Inter-disciplinary reading of the news

We tend to box the world into disciplines for students — “math” “science” “geography” “politics” — and I think that does a disservice, especially at the middle school level. The world is far more interesting when it’s explored in its full inter-disciplinary robustness.

So let me take a moment to explain how I would have middle school students do a close reading of a challenging and well-written news article so that they learn about the world in an inter-disciplinary way.

One of the magazines I read regularly is The New Yorker. In the most recent issue, there’s a fascinating article about the spread of deserts — most notably the Sahara Desert in Africa, but the article also looks at the problem on a global scale.

There’s a movement to plant trees to prevent further desert spread (the fancy term for this spread is “desertification,” and as I learned from the article, that word was popularized in the late 1940s by a French botanist).

One particularly cool thing I learned from the article is that people in 11 African nations are interested in working together to plant a strip of trees 9-miles wide that extends 4,800 miles across Africa, just under the Sahara — it’s called the Great Green Wall:

In an ideal world, I would link to the article in The New Yorker in its entirety so you could read it — it’s worth reading. Unfortunately, I can’t link to more than a basic summary of the article, because The New Yorker requires that subscribers enter a password to access its archive of articles.

However, the copyright doctrine of fair use allows me to reproduce two paragraphs from the article for educational purposes, and these two paragraphs will work well for the purpose of this post, which is to show how middle school students can be guided to turn a close reading of a complicated text into a springboard to learn about science, math, geography, history, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and vocabulary — all at the same time.

Let’s jump right in and start with the eleventh paragraph of the article:

“Hoff” is Pieter Hoff, one of the researchers working to re-forest the desert. The argument he makes is pretty simple — human industry sends 9 billion tons of carbon into the air each year, and …

Okay, wait — how big is a billion?

Well, it’s a thousand million. But how big is that?

What would a billion pennies look like, for example?

(this cool image comes from the Mega Penny Project, a terrific resource for picturing large numbers)

And how much is a ton? Well, a ton is 2000 pounds, and a typical car weighs about 3-4,000 pounds, so a typical car is 1.5-2 tons.

It’s hard to do this without students, but before we read any further, I’d let student inquiry guide a brief discussion until we became reasonably comfortable with what “9 billion tons of carbon” means.

And then we’d try to corroborate that number; just because one scientist says it’s 9 billion tons does not mean that’s right. Estimates must vary, right? I just did a quick search and found this source (which quotes Science Daily) that says carbon emissions are up to 10 billion tons per year:

So this carbon emission thing is a big problem.

And the argument that Hoff makes (remember Hoff?)…

Hoff says that one acre of trees will absorb two or three tons of carbon. So if we want to clear up the air, we could either pollute less (not likely, since the world’s population is increasing, and places like China and India are rapidly industrializing) or plant trees to compensate for our industrial strength carbon emissions.

He says that planting five billion acres of trees should do the trick, because two tons of carbon per acre times five billion acres equals the 10 billion tons of carbon we emit as a species per year.

(By the way, an “acre” is roughly a football field, minus the end zones — it’s important, especially for middle school students, to develop the habit of understanding the terms we use — if they read over a term like “acre” without knowing what an acre is, it’s harder to empathize and connect with the argument Hoff is making.)

Let’s move on to the second paragraph in the New Yorker article:

Students at Triangle Learning Community (the school I’m opening in August 2013) would use Google Earth to locate the Negev Desert and would put a place mark there, so that they use this article to expand their world view and build their geographic literacy.

And if students had not heard of Wangari Maathai — the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize — we’d take a five-minute detour to learn the basics of her amazing life.

Now we’re ready for the rest of that second paragraph (New Yorker paragraphs tend to be long, which is not necessarily a bad thing):

So that’s pretty interesting… the Chinese are planting billions of trees and plan to add 100 million acres more. As the article points out though, planting trees and making sure they actually grow are two different things.

As the article points out in a later paragraph:

For a little more math context, I just learned (via Wikipedia) that Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2

Let’s see — how many acres is that? How could I possibly make that conversion??

In this case, Google does not make the conversion for me (did you know Google makes all sorts of conversions?), but it does lead me to a tool that will help:

And when I used that tool, it turned out that Germany is a little more than 88.2 million acres. So yes, if China plants 100 million acres of trees in the Gobi Desert, that would cover an area larger than Germany.

That’s useful context to have when students look at a map of the Gobi Desert, such as this one:

Alert readers will note that in that third paragraph from The New Yorker, I underlined some phrases in blue:

If students had not yet studied the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, we would take some time to go over the basics of those seminal events in modern Chinese history.

If students wanted more details about those events, we’d schedule time later in the week (or the year) to do a more involved look at those events. When we did that, we might read a book such as Red Scarf Girl, to better empathize with what it would feel like to live through that time in Chinese history.

So thanks, New Yorker, for providing challenging reading material that helps students learn about math and geography and politics and history and vocabulary and Nobel Peace Prize winners — at the same time as providing a fascinating look at the science behind the related problems of desertification and carbon emissions.

Not bad for a close reading of two paragraphs.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Inter-disciplinary reading of the news

  1. Pingback: Planning for the 21st century Teaching « cbram1

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