I slipped quietly into Room 304, trying not to distract the fourth graders, who were finishing up a writing assignment. I set up my laptop to project to the white board at the front of the room. The classroom teacher gave students a reminder that students had 1 minute left to work before we started social studies.

Harry eyed me suspiciously from his desk on the far left side of the room. “Wait… social studies?”

Students started to shuffle around the room, and more of them noticed me. I’m a familiar face. This is my 7th year as a math specialist/coach at my school.

“Why is the math teacher here for social studies?” Jason wondered aloud.

“Yeah!”

I paused. “Because I’m going to teach social studies today,” I said with a smile. I used to be an elementary classroom teacher, and I majored in American history in college, but the fourth graders in front of me associate my presence with math exclusively.

I launched into the #slowrevealgraph routine.

What do you notice?

What do you wonder?

Pretty quickly, I realized that students hadn’t seen many line graphs. The first noticings shared were that they saw “two triangles,” which seemed to the the large red region on the left and the thin region with the gentle slope towards the right. Another student insisted this one “starts small and gets big.”

“This isn’t like a normal graph. It’s not like… cats and dogs. Usually graphs are made of blocks. They’re not really slanty,” Sierra explained. “This one is slanty.” I heard murmurs of other students agreeing.

“So, you don’t see categories, like we usually see in a bar graph?”

“Yeah,” Sierra nodded, but didn’t look fully satisfied.

“It reminds me of that thing business people have, that goes UP and DOWN,” Bryson offered, with some wild gesticulation. A few students giggled.

“Precisely! Sometimes you’ll see charts and graphs like this in business settings, especially in the movies or on TV. They’re called line graphs. They show how something changes over time.”

One by one, I saw students eyes widen, as if to say “ohhh! I get it!” It’s my favorite expression: lightbulb face.

I accepted a few other responses, including some wonderings about the data — is this about the number of Spanish territories over time? Is this about the amount of money that Spain had after spending so much on the journeys to the Caribbean? Students felt stumped.

“Are you ready for more information?”

To a chorus of YES, I revealed the next slide:

What new information did we learn?

How does this change our thinking about the graph?

When do you think the slope downwards started? Why?

I love revealing the next slide. I typically flick back and forth between the first and second slide a few times so that it looks like the new information is flashing. Students start talking almost instantly, trying to make sense of it. The class splinters off into 10 different side conversations, and I use a clapping signal or chime to gather the group.

When doing a #slowrevealgraph, I like to ask students first to name the new information we just learned. Many students want to skip right to interpretation — they want to revise their rough draft thinking! — but it’s important for us to identify that new information collectively.

“Awww! It IS a timeline! We got this, guys!” Bryson shouted.

“I think it’s about Columbus,” Ahmed stated.

“Why?”

“I think it starts to go down at about 1492.”

“How do you know it’s 1492?”

“It’s a tiny bit far away from 1490… but it’s still close to 1490… not 1510. In 1492, Columbus…” Ahmed trailed off. “If it’s 1492, it’s about Columbus.”

Students were eager for more information.

What new information did we just learn?

What does the “3” represent? 
…the “1”?

I flicked back and forth between the 2nd and 3rd slides a few time, again to emphasize the new information: population (in millions).

“Oh, that’s what I said! Population!” Harry was beside himself.

“Oh, the population goes down!”

“I said population! I said population!” Harry. Again.

“I think it’s population of Native Americans, because it really started to drop in 1492 because of Columbus,” Daniel hypothesized.

“What do people think about that?” I asked.

Students instantly put out their thumbs to show agreement.

“I double agree!” Bryson exclaimed.

“We solved one of our wonderings! Now we know what it’s about!” Lukas whooped.

I cautioned them that we were still in rough draft thinking, since there’s still more information to reveal. And with that, I advanced to the next slide:

What new information did we just learn?

Are you surprised? Why or why not?

About how many Taíno people were living in the Caribbean in 1492?

The students started offering their interpretations. “I think they killed them,” Sierra said delicately. Students around her nodded their heads.

“I kind of agree with Sierra… before the Europeans went to the Indians they had a higher population, and then when they came… then the Europeans took all the resources.”

Then we started estimating the population at various points in time, starting with a more straightforward point — 1492, the start of the decline — I asked students to turn and talk with others around them about the estimated number of Taínos in the Caribbean in 1492. Most students quickly estimated 3 million, while a few hedged their bets and said “more than 2 million. I can’t tell if it goes over.”

We then discussed the point at which it starts to level it off, around 1508.

Students crowded at the board. Initially, several students had suggested that it was a small number, like 50, because it was such a steep descent from 3 million. Given some time to process with a partner, and examine the graph more closely, allowed them to revise their thinking.

Jacob measured the length from 0 to 1 million as 10 inches, and the height of the line graph in the year 1508 as 1 inch. “So that’s 1/10… and 1,000,000 ÷ 10 is 1000,000.”

Sierra tried to estimate benchmarks. Halfway between 0 and 1 million is 500,000, and then halfway again is 250,000, and this looks like a little less than halfway again, so 100,000.

Students were aching to know the actual figure, so I revealed the next slide.

What new information did we just learn?

Lastly, we estimated the size of the Taíno population in 1550. Sadly, by that point, the population had reached zero. Of course, there are still people with Taíno ancestry today, but by 1550, everyone in that area had mixed ancestry, for much more disturbing reasons than I was willing to discuss at the end of the day in a fourth grade classroom.

This is the original graph from the NYSTROM Atlas our fourth grade classes use. I had used photoshop to flatten the colors and remove the skull imagery for the slow reveal. It would be too much of a giveaway!

We started to discuss why the data looks like this. “They were killed.” “They were kidnapped.” “I think they were slaves, too.” All of these responses were correct. They were victims of genocide, they were victims of enslavement, and they were victims of disease. Because some of the Spanish settlers had grown accustomed to the “free” labor that enslaved Taínos provided, they were cruelly and callously distraught that the population declined, so they were motivated to initiate and participate in the “transatlantic slave trade.”

This data is important.

Students were floored. A few students tried to make light of it with some vaguely sarcastic quips, but they were ignored. Most importantly, the students were all hooked, and ready to learn more. Tomorrow, they will read more about the fate of the Taínos and the rise of slavery in the New World.

When I first started teaching, under the George W. Bush administration, my colleagues and some of my students’ families considered me “political” and “controversial” because I insisted on teaching a “balanced perspective” to Columbus day. We read Jane Yolen’s Encounter, and discussed the perspective of both the indigenous people and the Europeans. While I maintain that this was a reasonable entry point for my students — 9 year olds living in a majority conservative town, with no experience talking about race or the European legacy — I now see the cowardice in this “balanced” approach, too. My current school is in a majority liberal community, which impacts my decisions, but I like to think that I wouldn’t be afraid to confront these ideas, no matter what my school setting. I would just need to think about how to deliver them.

So why bring the math teacher into social studies class?

I could write a blog post twice as long as this sharing why I was so excited about the potential for using data routines in other content areas. For now, here are some key ideas:

  • Using the slow reveal approach allowed students to focus on different parts of the graph, and construct meaning as a community.
    • We started by looking at the shape of the data, then revised our thinking based on the x-axis, and revised our thinking again based on the y-axis. This gave students time to process and transform their thinking.
    • This was all done collaboratively.
  • We increased access.
    • Even students who were unfamiliar with line graphs were able to interpret and make sense of this data with the scaffolds!
  • The task promoted discourse across both content areas.
    • The ambiguity at the beginning allowed students to start to make hypotheses that developed as the slow reveal progressed.
    • Students were asked to make sense of the data in a historical context. We should examine the context of data, both collection and representation!
  • We increased engagement.
    • Students would not have given this graph, originally found in the corner of a textbook page, much thought without this experience. With the slow reveal, students excitedly awaited the next piece of information. It piqued their curiosity.
    • They want to know why.
    • Every single student participated. Every. Single. One.

Resources

  • The Decline of the Taínos Slow Reveal PPT (via google slides)
    • It includes my questions in the presenter’s notes. These questions were designed for this particular fourth grade class. I could see older students being ready to examine other mathematical features, e.g. estimate the slope.
  • Check out the Slow Reveal Graphs Website that I edit. There are links to other blog posts about Slow Reveal Graphs, and lots of classroom ready graphs to try!