Texas Ed: Comments on Education from Texas

September 17, 2006

Geography Lessons

Filed under: Homeschooling — texased @ 10:59 am

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.



  1. Sounds like a fun class! Can I come?

    Comment by denise — September 19, 2006 @ 10:29 am

  2. Me Too!!!

    Comment by Maureen :) — September 19, 2006 @ 12:44 pm

  3. We are doing geography this year at home. I really like the idea of looking for current events and presenting it in terms of the five themes. Thanks!

    Comment by KarenW — September 19, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

  4. I would think that’s part of the appeal of being a teacher, that you get to share in the fun. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way 😉 Just in case anyone is interested, I’m including the links for the material I’m using so far:

    Week 1: reading maps
    USGS Lesson plans

    Week 2
    Worldwise Schools, Dominican Republic

    Comment by texased — September 19, 2006 @ 3:19 pm

  5. […] Michelle at Texas Ed has some ideas that are helpful when it comes to geography. […]

    Pingback by The Median Sib » Blog Archive » Carnival of Education - 85th Edition — September 20, 2006 @ 1:49 am

  6. Fantastic! Geography is so much more than just memorized stuff, you know? Seems like you’r doing the next best thing to traveling there. I’m loving this carnival of education.

    Pass the Torch

    Comment by Pass the Torch — September 20, 2006 @ 8:27 am

  7. I’m glad to hear you’re teaching geography: so many people don’t.

    You might be intersted in our review of geography textbooks. It’s important to get beyond the five themes and focus on “geographic problems.” The five themse are helpful, but if you’re getting bogged down, you need to turn to more interesting frameworks. To me, the best framework is the national geography standards. Even for those who don’t like standards, these spell out the concepts and ideas of geography MUCH better than the five themes.

    The USGS materials you cite are good, and the WorldWise Schools stuff is also good. Another good source is the Center for Teaching International Relations (www.du.edu/ctir).

    But I encourage you to invest in a copy of the TCI Geography Alive! textbook. It is the best at getting beyond location to meaty, interesting, geographic problems. You wouldn’t have to follow the book, but it will give you a strong sense of what concepts might be taught and how to link those concepts to geographic puzzles.

    Bravo for taking on this task–and for telling parents you’re not going to drill state and place names. I do that with my kids, but it’s not really what geography is all about.

    Comment by drmamontgomery — September 20, 2006 @ 9:36 am

  8. Thanks for the tip, it looks really interesting. I feel more confident about the direction I’m taking since I was going sources from the NewsHour and the New York Times to look at Hurricane Katrina and the Middle East. One of my favorite lecturers from the Teaching Company starts his lectures with the statement that “geography is destiny” and looking at the world today, I can’t help but agree.

    Comment by texased — September 20, 2006 @ 8:16 pm

  9. Gettysburg? It’s a farming area. Re-imagine the area as a natural, forested area with far fewer large fields, and consider how that would have affected the battle. And of course, now, it’s a park. Imagine how preservation of open space and natural areas affects local wildlife, and the local economy, especially tourism in that case.

    I’m not sure where they fit with the five themes, but there are a few other things I like to see kids get out of geography. First, I’d recommend getting a Boy Scout book, and get the requirements up through First Class for map orienting, map reading and navigation. Every kid ought to be able to read a map to get to a town in the state she’s never heard of. Every kid ought to be able to read her local town’s map to figure out just how much at risk she is from a 100-year flood (the FEMA maps used to be on line, or they are cheaply had from FEMA and other sources, for your local town), or from the petroleum pipeline that could explode (do you know where the pipelines are under your town?). You can get the USGS topographic map for your town, and let the kids see how contours work, and find the real names of geographic features. Check out topozone, and Google Earth, and the Microsoft versions. Get a real, working compass, and let the kids orient the maps. Get out and hike around town, or the local park.

    Second, we seem to miss out on the real value of geography in current commerce. Host as a guest the person from a local trucking firm who must schedule the shipments. Get someone from Wal-Mart to come in and talk about RFID use in tracking shipments (seen the IBM ads?). Get someone from the regional office of a local cell-phone company to come in and talk about siting towers for service, bringing their maps — have them talk about the FAA rules, the FCC rules, the difficulty of shooting microwaves through trees and buildings, traffic patterns, concentrations of houses, etc. Get a GPS and have the kids plot their exact location down to plus-or-minus three feet. Have them take that lat/long figure and plot it on a map. Get a local surveyor to come talk and bring maps of the place you meet. Get the records from the county records office that show ownership of the land you meet on, going back a couple of generations, or 100 years. Check with your local Council of Governments (COG) and see if they have a GIS division — get someone from there to come in and show how governments use maps in decision making: Who gets new roads, who gets new parks, who gets nothing.

    Geography is a booming area of commerce. Geography courses rarely note that at all.

    Comment by edarrell — September 23, 2006 @ 3:37 am

  10. Thanks for all of the suggestions. It reminds of an interview someone did with a person who worked for a national franchise in setting up new restaurants. He said he wasn’t in the restaurant business but in real estate since everything was about location.

    While I guess it’s natural for anyone to see the subject that they’re teaching to be the most important or central to a student’s education, I’m really beginning to see geography at the intersection of virtually all other subjects.

    Comment by texased — September 27, 2006 @ 7:37 am

  11. So many teachers are placed in the same situation you are in! There are many online geography resources that may help you in the classroom. I work for the National Geographic Society Education Foundation, and we are constantly working with teachers to develop geography materials that are applicable in courses that are so often shoved under History/Government/Civics/Studies, and are taught by teachers that do not have a geography background.

    If you need ideas for lessons, teaching materials, you should contact the Texas Alliance for Geographic Education (http://www.geo.txstate.edu/tage/), or the Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education. They are amazing in coordinating geography professional development, have field trips, conferences, etc. to assist geography teachers in the state of Texas.

    Also, there over 600 geography lesson plans for all ages at Xpeditions, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/
    that have printable maps, games, activities, and much more.

    Most importantly, we feel very passionately about geography. That’s why National Geographic started My Wonderful World. It’s a public campaign—backed by a coalition of major national partners—to expand geographic learning in school, at home, and in the community. MyWonderfulWorld.org has lots of resources for parents, teachers, and kids, to take action to make their communities geographically literate, and things that might be useful in your classroom.

    I find it wonderful that teachers see geography as the cross-section of all other subjects, and as a geographer myself, and especially a geographer tied to education, it has always been important for me to communicate the importance of geography as the foundation to understanding our world. Thank you for teaching such an incredibly important discipline!

    Comment by Jessica — October 16, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

  12. Last week and this week we’re studying the effects of Hurricane Katrina. I’m using a lesson plan from the New York Time’s Learning Network, “In the Wake of a Storm. Investigating the Needs of Special Interest Groups Concerning Plans to Revitalize the Louisiana Marshlands.” Each student is representing a special interest group that is to advise the government in the redevelopment of the marshlands. We added a tourism/cultural group to the ones given. This ought to be interesting, the students acting for the oil/gas industries and real estate developers all but made an evil laugh while rubbing their hands together.


    Comment by texased — October 22, 2006 @ 7:57 pm

  13. You’re studying Hurricane Katrina — in 7th grade Texas History? In 9th grade world geography? Where?

    I love those NY Times lesson plans. You may subscribe, and they e-mail one every day. Lots of good ideas in there.

    Comment by edarrell — October 25, 2006 @ 9:49 pm

  14. Both? I’m teaching to seven homeschoolers that range from ages 10 to 15.

    The lesson plans are great for me since they don’t assume that we are working from some sort of social studies textbook. And it’s given me a lot of flexibility in accommodating the different reading levels in the group.

    Comment by texased — October 26, 2006 @ 8:41 am

  15. This week we’re looking at Darfur. We’re using the New York Times’ lesson plan, Sorrow in the Sudan.

    The more I do this, the more sympathy I have for classroom teachers. I have only seven kids and three were not prepared last week. And this is with their mothers sitting in the living room while we do the lesson.

    I have never been a fan of group projects/activities in school. Probably the main reason being that I was the one who did all the work and everyone else just complained about how lame the idea was. I know the idea is that some kids will get interested in a subject with certain activities. It wasn’t necessary for me and thank goodness, it’s not necessary for my son.

    I do make an exception for creative problem solving activities such as Odyssey of the Mind. But that is an entirely different situation. I just consider myself fortunate that my evaluation and paycheck doesn’t depend on all of these kids mastering geography.

    Comment by texased — October 31, 2006 @ 3:09 pm

  16. I’ve created a worksheet for students to use in applying the five themes to a specific event. I’m still refining it but you are welcomed to use it. It’s called “Apply 5 Geography Themes.doc” and you can download it here:

    Comment by texased — November 15, 2006 @ 3:09 pm

  17. The worksheet gets to a great idea, having students apply the five themes to the material they are studying. Thanks for the cue!

    Comment by edarrell — November 17, 2006 @ 7:01 am

  18. Hey i need help in Geography.
    I am in 7 grade and i am flunking,can you help?

    Comment by Maxx — September 24, 2007 @ 4:05 pm

  19. Maxx:

    Try these sites:


    There are more sites available — just do a Google search for “geography homework help” (without the quote marks).

    And holler if you don’t find those useful.

    Comment by Ed Darrell — September 26, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  20. Sounds like you are an innovative type of teacher — well done!
    I use Geography Alive! text published by Teachers Curriculum Institute. I note another responder recommends it too. It is the difference between desert and dessert in geographical thnking. Instead of those tedious survey regional world geography books, Geography Alive! is a case study problem-solving look at geographical issues all the ones listed in the geography scope and sequence.Some examples of topica are urban planning, migration, population growth and decline, water and other resource management and sustainability and so on. There are two levels of text for secondary levels, a modified reader and a regular reader and I have used both for basic level up to college prep with my ninth and eleventh graders;I wish I had had it when I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. It could easily be used for middle school through 11th grade. In addition there is a student interactive workbook that gives students practice with each step in the concept of the chapter. This is more a lab notebook than the standard worksheet dittos and chapter tests. There is a nice mix of factual and applied skills formed around each essential question. Every concept is correlated to National Geography Standards. Along the way, graphing and statistical analysis is implemented and there is a nice selection of hands-on group and partner work simulating town meetings, interviews and virtual field trips that engage students in the practical decision making that comes with the human and environmental interactions essential to geography. The variety of activities is rich, two notable examples are the interest group simulation deciding where and how to accommodate the conflicting needs of more affordable housing and adequate arable land; and also how to strategize for meeting the human needs resulting from a natural disaster. This is a lively engaging curriculum that is global in scope, and, through it, students develop sophisticated geographic analysis. The teacher guide is a wealth of suggestions particularly for accommodating the many levels of student capabilities(differentiated learning) as well as providing scripted lesson plans that a teacher with only a small knowledge of geography could follow readily. I have used this for years and find it excellent and stimulating to teach. Geography Alive! is definitely the best I have ever seen. Instead of the usual textbook written by historians trying to apply mapping and historical cultural studies, this is written by real geographers from the American Geographic Society and National Council for Geographic Education who actually model systematic geography. I hope you have a chance to use it. We enjoy it. Another suggestion for younger students is the website, My Wonderful World, which is linked to the National Geographic Society and other learning resources.

    Comment by Jill Foster — May 7, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

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