Hook your students on history!

Hook your students on history!

By Sharon Cohen and Trevor R. Getz

Last year, a global pandemic, a transformational election, and ongoing movements for racial justice all made their mark on your social studies classroom. What will this year bring?

Hopefully, you’re imagining this year will bring something wonderful to your classroom, and not something you have to fear. Either way, what we just tried to do—make you think about issues close to your heart—was to “hook” you into this blog post. A hook, in journalism, is a critical question or piece of information that captures your attention and draws you into the article.

Hooks are useful in the classroom too. For example, your students may come to the first day of your Big History or World History class disinterested and disengaged. They may not see the relevance in learning this material. You can turn that around by providing them with a hook. To think about what an effective hook might look like, we went to some of our friends to ask them about how they might use OER Project materials to hook students into their first days of class.

Stories are great hooks, and it’s not a coincidence that all of the OER Project courses start with stories. The Big History Project (BHP], of course, gives the teacher a number of stories with which to hook students right at the beginning. These are the Origin Stories, which help students understand that societies have different ways of thinking about where we come from, and to help them understand the value of historical and scientific discoveries. Many teachers have students jigsaw these origin stories using the accompanying activities, and then finish off with the Cosmology and Faith article, which reveals to students the big philosophical and moral implications of how they think about the world around them.

covers of Origin Stories texts
Covers of the Mayan, Chinese, and Judeo Christian origin stories, from BHP.

What about world history? Julianne Horowitz teaches WHP at Oceanside High School in Long Island, New York. She focuses her September lessons on stories that captivate students. “The three weeks of lessons I pack into September are a careful, calculated mix of materials that aim to capture students’ imaginations for at least a moment, at best a lifetime. The mix changes a little from year to year, motivated as much by past lesson successes as by past lesson failures. Certain lessons make the cut consistently, such as Draw Your History and The Danger of a Single Story, which explore the nature of history as a narrative, and how our fixed and fluid identities can shift that narrative.”

This coming September, Julianne is adding an unexpected story to that mix—the story of Islam Alhashel—as told in a graphic biography. Last year, Julianne discovered the OER Project graphic biographies. (For a list of all the graphic biographies and their locations in each WHP course, click here.) Even though Alhashel’s story is actually a part of Unit 9, Julianne plans to use it at the beginning of the school year, explaining “I’m confident it will engage my students—an illustrated one-pager is an easy sell! It will confuse them (why are we reading a recent story about a high school kid?) and it will organically bring out many of our course themes. It’s got community and nationalism, it’s got international conflict, it’s got collective responsibility. It’s a compelling story that introduces the support-extend-challenge protocol seamlessly. To accomplish all of that while the floors are still clean is a strong start to the year.”

a panel from a graphic biography
A scene from the graphic biography of Islam Alhashel, a tenth grader and immigrant.

Andrea Wong is going in a slightly different direction from her base at Somerville High School in Somerville, New Jersey. Andrea is considering starting her WHP course with Project X, a series of data-focused materials from the OER Project that allow students to investigate the past and make predictions about the future. The early activities in Project X hook students by giving them all sorts of misleading or intriguing charts, like one chart that suggests a link between drownings and Nicolas Cage films. Andrea writes “I love using the Nicolas Cage chart as a hook for Project X. I did not think so many of my students would fall for it, but when I asked them if they trusted the chart, the majority of them said yes! I was astounded and realized how vital it was for me to incorporate Project X into my plans. I challenged them to explain the conclusions drawn from the chart and (luckily) as we discussed the chart in more depth, they started to realize that Nicolas Cage movies did not cause people to drown in pools.” (Note that although Project X is integrated into all the WHP courses, it can also be taught as a stand-alone course.) 

a ridiculous graph showing correlation does not equal causation
A spurious correlation between pool drownings and Nicolas Cage movies, from Project X: A Guide to Reading Charts.

At the beginning of the school year I—Sharon—am baiting my hook with the new WHP political and thematic maps. No matter which world history course my students are in, they’ll all start with the Geography—Unit 1 Mapping scavenger hunt activity. This activity helps familiarize students with all the relevant OER Project map assets for their course. My AP and IB history students will begin the opening activity of the WHP 1200 course by filling in a blank map of the world. I predict they will really enjoy trying to guess the location of these bonus items: Middlefart, Batman, and Disappointment Islands. Next, I will follow the second set of instructions for this WHP introductory map activity by directing students to explore the political and thematic maps linked in the WHP map index that seem interesting to them. Then I will lead a discussion with these suggested questions: What information is contained in the map? What do the labels and colors mean? Where is the legend? What did the makers of this map care about? What’s missing from this map? Did anything surprise you? Hopefully, these map activities will hook my students when they see that the WHP thematic maps often present a narrative and provide evidence that students can use to respond to the Unit Problems and frame narratives.

With all these ideas for teachers to use at the beginning of school, by the time students start to notice they’re having fun, they’ll already be “hooked” on history!


About the authors:

Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

Sharon Cohen teaches world history to juniors at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. She taught AP world history for 20 years, International Baccalaureate history for 11 years, and recently returned to the course Theory of Knowledge.

Cover image: Fish hooks made from shells and bones, Polynesia, Illustration, 1885. © Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

  • Hi Erik,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response and sharing the article in the Atlantic!  I missed that one.  I have not reviewed it closely yet, but will do so shortly!

    Amicalement, Audra

  • Hi Bennett!

    We're definitely on the same page about teaching usable histories. I've been thinking alot about this myself and trying to incorporate different strategies into my courses.  I'm also thinking about how historians can better write and produce usable histories. 

    Once I explore Project X in greater detail, I'll touch base with you with questions and reflections.  Hope all is well with you. 

    Amicalement, Audra

  • Hi Audra! Historians are rightly suspicious of claims that we can predict the future using history! But making a prediction in Project X isn’t really about trying to predict the future. It’s about helping students build a usable history. In making their predictions, students marshal historical evidence and position their prediction in historical narratives. Then, they need to use their prediction to design a course of activism. Essentially, the prediction is a way to get them thinking about what might happen in the course of their lifetimes (sharpening, as Erik points out, their causation skills) and then to use their knowledge of past trends to find ways that they might act in the present. They’re using historical data to identify a challenge facing humanity and they’re proposing solutions for the future based in historical evidence.

    And it's appropriate that you've brought this up here! Sharon and Trev's blog is all about hooks. In addition to helping students build a usable history and working on skills like causation, the "Making a Prediction" part of Project X is pretty fun. It's a nice hook to get students excited about the prospect of reading a bunch of charts.

    If you do end up using Project X in your class, I'd love to hear your feedback and any suggestions. Please send my way!

  • Hi Audra! You bring up some really thoughtful points. I believe that some scholars would argue with you, but there's some nuance work unpacking here. In Project X, students are certainly exposed to quantitative historical data. The idea is to identify trends and triggers (via causation), which are, as you suggest, surrounded by context, in an effort to make history (in the form of data), a bit more relevant...or, at the least, more usable. I wonder what  would offer to your thoughts.