Getting a Grip on Geography

Kristin M. Roberts

On first walking into my high school classroom, visitors raise their eyebrows in distrust and wonder. Chaos reigns. Or so it seems. The desks stand stacked two and three deep against the back and side walls. In the middle of the room, 22 students silently encircle five others, who are scrambling on their hands and knees, grabbing at puzzle pieces.
"No. Not that one. That's the Sudan. Chad is the big purple one that looks like Paul Revere's face." ... "This side should point north, not east." ... "Hurry!" ... "Is this right?" ... "Turn the Congo slightly to the west." ... "OK. Looks good." Then, turning to the time-keeper, all five say triumphantly, "Stop!"

"Three minutes and sixteen seconds. The best time so far."

"WOW!" I say, "Now let's see how well you know the countries..."

When my principal offered me my first teaching assignment, I accepted the opportunity for employment eagerly, but dreaded the idea of teaching geography. I had certified myself in English first, history second and composite social science as an after thought. I prayed I would never have to teach geography or economics. Now, I had two weeks to get ready for a year of teaching what I thought was a very dry subject. I desperately needed an attitude adjustment and some sort of inspiration. How could I make learning geography interesting, meaningful and lasting?

The answers came from several people, among them my college roommate, Andrea Whitesell, and my newly hired colleague, Gwen Lucas. Andrea told me about a teacher she had in junior high who had made huge puzzles of plywood cut into shapes of countries. He held puzzle contests, and Andrea claimed to still know the countries of the world, including the changing map of Africa. Great idea, I thought, but how in the world could I get these puzzles made? I needed ideas for the school year at hand.

Gwen Lucas told me about a program called "Mapping the World by Heart." In this program, developed by Connecticut teacher David Smith, students draw the world as they know it on a blank sheet of paper on the first day of school, and-after a year of intense geography study-spend the last three weeks creating a formal memory map complete with latitude and longitude lines, a compass rose, and a legend.1 Through Gwen and Andrea (and their resources), I had found my answer: I decided to make world geography a "hands-on" experience for my students.

On the first day of school, I handed students blank sheets of paper and asked them to copy from the board the title, "The World According to __________." Students filled in their names and dated their maps. Sheer terror then filled the room as I told them to draw the world. I eased their fears somewhat when I said they were guaranteed a grade of 100 percent if they did it, or 0 percent if they did not. I was not grading accuracy, but effort. They drew. They erased. They giggled. They knew they had a lot to learn.

I gathered their papers and filed them for safe-keeping.

The next step in preparing a curriculum was remembering back to my own favorite class in school: Alice Watson's integrated language arts and social studies, which I took for the three years of my junior high career. Mrs. Watson taught me a lot, but one of the most lasting things I learned was the importance of knowing what is going on in the world around you. She required us to read the newspaper daily, and daily we took a quiz and talked about current events. I decided to try to give my students what she gave me: greater global awareness.

I often smiled to myself as I quizzed my students daily over current events and helped guide their often heated discussions; but I also geared these discussions to the geographical implications of what they were reading. My students came to understand the Middle Eastern conflicts that center around oil, the desire for a warm water port, and the war for land. And all this came, not from reading the textbook, but by reading the evolving "textbook" of the newspaper.

I involved my students in various projects throughout the year. They produced travel brochures and commercials for North America and the Caribbean. They planned their own dream trip to Europe within a specified budget and time frame. This cross-curricular project required them to understand how to plan a budget and how to convert currency. They also had to learn basic phrases in the languages of the countries which they chose to visit. The project incorporated higher level thinking skills since each student had to explore different possible destinations, evaluate his or her options, and work out an itinerary that included transportation and housing.

The two most effective and meaningful projects, however, were the puzzle contests and the memory maps.

Puzzling Out Continents
I was struggling to find a practical and financially feasible way to construct the puzzle maps when the answer dawned on me during winter vacation: I could teach the concept of scale by discovery, and have the kids make the puzzle pieces themselves. We were about to begin our study of Africa. I provided maps of the continent to the class, assigned each student a country or two, and told them I wanted a puzzle piece for each country drawn to the scale of one inch equals one hundred miles. I divided the class into groups by region, telling them they were on their own and would need to work with one another to figure out the best way to accomplish the task at hand. One group of students elected to use the overhead to enlarge the map. Other groups soon gave up on gridding and other techniques, and followed suit. Students made their patterns and transferred them to poster board rather than wood.
Three days later, the puzzle pieces were due, and the moment of truth arrived. We put the entire puzzle together. We wrote a definition of scale as a class, and since we had encountered a few problems with our first puzzle attempt, I shifted gears and spent the last half of our 90-minute period trouble-shooting. First the kids listed problems they perceived, then possible solutions. The chart they created looked something like that shown in the box to the left.

Before starting our next unit, I posted the chart and the class reviewed it before setting to work. Their maps of South America proved outstanding. Students used both the imperfect Africa maps and the near perfect South America maps for practice contests throughout each six week unit, and held a "reaquot; contest on the review day before the timed test.

The contest began with students breaking into their regional groups, and each region became a station. The kids practiced their regions first with a map as reference, then without it. They proceeded to each region in round-robin fashion, quizzing each other on country identifications as they went. After completing the cycle, we brought the entire puzzle together.

I now mixed up the pieces and timed each group as they put the puzzle together. After they called "Stop," I checked their map and quizzed them at random. Each misplaced country and each wrong answer incurred a ten-second penalty. I rewarded teams with no errors by taking ten seconds off their time.

As the test progressed, the questions grew more difficult as I mixed in content such as, "Where are the ancient pyramids?" and "Which country was once known as the Belgian Congo?" I also brought in questions from current events: "Explain the ethnic struggle plaguing these two countries" and "Where is Nelson Mandela president, and why is his presidency significant?" Thus, speed, puzzle accuracy, and knowledge counted toward each group's success, and the kids had fun in spite of themselves. Best of all, quiz and test scores improved dramatically. The class score on tests without the puzzles averaged 72 percent for Europe and 76 percent for Asia; average scores with the puzzles were 83 percent for Africa and 87 percent for South America.

Mapping the World by Heart
Through the creation of puzzles, the location of countries became part of each student's visual memory, and the puzzle activity greatly contributed to their success in "mapping the world by heart." I had set aside the last six weeks of the year for the memory map section of Mr. Smith's program. On the first day, I distributed architectural boards to students, and we meticulously laid out their latitude/longitude grids. I also provided a syllabus, assigning one region of the world for each class day.
Each day, students drew a map of the assigned region for homework, including latitude and longitude references and major features. Class began with a quick review quiz, and then students proceeded to draw the region on their map boards. On day two of the project, as I wandered about observing their progress, my students complained that I was not drawing a map. They challenged me as I had challenged them. What choice did I have? I started a map of my own, and whatever they drew, I drew too.

At first, my students were terrified, especially the "A" students who were concerned about their grades. I assuaged their fears, as I had done on the first day of school, by guaranteeing their success: I instituted an "eighty percent minimum or incomplete" grading system. No one could fail, or even receive a "mediocre" grade, if they worked hard and completed the project.

After a week, excitement had built and students decided they could accomplish this seemingly outrageous assignment. Several students started drawing not one but several maps of the assigned region for practice, in order to do better on their map boards. Following David Smith's example, map projects were never allowed to leave the room, and study maps were never allowed to enter.2 Kids came during lunch, during study hall, and after school by choice to work.

As the deadline drew near, many kids panicked because they needed more time. I planned a "mapping marathon" for three hours on a Monday evening two days before the project's due date. I told the kids to bring food, and I provided a movie. I was totally unprepared for the turn-out. Sixty of my one hundred and ten geography students attended, and I had to open a second classroom.

On Thursday and Friday before finals week, we held a Map Fair in which we posted our memory maps along with the maps students had drawn on the first day of school. We brought food, flags, and souvenirs from around the world, and invited faculty, staff, and parents to attend. Parents had heard the exaggerated complaints of the "Dread Pirate Roberts" (an allusion to a favorite movie, The Princess Bride), the demanding new, fresh-out-of-college geography teacher with her impossible map project. Parents came in droves, and the kids proudly showed them the fruits of their labor.

To the unsuspecting visitor, my classroom does seem chaotic, almost like a kindergarten. Yet even though it may look like they are playing, my kids are working and learning. They have gained a solid, lasting foundation in geography upon which they can build in future classes. And now, according to their parents, many proudly claim the title of "Reigning Jeopardy Champion" at home.

1. David Smith, Mapping the World by Heart (Tom Snyder Productions, 1992), 109-111.
2. Ibid., 85.

Kristin Roberts is currently teaching literature and composition at the American School of
El Salvador.