photo: AntanO CC BY-SA 4.0

Last week I mentioned how much I love and recommend Dave Burgess’ book Teach Like a Pirate. In his book, Dave recommends using “hooks” to engage students more deeply in the lessons you teach. I want to share my top ten favorite hooks and invite our readers to comment and share their own favorite hook that they have used with a novel.


#10…Dance (Noche de oro by Kristy Placido)

In Noche de oro, little Makenna Parker is all grown up and actually gets to dance with a boy! They go salsa dancing at a little beach-side discoteca in Costa Rica. Prior to reading this chapter, I invited 3 of my upper-level students who are fantastic dancers to give a little salsa lesson to each of my classes. I did the talking in Spanish and they did the demo. After the lesson, we had a dance contest (just like in Grease! where you walk around and tap couples on the shoulder until only one couple is left. It was so much fun. Definitely one of those days in school that kids remember forever!


#9…Food (Robo en la noche by Kristy Placido)

Gallo pinto, pre-prepared, served in little sample-sized cups. Enough said.


#8…Current Events (Brandon Brown versus Yucatán by Kristy Placido and Carol Gaab)

Recently Justin Beiber had a little “trouble in paradise” which perfectly mirrors events in the novel “Brandon Brown versus Yucatán.” Martina Bex created a fantastic little reading lesson about this news story that would be an awesome hook leading into that scene in the novel!

beiber versus yucatanYucatan.web_.cover-copy-721x1024


#7…“Cinnamon Challenge” (Felipe Alou by Carol Gaab)

One of the really shocking things about the novel Felipe Alou was when we read about the Parsley Massacre of 1937 in the Dominican Republic. This is an example of a shibboleth: Haitian immigrants were identified by their pronunciation of the word perejil in Spanish, and then murdered.

Before we start reading about it, I tell the class we are going to do the cinnamon challenge (I mispronounce the word cinnamon a bit as I discuss it…I struggle with the word a bit as part of the set up). Most students are familiar with the YouTube version of the cinnamon challenge (I don’t recommend trying it!) so their interest piques immediately.

I take several volunteers into the hallway and clue them in on the hook. 2-3 of them are “soldiers” and I give them foam swords. The others are told whether they must pronounce cinnamon correctly or incorrectly. They all line up and walk in. The soldiers walk in with mean looks. One by one I hold up a bottle of cinnamon and ask them “what is this?” If they say it wrong, they are “killed.”


Kristy Placido as Azucena Villaflor


#6…“Guest Speaker” (La Guerra Sucia by Nathaniel Kirby)

When we read La Guerra Sucia in Spanish 4, we also studied Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. I wanted the students to have a chance to meet one of these amazing women, Azucena Villaflor. One tiny problem however was that she was killed many years ago. Well, I was undeterred.

I told the students we were having a guest speaker. She was very elderly, had seen some truly amazing and horrifying things in her life, and that she had traveled quite a distance to speak with them. I had them straighten up the room, and we moved the desks into a circle. I let them know that she doesn’t hear very well so they needed to speak clearly and loud enough. They were a bit nervous as I went down to the office to bring her to our classroom.

I ran next door to my friend Rhonda’s classroom and made my transformation. I had a wig borrowed from the theater department, a white pañuelo I made from a pillowcase, and my best “old lady sweater.” I walked in and the looks on the students’ faces ranged from confusion to surprise to annoyance (they knew I had duped them!).

But I remained in character and it was the most amazing thing…they PLAYED ALONG. They conversed with me as though they believed I was real. It was an amazing moment of what the poet Samuel Coleridge called suspension of disbelief!

*NOTE: Real guest speakers are nice too. 😉

#5…Recruiting day
(Prior to reading Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha by Anonymous when we learn about the civil war in El Salvador)

During the civil war in El Salvador, students were forcibly “recruited” in their schools, homes, and churches to become soldiers. Prior to discussing this, Carrie Toth has an administrator come in and “remove” a couple of students from class. The students are instructed to protest and get upset. If all goes well the other students DEFINITELY want to know what this is all about!


#4…The selfie (Frida Kahlo by Kristy Placido)

Frida Kahlo was undeniably the original selfie queen! Read more about this hook here!



La Llorona is about to reveal her horrible face!

#3…Unexpected reveal (La Llorona de Mazatlán by Katie Baker)

La Llorona de Mazatlán is a
really fun and suspenseful novel with lots of “teen drama.” I like to really play up the suspenseful nature of this novel to make it more fun. There is a scene I like to act out where La Llorona’s face is finally revealed. I have an actor playing La Llorona, wearing a sheet, weeping, as the main character very slowly and carefully approaches. When she finally reveals her face to the class, she is wearing a horrifying Halloween mask stolen from my 11 year old son…a Zombie Chimp Mask!
#2…Images in the background (Noche de Oro by Kristy Placido)

There is a scene in Noche de Oro where Makenna will have to cross a very scary rope and bamboo bridge across a river. As the students walk in that day, I have slideshow of very scary bridges (search scary bridges on google to find images!) playing on my projector and suspenseful music playing as well. Students don’t exactly know what will be happening in class but they know they are feeling curious about it! When we act out the scene, I have my actors stand on a “bridge” made of 2 tables in front of the projector screen showing a similar bridge.



#1…Music sets the scene (Noches Misteriosas en Granada by Kristy Placido and Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha by Anonymous)

It is sometimes fun to actually play music in the background softly during reading. I recommend instrumental only so that it does not become a distraction. When we read the chapter where Kevin follows Alfonso to the flamenco cave, I play soft flamenco music in the background while we read. It lends a really nice atmosphere to the room! I also control my lighting by using lamps in my classroom (I know that fire codes vary from place to place and this may not be an option for some of you).

Carrie Toth has a gift for finding amazing music that captures the feeling you want to create when teaching on any theme or novel. She blogged about some songs she teaches along with the novel Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha by Anonymous here. I tried the songs Sueño Americano and Gangsta with Spanish 4 this year and they were definitely hooked!

Do YOU have a tried-and-true hook that you use to engage your students in a novel? Please share with everyone in the comments!

Next week on CI Peek I will give you some tips for the “nuts and bolts” of teaching a novel day-to-day. If you have any questions you’d like me to address in this series about teaching novels, please comment here or tweet @tprspublishing with the hashtag #CIPeek!

-Kristy Placido,

  • Ruth Stimart
    Posted at 10:29h, 20 January

    Great ideas! Love the new blog!

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