©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Mapping the Caribbean Region


Bárbara C. Cruz and Pedro R. Bermúdez

This activity is designed to introduce students to the geography of the Caribbean by having them make their own mental maps of the region. It is based on the premise that beginning with a yardstick of one’s own knowledge can offer a challenge to students, prompt their curiosity, and provide a measure of their own accomplishment as study of the region progresses.



This activity has four main learning objectives:

•To help students evaluate their own knowledge of the Caribbean as the basis for further learning

•To initiate study of the Caribbean in terms of the Five Fundamental Themes of Geography: absolute and relative location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and region

•To develop geographical, reference, and critical thinking skills

• To consider the relationship of the Caribbean to the rest of the western hemisphere and to the world


• a sheet of unlined paper for each student

• a large map of the world/western hemisphere

• a handout map of the Caribbean region for each student

The Lesson

1. Begin by telling students that they are going to act as “mental cartographers”—that is, they will draw a map of the Caribbean region using their own mental picture of it. Hand out a piece of paper to each student. Ask students to close their eyes and try to envision the map of the western hemisphere with particular attention to the Caribbean. Suggest that they think about it in terms of what countries lie in the Caribbean and their relationship to nearby countries, regions, and continents. Ask them to use their “mind’s eye” to fill in as many details as possible about the Caribbean region—including countries, capitals, bodies of water, mountains, and any other geographical or manmade features they know about. Then instruct them to draw their maps, allowing ten to fifteen minutes to complete this task.

2. When students have completed their maps, ask them to share their efforts with other students around them by comparing similarities and differences in their maps. Then initiate a general discussion by asking:

• How accurate do you think these maps probably are?

• What factors do you think might affect their accuracy? (This might include knowledge from prior study, books read about the region, media coverage of events in the Caribbean, meeting people from the region, travel to the region, or having come from a Caribbean country.)

• What aspects of the Caribbean region do they seem to show best?

• What do you think is the most important feature of Caribbean geography shown by this exercise? (Possible answers might refer to the region being made up of islands, their relatively small size, the arc they form, the existence of so many nations in this area, and their relationship to the United States or nearby regions and continents.)


3. Display a large map of the world/western hemisphere for use by the class. Give each student a handout map of the Caribbean region. Ask students to work in pairs to assess the accuracy of their mental maps in more detail. Write the following questions on the board or overhead and ask students to use them to help assess their mental maps:

> Location: Did you locate the region accurately?

> Size: Did you draw the region accurately in terms of size?

> Shape: Did you draw the region accurately in terms of shape?

> Place: How many countries or geographical features were you able to identify?

> Exclusions: Were there any parts of the region entirely missing from your mental map?


4. Call students back together and lead a discussion based on the following questions:

> Overall, how accurate would you say our mental maps of the Caribbean were?

> What aspects of the region’s geography seem best known to us?

> What aspects of the region’s geography seem least known to us?

> What are some things (other than geography) you know about the Caribbean?

> What are some things you would like to learn about the Caribbean?


5. Provide students with a basic framework for thinking about the Caribbean region. Point out that the islands of the Caribbean Sea form an arc stretching from Cuba to Aruba (one of the three “ABC” islands in the western Netherlands Antilles). The four largest islands—Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico—are called the Greater Antilles. The smaller islands that complete the arc are called the Lesser Antilles. The islands in the Lesser Antilles that look eastward to the Atlantic Ocean are divided into the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands. Ask students what they think accounts for this division. Point out that an outlying island, Bermuda, is also included in the region. Ask students to speculate about what geographical forces might account for the formation of this archipelago, and what they might expect the topography of these islands to include. (Many consist of the crests of mountain chains rising from the floor of the Caribbean Sea). Finally, explain that some descriptions of the Caribbean region include coastal areas of Central America—the “rimland” described in John P. Augelli’s “The Rimland-Mainland Concept of Culture Areas in Middle America,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 52 (1962). Thus, the region may be seen as encompassing Belize (in Central America) and Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana (in South America), with even broader classifications including Colombia and Venezuela. An excellent overview of the Caribbean region is Thomas D. Boswell and Dennis Conway’s The Caribbean Islands: Endless Geographic Diversity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).


Extending the Lesson

Assign students working in groups to research and prepare reports on countries and territories of the Caribbean region. You might have students choose the subject of their report from a grab bag of flags of the region. Depending on the age of students, these reports could include any or all of the following:

> geographical features

> climate

> population size and composition (ethnic groups present)

> language(s) spoken

> history

> political status (nation/territory) and system

> economic system (livelihood and class structure)

> social and cultural life

> environmental conditions

> human migration

> current issues and problems

Follow up the reports with a class session in which students discuss and outline factors that both unite and differentiate the nations and territories of the Caribbean region.


A Final Note

This instructional strategy can be applied to any world region. We have found it to be particularly effective in the study of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as a whole. Some of our colleagues with whom we have shared this strategy have reported success in using the exercise as a pre/post assessment for a unit of study.

Bárbara C. Cruz teaches social science education methods at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her research and teaching interests include global and multicultural perspectives in education. Pedro R. Bermúdez is an educational specialist in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. He is a member of the National School Reform Faculty, which promotes adult collaboration in student learning in schools.