Education Place

In today's world with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and other new technologies, is it still important for students to understand latitude and longitude?

It is, in fact, more important now than ever before that students understand latitude and longitude. A Global Positioning System (GPS) device uses an array of satellites to describe locations using latitude (distance north or south from the Equator) and longitude (distance east or west from the Prime Meridian). My GPS tells me I am at 30.6 degrees north; 96.3 degrees west right now. A second new technology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which are computer-based maps, use latitude and longitude to attach the layers of information they contain to specific places. For example, many cities use GPS/GIS systems to track the locations of things like sewers, roads, and gas lines. These two new technologies have created hundreds of new jobs, and all of these jobs require an understanding of latitude and longitude!

The national standards in geography, Geography for Life, talk about developing geographic concepts. Are these the same as skills? Can you give a few examples?

Concepts and skills are different. Concepts are what students should know (the key concepts and ideas that make up the subject matter of geography). Skills are what students should be able to do with what they know. For example, by the end of 4th grade, Geography for Life recommends that a student knows and understands the characteristics of places. The key geographic concept is place, defined as parts of Earth's surface with distinctive characteristics. Geography for Life goes on to explain that if a student knows about places, he or she should demonstrate certain skills which show his or her understanding. One skill that reflects an understanding of place is describing and comparing places using visuals, maps, charts, and models. That means students can ask and answer questions like "What do you think it is like to live in this place?" or "Can you draw any conclusions about the place where this photograph was taken?" To accomplish these tasks requires students to know geographic concepts and be able to apply geographic skills, which include making and reading maps, analyzing visuals, and writing about and comparing places.

Should geography skills be taught by themselves or should they be taught as part of history, math, science, civics, etc.

I think it is important to also have a piece of the social studies known as geography, partly so that students understand what the subject is about. But geography is in practically everything that students do in school. So I also think that the skills and perspectives of geography can be infused across the curriculum.

Here are a few ways to integrate geography skills into other subjects. When studying history, you might ask students to draw maps showing important events, migrations, and places. When teaching math skills like coordinate systems, measurement, and estimation, you can use maps, map scale, and latitude and longitude. You build a sense of community and civic pride when you help students understand where they live, and the human and physical characteristics of their town. By studying how people interact with the local environment, and environments elsewhere, you bring science alive to students naturally interested in nature and conservation. Geography is everywhere. And as a great geographer once said, "Without geography, you are nowhere."

How can I get my students to see the relevance of geography in their everyday lives? They just don't seem interested in geography.

When I was teaching I tried to relate events in the news and in students' lives to some aspect of geography. When the weather changed, I pulled out maps and talked about what caused the change. When there was a major natural disaster somewhere in the world, I would talk about floods, or earthquakes, or whatever had happened, as well as the culture of the people affected. A local chemical spill into the town water supply gave us the opportunity to look at ways people modify and affect the environment and ways the environment influences people.

On another tack, I tried to make students understand how connected they are to the rest of the world. We would look at the grocery store sales to see what fruits and vegetables were featured and find out where they came from and why they were coming from those places. New Zealand apples and Chilean grapes in our spring helped students to understand hemispheres and seasons. Walking through a discount store or looking at labels to identify where clothes are manufactured are also good ways for students to see world linkages.

The important thing is to make geography a real part of students' lives by letting them know it isn't just a subject they study in school; it is a way of looking at the world and answering difficult questions.

What activities would you suggest for teaching a class comprised of students with a wide range of learning abilities?

Geography is a good place for students with a wide range of abilities, because there are many opportunities for teachers to develop active learning experiences. Active learning is a broad term to describe experiences in which students are engaged in meaningful learning, hands-on and minds-on. Such activities often motivate less-able students to perform better. Two suggestions are taking students "into the field" and making students "cartographers."

Field work is a common part of geography in other parts of the world but less common in our country. Field work means letting students use your locality to study geography. Such a study can revolve around the skills of geography: asking geographic questions, collecting geographic information, organizing the information, analyzing it, and answering the question. For example, in a study of how the land is used in your neighborhood, these questions could frame the investigation:

  • What is land use?
  • How is the land in our school grounds used?
  • How is the land in our local area used?
  • How and why has land use in our area changed?
  • What was it like 100 years ago?
  • What is still the same? What has changed?
  • What changes are currently taking place in our neighborhood and community?

Students begin the study by walking around the school, then the school grounds, and finally the local area listing features they see and noting how land is used. Students develop simple classifications of land use. For example, in the school students see classroom space, library space, playground space, shared space, and so on. They can make maps or color maps given to them. Students of all abilities enjoy this kind of work. Students with good organizational skills can help with the logistics; students with better drawing skills can help others prepare sketch maps of the observations. Borrowing from Gardner's idea of multiple intelligences, this type of activity allows students who do not have the traditional abilities valued by school (reading, math, and writing ability) to shine and show their other skills.

Making students cartographers is an idea borrowed from a friend who taught a transitional 5th-6th grade class with a high proportion of students repeating a grade. She started the school year teaching students how to draw different kinds of maps, such as sketch maps, area maps, and proportional maps. For the rest of the year, the students drew maps that they wanted. They constructed maps to accompany stories they wrote; they made maps for science class showing the locations of earthquakes, volcanoes, and tectonic plates. Students made maps of the NFL, the NBA, places they were visiting for Thanksgiving — you name it, they mapped it. All students did it with equal enthusiasm, masking many of the "difference" issues apparent in other academic tasks. The students learned a good skill, a way of seeing the world, and a lot of geography.

What are some motivating, whole-school activities that would enhance children's knowledge of geography and reading?

I would recommend Reading Around the World as a wonderful whole-school activity to encourage reading and the study of geography. Develop a list of books at each grade level that are placed in geographically interesting places, both in the United States and abroad, fiction and nonfiction. A large world map placed in each classroom or in a central location, for example, in the cafeteria, can be used to track the places students are reading about. When a student completes a book and selects a new one, he or she can move her location on the map. Students can be encouraged to keep "travel journals" with descriptions and impressions of the places they are reading about as well as answers to specific teacher-generated questions. At the end of the "tour" students can write and share their own stories about other places, complete with geographic descriptions similar to the ones they read. Parents can be involved as well.

Discussing a book with a child is one of the best ways to model how to think like a geographer. Teachers will have to help students understand the contexts in which the stories are placed by asking students to answer four sets of questions: (1) Where is it located? (2) What is it like? What is the physical geography? The environment (human and physical characteristics)? (3) How is it changing? (4) What happened to whom? What things were the same and what things were different as compared with life where you live? What did you think about the story?

I teach 4th grade. When looking for materials to teach U.S. regions, what, in your opinion, is an appropriate number of regions for a 4th grader to study? Some materials list four, others eight, some five -- what do you think?

That is an excellent question. And there is no right answer. The goal is to understand the concept of region. Geographers define a region as an area that is similar in some way. The similarity can be based on some uniform characteristic, like having the same landform, or the same climate, or it can be similar based on a connection, like an area that is part of a river system, or part of the distribution area of a newspaper. Regions are a tool we use to help make sense of complicated patterns.

There are other types of regions as well but they don't necessarily fit the geographic definition. We commonly divide up the world into convenient chunks to be able to talk about it. We talk about the Midwest, the South, and the West, for example, or Western Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Those regions have something similar. They are pieces of Earth located close to each other, but they are not really similar or connected in the way defined above.

Fourth graders understand "similarities" and "differences" very well. And they can understand that there are many ways we can divide up Earth looking for similarities and differences. For example, give students a landform map of the United States, and ask them to draw the boundaries of places that are similar. They will identify the landform regions of the United States. But you can also give them a map showing the location of baseball or football teams. Students can draw the "loyalty regions" to each team, to demonstrate a completely different type of region.

So, to go back to your question about the appropriate number of regions, the answer is that there is no one appropriate number; the answer is that the region is a tool.

What are some good activities to teach latitude and longitude to 4th graders?

Take advantage of the time spent in math to help students prepare to learn latitude and longitude. Often in third or fourth grade math students learn simple index systems using a map index and map grid. Students note the letter/number system and identify places on the grid, "H2," or "B4." Sometimes it helps students to see their classroom as a letter/number grid, and identify their location, for example, "I am in Row B, Number 3."

Once students are familiar with a grid system, it is easy for them to master latitude and longitude. Start with a globe and begin by asking students what they think latitude is, then longitude. Have students use a globe to explain each, out loud, pointing to the Equator and the North and South Pole, and reviewing geography terms learned previously, such as hemisphere and direction.

Next, use styrofoam balls to help students create models of Earth's grid system. In pairs, let students "make" Earth on the ball using colored string or yarn and toothpicks. The yarn (embroidery floss works too) sticks to the styrofoam. Pre-cut pieces of yarn in the correct lengths to "fit" the balls. Then, tell students, "Take a yellow toothpick and put it at the North Pole. Take a red toothpick and put it at the South Pole. Now, take a green piece of yarn, and place it at the Equator." Continue, telling students to establish the Prime Meridian, the International Date Line, and the Tropics, each with a different color yarn. Have one or two groups of students explain their model to the class to review location north and south of the Equator, and direction east and west of the Prime Meridian.

Then, give students a small map of the world. An 8 1/2 by 11 outline map that has latitude and longitude on it works well. Students can "deconstruct" their globe model by placing the green yarn representing the Equator on the map in the correct location, the yellow toothpick at the North Pole, and so on. This helps students to translate the concrete globe into a more abstract flat map. They have to grapple with issues such as which side of the flat map on which to place the International Date Line (180 degrees west/east).

From this point, give student more practice in finding places on a large flat map of the world. Make it more fun than a worksheet drill. Challenge teams of students to develop lists of place names and latitude/longitude addresses for each place. Line-up the class in two groups and have the teams quiz each other.

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