Using Mathematics to Build an Understanding of the United States

By Clay, Ellen L. | Teaching Children Mathematics, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Using Mathematics to Build an Understanding of the United States


Clay, Ellen L., Teaching Children Mathematics


Mathematics is frequently separated from the rest of the educational experience to such an extent that even in the literature of whole language, with its comprehensive belief systems about integrative study, mathematics is often left out (Armbruster 1992). As a mathematician, I naturally see mathematics abound in the world around us. Therefore, after hearing comments from elementary school teachers that children read and write in every class but do mathematics only in mathematics class, I decided to design a social studies unit that would incorporate the use of mathematics. The resulting unit emphasizes the study of the United States as a whole rather than as fifty individual states.

This project illustrates how mathematics can be used to study a content area so that mathematics enhances students' understanding of the other subject's content while the actual use deepens their understanding of mathematics. Goodman (1986) has long been a proponent of using writing in this manner; the NCTM, through the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1989), concurs. In this article just one example is illustrated to include as much practical detail as possible.

Preamble to the Implementation

Included in many fifth-grade curricula is a unit on the Western Hemisphere. Teachers commonly assign students "state reports" to partially fulfill this requirement, then have the students present these reports to the class. In this traditional assignment, each student learns a great deal about the state that he or she researches and a little about the states researched by his or her classmates. The integrated approach that is the focus of this article is somewhat different. Mathematics is used to create an investigative project that gives purpose to the unit while integrating reading, writing, and mathematics into a content study.

In this student-driven project, the investigative approach centers on the population of the states. When used with a different group of students, the project is almost certain to progress differently because the students will have different ideas to contribute. Only two fundamental ideas need to be heeded: (1) the content should focus on the United States so that the social studies curriculum is not slighted, and (2) the process should remain student driven. With a little patience, questions will arise that allow for covering the curriculum. As you will see in this article, students suggested ideas that introduced quantitative facts, from the usual land areas and number of industries to the order in which the states joined the union and their dependence on water. During class discussions of their work, students began to question why water is so important and why the year in which a state joined the union is a political mark, whereas the year in which the land was inhabited marks the beginning of the story. In addition, they had the opportunity to learn the answer within a context that includes ideas that they had visited throughout the social studies, mathematics, and language arts curricula.

The project was implemented in two fifth-grade classrooms at two different times. During the first implementation, the students researched individual states. Difficulties arose because access to the library was limited and required scheduling, so the lesson did not flow very well. In addition, each student was responsible for two or three states because the class of eighteen students was so small. Finally, the students were not equipped with the critical-thinking skills necessary to complete the project as designed.

Implementation

The second time around, now somewhat wiser, I chose a classroom in which the students had previously completed individual state reports. This approach removed the research issues and allowed us to concentrate on using mathematics to learn about the United States. Since the class had twenty-five students, we concentrated on one section of the country at a time so that each student could work with one state at a time. …

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