‘I want to learn more’

History-math project makes facts, numbers come alive

From left: Jamison Hopewell and Lexy Gregory share their research with peers

Unpacking the Reconstruction era can be a heavy lift. So, too, government programs that came out of the period of U.S. history from 1863 to 1877 that followed the Civil War, marked the end of slavery and ushered in civil rights.

Over about three weeks, sophomores in Forest Hills Northern High social studies teacher Sara Irwin and math teacher Danielle Harrison’s classes used their research and algebra skills to take positions on various aspects and back them up with numerical evidence.

Aspects studied included voting rights, land ownership, employment rates and education. After researching and collecting data in a particular area, students applied math to determine implications of their chosen subject.

One student’s presentation notes

A pair of adjacent classrooms were transformed recently into a venue akin to a college research symposium so the FHN students could show their work to others.

Jack Sherlock was struck by the 15% unemployment rate during the period, and the effect that had on other aspects of life. “It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like with that, given that we have a 4% unemployment rate right now,” he said.

Ved Katragadda explained how the 15th Amendment “completely changed the political game.”

And after learning how black farmland ownership rates still are affected by an unsuccessful bid to boost it back then: “I want to learn more,” said Qulani Mohammed. “That’s what I like about this project: I’m actually invested.”

Teachers Sara Irwin, left, and Danielle Harrison

Cross-subject Collaboration

As classmates milled about the noisy area, researchers used their best projected voices to present their findings. Irwin and Harrison also made the rounds, making notes on how well groups gave historical context, explained their data, provided analysis and used graphics to illustrate their work.

The project is part of a wider effort at Northern High to encourage cross-curricular collaboration among teachers and students.

“I think it’s been a great way to tie math and social studies,” Irwin said.

Added Harrison: “I like how they got to study not only what is happening, but why — and what that actually means.”

In Phase 2 of the unit, students will be charged to evaluate a modern-day government program using the same methods, and to present their positions via a visual such as a short video or digital storyboard.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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