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?
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:
- Is it a movie or video game trailer that shows some exciting action?
- Is it a trailer that provides some intriguing scenario or question that we just have to dig into?
- Is it a story that pulls at our hearts?
- Is it a story that leaves a piece of the puzzle unsolved?
- Is it a challenge handed to us from some outside person or entity?
- Is someone hiring us for a job?
- Are we saving lives?
- Are we saving the world?
- Is it something that matters?
Ways to deliver that hook to create the perfect launch event:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?