Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hooks, Spirals and Dirty Old Men: Part 2 of 2

As promised, I'm back to talk to finish our conversation from yesterday. As you may recall, I was explaining how my teaching partner, Heidi, and I share the philosophy of helping our students to learn through hooks and spirals. Remember?

Hooks are little tidbits of information that have become deeply familiar and well-established in long-term memory.
Spirals happen when you gain new information that adds to or expands on information that you have already encountered before. If you've got a hook in your brain that allows you to connect the old understanding with the new information, learning happens more efficiently and effectively.
As Heidi and I grappled with the design and development of a high school history class that would not leave our students fast asleep and drooling on their desks, we quickly saw a way to re-frame our challenge. Rather than attempting to teach them everything they might ever need to know about the U.S. presidents, our aim was to plant an interesting hook or two about each of these gentlemen into our students' brains. 

For example, rather than bog them down in a detailed analysis of New Deal politics and the Yalta Conference, we wanted our students to hear that Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to smooth over the fact that he was wheelchair-bound, started a national craze with his cute little Scottish terrier named Fala, and conducted a decades-long affair with his wife's social secretary, Lucy.
FDR typically arranged to be shown casually seated with other world leaders, which cleverly sidestepped the uncomfortable alternative of showing him in a wheelchair surrounded by others who could stand.

Fala accompanied FDR around the White House, on trips, and even was mentioned, to great comedic effect, in a famous campaign speech.
This is the little missy, Lucy Mercer, who stole FDR's heart. FDR's wife found love letters from Lucy in his suitcase in 1918; Lucy was with him on the day he died of a cerebral hemmorhage in 1945.
Well. That sounds a little more interesting, doesn't it.

While there may be many, many other facts about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his highly eventful four-term presidency that are considered to be more academically valuable and historically significant, I'm not concerned. Because I know that our students will meet up with FDR again - probably in a college American history class, maybe in a novel set during the Great Depression (Grapes of Wrath, anyone?), in a conversation comparing the attack on Pearl Harbor to 9/11, or who knows...maybe even in a video game. They will have many opportunities in their lifetimes to learn more complex truths about his leadership and legacy. 

The most important thing to me is that when they do encounter his name, they will not inwardly roll their eyes, groan, and mentally relive the anguish of a boring lecture about the Social Security Act. 

Instead, I know beyond a doubt that when our students hear Roosevelt's name, they are going to conjure up memories of that clever crippled man who understood the powerful emotional difference between a chair and a wheelchair. They'll recall his tender bond with his dog, and they will reflect on a man who led America to its rendezvous with destiny yet flagrantly cheated on his wife for decades. 

Because the best hooks are those that are built on powerful narrative and emotion. As human beings, we crave stories that reveal vulnerabilities, compassionate tendencies, and complex truths about each other. 

This is especially true for teens, many of whom are skeptical of being force-fed overly sanitized accounts of The Way Things Are. Allowing mature students to explore the downside of presidential moral conduct was fascinating. We found that stories of extramarital affairs, alleged homosexual activity, scandalous divorces, and May-December remarriages served to powerfully ignite our students' emotional response to learning, which led to some great conversations and really solid hooks. 

My bottom line is this. If a hook-and-spiral approach to learning can get a whole class full of hesitant high schoolers hyped up for learning about the dusty ol' Presidents of the USA, it will work for you. Don't be afraid to talk about the dirty old men.


  1. Thanks for introducing the concept. In my Sunday School class I've been "busting" Bible characters. These kids all know about David beating Goliath and Noah building that big, old boat. I talk about David falling in love with another dude's wife and having having him killed so he can be with his wife. We've talked about how Noah had that awesome boat ride and then ends up drunk, naked in a tent. It's all for the purpose of showing that Bible characters did some really cool stuff, but they are real people with real sins and shortcomings. The kids love this. Theyve only been told the sanitized version so they literally beg me to read the bible so they can hear that part of the story straight from the source. The hook is that we all need a savior. Even bible heroes. Thanks for helping me understands why that's been working so well.

    1. Emotional context matters, and it's all backed up by science. Have you read Brain Rules by John Medina? He's genius.


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