Want Student Engagement? Stage It and Set the Hook

Icon of Fishing Hook. Simple style. Vector illustration

When I was a young adolescent, bass fishing excursions with my father were either the longest and most boring six hours of pointless casting or a crank-tastic time tied together by a lure, line, and learned lessons.
You see, if my dad stuck me ten feet away at the stern of the boat, I usually had little buy-in. Being encompassed by such a small area of the back deck’s open space, I was as at the mercy of whichever direction my dad determined to steer the boat. I had no choice but to follow his lead. Therefore, I cast where he cast and decided as he decided. In fact, I usually felt powerless and absolutely unengaged. Yep, it is safe to say that I was basically a robotic fisherman. During these times, my only hope was to catch enough gigantic bass to fill a live-well full of dinner and to lock away my previous lack of interest. However, being perhaps the last honest fisherman on the planet, I spin the truth when I admit those grateful angling trips can be counted on one hand.
Then, there were the days when Dad provided an opportunity that likened him in my eyes to a Kentucky Wildcats version of Bill Dance or a bald-headed and older version of Kevin Van Dam. But, it was not a favorite fishing hole he shared. Not a magical lure he offered. Nor was it the promise of a new Abu Garcia rod and reel.
He simply asked if I would like to man the bow.
“Heck, yea!” I always thought, although the unfiltered answer in my head was a bit more profane.
I was not the best fisherman, but I was no dummy. The bow, its spacious open deck, its lean-to seat, and a foot-operated trolling-motor offered me all I needed to set the hook on engagement…freedom.
No doubt, these awesome moments with my dad are often cast as the impetus for so many creative ventures in our literature class, Studio 113. So, when students are having trouble setting the hook on engagement, especially at the very beginning of a challenging piece of older literature, I open up a tackle box of interactive learning structures and activities.
In fact, here’s a simple literature “lure” we used just recently.
Getting students to work through more complex and older literature like Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” has always been tough. The key is to empower the students immediately. Although it is nothing groundbreaking as far as a lesson plan goes, the following assignment definitely helps students take control of their own learning through collaboration and acting.

  1. The class is divided into two teams. Depending on class numbers, these two teams are usually made up of 12-15 students.
  2. Each team is assigned one captain and one captain’s assistant.
  3. Each team reads this paragraph from the beginning of Irving’s famous short story.
  4. Students are asked to analyze and discuss the paragraph with attention to the following points of emphasis: indirect/direct characterization, mood, tone, setting, symbolism, imagery, diction, figurative/literal language, and theme.
  5. Each team must present a 30-60 second live performance on our class stage that accurately depicts the assigned paragraph. Students are asked to demonstrate knowledge of all aspects of the paragraph, and every student must participate somehow (i.e. students as the savin trees, fence, horse, chicken, chimney, etc.). Students are encouraged to creatively re-purpose any items available in the classroom as details and props from the paragraph.
  6. Students may perform the entire assignment in one class period, or students may present their representation at the beginning of the next day’s class. If two days are allowed, students are encouraged to bring any appropriate items from home that could bolster their dramatic renditions.
  7. Finally, students are asked to review the opposing team’s performance and make a statement that claims accuracy or inaccuracy. Students must then validate their opinions with textual evidence. Note: Before viewing each video, it is very helpful and fair to allow team captains to explain their interpretations of the paragraph and their artistic visions for their teams’ performances.
  8. If teams want to make it a competition, simply allow other classes and/or colleagues to vote on the most successful versions. Posting to a YouTube channel would easily accommodate such a plan.

Examples from Studio 113

There was so much I learned standing on the stage of my Dad’s classroom, his Blue and Silver Ranger boat. I learned to navigate murky waters, to ease into secluded fishing holes, and to dislodge a snagged lure from waterlogged brush.
But above all, I learned to set the hook on my own learning.
I now take ownership of my dreams, I courageously investigate my curiosity, and I welcome my mistakes as just another step in the learning process.
Likewise, it makes perfect sense that to control every step of my students’ classroom activities out of fear of decreased authority, increased noise levels, wasted time, or poor standardized tests is just not the way to teach.
I think my dad has known that all along. It is just not right to him.
He would call that kind of teaching fishy.
For more blogs by John, check out:

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John Hardison

John Hardison is an interactive facilitator of learning and blended learning specialist at East Hall High School (Studio 113 & EPiCC).

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