The first lesson

For the record, I teach 6th grade geography. I say this to provide perspective before I delve into what my first lesson of the school year looks like. 6th graders are a unique bunch. They crack me up and infuriate me at the same time. On the verge of adolescence, chomping at the bit to get there (or past it) while in the same breath trying desperately to hold on to the last vestiges of childhood. In my opinion it is one of the last great opportunities to get inside a student’s head and instill a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for learning before the ravages of puberty take hold (and let’s be honest, once that happens they’re not really human…).

When planning my first geography lesson, I try to keep in mind what my objectives are for the entire school year. Since this lesson will be the very first exposure to geography many students will have, I want to hook them early in a way that will unleash their curiosity over the next ten months. My two objectives for students over the course of a school year is this:


  • I want to create a class where students go home at the end of the day wanting desperately to come back tomorrow.
  • I want my students to appreciate how vast and complicated the study of geography is. I want them to know it on a personal level so they can engage in meaningful conversations that demonstrates that complexity.

Easy, right?


The first lesson takes place on Day 2 of class. Their minds were blown on Day 1 because of a conversation I have about the nature of time and why our time together as a class is important. You can check out my blog post about it here. Students are sent home with two simple tasks for ‘homework’ for the next day’s activity.

  1. Without looking up the definition, find an image that you think represents the word ‘geography’. Bring the image to class. You may cut it out of a magazine, print it from the internet, or draw a really bad stick figure representing what you mean.
  2. Find out how to say hello in a different language (that you don’t already know. Be creative). You may use Google translate.

I ask students to complete Part I so I can find out what preconceived notions they have about geography. I have been doing this long enough to know what a majority of the responses will look like but that’s OK since most of us have thought the exact same thing at one point. In fact, if you’re not a geography teacher you are probably thinking the same thing right now that my 6th graders were … Geography is the study of maps. I know you were thinking it. It’s OK. I’m not judging you, we are in a judgement free zone here.

Part II is to get kids to think creatively and push them outside their comfort zones just a little bit. Not enough to scare them but just enough to make them want to come back tomorrow.

Day 2:

Students come in with a DoNow on the board to connect with two students they have not met yet and find out how to say hello in the languages they chose. While this meet/greet activity is going on, I am frantically writing the names of all the languages on the whiteboard. After ten minutes of sharing and comparing/contrasting we proceed to a giant blank wall in the room. The brain activator of listening to a language other than their own is a way to start them thinking differently. We don’t sit at desks or tables today. We sit on the floor or stand. There is no rule dictating how the students engage other than I have to be able to see their eyes. I tell them we will be creating room protocols for discussion over the next few days. (Blog posts about protocols for discussion: Facilitate the Classroom Part I, and Facilitate the Classroom Part Deux)

Students take out their images and we begin to make a collage of geography. Each student has the opportunity to share with the class the reason they chose the image they are putting on the wall. Having students share in a no judgement zone is important to establish early in the year. Many students have a map of the world or a photo of the earth. I ask them to put all similar images together when they put them up on the wall. Inevitably there are a few students who bring in images that don’t seem to fit. I might ask them why they chose an image of a president, a mountain, a fish, or lyrics to their favorite song, et al. I do my best to facilitate a conversation around those out of place images. This is the good stuff, I tell them.

Student A: “A picture of Mickey Mouse is NOT geography!”

Me: “Well…actually… it kinda is.”

Student A: “My head hurts.”

Me: “Boys and girls. Is geography the study of just maps?”

This is when the conversation starts to get interesting. Over the years the conversation has taken many meanders and tangents but it always comes back to the same point. Maps are just tools to help geographers (us) understand geography. They are only one small segment of what geographers use to answer tough questions. The reality is that geography is an attempt to explain why the world is the way it is and how humans have played a roll is it. Geography wants to try and answer difficult questions like:

“How does where you live affect how you live?”


“What determines who gets the world’s resources?”


“How do you live as a global citizen?”

We will add to the collage over the course of the entire school year. Students want to find images to make the collage even more ‘complicated’. I tell them that we should try to make it as complicated as possible. That is going to be our challenge this year. Hopefully when June arrives my students will be able to say:
“Geography, it’s COMPLICATED! It makes me think about my place in the world and how I can help make it a little bit better for me, my family, friends, and all people on earth.”

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