How do you start your units? Do you hook them? 

Textbooks, and textbook teachers, start their units with tasks. Make a map. Copy the vocab. Memorize the main “causes.” 

Don’t do it. Start with a hook. If you’re introducing a new unit, hook the story that frames the unit. Something new and notable happened. British colonists rebelled, and started a new country. The Samurai led a modernizing revolution from above, and the imperialized became imperializers. A prophet appeared among the Arabs in Mecca, and transformed both Arabia and the world. 

In literature, stories often begin in the middle, or so an English-major friend has told me. We learn something about the main character and action from an episode drawn from the middle of the arc of the plot. Then the writer takes us back, or backward and forward, from that point and fills in the rest of the story until we see it whole.

If you’re particularly literary, that would work in History class, too. But there’s an easier and more straightforward way to hook a story: contrast the beginning and end. Everything we teach that’s worth teaching is the appearance of something new and notable in the human world. Humans did things one way, and then they ended up doing something else. Or they were minding their own business and then a plague or a scourge beset them. Something happened. 

Jon and I coach teachers in hooking stories. We use the contrast technique. If you’ve planned your unit or a lesson narrative well, then you know where it ends, what new and notable thing in the world humans have done or lived through. Start before that has happened, when it’s inchoate, brewing, on the brink. Then compare that prior condition — once upon a time! — to the outcome you’re interested in narrating. The contrast between those two states of affairs creates narrative tension. It generates curiosity and interest. It makes the story real and compelling for your students.


Hooking the story is on my mind right now because of a recent coaching experience with a new teacher, Ms. S. She’s a very bright and extraordinarily sensitive person. She’s also brand new, and so easily misled by textbooks. Textbooks often try, lamely, to hook stories using the middle-of-the-story technique. That’s what’s in those cute boxes before the main narration begins. 

But then they load up on geography and generalizations, which is meant to provide context for the story. Ms. S. is teaching the Great War, which we now know as World War One. She told me that she started with MAIN, which is the way she learned it, and the way the textbooks “teach” it. MAIN, or MANIA, is context robbed of meaning. “Militarism,” the “M” in MAIN or MANIA, means that governments in newly industrialized countries were busy building up their armies and generals were busy writing plans to use them. Alliances, imperialism, nationalism — yes, the newly rich and powerful were doing those things. (If you’re interested in why the MAIN “causes” aren’t causes at all, see Jon’s blog post of 1.11.18.)

The point is that the world looked dangerous in 1914, at least to some astute observers, and in retrospect to most of us. But MAIN sucks the drama dry. And worse, it obscures the contrast that is actually the point of the story. 

Ms. S. didn’t know what she wanted her Great War unit to be about until we talked. In conversation, she shared that she was most struck by the attitude toward war of the participants. At the outset, they seemed to think it was like a game. We talked about the evidence for that claim and conjectured about the relationship between that impression of war and the experience of imperialism, in which military service mostly meant deploying modern weapons against outmatched opponents. Not exactly sporting, but you could see how people could get the wrong impression. 

In the Great War, the deployment of modern weapons on all sides led to a very different kind of horrifying outcome. This one had the effect of transforming how participants and observers thought and felt about war in general. That, it turned out, was the story she wanted to tell. The outcome she wanted her students to know about was a transformation in cultural consciousness — a new and notable answer to Question Two! 

Before the war, for the central protagonists, war was a game and the globe a chessboard. That’s what MAIN obliquely describes — an attitude about warfare. By the end of the war, there are a range of reactions, but all of them shot through with disillusionment. As Paul Fussell argued in his classic book, the Great War turned irony into the dominant trope in literature and the arts. We still live in its shadow. (And not for nothing, the quirky war lovers among the disillusioned — the fascists — came out of the war resentful that they didn’t get enough. And they turn out to be crucial protagonists in our next unit story…) 


Once we both got clear on what the Great War story was about, Ms. S. had the tools she needed both to design a hook for the unit and to make sober, rational decisions about what exactly about the Great War her students would need to know. In other words, getting clear on the particular story she intended to tell allowed her to trim and tighten the unit, while better preparing her students to answer meaningful questions about it. 

The tipoff that a teacher hasn’t figured out what story they’re trying to tell is that they load up on context at the beginning, like textbooks do. That’s a delaying tactic, and the wrong way to think about context, in any case. Historical context is the information we use to ask and answer meaningful questions. Before students know the story they’re being asked to think about, context is meaningless. And so, trying to learn the “causes” of the Great War before you know what the Great War was is, technically speaking, ass backwards. Once you know something about what happened in the Great War, you can generate some genuine curiosity about it, curiosity that will then require adducing context. What were they thinking? Why then and there? These are the classic questions that beg for context. 

Story first, as always. It’s not as simple as it sounds, of course. It requires that you figure out what story you actually want to tell. Once you do, though, the enterprise gets lots more interesting, for teachers and students both.