In search of all great lessons, I stumbled across Robert Kaplinsky’s Zoolander lesson, which was created for the concept of scale. Although teaching scale was months away when I discovered the Zoolander lesson, I immediately created slides and customized the lesson so that I would not forget about it. I waited for months excitedly anticipating the day I was ready to teach scale to try it out with my students. It looked so good!

For anyone who ever chuckled at the original Zoolander movie as my husband and I did, there is a scene where Will Ferrell’s over the top hilarious character (Mugatu) is trying to convince Ben Stiller’s character, Derek Zoolander, to model for his show. To entice Derek out of his model retirement, Mugatu shows him a scale model of a reading center Derek had previously told his manager he wanted to open for underprivileged children. Mugatu promised Derek that he could open the center if he signed on to model for his show. Derek has no concept of what a scale model is, and when Mugatu shows him the scale model of the reading center, Derek thinks it is supposed to be the actual building. He thinks he is being taken advantage of and claims that the building needs to be at least 3 times as large. Robert Kaplinsky bleeps out “3” in Derek’s retort so students have to determine what Derek said. The question students are presented with is, how many times larger should the builders make the actual school?

Currently, I teach different levels and pacing of algebra. For my advanced students, I gave them very little to go on after presenting the question and the clip. I highlighted some of the math practice standards they were expected to follow such as persevering in problem solving, constructing viable arguments, and reasoning abstractly. I showed them several Zoolander still shots (provided by Robert Kaplinsky), shared the fact that an average story was 10 feet high in a building, and that Ben Stiller was 5’7”. That was literally all the information I gave them. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was excited to watch.

Initially, a few students asked for more information, but when I told them that I was not providing them with additional information, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated innovative thinking. My job for the lesson essentially became flipping the still shots back and forth on demand as students worked out strategies. They grabbed my rulers from the class stash and started measuring images on the SmartBoard such as Derek’s arm span and the distance from the building to his head. They started debating whether or not the base counted as a building story or whether the giant book on top did as well. In other words, they persevered and applied mathematical reasoning to an abstract problem because they had no other choice. It stretched their thinking and mathematical prowess.

By the close of the lesson, students successfully shared several strategies with very different answers. (Their answers ranged from 54 times as big to 120 times as big). Some students counted the base of the building and the book and others didn’t. A few students compared the model people to the height of one floor and made their mathematical predictions based on that relationship. Several people concluded that there were about 12-13 stories and used the other information to make their calculations for the scale factor. Students also estimated that based on Ben Stiller’s height, the model was about 1.5 feet and made their calculations from that vantage point. What all students were doing, regardless of whether or not they knew how to get to an answer, demonstrated an understanding of the scale factor and scale model concept based on their problem solving application. One student asked me, why are we doing this? As I repeated the question back to him, he rolled his eyes, smiled, and said, “To apply the scale model concept to something beyond the math book.” Ha! Nailed it!

I then decided to try the same lesson with my other classes, but I knew they would need additional scaffolding. Based on my observation of the advanced students, I inserted additional clues in my slide presentation. Before I showed them the stills and provided Ben Stiller’s height and the average height of a story in a building, I structured the lesson like a Dan Meyer 3-act lesson. After showing them the clip of Zoolander with the scale model, I asked students to write down any questions that came to mind. We shared with each other. Some questions were, how tall is Ben Stiller, how many feet was the model, how many students are supposed to attend the school, what will the budget be for the school, etc. At this time, I let students know that their task was to determine how many times larger the actual school had to be in relation to the scale model. I asked students to come up with a wish list (if I would grant them their desires) of tools and/or information to help them solve this problem. Students asked for the answer (naturally), the height of the model, how tall a story was, the size of the plot of land for the building, and so forth.

Disappointing, but not surprising to them, I provided them with the limited information I had provided my previous class. This included the height of Ben Stiller, the average height of a story in a building, and several still shots from the video clip. I offered them rulers (which was the one change from the other class who just asked for them) and left them with a final thought before giving them time to solve: Now that you know your task and the limited tools you will be provided, what strategies could you use to unravel this mathematical mystery? How can you work around not having the exact information you want?

Many students who tend to struggle rose to the occasion and illustrated bravery in taking chances in solving the problem. Yet, students who tend to crave procedure and rules were taken aback (as has been a pattern for them with these types of lessons) and continually asked me for assistance. With every question these students asked, I responded with another question. The uneasiness some students experience when not knowing exactly what to do has proven to be almost debilitating. That makes it my job to make these students feel uncomfortably comfortable. I can’t just give them answers; I have to provide them with tools to independently and confidently find ways to chase the unknowns in math. This is an ongoing challenge for me personally and I am always searching for ways to help students help themselves.

Overall, the conclusion of the lesson resulted in a very similar outcome when compared with the advanced class closure. However, I made another change for this class and used the third act. The third act was sharing the Zoolander clip (previously bleeped by Kaplinsky) where Derek says that the building has to be at least three times as big. The class laughed and commented on Derek’s terrible analysis. A few savvy students reflected, “Well, technically, he isn’t wrong. He said at least 3 times bigger.”

I was on the fence after I used this lesson as to whether or not the process helped students strengthen their understanding of the scale model concept for all levels. For the advanced students and many students in my other levels, I certainly think it did, but perhaps I am justifying a fun experience in my room. Some lessons are like that. Yes, they make a class enjoyable, and yes, they seem like they are mathematically sound, but in the end, as a teacher, you can’t help but question if the lasting impact of the concept was made. I never forget that there is more to a math lesson than being “Really, really, ridiculously good looking.”