George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Illo of yellow lightbulb with a hook hanging under the base

How do you introduce new projects to your students? What is your hook? Great project-based learning begins with an engaging launch that grabs students' interest and pulls them in. Every project needs a hook.

In this excerpt from our new book, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, we describe how my co-author Justin Wells introduces the Campaign Ad Project at an Envision high school:

All the eleventh and twelfth graders at the school are packed into the largest available classroom. It's one of the first days of the first semester, and the room crackles with the natural teenage energy that comes with the beginning of the school year. Students are catching up, giving hugs, jockeying for seats with friends. But there is also the energy of anticipation, both excited and anxious, which serves as a kind of hush on the buzz, much like the excited but restrained chatter that fills an auditorium before a big show.
Having been at the school for two or three years, the students know that this is an important event. In fact, for them it is difficult to imagine what their lives will be like for the next few months, until this meeting occurs. So there is inherent interest in what is about to take place.
Yet all that is about to be announced is an academic assignment. "Television has fundamentally changed American politics," announces one of the teachers. "As people who are about to be voters, you need to understand the role that television plays in helping you become an informed voter. And the best way to do that is for you to become television commercial makers yourselves. That's what this project is all about."
The lights go down, and the first in a queue of famous presidential campaign ads appears on the projector screen: "Ike for President, Ike for President . . . " The students chuckle over the corny melody and antiquated animation of Eisenhower's 1952 "spot" -- the first television campaign ad ever to appear in America. But they are hooked; all eyes are on the screen. We're only minutes into what will be a multi-month project, and already a major goal has been accomplished: The students will never look at a television campaign ad the same way again.

Have we "hooked" you into learning more? You're in luck, because we've got multiple resources to share.

You can learn more about "hook" and the rest of the project in this video that traces the Campaign Ad Project from kickoff to exhibition. Watch students collaborate on producing professional-quality, research-based political commercials. The Campaign Ad Project also serves as a case study throughout our PBL chapter in Transforming Schools; in it, Justin reflects on designing and implementing this rich project-based learning experience.

And finally, here is a project profile of the Campaign Ad Project (with more profiles like this on other content-rich projects that are in the book as well).

Project Profile: The Campaign Ad Project

The following is designed for eleventh and twelfth graders:

Driving Question: What does it take to change a voter's mind?

On Monday, November 3, the night before the upcoming election, your team will present a campaign television commercial on a specific California proposition to the registered voters of the school community. The purpose of your ad is to persuade your audience how to vote on your proposition in the election on the following day.
The major products that you will create for this project are:
  • A research brief on the issue or issues of your selected proposition
  • Focus group research, based on interviews you will conduct with the target voters of your campaign
  • Campaign commercial (30 seconds or less) on one of the ballot initiatives in the upcoming election (video is eligible for the graduation portfolio)
  • An argumentative essay that offers a sustained and evidence-based case for the position you advocate in your campaign ad, with a developed counterargument representing the opposing position (paper is eligible for the graduation portfolio).

For complete details, see Justin's website for the Campaign Ad Project. What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? What are ways you hook students into the learning? Please share in the comments section below.


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Dawn Walker's picture

The link to the Campaign Ad Project Video didn't work. I love the project idea and would love to use this example in a presentation to my teachers.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Dawn, thanks for letting us know about the link. It's fixed now and ready for your viewing pleasure. :-)

Folwell Dunbar's picture
Folwell Dunbar
Founder at Fire Up Learning

I wrote this a while back. Thought you might find it helpful:

Do-Now: Reset the Hook

The first lesson I ever taught was in Pachamama, Ecuador. I was a wet behind the ears Peace Corps volunteer, and it was my first charla, or workshop. I was delivering a presentation on the importance of cropping sheep tails to a group of seasoned campesinos, who obviously knew far more about ovine management than I ever would. They were native Quechua speakers who understood un poco espanol, while I only knew two indigenous terms* and garbled a rather rudimentary version of Spanglish. If that weren't bad enough, I was also suffering from an explosive case of Atawalpa's revenge, South America's counterpart to that of our old friend Montezuma. Needless to say, it was going to be a tough sell.

Daunted and somewhat delusional, I decided to pull out all the lanolin and start with an attention-grabbing (I hoped) skit. Dressed up like a ruminant Casanova, I pretended to court several fetching ewes, some with tails and others without. I bleated out love poems and ballads, strutted my stuff like a wooly John Travolta and, of course, told inappropriate sheep jokes. Finally, like a peacock contestant on "The Bachelor," I picked my brides. (Note: since mochos, or rams, can mate with up to 20 ewes, polygamy is acceptable in the cud-chewing world.) For aesthetic and sanitary reasons better left unsaid, I only selected those with cropped tails.

Maybe it was the cultural divide or perhaps the language barrier, but my charla went over like a mercury-filled soap bubble. My jefe, Jorge Delgado, straining to find some glimmer of promise, turned to me after the flop and whispered, "Me gusto el skit." Clinging to that feeble compliment, I vowed to start every future lesson with some kind of "hook."

Later, teaching middle and high school history (an equally tough sell by the way), one of my goals was always to get kids jazzed about learning. To accomplish this, I experimented with all kinds of lesson starters. From Monty Python clips and Bob Dylan** songs to "What if..." scenarios and historical improv, I tried everything in my arsenal to pull back their little iron curtains.

When I found myself supporting teachers in under-resourced, low-performing schools, basically Peace Corps with a paycheck, I continued to cast the hook, even devoting entire workshops to the strategy. In a few cases, I actually convinced principals to incorporate them into their school improvement plan: "By the beginning of the 2005 academic year, 100% of teachers will incorporate hooks into all lesson and unit plans." More importantly, teachers started getting results. I felt like I was finally winning the battle for Pachamama!

All Work and No Play

In the early days of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, a handful of reform-minded schools, including those of the "No excuses!" variety, started to employ what they called a "do-now." Done at the beginning of a lesson with little to no prompting from the teacher, it usually involves a short, highly structured activity tied to a specific learning objective. Examples of "do-nows" include sample test questions, sustained silent reading, and, more often than not, worksheets - a far cry from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail!"

As these schools experienced success (and in the rising wake of Race To the Top), their practices quickly spread to places like post-Katrina New Orleans, the poster child for the latest incarnation of education reform.

As a principal here in New Orleans pointed out, "Our students are behind. We need to catch up. There's no time to play!"

Extended day and year, a relentless focus on academic achievement, value-added evaluations for teachers, data-driven decision-making, and others were scooped up by schools impelled to keep up with the Joneses' College Prep. The "do-now" was definitely part of this magic elixir.

Over the past five years, I have reviewed approximately 100 schools, many here in Louisiana. Of those, more than 90 employed "do-nows," while only two were tied to hooks. And, at those two, only a handful of teachers still embraced my Pachamama obsession.

A review of curriculum resources at one particular school revealed that on average, a student would complete as many as 6,000 "do-nows" over the course of a single year. Apparently, these are not limited to the classroom either. I recently attended a conference where several presenters used them as well. Even my boss launched a meeting the other day with one. Obviously, we are doing "do-nows" a hell of a lot.

Dewey now

When I shared this revelation with a colleague of mine, he responded rather tersely: "So?"

"In the bigger scheme of things," he said, "does it really matter?"

I thought about it for a second, and then begged to differ.

On the surface, "do-nows" and hooks are little more than variations on a theme. They both occur at the beginning of a lesson, and they are both designed to increase student engagement*** and shape the learning culture.

Claw a bit deeper though, and subtle but significant differences arise. For example, unlike the hook, the "do-now" isn't meant to get kids fired up about learning. Instead, it's generally used to get "scholars" on-task quickly and to cover content efficiently. It also promotes diligence and a culture of lockstep compliance. As one principal explained, "The 'do-now' is one of our routines. It's a daily reminder that we have to work hard to accomplish our goals, pass the test and go to college."

Meanwhile, the culture nurtured by hooks is more about intrinsic motivation and self-discovery. Hooks help students find their own muse; they promote the elusive notion of learning for learning's sake. In other words, hooks lead students to water, while "do-nows" make them to drink - a lot of the same. In my opinion, the difference is the "bigger scheme of things."

More than a century ago, John Dewey, the philosopher and educational pioneer, founded a lab school in Chicago. There, he built a curriculum around the experiences, interests, and abilities of students. He believed that education should promote and support the country's democratic ideals. His progressive ideas emerge in practices such as problem- and project-based teaching and learning, scientific experiments, student-led conferences and portfolios. They can also be found in hooks.

Education reform is like Newton's cradle, after every jarring crack -- Sputnik, A Nation At Risk, the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment -- the momentum shifts. Unfortunately, Dewey now is about as far away as he's ever been.

The art of inspiration

When my father was a young boy, his parents took him on vacation to New York City. One afternoon, they dropped him off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alone and bored - he would have much rather been playing football in Central Park - he started to wander, eventually discovering a few things that stirred his imagination: Greek sculpture, Medieval armor, and Renaissance drawings. When his parents finally returned to pick him up, he was reluctant to leave. Over the course of the visit, he had become hooked on art.

My father went on to study art in Philadelphia, Paris and Mexico City. He ran an art school in New Orleans and helped found the city's first gallery for contemporary art, and his paintings and sculptures can be found in homes, businesses and museums around the world. Today, at the age of 84, my father is still making incredible art.****

I sometimes wonder, if he had only been exposed to the work and not the wonder of art, would he have been as successful or as fulfilled?

I would propose that one of the things we do, NOW, is reset the hook.


*The two Quechua terms I knew were !Achachay! which means "I'm freezing" and chuchaqui which means "hung over." Needless to say, in the high Andes they were often uttered through chattering teeth with shot glass in hand.

**Not surprisingly, the folk singer with the gravelly voice was not a big hit with the middle- and high-school crowd.

***In Robert Marzano's latest, "The Highly Engaged Classroom," the researcher does not mention do-nows, but he does give numerous examples of potential hooks.

****My father was recently the Artist in Residence at Isidore Newman, a private school in New Orleans. The program calls for master artists to model techniques and to inspire impressionable young apprentices. One of the school's slogans is: "We don't teach kids what to think; we teach them how to think." Dewey would be impressed.

Folwell Dunbar's picture
Folwell Dunbar
Founder at Fire Up Learning


Will do. Keep up the good work. I share Edutopia tips with my teachers all the time.


Alexander Deeb's picture
Alexander Deeb
EdTech Entrepreneur

Great post. I believe the hook is an essential part of every class. Getting your audience interested and possibly excited about what you'll be teaching them is crucial if you want them to give you their attention throughout the whole lesson.

sushma sharma's picture
sushma sharma
Lecturer Govt Girls School Jabalpur India

Great Folwell,
It reminds me of William Wordsworth, when he says that even the meanest flower can teach thousand times more than the whole humanity can. We never know where the hook is hiding for each learner.

Mrs Parker's picture
Mrs Parker
Teacher of young people at a small bush school in regional Australia

I find that students respond really well to short stories at the beginning of a lesson to 'hook' them in. The perfect story is related to the topic we are about to explore and takes about five minutes to read. I have begun collecting/writing stories with this in mind and published them on my blog, for teachers to use.

zar muhammad's picture

i found the ideas as precious as gold for the average teacher to over come his/her class disruption by ensuring engaged learning using the strategies given in this topis.

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