Discovering Mathematical Qualities in Primary Sources from the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Celia Roskin, a recent graduate of Elon University, wrote this during her work as the Fall 2020 Teaching with Primary Sources Intern in the Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress.

Math is a subject that some students have negative feelings toward; I should know because I was one of those students! However, looking for math connections in historical primary sources, I discovered some intriguing connections to recent events. This blog post is intended to assist teachers in utilizing primary sources from the 1918 influenza pandemic to enhance a math lesson.

Before incorporating a primary source into a math lesson, it is crucial to consider why a particular source is relevant. What makes the source unique? How does it deepen and enhance student learning?

“Influenza and the Mask.” The Logan [Utah] Republican, December 21, 1918

An excellent example of a primary source with mathematical importance is this newspaper article, “Influenza and the Mask,” from a 1918 edition of The Logan Republican. To me, the most compelling part of this newspaper article is the graph depicted at the top of the page. This line graph compares the rate of influenza with number of infected individuals, public adherence to quarantine regulations, and number of deaths in Logan, Utah. Line graphs are still regularly used today, especially recently to depict the spread of COVID-19. Therefore, not only is this primary source relevant, it is engaging and answers the question as to why we learn and engage with certain mathematical concepts.

First introduce the graph to students in an Observe, Reflect, Question activity. Ask students:

  • What do you notice about the graph?
  • What is important to consider when looking at a line graph like this?
  • What patterns do you observe?

“Influenza and the Mask.” The Logan [Utah] Republican, December 21, 1918

After students have spent time with the graph, introduce the article. Were the students’ initial observations of the graph consistent with the information in the article? Expand on the concept of interdependent mathematical relationships, allowing students to further explore the idea of correlation vs. causation. Engage students in delving deeper into the article by encouraging conversations.

  • Were your initial thoughts about the graph confirmed by the article?
  • What did you find surprising after reading the article?
  • What is one thing you learned?

Encourage students to take inspiration from this graph to make their own using data from the pandemic today. This will further enhance student ability to independently research and collect data. Some ideas for information to make line graphs on:

  • School attendance before and during COVID-19
  • How successful certain businesses were doing before and during the pandemic
  • The cost of masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, or overtime

Engaging students with math in a real-life context is key to increasing meaningful engagement. This assists in further reaching diverse groups of students and makes the information relevant, informative, and fun! What did your students discover when they took a closer look at the data?


Starting Conversations with Students about Personal Spending, Investing, and Stewardship with Historical Receipts

In the Sources and Strategies article, we explained that receipts for personal expenses such as these – for initiation fees, annual and lifetime membership dues, taxes, and donations – can provide starting points for conversations with students about a wide variety of economic topics from personal spending to investing to stewardship, and more.

A Recipe for Project-Based Learning

Recipes, like music scores, are especially interesting to me because they can still be used in the way the author originally intended. Though one cannot read historic newspapers to stay apprised of current events, or read historic letters to stay in touch with friends, “American orphan”; Amelia Simmons can speak through the centuries to help the reader get dinner to the table.