The Grid Part II: The First Activity

When I first wrote up my latitude and longitude activity for this blog, I thought it might be helpful to a few geography teachers and that was about it. I never expected that the post would become an example of modern teaching in practice. Never did I imagine that teachers would be asking me to post the specific activities that make the grid such a useful gross motor skill, tactile learning environment that is immediately scaffolded for all levels of learners.

If you are interested in the construction of the grid, check out this post where I describe the dimensions and construction process (with pictures!).

Today I’m going to talk about Day 1 of the grid with students

Activity 1: Label The Grid Race

The first activity I run with the grid is an introductory lesson/game. Since I work with 11-12 year olds I have to remind myself that I am laying the foundation of geographic and geospatial skills for my students but I am also instilling a work ethic, a foundation in team skills, and are why those two things are often more important than the content of any class students may be currently enrolled in. It may seem like an indulgence on my part but I make a point to use the grid for approximately one week (if I can I try to stretch it to seven class periods but I usually can’t afford that much time).

When the kids first walk in they will notice that there is a giant 18’X18’ blue/green grid on the floor. I mention to all the students to please not walk on it until we’ve gone over the directions of how to have 25 kids walking on a grid at the same time (plus some other minor instructions about being nice to each other and to the grid itself). I point out that there are color 4”x6” index cards that are Velcro’d to the wall that have been labeled with vocabulary terms such as:

Prime Meridian




Each index card has been color coded to match the lines on the grid. Green for latitude and blue for longitude. Cardinal Directions are colored yellow and hemispheres are colored red so they are distinct from the latitude and longitude cards. Then every student gets a compass to observe that our grid is actually oriented North/South (way to go, Mr. Spiegel!). I then ask if they would like to play a game… A race in fact. Most 6th graders love races and competition (not all) so it’s an easy sell. Without giving ANY more instruction I inform the class that they will be timed in a race against the other three sections of my class. They must organize and completely label the grid without any mistakes. The rules are simple:

  1. Everyone MUST place at least two cards
  2. Only two students can walk/be on the grid at a time. If more than two students are on the grid, all cards must be picked up and the class must start over. The clock remains running (oh no!)
  3. Time runs until everything is correctly labeled and students are silently sitting in chairs
  4. They are allowed to discuss as a group and develop a plan before they begin.

I purposefully give them very little instruction as to what a completed grid looks like and ask them when will they be ready to begin. I will not field questions other than to clarify the rules of the race. The purpose of this part of the grid experience is to act more as a team building exercise than learning the vocabulary of the grid. The students will be exposed to the vocabulary of geography over the course of the next five class periods and will be eventually tested but today the goals are working communication, planning, and teamwork. There are flipped lessons and other activities that will solidify the vocabulary in their minds… but I digress. 

The kids plan and organize for a few minutes and then the chaos ensues! Latitude and longitude index cards are flying all over the place, kids think they are labeling things perfectly but end up being in the wrong hemisphere. Five kids find themselves on the grid at the same time and a groan exhales from the class. Their plan lacks just about every single important detail that will help them completely label the grid in the shortest amount of time. Some students try to establish themselves as leaders only to be drowned out by louder (more obnoxious) students. I let them work away until they complete the task. This is where I start them on a path of reflection that doesn’t end until hopefully …. well, I hope it never, ever ends.

Me: “What was working for you guys during the competition?”

Student A: “uh….. nothing, Mr. Spiegel”

Me: “That’s not true, you did many thing well. Let’s find those places that went well and reflect on how we can do more of that. Who wants to try again?”

Students: “MEEEEEEE!”

Students revise their plan to make a pivot and a new iteration. They start noticing patterns and tricks to help them complete the grid faster. They start listening to other students with better ideas than their own. They watch out for each other and start helping the students who might need some encouragement or help. Most importantly, the kids get a chance at watching themselves go through managed failure. I don’t want them to succeed at building the grid on their first attempt. They need to watch how not to do something so we can discover, collectively, how to make a better plan the next time. It is my sincere hope that the big take away from this first activity is:

Your first plan is rarely the best plan. Begin again.

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