This week I taught 5th graders about integers. We discussed the number line they were used to, which started with zero and only had positive numbers, and then I added in negative numbers. We practiced getting used to this number line by doing the integer dance. It closely resembled the electric slide, but the point was to get the students used to moving positive and negative directions. After all, number lines can be tricky.
We are taught in primary grades that zero is a starting place. Eventually we get fluent enough in math to amend our previous thoughts about zero and the number line to include negative numbers. So, now our number line increases to show that really, zero is the middle of a big scale with infinite integers on each side. All numbers on both sides gain their identity from the zero, or the origin. So, you could say the value of a number is dictated by how far away a number is from the origin, or zero. This is the absolute value. This week while teaching I wondered “what if we saw people with absolute values, instead of only positives and negatives?”
Zero is the only integer that is neither positive nor negative. In theory we all want to be greater than zero. No one wants to be a negative number. Theoretically being a negative number means you are worse than when you started at the origin. Zero technically means no objects are present. If you offer a child zero popsicles, zero pieces of candy, or zero trips to the zoo it might seem to them that zero is a negative, but really, it isn’t. It’s just unrealized potential. Zero of something just means nothing has been added or taken away.
Life is just a giant number line. It’s a series of positives and negatives. We take steps forward, and we take steps backward. Sometimes we are way ahead of the origin. Sometimes we are behind the origin. There are times we tend to feel our value is less than zero when more bad than good happens. I was encouraged when I thought about absolute value. We can be -6 or 6 from zero, and the absolute value of both of these is still 6. There are no negatives in absolute value. So, even when we have terrible things happen, our value is never negative. We are always just so many spaces away from where we started, and knowing that can help us get back on the right path, which is right back up the number line. As we take steps up and down the number line, instead of focusing on the negatives, it is a lot more fun to pretend we are just doing the electric slide.