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Friday, November 20, 2009

Geography: Where Dead Authors and Dusty Books Come to Life

“Why do I need to know this?” How often have you heard that question? Geography is not the first-reach resource for most English Language Arts(ELA) teachers, but I’ve found the use of geospatial technology quite powerful with my students. As one of my 7th graders said, “Everything’s mappable, Mrs. Duke!” How do you teach your students to think? I used geospatial technology cleverly laced among the traditional and required content to bring my ELA class into the 21st Century and get my students thinking!

My first GIS experiment in my classroom was integrating it into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. My students did the usual reading and class discussions that you might expect in English class but in addition we looked into other aspects related to the story as well as Twain: banned books, historic timelines, etc. With GIS students investigate Twain’s journey down the Mississippi River as a river boat pilot. Twain believed, “Experience is an author’s most valuable asset.” Taking students on that experience down the river gave them a glimpse into his world and how his characters developed. In addition, students can overlay historic maps from the David Rumsey Collection ( Now students can look at change over time as the current data layers interface with historic maps. (Lesson available on ArcLessons or my website)

Speaking of change over time, another way to connect students with literature is setting and context of the story. I created an experience for students to appreciate The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Students can use either ArcGIS Explorer or ArcGIS to examine the family’s journey, population change and aerial photos of change over time. (Lesson available on ArcLessons or my website) This experience has great opportunities for cross-curricular integration as well.

Also, Jerome Berg’s Google Lit Trips ( are excellent for journey books. These downloadable *.kmz files are easily viewed in Google Earth or ArcGIS Explorer.
Another opportunity to integrate geospatial technology is for research and writing. Students can ask the maps questions and cite their analysis in research projects as well as have more to say in their writings because of proof in the maps. National Atlas Map Maker ( offers some great information as well as Social Explorer (, Nationmaster ( and Statemaster ( GIS is great for creative writing as well. My students explored the Ganges River and had to write about their imaginary journey.
Since 2000, I’ve been using GIS in the classroom, sharing my experiences with teachers, writing curriculum and conferencing on the benefits of GIS integrated curriculum. Ask yourself, “What’s mappable in my curriculum?” You don’t have to be a geography teacher to realize that you need a little geography in your classroom.


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Barbaree Ash Duke said...

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Altax said...

Interesting!!! Great post.