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 #12: learning only happens at school

6 01 2015

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:

Mistake #12:
Think that school is school and home is home and our days are only 8hrs long.

Problem: While both teachers and students certainly deserve time to be with their families and not at work, the reality is that we’re no longer controlled by the factory whistle in our work or lives. Time is now a variable in the world, and if students are starting to uncover and work inside their interest and passion areas as we design our PBL units, we might run into some very real accessibility barriers.

Solution: With time as a variable in the world, we must now find ways to be flexible in the school schedule. Will teachers and students be able to choose a later start-time to the day? Will weekends or evenings be an option for students, especially as they get into the upper levels? Infinite flexibility isn’t attainable — at first. But with flipped and blended learning environments, we can certainly get closer. What other options are at our disposal? Evening office hours online? Early mornings? Ideas are infinite. How we choose to implement those ideas is our only barrier.

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning and how to support it?

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.  

Building Self-Directed Learners

9 09 2014

Self-directed learners all have a running inner dialog about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re going to do, and, when they get stuck, they ask themselves a series of questions to help them get unstuck.

This is what most of us just call “thinking” but it seems that too many children and teens don’t have that inner dialog — yet. They seem to move about their day, waiting to be told what to do, when to do, and how to do. And when they step out of that structure and routine their families and school has provided for them, many make poor decisions. Not all do, of course. But the ones who find themselves making mistakes, big and small, seem to lack that inner dialog.

So how do we help kids become self directed learners? It’s an every day, every interaction process that begins with curbing the urge to always tell kids their next steps and begin asking questions that role-model what they should be asking themselves.

There’s a dual purpose of persistently asking questions instead of just telling kids Self Directed Learners, Questions, PBLwhat to do:

  1. Students need to know they can find information and solve problems if only they had the right questions.
  2. We’re role modeling what their inner dialog and questions might be.

Use the following questions regularly when role modeling self-direction and then remind the students, in a moment of reflection, they might consider using the same techniques before calling out for help.

  • What is my overall goal? What am I trying to achieve?
  • What have I tried that hasn’t worked? What has worked?
  • What haven’t I tried?
  • Is this something that’s essential to my goals? Is what I’m doing necessary? Valuable?
  • What are other ways I can look at this? Can I break it into parts? Do I need to step back and look at the big picture?
  • Are there online resources out there that can help?
  • If I am stuck, how can I back out of this and approach it from a new direction? Who or what do I need to get to help me with that?
  • Is there someone nearby who has this topic as a strength and can help me? Is there someone I can bring in via phone or video conference?

Of course there are many other questions that could be added/substituted in any given situation, but this will give you a good start. What would you add?

Creating Teachable Moments in a PBL Classroom

29 07 2014

Many of you know I’m a former Social Studies teacher so I like to tell stories. Well, today’s post is full of stories about how to get kids to ask for the lessons they usually despise.

Story 1:
Once, during a summer camp I was hosting, I had a group of kids rush into a room and take all the donuts before even 3/4 of the group had a chance to even know there were donuts. I saw it was happening and, contrary to all my teacher-training about fair play, I let them do it.

English: Various donuts from the Dunkin' Donut...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Once the donuts were eaten and we were back in our workspace (another room), I asked if everyone liked the donuts … and I was shocked when I “found out” that not all kids got donuts. What?!

I quickly feigned gentle empathy for those who’d grabbed more than their share, saying, “I’m so sorry that no one told you to consider other people in a group.” I was sure to never point to anyone during the quick lesson…the kids already knew who’d had 4-5 donuts. I was careful to take on an honest, understanding, and confidant-type of demeanor, asking kids to not let themselves be “that guy.”

“It’s ok; mistakes happen. We just won’t be ‘that guy’ again, right?”

It was a gentle teachable moment where we began to move away from the school-flavored imposed stick-and-carrot external motivators to more of an intrinsic motivation to do the right thing. Kids were asked to consider the needs and desires of everyone before helping ourselves to our own selfish needs first. After that 3-5 minute intentional interaction, the group had plenty of all snacks throughout the rest of the week, with extras left over for the adults too!

You see, I knew that if I’d hollered at them to SHARE (which I’m assuming they’d heard at high volume many times before–after all, they were middle schoolers) my words would have forced their compliance, but would have had no overall change to want to always do the right thing. By letting the kids make the mistake and then intentionally asking them consider how it affected others, all the while staying gentle and supportive of the community and future behavior, we were able to actually affect true behavioral change.

So how do we intentionally create or at least capitalize on other situations that relate to behavior?
What about teachable moments that relate to academic learning? Because that’s a huge part of creating a truly democratic form of schooling.


Story 2:
I like to let kids work hard creating something where they have broken copyright like they were stealing the Hope Diamond! They are working hard, doing their research, trying their best, but no where do I talk to them about copyright. Some might know better. Some might not. It’s ok. It’s a mistake.Creative Commons

Once they’re finished with the work, there are huge congratulations all around. The kids have worked their butts off and we’re all proud.

Then I ask them about their bibliographies.

<<pin drop>>

<<crickets chirping>>

I feign an Oscar-worthy combo of fear and nervousness. Where did they get that awesome picture? That map? That information? We MUST have the bibliographies or we’re gonna get in huge trouble (because we’ve published the work). It’s something like a $10,000 fine for each violation, I lie to them.

They start to panic.

I tell them we have to delete the work and start all over again.

Some start to truly freak out.

In a soothing voice, I immediately calm them and say that we’ll leave it this time, but only if they promise to learn about copyright, copyleft, creative commons, and fair use for next time.

They all eagerly agree.


I win.

You think they would have been as eager to learn all about that stuff before the teachable moment? Of course not.

Yes, we can create opportunities for teachable moments everywhere. I want kids to ask me for the information and lessons they usually dodge. How do I create an opportunity for them to need to know about fractions? About how to use proper grammar?

Because when they ask for those lessons, you win. And so do they.

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