Social Education 55(5) pps. 329-330
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

Springboards to Geographic Inquiry: State Seals and National Coats of Arms

Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi, Rodney F. Allen

Middle school social studies teachers are always looking for high-interest springboards to capture students' attention and to engage them in the active study of United States and world geography. National coats of arms and seals for the states in the United States are useful beginning points for the study of places. Each seal or coat of arms contains sets of symbols that may depict what is important about a state or a nation, as perceived by those in power at the time the seal or coat of arms was adopted for official use.
In the classroom, the teacher might use these emblems as points of entry into the study of a place, a fundamental theme of geography. The teacher would present the seal or coat of arms, usually as a transparency with an overhead projector. The students would examine the emblem and try to imagine what the place (a state or a nation) will be like in geographic terms. After constructing a list of features, the teacher would give students the date on which the emblem became official. The students would have time to adjust their list of geographic features with this historic information in mind. Then, the students would proceed with their study of the state or nation, using new data to test out the features they inferred from the state seal or national emblem.

Later, the students would update the list of features of the place, beyond those suggested by the state seal or national coat of arms. They might also outline the image of the place held by those designing and adopting the emblem. Then, and most important, the students would suggest a more geographically accurate, updated state coat of arms or national seal based upon their inquiries on contemporary realities in that place.

In addition to an increased knowledge of geography, students have an opportunity to interpret symbols. They also receive valuable training in the skill of inference-inferring features of a place through symbols and testing those inferences against data derived from further study and reflection.

Geographic Data-Deficient Seals
Not all state seals and national coats of arms are useful for geographic education. Some have few symbols for interpretation. The Texas seal, for example, has a lone star of five points with an olive branch and an oak branch, each replete with olives and acorns. Similarly, Louisiana's seal contains a mature brown pelican nurturing three young pelicans in a nest.

In contrast, the state seal for New Mexico is richer symbolically. Its seal contains a large American bald eagle with three arrows in its talons. A smaller Mexican brown eagle is devouring a black snake while holding cacti in its talons. Student research will reveal the seal's basis in Aztec myth-Aztecs should settle in an area in which they saw eagles poised on cactus eating serpents. Less colorful, but even more rich in data, the seal for Ohio (figure l) shows fertile fields with shocks of wheat, rolling hills, a brilliant sun, and a river of fresh water. It is a perfect agrarian seal for what is now a major industrial state, yet one that still maintains important agricultural production. The state seals for Florida, Delaware, and Idaho (figures 2, 3, and 4) are magnificent examples of symbol-rich emblems that enable students to draw chains of inferences about the features of these states, past and present. Florida's seal shows a Seminole maiden casting orange blossoms on the water with a rising sun. The emphasis is upon the state's climate, followed by its agriculture (hills with an orange grove), and its commerce, represented by the steamship.

Delaware's seal offers detail in historical geography. It shows an ear of corn (maize), a sheaf of wheat, and a mature ox. The river on the seal symbolizes Delaware's location on the Delaware River, with an American soldier under arms and a farmer with a hoe. The ship represents Delaware's long history of participation in international commerce.

Idaho's seal is rich in data. Agriculture and mining are two economic activities stressed along with the great natural beauty of the landscape. A valley farm under the plow along a stream, the sheaf of wheat, two cornucopias, wheat growing in the field, the stag, and the miner's rubble signify the abundance of the place. The female figure with scales in her hand represents justice, whereas the male figure signifies the miner.

Some national coats of arms are more geographically interesting than others. For example, the seal of the United States says more about history and power than geography. In comparison, the elegant and complex emblem of Canada, with its unicorn, lion, flowers, and maple leaves, has more to offer students, especially when they consider what is missing and who has been left out of the national crest.

The emblem for Jamaica reflects the past. It shows a crocodile, five pineapples, and a male and female Arawak (native peoples first settling Jamaica) with the female holding a basket of tropical fruit. This coat of arms has changed little since its original design by William Sandcroft, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1661.

The national coat of arms of the Republic of Botswana (figure 5), independent since 1966, shows a very symbol-rich emblem that is useful in building a geographic image prior to systematic study of this country. The three cogwheels represent industry, the bull's head symbolizes Botswana's great cattle industry, and the three waving lines (in blue) represent the nation's reliance on scarce water resources. These symbols appear on a shield, with an elephant tusk on the left and a stalk of sorghum on the right. The tusk represents the fauna and the sorghum the agriculture of Botswana. Two zebras stand above a banner inscribed with the Tswana word "pula," the national motto, meaning "Let there be rain!"

State and national seals are readily available to teachers. To obtain state seals, teachers or students should write to: The Secretary of State, State of _____________, The Capitol, (state capital), state, and zip. To obtain national coats of arms, teachers or students can write to: Permanent Mission of ____________ to the United Nations, The United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017. Another strategy is to write to the embassy of any nation to the United States in Washington, D.C. The address may be found in an almanac or teachers might write to the embassy in care of: United States Department of State, 2201 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20520.

The use of state seals and national emblems is a low-cost, high-interest teaching strategy. Teachers might follow up on this strategy by developing decks of cards or sets of transparencies with the seals of many states or nations-each with any identifying words removed. Students might be challenged to identify the state (in United States geography class) or the nation (in world geography class) using the symbols in the emblem.