Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer,

In honor of next week’s Black Lives Matter week of action in schools, my students will be making graphs demonstrating increases in US prison populations since the 1970s. This is a lesson that I developed last year and has been really successful since. I think students could get a little more out of it if they had some more background in how spreadsheets fundamentally work, though. What would you recommend as a strategy for introducing students to the fundamentals of spreadsheets? My classroom has access to Chromebooks and Google Sheets, but not Excel. The students are seniors in a Philadelphia public school.

Sincerely, Junior Spreadsheet Whisperer

Dear Junior,

As I always do in my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column, let me begin by saying THANK YOU for all of your work. Being a public school teacher is no joke, let alone going the extra mile planning innovative, applied lessons such as this one. I am glad that you wrote into the blog so that we can share your lesson idea with more people! Oh, that reminds me! For those of you tuning in, Black Lives Matter at School is an annual week of action (and so much moreeeee), that falls on February 4-8 this year. Learn more about how to get involved here!

The first thing that comes to mind is this impressive and thought provoking mini-lecture from my friend and pedagogy expert, Max Ray-Riek. It’s all about using math skills (like ratios, percents, graphical representations, problem solving, etc) for racial justice. Only 5 minutes! Listen if you haven’t already!

But that lecture isn’t about specifically about spreadsheets… it’s about math in general. And I want to keep us focused on the task at hand. I’m going to share 3 ideas for activities that have to do with data modeling, data collection, and data clean up – as a way to get down and dirty with a Google Sheet. This is in the spirit of brainstorming, so I hope to hear back from you (and others) about what’s a good fit! Full disclosure that I’m not a teacher 🙂

Idea #1: Shape Shifting

When I look at this image, I am always pleasantly surprised to see that the arranger organized by shape! To me, it would be much more obvious to sort by color. Then again, I would have no objections to sorting by size!

When I’ve introduced spreadsheet fundamentals to the broadest possible audience, I have used this activity. It has been fun and compelling to share ideas about how to “best” organize the shapes.

If I had to represent these shapes in a spreadsheet, mine would look something like this:

Once you have your data organized, it’s easy to count “how many yellows” or “how many triangles!” As a “step two” you could even do some sorting, filtering, and summarizing using Spreadsheet formulas … but that goes beyond the basics 🙂

Uh oh! In the example below, I started entering the data in the wrong categories. It doesn’t look wrong until you really take a look. Color and size are switched! This is a great learning moment for why it is important to be careful and detail oriented when enter data in a table. This can come in handy later, like in science labs, project management, or inviting friends to your birthday party!

What I like about this activity is that it invites creativity and hopefully makes spreadsheets less distant, foreign and even intimidating.

  1. Spreadsheets are a representation of the world! We can show shapes, colors, and many attributes of things around us in this format. Not just numbers and imaginary things.
  2. There are lots of ways to interpret and organize information. If you would organize the shapes into different buckets, more power to ya! There are lots of ways to be creative in an activity like this (depending on how complex you make the shapes).
  3. Depending on the age group of learners, you could give envelopes of cut-out shapes or project a shared set of shapes on the board or projector screen.

Idea #2: “Survey Says”

It’s a well-known fact that teenagers loooove talking about, well, themselves! So another activity that I like to use is a “reverse Bingo board” where students must fill in attributes in a table by asking each other questions. (I got you started with some famous racial justice leaders, of blessed memory) – but students would fill in the names of their peers. Depending on class time, you can work together to figure out what the questions (or column headers) will be. This is a great way to start thinking about how to structure information! Instead of having a survey sheet for each person you talk with, you can have all of the info in one, easy to read, place.

I hesitate to make assumptions, but this type of spreadsheet might be closest to your student’s “comfort zones” (no numbers, looks very similar to an analog grid that you can draw in a notebook), etc.

After collecting data (you might want a sample size more than 8…) you can have a great conversation about formatting and data integrity. Perhaps you should group smaller neighborhoods into bigger categories to summarize the data and make it more meaningful. Maybe you need to “wrap text” of “freeze the first row” in order to see the responses in a more readily-readable format. All of that, and more, are possible!

Idea #3: Clean up in column F!

The last two ideas focused on populating a spreadsheet with data, but a lot of times, students will receive a spreadsheet full of data and need to “clean it up” in order to even figure out what’s going on. For example, create a grocery list spreadsheet that has a lot of mistakes. Work together to standardize the data, re-format cells to show currency, fill in the blanks, wrap text, and crowd-source qualities that make a spreadsheet easy to use.

For this to work (plus, depending on the age and comfort level of the students), it might be helpful to take a “scavenger hunt” approach and introduce the students to different formatting tools in the menu bar.

This baby spreadsheet has a lot of problems already!

A lot of these ideas are connected to theory around rows and columns (I like to call ’em track and field!) that I talk about in this post … oh, and over here, too. Even though the content in these activities aren’t specific to racial justice, I believe that the critical thinking skills and “organizing information skills” relate to the larger mission of agency, empowerment, and skill building – building blocks toward a world where Black Lives Matter.

I would love to work on these ideas more in the next week or so – for any teachers reading – so don’t hesitate to write to me! I can post an update when I get some feedback about what would be most useful.

With overflowing awe and gratitude for your work and the tasks ahead,

The Spreadsheet Whisperer

2 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter at School! 3 ideas for teaching spreadsheet fundamentals

  1. Maybe a round of the game SET would be a fun way to start. I find it helps my brain get in the mode of categorizing sorta like your shapes image above!

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