What skills do you teach to your students on how to use maps? How do you teach them?

Wow. My head was spinning after that #worldgeochat. It is wonderful to observe a group of content specific educators get together and totally geek out about the one thing that gets them all intrigued about their subject. For geography teachers, it’s maps. I love maps. Seriously. My wife rolls her eyes anytime I see a placard on a street corner with a map on it. I. MUST. STOP. AND. READ. MAP. It’s funny when she teases me that my idea vacation is to march my children to every map in Gettysburg National Military Park’s audio car tour. Yes, that’s right. Walk the entire auto-tour. Might take me three days. I’d be in a state of constant bliss. But I digress…

(OK guilty confession time. I digressed from my digress. While writing this post I stopped and looked up the NPS pdf file of the map of the park and lost myself for twenty minutes in gleeful distraction.)

The first week of #worldgeochat was great but week two was even better. The questions started with a question that has been done before but always the bedrock of teaching mapping.

“What skills do you teach to your students on how to use maps? How do you teach them?

Yes. There needs to be a discussion of skills. Personally the question itself instantly sparked more questions in my mind, which is a good thing when discussing how to develop an inquiry based classroom? What skills do you teach? How does that depend on the age and grade level you teach? Which are the most important? Which do you teach first? What is the proper balance of skills to time spent on them?

My first question for students is to help me understand what a map is. Simply put, I ask students:

What is a map?

It’s not easy being a middle school 6th grade teacher. 6th grade is a (THE) mixing grade. Where students are entering school, often from two or more feeder schools (elementary schools), with few close friends. Many have never had ‘homework’ before so as the instructor/lead learner in class I have to be aware of all if it and plan accordingly.  It’s early in the school year and it is one of their first collaborative activities. I moderate a discussion for 20-30 minutes about this topic. What it is and what it isn’t. Before getting to basic components, lat/long, or even how to read a map, I just discuss with them for most of class in an abstract way. @geteach echo’d a similar line of thinking when he mentioned early one:

Maps ARE limited at best but why do human like them so much?

As class draws to a close, students are sent home as ‘homework’ to come up with at least one question they have about maps. Homework is a great time to develop curiosity and set the stage for class the next day. For me, anything more than this defeats my purpose of creating students who WANT to come back tomorrow. Some of their responses come back the following day (mind you these are 6th graders): What do we do with maps? How do we use them? Why do we use them? What good has ever come from a map? Are maps accurate? Do maps change? What does a map tell you about the person (or people) that made them? The list just keeps getting longer and longer…. We love to look at them, peer into them, imagine the land as it was when the maps was made, or help us tell a story contained within it. It is not the entire story but a great starting point to observe and absorb as much information as possible. @classroomtools  tweeted this which got me thinking about maps as perspective.

Immediately after that (for me), students should embark on discovery and exploration of the the solid skills of map reading and identification. I like to describe it as learning the language of reading maps. Just like math is a language to describe how the world (physics) works and the written word is language is a way to describe thoughts and events for future generations. Skills such as this tweet by @GeoPenny:

Some participants wanted students to get comfy with holding a map first by looking at it while others wanted students to get exposed to the sounds of hearing specific terms like latitude, longitude, or Cardinal Direction, Compass Rose, et al. Like this one by @SamMandeville

And @Jim_dEntremont;

The chat seemed to settle on the Top 3 list of skills in no particular order:

  1. Latitude and longitude and how that makes Absolute Location possible.
  2. Reading the Key of a map.
  3. The Cardinal Directions and how they make Relative Location possible.

Some participants wanted students to get comfy with holding a map first by looking at it while others wanted students to get exposed to the sounds of hearing specific terms like latitude, longitude, or Cardinal Direction, Compass Rose, et al. There is no right or wrong way to teach an introduction to mapping. Each teacher brings their own unique perspective on why learning the language of maps is an important skill to be a functioning member of society.

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