Millennium Island: Creating a Storyline about Geography and Time


Doris K. Liebert

Although some wild predictions are being made about the arrival of the millennium year, it is a safe bet that most primary teachers will be discussing the topic with their students, or even planning a unit on it.1 Perhaps the most common theme will be the Y2K concerns that have been described in the media, which could serve as an exercise in prediction and preparation for disruption of utilities (if care is taken not to frighten or confuse children). Or a lesson could focus on the general topic of special dates on the calendar, such as birthdays, religious holidays, and the changes of the seasons. Or one could describe some of the hoopla that occurred at the turn of the last century and relate it to the current ?redictions and preparations.2 But I would not miss this opportunity to use a “storyline” to introduce concepts of geography, time, and change; of people and their environments and culture. I hope to create a unit that might make this unique new year especially meaningful and memorable for the students.


The Storyline Strategy

The storyline is a constructivist approach to teaching and learning.3 The strategy originated in the elementary schools of Scotland and has been popularized in the United States by Margit McGuire, who creates curriculum materials under the name of Storypath.4 A storyline uses the basic components of a story—setting, characters, and plot—to organize the concepts in a lesson. Students are given basic information about a real place, its people, and culture, and then are invited to create a fictional story with actors and events that happen within limits defined by the real setting. As they “flesh out” their story, students can be challenged to think about details of geography, culture, and the processes of change—important aspects of any social studies lesson.


Kiribati: First to Welcome 2000

In this lesson, the teacher first introduces or reviews the concepts of latitude, longitude, time zones, and (most odd and difficult to comprehend) the International Date Line.5 Following this line on a large map from north to south, the teacher’s pointer “bumps into” the islands of Kiribati. Then the teacher reads a factual scenario (box) about that place.6


Kiribati in Brief


The islands of Kiribati are located in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii and northeast of Australia. There are 33 islands, but most people live on one of the large ones, Tarawa.


When map makers first invented the International Date Line (around 1909), it was drawn right through the islands. As a result, on some of the islands, it might be Monday, while on the others it was Tuesday! Also, some of the islands were considered to be in the Eastern Hemisphere, and some in the Western Hemisphere, just because of how this line was drawn!


The people of Kiribati found that it was too inconvenient and confusing for their nation to be located in two different date zones. Recently, they got together with map makers from many nations and redrew the International Date Line to bend around all of their islands, so now when it’s Tuesday in the eastern islands, it is also Tuesday in the western ones.


Because Kiribati is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the people depend on the sea for their living, although they also grow coconuts, bananas, and sweet potatoes. There’s lots of bamboo for houses, and the palm trees provide materials for thatched roofs. Each Kiribati community has a meeting house, a church, and a school. Fishing fleets from many countries visit Kiribati ports, and an airport has been built outside of town on the big island of Tarawa.


The temperature is around 80° Fahrenheit every day, so there is no need to listen for weather forecasts on the one radio station in the country.


Life is peaceful, but traditional celebrations for special events are common occurrences. On December 31, 1999, the citizens of the Republic of Kiribati will have something really important to celebrate: they will be the first nation in the world to greet the year 2000!


With this description in mind, students discuss the kind of place Kiribati is, and are invited to invent, in all its detail, a new year celebration on Kiribati, keeping their creation within the bounds of what they know about the real island.


The Place and the Program

First, students construct a large mural (with construction and tissue paper, fabric, and markers) on a bulletin board, showing fanciful physical features of the island of Tarawa. Then they create pictures and written descriptions of people: what their place is in the family and community, what are their likes and dislikes, and how they spend their time. Homes, community buildings, roads, and ports are constructed. Finally, the class plans the Kiribati new year celebration with its special refreshments, dances, poems, and rituals. They can decide which parts of the celebration might be shared with tourists and reporters from the media, and which parts might be considered solemn, private, and “spiritual.”

Each student keeps a journal of the celebration and its preparations. Small groups of students can perform various aspects of the event for the whole class (reciting the “new year’s chant,” enacting the “dance of the harbor dolphin at midnight,” or serving “‘atol#146; house island cookies” all around).

Alternative Routes

This unit plan, however, does not have to be tied to the new year; the story can be altered slightly for use at any time during the school calendar. For example, after depicting the landscape and its people, the class could be assigned to prepare a time capsule of traditional life on the island. Students can create traditional “artifacts” (with buttons, clay, pipe cleaners, and wooden sticks) that would show important things to preserve for future generations of island dwellers. Or a critical incident could be introduced: maybe a large corporation, “Octopus Vacations, Inc.,” has announced plans to build a multimillion-dollar vacation resort next to a fishing village. The class could be assigned to raise this conflict to a peak, then work through to a resolution. For example, students can write a newspaper article announcing the planned construction; hold town meetings to debate the pros and cons of such economic change; and negotiate with representatives of the corporation over the scale of the resort, who will be employed there, and how profits will be shared. (Or students may choose to oppose the construction altogether.)

At the conclusion of the storyline unit, students could be given further information about the real Kiribati and asked to compare it with their more fanciful creation (but it should be made clear to students that they are not being graded on “how close they came” to real life). Students could also compare the real Kiribati to their own community or discuss various, planned millennium celebrations as described in the media.


Evaluating the Lesson

Assessment7 can include a test of geographical terms and concepts8 as well as aspects of life on Kiribati. Students can be asked to describe some of the problems that island peoples might face in the modern age. A review of students’ portfolios of art, writing, and artifacts (as well as notes about the quality of any presentations or projects) would also be appropriate.



1. The twentieth century and the new millennium do not formally begin until the next year, January 1, 2001—but this technicality will probably not receive much notice at midnight on December 31, 1999 from computers, TV reporters, or celebrants in the middle of the Pacific.

2. Jon Nordheimer, “Mass Millennial Movement and Who’s On First?” New York Times (December 27, 1998): 11.

3. Lev S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986).

4. Margit E. McGuire, Storypath Foundations: An Innovative Approach to Teaching Social Studies (Chicago: Everyday Learning, 1997); Betsy Rupp Fulwiler and Margit E. McGuire, “Storypath: Powerful Social Studies Instruction in the Primary Grades” Social Studies and the Young Learner 9 (January/February 1997): 4-7.

5. Barbara Gregorich, Geography Skills Activities (New York: Walch, 1997).

6. The islands may also be referred to as Kiri-bass. See P. Hackett and G. Bateman, Encyclopedia of World Geography (New York: Marchall Cavendish, 1994). A useful on-line source about Kiribati is

7. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

8. National Council for Geographic Education, Guidelines for Geographic Education-Elementary and Secondary Schools (Washington, D.C.: NCGE, 1984).


About the Author

Doris K. Liebert is a professor of education and director of student teaching at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.