The Geography of Connection: Bringing the World to Students

 

Mary S. Black

That’s dumb, miss!” Teachers who hear this comment from their students often wonder how to make any lesson interesting and engaging. A special challenge faces geography teachers in low-income urban areas or rural communities where poverty and/or isolation may limit the experiences of their students, especially if they are also poor readers or developmentally delayed. “If I don’t connect the material to my kids, it doesn’t mean a thing,” says Amanda Weaver, a first-year teacher at McCallum High School in Austin, Texas.

Amanda and Alice Marshall Davis, who was her teaching mentor in her pre-service days, are exemplary high school geography teachers who make use of a variety of strategies to engage students in exploring other cultures. Both teach in the Austin Independent School District, which is made up of 36 percent Caucasians and 64 percent other ethnic and cultural groups, most Latino and African-American. In addition, 49 percent of the student population in the district is characterized as economically disadvantaged.

Amanda has a master’s degree in geography and participated in the Smithsonian National Faculty program in 2000. She teaches in a high school rated as low-performing in 1998-99 by the state accountability system. Alice has a master’s degree in geography education and has taught for over 25 years. She earned the district’s Teacher of the Year award in 1989, and the Outstanding Teacher of the Humanities award from the Texas Council for the Humanities in 1995. Alice teaches at Austin High School, the oldest in the state.

“Some people think geography is easy for students,” says Alice, “but many struggling students have few spatial or global concepts. Most people don’t know what geography is. They think ‘place’ or ‘location,’ and that’s it. For academically challenged students, the concept of global relations is hard. It can be difficult for them to see other cultures as valuable, other people as real. My overall goal is to get students not to be so ethnocentric. I want them to say, ‘that’s really different, why do they do that?’ rather than ‘that’s weird.’”

“Many kids who need this really good lesson don’t even come equipped to learn,” adds Amanda. “There are lots of struggles overcoming cultural bias. Part of my response is to let them ask the questions. This is sometimes extremely hard, and sometimes I have to set limits.”

 

Connecting to Students’ Lives

Designing lessons that are relevant for students with poor study skills and limited background experiences is thought-provoking work that keeps Alice and Amanda mindful of their students’ many needs.1 These two creative teachers often use music, art, and language to help make connections to students’ everyday lives.

One project Alice’s students do in studying Australia is to create examples of aboriginal art. After seeing slides of the Australian outback and the distinctive art produced by indigenous peoples, the class develops a list of characteristics of the art. Students then draw their own versions using the characteristics they have identified. Students also write short stories using Australian slang. “This year I made a didgeridoo in class,” adds Amanda. “They all got to help decorate it and finally try to play it. It’s harder than it looks.” (The instrument can be made from PVC pipe, with beeswax for comfort around the mouthpiece, at a cost of about $2.00.)

Alice also recommends collage projects, using old magazines. “Collages are sometimes underrated, but if you do them right, they can be really good,” she comments. Students cut pictures and glue them onto poster board to illustrate various cultural universals. “Then I have them explain [the collage] to me verbally,” says Alice. “The weaker the student, the greater the learning experience. This is an artistic outlet, plus I push them to make connections when they verbalize the meaning.”

Another way to emphasize culture is through simulations. “I use lots of costumes that I’ve collected from my travels to give these authenticity,” says Alice. One easy simulation is to describe a scenario, such as meeting with a businessman in Japan. Students simulate a typical business introduction by bowing properly, presenting a business card, and following up with a small welcome present. “Anything to do with etiquette or eating rules in other cultures students seem to love,” she added. “My students loved writing kanji and folding origami this year,” echoes Amanda. These activities not only teach about cultural norms and differences, but also help motivate students’ interest in other cultural practices.

Connecting lessons in geography with ever-changing popular youth culture often brings good results. With that in mind, Amanda introduced the art of henna painting, or mendhi, to her students when they were studying India. “This is really popular with kids right now, so I thought, why not give it a try?” she said. Henna is a weak reddish stain that washes away after about two weeks. Health food stores often sell it for about $9.00 per pound. “We probably used about $4.00 worth,” said Amanda. “We dipped toothpicks and straws into the mixture to paint our hands,” she explained. Students tried to follow traditional patterns projected on the screen or from a handout. No gang signs or words were allowed. “This activity was very effective. It was something kids really wanted to do with their friends. The hand painting became a caring gesture between friends. The students talked about it all afternoon, and students from other classes even came by and wanted to try it,” she added.

 

Using Current Events to Improve Reading Skills

One of the techniques Alice shared with Amanda during the time of her student teaching internship used current events to improve reading skills. Students chose newspaper articles on anything geographic for timed readings of five to ten minutes each. “The students all groaned,” said Amanda, “and they hated it because it was timed, but they learned so much.” Students read as much as possible in the time allowed. Then they filled out a graphic organizer grid, or chart, based on what they had learned. Questions included where the event happened, whether the event was cultural or physical, its effects on people, its impacts on the environment, and other things. Students also marked where the event occurred on a world map. “Even low readers and beginning-English readers were able to do this,” Amanda remarked. Articles often had pictures associated with them that were another good source of information.

These timed current events readings often had long-lasting effects, as students mentioned what they had read months later in class during discussions. The activity not only helps students improve their reading, but also helps them make their own connections to the world. Alice takes it a step further by having students use the information gained to try to write about the “causes, consequences, and cures” of various issues. “This requires a lot of heavy-duty thinking,” she says.

“Using outside reading in geography is always good,” claims Alice, “but good books are hard to find.” She recommends using class sets of several short novels to enhance students’ understanding. “A Walk Across America is especially good with adolescents,” she says, “because it has a dog story and a love story.”2 Another book she likes is Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman by Elizabeth Bumiller.3 “Something I did this year,” reports Amanda, “was to read a passage from Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa,4 then show the fly-over scene from the movie. Then I had students sketch what they had just heard from the book and seen in the film. This turned out to very effective in getting students to actually understand what the land and environment was like.”

Both teachers use computer technology to increase their students’ access to information. “I used several web page scavenger hunts this year,” said Amanda. “We did one on the Arab-Israeli conflict where students had to download a two-minute video and work with an interactive map. They didn’t even realize they were ‘learning’.” “I also like to have my students do Hyperstudio projects or PowerPoint presentations,” said Alice. “When students are working in groups on computer projects, first I survey the students to establish their computer skills and appoint leaders who are strong in this area, while spreading out students with minimal skills to various groups. I always incorporate some basic computer skills into the project, which each student must demonstrate and the leader must verify they can do. Computer research is required on all high school papers. That’s the direction this district is moving; it’s a standard for us in this school.”

Two strategies that Alice recommends that are “useful for any student, but especially helpful for those with undeveloped skills” are manipulatives and group work. “One thing I always do that is pure place geography,” says Alice, “is to use a magnetic board map with moveable place names on it. Students move the magnets with the names to the right place on the map.” She claims this technique is “super for all kids,” but especially for those with a poor spatial grasp of the world. “I use lots of mixed-ability group work too,” she adds. “If there is a great range of abilities in the class, I appoint the groups, giving each group a fairly even number of good, average, and weak students. Sometimes I pick the chairperson, and sometimes I let them choose their own.”

One effective group activity is mapping a city block roughly to scale. “Students like this a lot because they are outside, doing something real,” comments Alice. Students work together to measure the approximate size of the block and its building features, to determine commercial or residential land uses, and to draw a map on graph paper. “I have a group-work evaluation form, which is confidential for my eyes only, where each student lists the things he or she did, discusses the contributions of the other group members, and indicates what the group grade and their individual grade should be. I usually give one group grade of 50 percent and one individual grade of 50 percent per project. Students are usually amazingly honest on these evaluations. When I use this method, I don’t usually get any student complaints. I also try to vary it throughout the year and not have more than one important group grade each grading period.”

 

“Advice from Amanda and Alice”

“Every now and then, I do something I call ‘Advice from Amanda,’” says the novice teacher. “One time we talked about AIDS. We were studying AIDS in Africa, and I found out they had a lot of questions about the disease. I let them ask the questions, and I told them what I knew, and where to get more information. We followed up with a computer project on the spread of AIDS throughout the world.”

Alice asserts, “My best advice to new geography teachers is to try to travel and take as many slides as you can. There are many opportunities for teacher travel, and you can apply for grants to cover the costs. I know I am a thousand times better because of this. Also, always be on the lookout for extra activities or guest speakers who might come to your class. Be alert to things in your area or at nearby universities. Geography has moved forward in recent years. We should never let geography be treated as a ‘dumping ground.’ Spatial concepts are really very difficult. Finally, belong to National Council for the Social Studies and the National Council for Geographic Education. This is very important. Go to the conferences; keep a list of people you meet. I’ve made connections all over the world this way.”

These two teachers have found strategies to connect geography instruction to their students’ innate interests, thus stimulating more student engagement and prolonged learning. By helping students see the similarities as well as the differences in cultures and environments around the world, Alice and Amanda go a long way towards moving students from thinking “that’s dumb,” to thinking “that’s really different.” Broadening students’ appreciation for diverse cultural responses to climate, terrain, and human needs requires more than basic map skills and place geography. Such a task also requires sensitivity to the students’ home cultures and a good understanding of adolescents.

“My low income students especially love getting real mail from pen pals. I’ve connected them with my teacher friends in the Ukraine so they can get a personal introduction to another part of the world,” comments Alice. “The really good things, like making connections, are hard to measure,” adds Amanda. Good practice in geography is all about connections for these two teachers: connecting subject matter to students’ interests, and connecting one person to another, all around the world.

 

Notes

1. Ample research in social studies and geographic education informs these teachers’ work.. Some recommended books and articles are: Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” American Educational Research Journal 32 (1995): 465-491; C.F. Alger, “Global Connections: Where Am I? How Did I Get Here? Where Am I Going?” Social Education 62 (1998): 282-284; J.A. Rossi and C.M. Pace, “Issues-centered Instruction with Low Achieving High School Students: The Dilemmas of Two Teachers,” Theory and Research in Social Education 26 (1998): 380-409; Phil Gravenstock and Mick Healey, “Guides to Good Teaching, Learning and Assessment Practice in Geography,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 22 (1998): 425-426; C. Fred Risinger, “Trends in K-12 Social Studies,” ERIC Digest, ED 351278 (Bloomington: ERIC Clearinghouse, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Washington, D.C.); Sarah E. Hume, “Using Literature to Teach Geography in High School,” ERIC Digest, ED 393786 (Bloomington: ERIC Clearinghouse, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Washington, D.C.); P. Vujakovic, “Reading Between the Lines: Using News Media Materials for Geography,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 22 (1998): 147-155; Robert S. Bednarz and James F. Peterson, eds. A Decade of Reform in Geographic Education: Inventory and Prospect (Skokie, IL: Rand McNally and Co., 1995).

2. Peter Jenkins, A Walk Across America (New York: Morrow, 1979).

3. Elizabeth Bumiller, Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family (New York: Times Books, 1992).

4. Isak Dineson, Out of Africa (New York: Modern Library,1992).

 

Mary S. Black is Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education,

The University of Texas at Austin.