Make Your Lesson Opener Like the First Lines of a Novel


"Call me Ishmael."

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." 

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

"I wrote this sitting in the kitchen sink."

"I am an invisible man."

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly norma, thank you very much."

From Moby Dick to Harry Potter and great literature in between, there's something extraordinary about the opening lines to a well-written novel. 

Writers know that these opening lines are critically important - they can set the tone, foreshadow, introduce a key character, establish point of view, share a bit of the craft that makes the author and their work stand out, and serve to capture the reader's attention in a sea of literary competition. It's no wonder that people often collect opening lines to novels and that writers pay a lot of attention to them. They're that important and impactful to a story.

And I think this same idea can translate well to instruction. That opening to a lesson can serve many of the same purposes as those first sentences of a novel - it can establish a purpose, give a peek into what's going to be accomplished, set the tone of the work for the day, share how the work today builds toward a culminating task, and capture your students' attention. It's the opener to your work, and it can be just as important and impactful as a novel opener.

Here are a few lessons to take from crafting a well-written novel opener that we can apply to lesson openers, too:

  • State your theme or purpose: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice opens with "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." We immediately know the centrality of her story before we know the particulars. In a lesson, we should think about ways to set a very clear and central purpose for the day's work before students dig into the nitty gritty of it, so they can see their way through to its goal and their work toward that.
  • Set the scene: In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath uses both sensory details and concrete events to set the scene for her main character. In a lesson opener, students want to know not only how that day's work will look in general, but also how it connects to work that has already been done and work to come. It helps establish a throughline that makes sure the important learning gets done - and the unimportant can fall by the wayside.
  • Establish a tone: The first chapter of The Catcher in the Rye clearly sets an irreverent and jaded tone that weaves its way throughout the book. In a lesson opener, we can set the tone of the work through learning targets or work structures. Will today be a whole class close read with close annotation? Or is it a bit looser, with students at varying stages of finishing up a piece of writing? 
  • Communicate the expectations: When Gabriel Garcia Marquez opens One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel Buendia is facing a firing squad, and we immediately know what the stakes are in the story. When we think about opening our lessons, we want to be sure to clearly communicate the end product that's expected of students. It could be notes taken during research, a gist statement of a critical piece of the text, a rough draft of a piece of writing, or a summary of that day's reading. Whatever that end product is, it should be clear to us and to students what we're looking at to see how well we're moving toward that day's goals and the goals of the unit as a whole.
  • Be unexpected: In 1984, when George Orwell opens with the clocks striking thirteen, that unusual detail immediately captures our attention. This idea may be the hardest to put into practice without derailing your opener. Fun "hooks" and attention grabbers can easily go awry when they focus students' attention on something other than the purpose at hand. For example, in a lesson opener in a module about the American Revolution, dressing up as George Washington for the day may capture the students' attention, but it can also keep their attention on the novelty of the costume rather than the breakdown of the first parts of the Declaration of Independence. So, use these - but judiciously and well.
  • Be quick: Herman Melville has one of the most memorable opening lines in all of literature, and it's simply three words: "Call me Ishmael." Many acclaimed novels' opening lines are brief, carefully crafted, and to the point, and a lesson opener should be the same. The opening to both is important, but it's just the entry point; the real work begins when we're engaging deeply with the text. 

Here's how all of that can come together in a lesson opener:

  • State your theme or purpose: "All right folks, today we are continuing to dig deep into the work of J.M. Barrie and the world of Peter Pan. We're going to read the first chapter of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens which is another book about Peter Pan by Barrie. We'll determine the gist of it and the meaning of some words that are new to us. Then we'll compare and contrast this chapter with Peter Pan. 
  • Set the scene: So far, we have read plenty of Peter Pan, and we've practiced this reading habit of first thinking about the gist, then figuring out the meanings of unfamiliar words, and then reading it a bit more closely. These are habits that close readers use all the time to really understand what an author's trying to tell us. We'll take what we learn from J. M. Barrie today and use that to understand chapter 2 tomorrow. 
  • Set the tone: We'll start by reading the chapter with a partner and coming together to talk about vocabulary. Then we'll do a bit of independent work to think carefully about both texts. 
  • Communicate the expectations: I'll be doing a quick check of your compare and contrast T-chart today, and I'll be looking for at least two ways the stories are alike and different, textual evidence, and your explanation to connect your evidence to your idea.
  • Be unexpected: So, let's put our best British thinking hats on, take a moment to close our eyes to picture our cast of characters before us, and let's see what they'll do in this new-to-us story today."
  • Be quick: This can all be communicated, with total participation techniques with the students, in under 5 minutes.

And what can be more full circle, than taking lessons from great literature and applying them to the teaching of great literature?

Here's to simply teaching well,

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