I spend a lot of time with kids. I hear a lot of conversations and comments, some appropriate, and of course, some not so much. I intervene when needed, put in my two cents when required, and am ever watchful to catch misconceptions or challenge errors. Amazingly, I can do all this while also teaching, guiding, and generally going about my day.
Case in point. Today as I sat working with several students on perimeter at the back table, two students were huddled over the world map that was hanging on the back of our bookshelf. I have found that kids absolutely love maps and I have them hanging around my room, as well as a "map basket" stuffed with maps from my travels and student travels around the country and the world. So, the fact that, during math time, students were looking at a map didn't even bother me. Heck! Learning is learning in my book. I figured something had spurred them into checking out the map and I began listening to their conversation.
Anyway, while I waited for my table of future math gurus to calculate the correct perimeter of several shapes, I was listening to the two students looking at spots on the world map. One had pointed out that he was going to Albania this summer to visit his grandparents and see other family. It took them both a minute or two, but they managed to pinpoint Albania on the map. Next, they began to look at and name surrounding countries and talk about where in the world they would love to go. They talked about how far away Albania was from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Somehow they figured it would be "a 5 or 6 hour flight" and asked me if I thought that would be a long flight.
Naturally, I answered, "It depends on how many DVDs you have or if you brought your iPad and your games." The fact that they were way off on the duration of the trip didn't seem important at that moment in time. But I added that they should recall that it is roughly a four hour flight from here to California (a conversation we had had weeks ago as a whole class).
I put my attention back to the perimeter people as they were successfully finishing up their numbers. Then I heard one of the students at the map point out to the other student that it was really, really cold in Brazil. My ears perked up as I listened in to hear the reasoning. Both of them had their fingers pointed at Brazil on the map.
"You're right!" confirmed the student. It says it is 0 degrees there!"
I chuckled to myself as I assigned the next few challenges to the perimeter group and excused myself to head over to the world map and teach them a bit about latitude and longitude. I loved the way they connected the 0 degrees to the only thing they know about -- temperature. I scooted between them and squatted down to their level (and the maps) and asked them if they knew what the climate was like near the equator. Without hesitating, they both told me it was "very, very hot all year long". I pointed to the equator and the 0 degree mark.
"Then how in the world can this map be showing 0 degrees? We know it's not cold there... ever!" I prompted them.
They both look stymied.
"Well, whoever made this map, must have made a mistake," explained one, with a look of disgust on his face.
"You think?" I asked. "I paid good money for this map. I doubt they would make such an error."
We sat in silence for a minute, pondering the possibility of a map-maker making a colossal mistake on a map.
"Have you ever heard of latitude and longitude?" I asked them. They cocked their heads.
"See these horizontal lines on the map?" I continued. "Those are called latitude. The lines from pole to pole are called longitude. They are all measured in increments called 'degrees'," I explained. "We measure temperature in degrees, but we also use degrees in geography and maps. You've heard about GPS?" I asked.
Both nodded their heads.
"Well, the next time you are using your GPS in the car, or on your phone, look carefully and you will be able to see the exact lines of latitude and longitude. That is the spot where you are on the map. It's really cool," I told them.
"But who draws the lines on the map and how do they know where they go?" one of them asked.
At just that exact moment, the perimeter people were becoming a bit restless and my attention turned to them. The map students headed back to their desks to complete their math assignment. A classroom is like that. Things happen. We stop and learn at all times during the day.
And, just like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon game, in a classroom, all ideas can be connected back to math in just five or six steps.