It has been awhile since my last post. I’m sure many of you have been wondering, “Where are you, Travis? What have you been doing?”
I have been out fishing. I have spent an entire week fishing, day after day after day.
“Wait, wait,” you say, “You don’t seem like much a fisherman. You seem like more of suburbanite than an outdoorsman. I have a hard time seeing you sit quietly on a boat.”
To which I reply, I have not been catching fish, but catching students.
Last week, we began the Reformation in 7th grade social studies. I have sometimes used a hook to snare students at the beginning of a unit. I did the same thing this time.
I entered the classroom in my Catholic elementary school in a sad and dejected manner. I was completely down in the dumps. When some of the students asked what was wrong, I asked if they had heard the bad news about the popes. I described the many sins of the Renaissance popes without actually specifying that these popes were from 500 years ago; I implied that they were recent popes. Although my students realize that popes are not perfect, they were not prepared for the ghastly abuses of power I described. When I told them that these popes were long gone, they felt a sigh of relief but also a sense of horror that these actions were once very real. It can be shocking to a 13 year-old Catholic student that a Cardinal may have killed criminals for sport.
At this point, I had cast a line for the beginning of the unit. The students were engaged and interested after hearing about papal abuses of power. This was nothing inherently new; there have been many times in many subjects where I had begun a unit with a hook. This time, however, I decided to hook them again.
On the following day, I announced that the school was going to modify its behavior system. Due to the cost of renovating our outdoor area next to the junior high wing, the school was going to raise money by allowing students to donate money to the renovation fund in exchange for removing behavioral consequences. If they donated money to the fund, they could remove detentions or suspensions. There would be extra fees to erase future consequences and friends’ consequence. To put some icing on the cake, I was very vigilant in assigning consequences for talking; what I would normally let slide was suddenly targeted. At one foul stroke, the stakes for misbehavior were higher, but students did have a lifeline, the “donations” to the renovation. When I finally conceded that this activity wasn’t real and connected it to the use of indulgences from the Renaissance popes, the students were incredulous that popes could attempt to sell salvation so blatantly, and they were outraged that the Church could do such a thing. I then launched into the sales spectacle of selling indulgences as I pretended to be Johan Tetzel with outstretched arms saying, “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” I also decided to end class with the declaration, “Somehow, without anyone noticing, the modern world began on October 31st, 1517,” leaving students with a cliff hanger for the next lesson.
As you can see, I had already introduced two different hooks for this lesson. The kids were into the Reformation. Nevertheless, I decided to begin a class on the English Reformation with yet another hook. I began with the statement, “My wife and I are going to have a baby soon. We are going to be just as happy with either a boy or a girl.” I let it sink in, and then I said, “I want you to try to think of any reason why a baby’s gender could lead to war and conflict. That could take an entire country to civil war.” Some of my students were stunned, but others realized that royal blood needs boys. This led perfectly into the do-or-die genetic roulette of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Once again, the students were shocked and appalled at the craziness of life in the 16th century. By “hooking” the students time and time again this unit, I have not only begun a unit with heightened interest and engagement, but have sustained it throughout.
As you can see, I have not caught any trout, salmon, or anglers. Luckily, some eager students have taken the bait. I have them, and I’m not letting go.