I’m teaching geography for our small co-op of families that meets on Wednesdays. I’ve never taught geography. Never had it as a formal class. Never had to memorize the states and capitols in school.
However, I do think I have a pretty good sense of geography in general. In college, most of my history classes started off with a map of the country or region we were studying. In my first two jobs out of school, I was the regional contact person for the census data center. I dealt with zip codes, tracts, blocks, counties, msas, and other various combinations of geographic definitions. Probably more so than anything else, those jobs taught me that the geographic definitions by themselves aren’t important, it’s the information associated with them.
So when I volunteered to teach geography, I started doing some searching for what should be included in a geography curriculum. I found plenty of publications for teaching kids to be able to locate counties, states, countries, etc. In other words, the goal was for the students to be able to fill in a map appropriately. Boring…
I did come across the five themes of geography: location, place, human/environment interaction, movement, and region. Now this was interesting. This made sense. This is apparently only taught as a few lessons in history or social studies classes, if at all. There is an AP Geography test but it certainly doesn’t seem to be one of the more common ones.
So I’m winging it. I told the parents and the students that if they wanted to memorize countries, they could do it on their own. I was more interested in them being able to hear about a place and know how to look up it’s location and what does that location mean for them. Kind of like my professor in econometrics who said he wasn’t interested in us memorizing various formulas for analysis because we should be able to look it up as needed. He couldn’t possibly teach us every equation we might need to know in the future, he could only teach us how to question and evaluate the data generated by such formulas.
I’m having each student pick an event each week and then present it in terms of the five geography themes. The first week was interesting. We had rusting pipelines in Alaska, the US embassy being bombed in Syria, the Crocodile hunter dying off of Australia, a hurricane, the battle of Gettysburg, 9-11, and a mine collapse in Russia. Everyone has a map on which they can track everyone else’s events as well as their own.
I also used lessons from the USGS to review basic map reading techniques for location. I’m always a little concerned when I use the lessons and see the targeted grade levels and suggested classroom time. The two lessons I used were for 6th to 9th grade and two 30 minute sessions. I feel sorry for the students who “get it” in five minutes and then have to wait for the rest. I also feel sorry for the teachers who have to deal with students who need 60 minutes to go over material that my group of 10 to 15 year olds managed to cover in less than 15 minutes. Class size matters.
I haven’t decided what to cover this following week. I’m definitely learning as I go. I’m still trying to find something that really differentiates the concepts of place and region. The best I’ve been able to explain is that a region is a set of defined characteristics of a place. Since the students drive the class discussion with their own selection of events, I’m finding that we’re applying the themes in ways that aren’t listed in the various lesson plans.
Sometimes we’re struggling to apply them at all. What’s the human/environment interaction at Gettysburg? After some discussion we thought the fact that certain areas were defended because they had been cleared for cultivation whereas others were left undefended would fall into this category. For the hurrican, was movement the historical migration of people to the islands that put populations in the path of hurricans or the current evacuation plans?
By the time we finish the class, I don’t know if the students will be able to pass a geography section on some TAKS test. I’m assuming it would be under social studies? I do think that they will be able to follow events (if they so choose) and understand how it’s location caused and or affected the event itself. And if they can’t, at least it won’t affect our educaiton funding.