The Grid Part III: Relative and Absolute Location

In my last post I talked about how to introduce students with a team building game that exposes them to the overall shape and function of the grid. Students are exposed to vocabulary listed on index cards with terms such as: latitude, longitude, hemisphere, equator, coordinate, Cardinal Direction, et al. On day two my goals are simple for students and their interaction with the grid:

  1. Set up and take down of cards should take less than 2 minutes each.
  2. Students begin practicing relative location and absolute location with gross motor skill activities.

I run the team building game on day one because I want students to be efficient at set up and take down of the index cards as we move through the next few activities. I want students to be invested in our collective use of time and the faster they are at controlling the pace of their learning, the more engaged they will become over the course of the school year.

As students enter the room, they notice small whiteboards with dry erase markers at each seat that have been arranged around the periphery of the grid. I take out two Koosh balls from my desk at inform the class that today we will be playing more games.


One game involves learning about relative location and practicing our Cardinal Directions. The other is about learning Absolute Location and coordinates. Since their homework from the previous night was to watch two short clips on the Cardinal Directions and latitude/longitude, the information should (they still are middle school students…) be jogging their memory. I pick a student at random to toss a Koosh anywhere on the grid (which they often do with glee). I then ask the students to write some characteristics about it’s location. Student responses vary but they quickly catch on after a few tosses. They gain some confidence descibing the Koosh ball’s relative location on the grid.

“It’s in the Northern Hemisphere!” one student exclaims.

“But it’s also on the Eastern Hemisphere.” mentions another.

“That one is just south of the equator. This is easy!”

Confidence is a wonderful and dangerous thing. They begin to use these terms correctly when describing a place. Now I add a twist and take a second Koosh ball and toss it on the grid.

“O.K. class, you may get up and all walk the grid. On your whiteboards, please write down using Cardinal Directions and geography terms, how to travel from Koosh 1 to Koosh 2”.

I watch the students carefully as they tentatively get up and explore the grid. Some watch from the sidelines, others get close and personal with each Koosh ball on the floor. I look for students helping each other and for students who need some encouragement or helpful hints. Most of them get “it” fairly easily but it’s when we switch gears to work with absolute location, students start to fall apart.

Here’s  what it looks like in action…

I get it. I really do. Taking a round sphere and then flattening it out, pulling and stretching it until is distorted into a grid can really throw a kid for a loop (or two). using latitude and longitude to describe an absolute location gives many students severe anxiety. I’ve seen some pretty well adjusted students become frozen with fear when it comes to this particular aspect of geographic learning. What I have discovered when students practice latitude and longitude are the following common mistakes and pitfalls:

  • Students will often begin a coordinate with longitude then latitude not vice versa.

I combat this pitfall creating the grid with the latitude lines as green painters tape on the ground. I’m still looking for red painter’s tape for longitude but in the mean time I have to settle for blue. Using green is important because in my glass I tell students that “Green means GO” and this is our prompt for starting with latitude.

  • Students flip hemispheres when they write down their coordinates.

North becomes south. East becomes west. Dogs become cats. It’s easy to get turned around and flipped upside down. I try help students by having them start at 0,0 and walk north or south first (Green means GO) write that part down before moving east or west. It takes some practice but I’ve noticed that most (not all) kids seem to benifit from being able to get out on the grid and walk their way to solving absolute location.

  • Students have trouble estimating degrees on either side of a labeled line of latitude/longitude.

I only have so much room on my floor to fit in a finite amount of lines of latitude and longitude. Just like any map a student might use in an atlas there are only lines of latitude that go up by 10˚ or 15˚, not 5˚. If a student is not careful watching their work, a latitude coordinate that should be labeled as 8˚N could easily be mistaken for 12˚N. The student just got flipped around on the wrong side of the line and can’t figure out what they did wrong. This is one of the hardest pitfalls to correct and I am still looking for a simple solution to it. If anyone has a suggestion, I would love to hear it and put it into practice.

We practice these three exercises for the better part of at least one class period. Sometimes it stretches to two classes but I usually cut it off there. At that point I’ve had enough time to circulate the room and spend check in with each student for understanding. Students who still need help are invited to come and play any of the games we’ve practiced before school, during homeroom (with permission/pass from their homeroom teacher), lunch, and after school before the busses leave. I usually get half a dozen takers who want to practice.

Come to class and try to be just a little bit better today than you were yesterday.

2 thoughts on “The Grid Part III: Relative and Absolute Location

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