Squeezing in a beloved annual project

Honestly, I have infographics on the brain right now. Welcome.

This year has been surprisingly busy and fulfilling on the instructional front, though nothing like past years or on almost any expected topics. I was thrilled, then, when our wonderful 7th grade History teacher reached out to ask me to help her wrap up the year with a lengthy infographics project we usually do in November.

Initially, when this collaboration began nine years ago (and before I came to this school, and shepherded by the wonderful Jole Seroff), the idea was to follow the unit on African empires with a look at positive aspects of life in African countries today. Time has taught us, sadly, that statistics do not give rise to seventh graders focusing on encouraging analysis. The project has endured nonetheless and continues morphing in the way good collaborations can sometimes do.

The way we teach this unit has streamlined over the years to make it easier for students, though it might have a bit of a fools rush in… aspect to it, as well. I’ll admit my desire to refresh it each year makes for a tremendous amount of work for me. It is also a big leap for students, and asks them to embrace some really new ways of thinking. But it is worth the growing pains — while high school students look back on it with some exaggerated shudders, there also exists some great love, and a handful of skills for which they voice deep appreciation in those later years.

Overall, I would argue that this is a process-based project: if you look at the final infographics they don’t tell the actual story. The insights offered in student presentations are much more telling. And the conversations we have over the course of this unit are varied and deep: Can we use data from different years in different graphs? Why doesn’t Rwanda have statistical data on prevalence of certain genetic diseases within its population the way the US does? Why doesn’t the US have an official literacy rate the way other countries do? Can we trust China’s numbers on incarceration? Explain that GDP thing again? What is “primary education”? This year brings: My hypothesis is that Russia has fewer women in prison than the US, but all my data shows that predictors of imprisonment are higher in Russia…. Do I need to change my thesis? (So many interesting conversations there.) And, hearing a roomful of seventh graders recommending that a classmate use “per capita” data in her graph instead of gross numbers, and explaining why… well, it is certainly a high point in my time as an educator.

This project has a lot of quirky methods and rules that have developed over the years, but they seem to help us get the project running smoothly. I’ve outlined the 3-4 week lesson plan below, for those who want to dig in. As always, very open to feedback and suggestions! Would love to hear in the comments if you do infographics or other data projects and what your objectives are.

Library’s data literacy objectives:
1. Develop a sense for the kinds of topics on which official statistics are collected and some of the specialized language used by statisticians.
2. Understand the difference between description and interpretation of a visualization. Be able to identify and produce both.
3. Understand that different visualizations are good for different types of data. Be able to select/produce the right kind.
4. Understand that evidence does not always have your topic mentioned in it. Broaden individual understanding of what can count as evidence.

Day 1:
1. What is an infographic? (Slides 1-2)
2. Virtual gallery walk of good and bad infographics (This year, rest of slides; most years we have a lot of infographics we hang around the room for the gallery walk.)
A. Have students list characteristics they see of different infographics, and then keep track of every time they saw that characteristic used, categorizing them into:
i. thesis, evidence, graphs, and design and
ii. helpful or unhelpful
B. Build class rubric (adapts to project rubric)

Day 2:
1. Look at different data visualizations, discuss the difference between description and interpretation of a visualization. Practice with the Banana Timeline.
A. Students start at their assigned slide and follow directions on slide 10.
i.Interpretation: This graph shows THAT…
ii. When can you use this type of visualization?
B. Pair and share: introduce your graph to your partner, sharing what you wrote. Ask your partner a question about their graph.
C. As a class, build “Tips for graphing” so you will know how and when to use different data visualizations.
2. Read this quick summary of topic areas and pick one.

Day 3:
1. Childhood obesity practice:
A. Explain “working thesis/hypothesis” – can change
B. Your working thesis should have a comparison (across time, gender, place)
C. Example: “Over the past 20 years, childhood obesity has been a growing
problem in the United States.”
i. Identify the comparison.
ii. Brainstorm possible “subtopics.” Subtopics are related topics which, in this project, may not repeat words/ideas from your thesis (except time, gender, or place names). Students often come up with ideas like:
a. Hours of screen time
b. Percentage of schools with PE classes
c. Percentage of families who eat dinner together
d. Average distance to closest supermarket
e. Hours of homework
f. Participation in athletics
g. Cost of healthy food, like product
h. etc.
2. Students read background portfolios on their topic area:
A. Practice stepping stones as a class, then together look for stepping stones (No
pandemic? Do this in groups.)
C. Look at starting graphs and draft a working thesis.
1. Over the years, we have found it works best for us to provide them with graphs from which they chose one and write an interpretive statement communicating some of the information shown as their hypothesis, which can change as they develop their infographic.
2.This year, I was able to create these background reading documents, which I stuffed with references to indicators related to their topic. They used these background readings as stepping stone sources to plan the next round of research. For example, one of our topics was global female imprisonment, and the background reading included this passage:

…I learned that crime is not what really brought these women to prison. Far from it. It started with a lack of education, whose supply and quality is not equal for all. It starts with a lack of economic opportunities, which pushes these women to the petty survival crimes. The broken health system, the broken criminal system, the broken social-justice system. If any of these poor women fall through any of these cracks, the bottom of that chasm is a prison.

From this passage, they can note that indicators related to imprisonment include: education, economic opportunities, healthcare, etc.

Homework: Write a working thesis, complete noting potential subtopics mentioned in the background reading.

Day 4:
1. Introduce acceptable data sets. We provide all data. This is still hard and messy, to navigate, but just sending them to online databases (go look at UN Data!) is waaay too hard. So we give them this TOC (mostly links to spreadsheets I have downloaded and cleaned up).
2. Take out list of subtopics gleaned from the background reading and look through the TOC (we have them read the *whole* thing, saves arguments later!).
3. Pick a data set that covers a topic that will help contextualize your thesis (we talk quite a bit about how this is not really “evidence” since neither causation nor directionality is assured).

Homework: Draft your first graph.

1. We spend a *lot* of time demonstrating imperfect circles, terrible stick figures, and sloppy handwriting. They hear not to spend more than 10 minutes on the draft. We compliment students on the “draftiness” of their drafts.
2. We ask for screenshots of the data and the citation because the number of ways students find to lose track of their data as this project continues defies the imagination. Also, always better to build your citations as you go!

Next several classes:
Independent work. Each night, for four nights, students sketch a rough draft on paper of a visualization of one data set they planned to use as evidence. Each day, in class, we select five visualizations and discuss them as a class–each student has a chance to have one visualization complemented and critiqued. She tells the class her working thesis, describes her data visualization (projected on the screen), and tells us how it helps explain a systematic factor impacting her thesis. Then, she got three compliments, three questions, and three kinds of constructive feedback. We encourage student to take notes/jot down new ideas based on peer work and/or critiques.

When they do the fourth graph, we also ask them to write four “statistical statements” – a bit more data or other interpretive information to help flesh out the story their infographic tells.

Day 8:
1. Students get a piece of paper and post-its to do a mock up (wireframe) of their infographic.
2. When students turn in their bibliography and show their paper wireframe, they get their code for Pictochart and learn to set it up.

Day 9:
Assemble infographic on Pictochart

Day 10:
Prepare to present your infographic. You will tell us:
Explain your main argument or thesis statement. What do you intend for your infographic to convey? Explain why you were interested in this topic, and the information you were thinking you’d find when you started this project.
Explain 2 of your 4 graphs and how they relate to your thesis.
Explain 2 pieces of your additional evidence, and how they add to your argument
What was one aspect of your infographic that was difficult for you? How did you resolve this difficulty?
What information did you wish you had found that you were unable to find?
If you were to start this project again with the same topic, how would you approach your infographic differently?

Day 11-12:

Presentations (eight per day)

3 thoughts on “Squeezing in a beloved annual project

  1. Thanks for giving such a clear template for how this is organized. I also appreciate that you specifically noted that the information within the presentations does not necessarily relate to their knowledge of the subject, and with that age, conversations can provide a more accurate barometer.

  2. I am preparing a presentation for the administration about adding more data literacy to the curriculum. This post arrived at just the right time. Thank you for sharing data lesson strategies.

  3. Cathy, you might want to check out Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction (http://datalit.sites.uofmhosting.net/) for more, and also look for work that PI Kristin Fontichiaro has done since, and I think that Wendy Steadman Stephens has stayed pretty active in the field.

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