cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sometimes I teach, and sometimes I just try to get out of the way...

We are in the midst of our giant 8th grade culminating assessment extravaganza — a multi-part project that includes a research paper, a creative/expressive project, a presentation with slides, and several other components I'm spacing out on at the moment.

I have to admit something here: I used to be an unbeliever when it comes to projects.

I used to think they lacked rigor and intellectual heft.

But I was wrong.

Two years of this process has made me a believer in the power of project-based learning.

Sometimes the creative projects are merely terrific, but every year, there are a few that are incredible. This year, this has already happened twice... and only two projects have been turned in so far (they are due on Monday, 22-Apr-13).

Sometimes it is the quiet, timid kid who really blows my mind. Sometimes it is a kid who is kind of rowdy who reveals another, hidden side. But I never fail to be humbled at the potential inside each of these people, and I am honored to teach them.

So this is a reminder to myself that sometimes my job is simply to get out of their way.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Allegory, iambic pentameter, and 8th graders

In 8th grade English we have just started our poetry unit, which is probably my favorite literature unit, and today was probably my favorite lesson of my favorite literature unit.

I had to start by finishing up what I think of as the "poetry bootcamp" section. There are all the basic terms, the mandatory vocabulary, bleep, blorp, bleep, blorp, and a yada yada yada. BO-RING. That is no way to engage 8th graders.

So I took my opening when I got to allegory, which, as I explained to them, is what we call an "extended metaphor," or as I like to think of it, a "story-length metaphor."

Like the fable of The Ugly Duckling.

I am a believer in the power of storytelling and poetry to save lives. They've saved my life many, many times over, and I know many others who've been saved by them as well.

I told them a version of Clarissa Pinkola Estès' version of The Ugly Duckling. I wove the story from the perspective of the bewildered, misfit duckling who cannot belong but who tries so hard to belong until he JUST. CANNOT. EVEN. At which point, he gets driven out of the flock into the landscape of despair.

He wanders through the landscape of despair — through the forest of his fears — until he has reached the end of all that he knows.

Finally, exhausted and hungry, he paddles out on the lake in search of solace and food. As he is paddling around, lost and spent, a pair of magnificent swans paddle up alongside him and ask if they can swim with him.

He looks over his shoulder to see if there is somebody else behind to whom they must be talking. The water is empty.

After many backs and forths, he relents and allows himself to swim with them. And as the sun peeks through the thick cloud cover, the glassy surface of the water turns into a giant reflecting glass, into which he looks, expecting to see his familiar, unlovable image.

But instead, he sees quite another image looking back at him — the reflected image of a third, equally magnificent swan on the lake.

I told them, we all wander lost at some point in our lives, but if we hold on and remain clear about what we are searching for, we will all eventually find our flock, our tribe, our true pack. The people with whom we can be authentic and with whom we belong. Estès talks about "belonging as blessing" as a promise, and I have learned that this is true, even though I always find the needle on my gas gauge quivering around the "E" end of the spectrum by this point in my journey.

On my own path right now, I'm not "there" yet. I don't know where I'll be teaching this time next year, but I do know the shape of this journey, and I understand that now is the moment when I need to redouble my faith in the archetype — even though every fiber of my being is ready to just lie down and allow myself to be eaten by whatever hungry ghosts are passing my way.

I told my students that there are patterns to our experience, just as there are patterns in mathematics and the natural world and in human history. And I think that I told them what I needed to hear for myself, namely, that education and growing up is the process of discovering and learning to trust the patterns that are bigger and greater than our own, fidgety little monkey minds.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Intro to Quadratics — from "drab" to "fab" (or at least, to something less drab)

Recently, I created a new anchor lesson for my Algebra 1 quadratics unit. I found that, while I really liked the sequencing of activities and questioning in the NCTM Illuminations lesson on "Patterns and Functions," I found their situation and set-up simultaneously boring, contrived, and inane.

Actual photograph of San Francisco monkeys

hosting a tea party in the wild
As is so often the case, I find that a certain, judicious sprinkling of silliness and fun in the set-up can really liven up the lesson. A certain amount of contrivance is necessary in many activities, even those that are based on "real-world situations." So why not stretch the real world to make it conform to the needs of my algebra students?

The Made To Stick elements are all here: multiple access points are provided through manipulatives, storytelling, and humor.

My student investigation sheet, Table for Eighteen... Monkeys is available on A PDF of the Table Tiles master is available here on

Tiny plastic monkeys sold separately. :)

UPDATE: Worksheets now also on the Math Teacher's Wiki, at