Integrating math and social studies: ‘Ten Black Dots’ and September 11th

iStock_000020043468XSmallTo find the time to teach social studies and science to elementary school students, educators have had to become highly resourceful at integrating these subjects with reading instruction. But, teachers have found it much more difficult to integrate other content areas with mathematics, especially in the upper elementary grades, according to a recent article in The Social Studies.

“In our experiences in working with upper-elementary teachers, we have observed that other content areas are hardly, if ever, mentioned during the mathematics period,” write Leah Kinniburgh and Kelly Byrd.

In the early grades, a popular book for integrating math and reading is “The Ten Black Dots.” a book that introduces the mathematical concept of geometry by showing how black dots or circles illustrate things that surround us such as the sun, eyes, stones, etc. But, as math concepts become more complex, teachers find it more and more difficult to integrate math with other content areas, even reading.

In this article in The Social Studies, researchers show how “The Ten Black Dots,” generally taught in the early primary grades, was used to teach 4th-6th-graders about September 11 in a lesson that integrated social studies, reading and math. In the lesson, researchers used another book called “September 11, 2001: Attack on New York City,” which is recommended for ages 11 and up.

The lesson began with informal questions about September 11 and with a discussion about students’ knowledge of the event. These students were 4- and 5-years old in 2001, so their knowledge came from what their parents had told them and from what they had seen on the news in the years that followed, the researchers write. Their comments were recorded on chart paper. The comments included the following: “Terrorists flew airplanes into the buildings in New York,” “people ran out of the buildings screaming,” and “lots of people died.” The regular school teacher and class continued to read the book throughout the week.

After an introduction to the topic, the students were introduced to the book, “Ten Black Dots”. The students were asked to look around the classroom to find circle-shaped objects such as desk legs, eyelets of their sneakers, doorknobs, etc. Then they were given 10 black Avery self-sticking dots and told to create a picture about September 11 using as many as 10 dots or as few as one dot. Their pictures had to include a description as well as the number, written both as a word and numeral, of the black dots used.

Use of black dots

One student used black dots to signify the windows on the first tower hit by airplanes; another used a dot for the nose of one of the airplanes, another for the eyes of children crying. Students responded very positively to the integrated lesson and were proud of the work they created, the researchers say.

The activity could be modified to teach any event in U.S. history, the researchers write. Not only does it make efficient use of one class period to teach social studies as well as reading and math, but it also helps students find meaning and purpose in the mathematical principles being presented and to make them more motivated in learning math.

“Quality children’s literature can be used to create a positive environment for learning mathematics and can bring it to life in the classroom,” the researchers write. “It can make the abstract become concrete and can engage students who suffer from math anxiety.”

When searching for literature to use in teaching math in the upper grades, teachers should remember that they can go beyond the recommended age group for the book, the researchers write.

“We have found that picture books intended for primary grades can be used effectively in upper grades to extend mathematical concepts that are abstract to students,” the researchers write.

“Ten Black Dots and September 11: Integrating Social Studies and Mathematics Through Children’s Literature,” by Leah Kinniburgh and Kelly Byrd, The Social Studies, January/February 2008, pp. 33-48.

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