrible histories out there and I don’t doubt their truth. So we want to be sure we really are ready to do that sort of accommodation for your child.

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