Visualizing One Million

10 May

one million bonesTo help my students care about one, I try to get them to picture one million. Big numbers are really big…too vast to properly understand without help. This activity can be used in any situation where students would benefit from grasping big numbers, but I use it as an opening exercise in our study of The Diary of Anne Frank.

In this situation, understanding the expanse of one million helps students begin to comprehend the vastness of six to 12 million, the estimated number of people killed during the Holocaust. When students have a nascent, sobering understanding of the horrific scale of this genocide, they approach our study of Anne’s diary with more care, solemnity, and empathy. I emphasize the privilege and duty we have to explore one small part of one life. In doing so we begin to understand the immeasurable loss and, hopefully, do what we can to ensure something like this never happens again.


Visualizing One Million Activity: The Steps (approximately 50 minutes)

  • Take the class outside and find a place where they can form a long straight line.
  • Hold a quick foot race to determine the fastest runner in the class. This student will do some more sprinting in a moment.
  • Ask 10 students to line up in a straight line shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the rest of the group.
  • Ask another student to represent 20 and have the rest of the class position him or her along the straight line, approximating where 20 people would end.
  • Do the same for 50 and 100. The student representing 100 should be about 50 meters away from the start of the line. (I’ve measured this out. Two students, standing shoulder to shoulder, fit within a metre.)
  • Next, ask the fastest student to sprint to the 100 position and back, as fast as he or she can. Have the other students time the sprinter’s progress and observe.

  • Explain that the sprinter has just passed two hundred people. To pass 1000 people, he or she would have to complete that same run five times.
  • Now, handout the first page of Visualizing One Million Handout and have students work out the answers with a partner. You will want to change the destinations to fit your locale.

HINT: I use Wolfram Alpha to get screenshots of the relevant maps.

HINT: Work out the answers to number 3 and 4 ahead of time so you can guide the students toward more accurate estimates. (The average human can sprint at about 15 meters per second, and one million students would form a straight line of about 500 kilometers.)

  • After we have worked out our answers to on page one, I hand out page two which brings in the numbers of the Holocaust. I ask the students to then draw a line that would estimate six million people standing shoulder to shoulder…and then 12.
  • We compare drawings, and then I give the students a short lecture about the Holocaust and in this case, Anne Frank’s diary. I simply try to speak from the heart and emphasize the privilege we have to take one small glimpse into the lives of a few of the people engulfed in this tragedy.
  • I then ask students to write a reflection to gauge their reactions to the activities and assess their pre-knowledge of the topic. I don’t grade these reflections, of course. I simply read them and return them.

Taking the time to help students visualize the scale of these numbers engenders more empathy. A number like one million is impossible to measure and understand without such steps, but once students grasp the immensity, they begin to understand why the Holocaust is a touchstone in their education, a moment in history which casts such a long shadow. I seldom hear, “I’m bored” or “What does this have to do with my life?” while we study The Diary of Anne Frank. Instead, most students feel obligated to stop and intimately examine an individual life, to honor the precious value of one.

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