In Minnesota, We Understand Negative Integers

We Minnesotans are a hearty bunch. Even before the polar vortex swept in, making our winters sound more dramatic than ever before, we were use to brutal, below-zero temperatures for a good part of the year. We whine about it, brag about it, and count the days until summer comes and we can enjoy this beautiful state once again. I’d like to think there’s a silver lining though — our students have some familiarity with negative integers! Our constant, state-wide discussion of the winter temperatures allows students to begin identifying with negative integers early on, and I’d like to think that they have a good grasp on the fact that -40 is less than (and colder than!) -20, based on their experience with those numbers. I believe that building personal relevance with what we’re teaching students is key.

As students become more familiar with integers, they should continue to be introduced to real-life situations. Our textbook, Mathematic Reasoning for Elementary Teachers, presents the following problems:

At mail time, suppose that you are delivered a check for $20. What happens to your net worth?

….suppose that you are delivered a bill for $35. What happens to your net worth?

…..suppose you receive a check for $10 and a bill for $10. What happens to your net worth?

These types of questions make my heart flutter with happiness. Back in my accounting days, I volunteered with a program called Junior Achievement, whose goal is to increase students’ financial literacy. Those that volunteered in the middle and high school would talk about budgeting, economics, etc., but I volunteered in elementary classrooms where we started small – like how our roles in the community work, why we pay taxes, and so on. Like learning about negative integers by comparing them to our frigid temperatures, asking questions like those posed above will help students make connections to their life and better retain what they’re learning. I believe that these types of real-world connections not only help students to understand what they’re learning, but also set them up for success in their day-to-day, and post-high school, life. 

(Even if their day-to-day life includes using the phrase polar vortex more than any human should ever have to.) 




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