**Overview** | What can understanding the magnitude of numbers tell us about what is happening in the world around us? Why is it important to comprehend numbers in the news? In this lesson, students develop
the skill of understanding numbers in news stories by examining a story that interests them, developing a meaningful context and visually representing the numbers.

**Materials** | Markers, paper, computers with Internet access, newsprint or posterboard, handouts.

**Warm-Up** | Have students complete the Number the News handout (PDF), in which they try to fill in the blanks
in quotes from recent Times articles with the correct numbers. Note that two sentences have two blanks to fill in, and that all 10 of the numbers will be used.

Before they begin, tell students that this activity is not a test, but rather a chance to focus on processing the sorts of numbers that we hear every day and consider what they mean about the world around us.

When all students have completed the handout, go over the correct answers (PDF) as a class. For which quotes did most students guess the correct values? Why were these easier than the rest? For which quotes did most students guess incorrect values? Why were these more difficult? Were any of the correct answers particularly surprising? Why? What can we learn about our world by looking closely at these quotations? Did completing this exercise change the way you think about these news stories? Did completing this exercise change the way you think about these values?

**Related** | **Note to Teacher**: This article details the vast extent of lost life as a result of the earthquake in Haiti. The lesson asks students to develop the skill of understanding numbers
in the context of the news. Be sure to explain to students that this is not merely a lesson about numbers, but about how understanding numerical magnitude in context can provide us with a more accurate perspective
on the world around us, especially in times of crisis. You may wish to substitute a Times article on a different subject if this article is not appropriate for your students.

The article “More Than 150,000 Have Been Buried, Government Says” describes the rising death and migration count after the recent Haitian earthquake:

Haiti’s government provided a preliminary assessment of the earthquake’s body count on Saturday, putting it at more than 150,000, and declared that the search for survivors trapped in the rubble would soon be coming to an end.

Read the article with your class, using the questions below.

**Questions** | For discussion and reading comprehension:

- Which of the numbers reported in this article are officials sure are correct? Why? Which of the numbers are officials less sure about? Why?
- Why are some numbers so hard to collect? Why might it be important to have an accurate count?
- What would the ramifications be if one of these numbers was misreported as having one fewer or one more zero?
- What do the numbers in this story tell you about the magnitude of the earthquake?

How do these numbers compare to those of other disasters? Do you think the numbers of dead, injured or dislocated are more or less than the numbers from Hurricane Katrina? The Indian Ocean tsunami? The terrorist attack of 9/11? What can comparing the numbers of disasters like these tell us? What can’t they tell us?

Comparative numbers can be found in the following articles: “Relief Effort Gains as Aid Is Reaching More Survivors,” “A Nation Challenged: The Death Toll” and “Louisiana Releases Details on Deaths from Hurricane Katrina and Later Flooding.”

Are the numbers of dead, injured or dislocated persons the most important criterion for how devastating a tragedy is? Why or why not? What else might we consider, if anything?

##### RELATED RESOURCES

###### From The Learning Network

- Lesson: Survey Says …: Evaluating Polling Methods and Results
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- Lesson: A Numbers Person?

###### From NYTimes.com

- Haiti Earthquake 2010
- AP: “Haiti by the Numbers: Damage, Help on Giant Scale”
- AP: “A By-the-Numbers Look at Obama’s First Year”

###### Around the Web

**Activity** | As a class, brainstorm current news stories that are of interest to students. Then inform students that they will be working in groups to investigate the numbers in these news stories, put
those numbers into a meaningful context and then create visual representations of the numbers that clarify each number’s magnitude.

For younger students, you might modify this lesson as an exploration of the number 100 (perhaps for a 100th day of school celebration) by having all students work on the same news story, “Fire Destroys 20 Houses in California,” which describes 100 firetrucks being called in to fight a fire, or by having students use print copies of The Times to make a collage of 100 newsworthy people. Have students form small groups based on interests.

*Step 1: Find Articles and References
*

Groups start by finding a timely New York Times article about their topic of interest, then searching NYTimes.com or using Times Topics pages to find relevant numbers.

They may have to look through several articles about their topic to find the numbers that they want. Depending on what stories they choose, they could find numbers of people, dollars, births, deaths, animals, plants, pounds, miles and so on.

*Step 2: Put Numbers Into Context
*

Next, they work together to think of what other numbers and information they might need to collect in order to put the numbers they have found into a meaningful context.

Use the article about the Haitian earthquake that you read as a class as an example of the importance of putting numbers into a meaningful context in order to fully understand their magnitude. As you discussed as a class, the numbers of dead, injured and dislocated persons resulting from the Haitian earthquake mean much more when they are put into the context of the numbers of dead, injured and dislocated persons, or of destroyed buildings and neighborhoods, resulting from other tragedies.

It is also helpful when such numbers are put into a familiar context (i.e., comparing to a local or otherwise recognizable equivalent for the numbers in the article; for example, students could think about what percentage of their town 150,000 people is, and find a way of expressing that in real, accessible terms).

Groups search NYTimes.com for numbers and information that they believe could put the numbers that they’ve collected into a meaningful context.

*Step 3: Create Visual Representations
*

Groups decide how to visually represent these numbers in a meaningful way. Their visual representations should put the numerical values into perspective and clarify the true meaning of the numbers in the context of the news story.

Give students several examples of how visual representations can clarify a numbers’ contextual magnitude. For example, students reading about population growth in another country might want to compare that country’s population to the population of their own country or their hometown.

The following interactive graphics from the Times are good examples of graphics that visually compare numbers to each other: “Tracking Swine Flu Cases Worldwide,” “A Map of Olympic Medals,” “Prison Population Around the Globe” and “States of Conflict.” They might also look at numbers-based articles and blog posts, like “The Bay Area’s Year by the Numbers.”

Still other examples can be found in the Multimedia/Photos Archive and in the work of Charles M. Blow, The Times’s visual Op-Ed columnist, and his blog, By the Numbers.

Some students may want their representations to compare their number to a physical object instead of another number. A good example of how to do this is the MegaPenny Project, which illustrates the value of large numbers by showing what stacks of pennies of different amounts would look like compared to a person. Students might also collect pennies, small candies or another small object in jars to represent a numerical value in a physical form.

Encourage groups to come up with new and different ways of representing their numbers so that their value is clarified and put into perspective.

Finally, groups annotate their visual representation to provide context, using information about and from their news story, analogies they developed and so on.

*Step 4: Discuss and Prepare Class Exhibit
*

Bring the class together for a discussion; tell them that they will share their work soon.

Ask: Did this activity give you new insight into your news story? How? What did you learn about the magnitude of the numbers you were working with? How would the magnitude have been different if there had been one zero missing? What if there had been one zero added? Do you usually pay attention to the numbers in news stories, and try to understand them and what they mean? Why or why not? Why and how does paying close attention to these numbers and understanding their value give greater meaning to a story?

**Going Further** | Groups display their annotated graphics around the classroom, and the entire class does a gallery walk to learn from each other’s work.

Ask students what they learned from the graphics. Ask: Did you gain a new perspective on current events by thinking about the numbers from different news stories in comparison to one another? How so? What were the most surprising numbers that you encountered? Why were you surprised by the magnitude of these particular numbers? Did gaining a new understanding of the magnitude of these numbers provide you with a new perspective on the news story associated with them? How so?

**Standards** | From McREL, for Grades 6-12:

**Mathematics
**1- Uses a variety of strategies in the problem-solving process.

2- Understands and applies basic and advanced properties of the concepts of numbers.

9-Understands the general nature and uses of mathematics.

**Life Skills: Thinking and Reasoning
**2- Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning.

3- Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.

**Language Arts
**4- Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

5- Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

7- Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

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