Future City Lab: Data as a Narrative

Graphing Skills in Context


Grade Level: 9-12
Keywords: observation, inference, axis, variable, rate
Source: www.flickr.com/jannekestaaks

Time Estimate: 1 hour 


Students will

  • Read and interpret different sets of graphs 

  • Reconcile seemingly contradictory presentations of data 

  • Describe a graph as a point of view 


  • Handouts (two, included) 


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.7: Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words. 

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.9: Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible. 

Guiding Questions

  1. How does data tell a story? 

  2. What is the purpose of a graph? 


    Students will be presented with two sets of graphs based on real data from two American cities named “Caput Mundi” and “Gotham” relating to recent immigration and demographics in these cities. After comparing the two cities, the teacher reveals that in reality, both are New York City. Students then reinterpret the graphs to determine how this is possible. This lesson is designed for students in groups of four. 

    Download the Data as a Narrative Graphs

    Download the Data as a Narrative Worksheet

    Download the Data as a Narrative Teacher Key

  1. Do Now (5 minutes)
  2. Ask students:  

    1.) What is the purpose of a graph?  

    2.) How should a scientist use a graph? 

    Have students share out answers. 

  3. Scenario (5 minutes)
  4. Introduce the scenario: The government has hired them as policy consultants and assigned them two cities. As social scientists who do not live in these places, the students are tasked with understanding the cities’ recent history of immigration using the data (i.e. graphs) alone.  

  5. Data Analysis (pairs – 20 minutes)
  6. Students are divided into groups of four. Give each group the sets of graphs for both cities. Each pair will focus on one “city.” Every student will have his or her own response sheet on which to write.  

    First, each pair works together to write short summaries explaining each of the three graphs, using observation and graph-reading skills only. Then, the pair works together to write one interpretation of all three graphs, giving a paragraph snapshot of what this city is like. 

  7. Compare and Contrast (groups of four – 15 minutes)
  8. Each pair introduces their city to the other pair in their group. Students are welcome to read their paragraph to the other pair and/or point to specific features of graphs to explain.  

    Ask your students to compare and contrast the two cities, brainstorming similarities and differences in a table shared by the group. Afterwards, have each group share out so that the class has a common running list of similarities and differences they noticed on the board. 

  9. Re-analysis (10 minutes)
  10. Reveal to your students that both cities are New York City. “Caput Mundi” and “Gotham” are both different nicknames for the same place. The data all came from New York City’s census. How is this possible?  

    Have students go back to the graphs in their groups and compare them side by side. Ask them to come up with an explanation for how each pair of graphs (A, B, and C) could be generated by data from the same place. They should pay close attention to the axes! Refer to the teacher’s guide for the explanations. 

  11. Reflection (5 minutes)
  12. Ask students to reflect: 

    1.) What is the purpose of a graph? 

    2.) How should a scientist use a graph? 

    3.) We asked these same questions at the beginning of the lesson. Did your answers change? Why or why not? 

Additional Resources

Fieldtrips: This content is inspired by the Future City Lab gallery in the Museum’s flagship exhibition, New York at Its Core. If possible, consider bringing your students on a fieldtrip! Visit http://mcny.org/education/field-trips to find out more. 


This series of lesson plans for New York at Its Core was developed in conjunction with a focus group of New York City public school teachers: Joy Canning, Max Chomet, Vassili Frantzis, Jessica Lam, Patty Ng, and Patricia Schultz.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these lessons do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.