Our entire world has been mapped almost down to the last inch. Even the deep oceans and the distant stars have been marked and delineated. One vast territory that remains almost completely unexplored, however, are the inner vistas of the self. We can get precise directions to anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, but who we are and where we are going is often still a mystery.
I teach at a dual language school in New Haven formerly known as Christopher Columbus Family Academy. It is a school composed of almost all Hispanic students and designed on the exterior to resemble a ship. There is a large bust in front of the building of a navigator sighting land, an event commemorated on a nearby plaque celebrating the bravery and exploration of Columbus and his crew. The intended metaphor seems clear enough; the young students within the hull of this ship are also explorers of sorts. The school has since changed its controversial name, but the irony of the metaphor remains; students trapped within the hull of a vessel steered by imperialist authorities.
This unit would have the students up in the masts instead; to have them explore the world and map their journey through it, to make them navigators of their own identities and values. This unit introduces the concept of a cartography of the self. That is, by using the techniques and tools of mapmaking applied to our personal lives and literary stories, we can develop a much more clear and relevant sense of our own history, experiences, values, relationships, hopes, and fears. The aim of this practice is to give teachers and students, through the creation of a series of Life-Maps, a deeper understanding of who they are, what they value, where they wish to go, and who they wish to become. Map making of this kind is fundamentally empowering, as it necessitates the act of naming and ordering the world.
As Stephen Hall points out in an essay entitled “I, Mercator” in a book called Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, this mapping of the interior self is much like orienteering (the act of finding one’s way through a wilderness armed only with a compass). As he explains, “Orienteering is such an odd but impressive word that it has always stuck with me, and in fact moves me to propel a related concept to describe a process somewhat like orienteering but more personal, more historical, more associative, more metaphorical, perhaps more spiritual: “orientating,” or crashing through the larger landscapes of memory and experience and knowledge, trying to get a fix on where we are in a multitude of landscapes that together compose the grander scheme of things.” (Harmon 15).
The maps of the self introduced in this unit can also be used to arrive at a deeper understanding of character and literary elements in any text, with the House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisnernos used as an example. This unit is calibrated with 7th and 8th grade students in mind (House on Mango Street is currently a CORE New Haven District middle school text), but it is worthwhile to note that the strategies presented here can be modified to fit almost any age group, and you are encouraged to use the ideas presented here as guidelines to fit your own students and vision.