Through a creative postcard project, Middle Schoolers learn that math can tell you a surprising amount about yourself.
What Do the Data Say?
Sidwell Friends math teachers are always looking for ways to apply classroom lessons to students’ lives, so when Dear Data—an innovative epistolary project by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec—was published in 2016, 6th grade teacher Lauren Lamb was immediately interested.
“I think we’re always looking to explore math in ways that are outside of the traditional approaches,” she says. “Especially in middle school, the question of ‘When are we going to use this?’ always comes up. To see these two women, whose job it is to use math every day—but also to see that they use math as an art form—was really appealing.”
Giorgia and Stefanie, who work as an information designer and a data designer, respectively, started Dear Data as a year-long project in which they sent each other postcards depicting a variety of different data sets. They tracked everything from compliments they gave to doors they passed through to the reactions they got from smiling at strangers. As the year went on, the postcards got more colorful and more detailed, and their data sets grew more interesting. Reading the book, Lauren knew that she wanted to do something similar with her class.
“Part of the 6th grade curriculum is looking at data analysis, trying to figure out what the numbers tell you,” she says. “But this book looks at how math can actually tell you about yourself. And middle school students are starting to figure out who they are, so it’s a nice time for this kind of project.”
Lauren and 5th grade teachers Mary Dufour and Tracy Wagner decided that they would join their classes together to explore the data sets found in the lives of middle schoolers. Students would collect whatever kind of data tickled their fancy and then apply the things they’d learned in class about data analysis to make a creative postcard. When they were finished, they’d exchange postcards with the students in the other grade and then meet up for pizza to discuss the things they’d learned.
“One of the kids tracked how many times he raised his hand in class and how many times he was called on,” says Lauren. “A lot of kids looked at technologies, which isn’t surprising for middle schoolers. Some kids studied their emotions and how they were feeling throughout the day, tracking subtopics like why they were mad and what made them mad.”
The ways that students chose to represent the data are as varied as the data itself. Some students opted for symbol-strewn pie charts, while others used smiley faces, stars, trees, flowers, and even spider webs, all accompanied by keys that turned their drawings into data. They also had to ensure that their keys were clear and easy to read, so that students from the other class could understand their data sets before they met.
And what was Lauren’s favorite thing about getting to teach data analysis this way? “Their excitement in learning about each other,” she says. “It was really fun when they got to see the other students’ cards, trying to figure out from the image and the key what the students were doing that day. They really had to look beyond the numbers in order to figure out who each person was.”
View a Selection of Student Work