The Cowdog Curriculum

A painting by Gerald L. Holmes depicts Hank the Cowdog and his sidekick, Drover, outside the National Ranching Heritage Center.

When he answered the phone that afternoon, John Erickson was not expecting a call from the local school librarian. She wanted him to do a reading of his book for the children at her school. Erickson was confused by the interest in his book from such a young crowd as he had not written his stories about Hank the Cowdog and his adventures on the ranch as a children’s series. But she told him of the amount of interest generated by the students in her elementary school, so he agreed, but warned her the students might not understand the humor in the story.

As he stood in the middle of the gymnasium, he quickly realized he was wrong. Surrounded by the laughter of children, Erickson realized he had found his audience for series that would sell over 8 million copies worldwide.

“I never knew I was writing for children,” Erickson said. “The teachers were the ones who told me.”

Since the first “Hank the Cowdog” book was released in 1983, Erickson has toured the country reading excerpts of his books, playing songs about the ranch on his banjo, and bringing the series’ lead character, Hank, to life.

When Julie Hodges was named the director of education at the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, she realized she finally had a reason to contact the author of the books she had read growing up. After meeting Erickson at a local reading and concert for the City of Lubbock Libraries, she knew she wanted him to do a concert at the NRHC.

As Hodges nervously waited for 4 p.m., she couldn’t help but be apprehensive about the event they had planned for the afternoon. She had no idea what to expect in terms of attendance. At the reading and concert where she had met Erickson, only about 40 children had been in attendance.

“Because of the attendance I saw at some of his previous events, I had no clue what to expect in terms of attendance,” Hodges said.

But to her surprise, as she introduced him to the stage, she was greeted by over 1,000 smiling faces that were ready to hear Erickson. It was then she knew there was a great connection with “Hank the Cowdog” and the NRHC. She maintained contact with Erickson and continued to coordinate events that featured the author and his stories.

“While he was at the NRHC one day, Erickson told me about a series of books he had written focused on the actual operations and work of the cowboys using Hank as a guide,” Hodges said.

Erickson had spent several months writing three books, with the first about ranching and livestock, the second about cowboying and horses, and the third about ranch wildlife. Although the books were never published, Erickson said he always treasured the books as a different use for the voice he had created through Hank and hated to see them go to waste.

As Hodges read through the transcripts, she was surprised to read Hank the Cowdog, the mystery solving pup she had read about as a child, was taking on the role of a teacher. Hodges said as a long-time “Hank” fan and educator, she was excited because every chapter seemed to align with the science or social studies kids are learning in elementary school. As the director of education at the NRHC, she said it is her job to get people excited about the history of ranching and to help them learn about it.

“What better way to help students learn about ranching than with the help of Hank the Cowdog as your teaching assistant?” Hodges said. “Ericson is a curriculum genius.”

Hodges said she couldn’t wait to ask Erickson for his permission to share the manuscript with some of her friends in the Lubbock Independent School District and the heads of curriculum for science and social studies at Region 17 Education Service Center. In elementary school, finding appropriate science and social studies resources, that are not textbooks, is difficult.

“I think they were even more excited than me about the information available in these books and how they closely aligned with the fourth grade curriculum being currently taught,” Hodges said.

From there, the next step was deciding how to get the books out to the public. Funding was required. Luckily, a private donor loved the partnership and gave the NRHC $10,000 to publish enough of the first book in the series for every fourth grade student in LISD and about 2,000 students from surrounding areas.

Region 17 was so excited about the idea of their students receiving “Jam books they created a book of activities for science and social studies teachers to use that correspond with each chapter and shortly thereafter began to host workshops that taught the curriculum. The partnership made it possible to not only get one of the books into the hands of students but get practical use as a classroom resource.

As book two was launched in the early fall 2017, Erickson said he was invited to do a reading to fourth graders from the surrounding area where the second book of the series was again able to be donated to the students.

Hodges has continued to spread the word about Hank by traveling to national teacher conferences to talk about this project.

“Not only is it a really cool collaboration with a museum, a school district, and a children’s author, but also a really interesting way to teach social studies and science, especially in Texas,” Hodges said.

The “Hank the Cowdog” series has created many opportunities when it comes to teaching, but the NRHC plans to take the stories one step further. Because part of the proceeds from the Ranch Life Series will come back to benefit the NRHC to help with education, Hodges said she and her team are in the process of finalizing a concept for a ranch life center at the NRHC. The center would be a permanent indoor/outdoor exhibit where people could come to learn the basics of ranching with “Hank the Cowdog” as their guide. Areas in the ranch life center would correspond with areas in the book.

“It will be a cool way to spread the history of ranching,” Hodges said, “But also to learn about ranching’s contemporary issues, which are a part of our mission at the NRHC.”

This book has brought the history of ranching to students in the Lubbock area and many beyond. The curriculum made possible by the Ranch Life Series is spreading the history of ranching in an entertaining way that makes learning fun for all ages.