Maps are all around us. They are in our phones, in our cars, in our homes. They are on streets in the form of street signs. They are in malls, in office buildings. They are in books, pamphlets, magazines and websites. They come in so many types, sizes, shapes and formats, that there is bound to be a map for everyone out there. They can be framed or unframed decorated or not and cover surfaces and places that are both fiction and nonfiction. Maps open so many doors for us, like a good book or a piece of art, as they seem to call out to us to bring in our own interpretations and stories with their content and intrigue.
It seems somehow ironic that we do not see maps used more often in our schools. There are maps hanging on many school walls, especially in social studies and science classes. The classroom globe, which used to be as common in classrooms as the chalkboard in the front of the room, can still be found in some classrooms or a teacher’s supply closet. But even these relics that have always been a part of a classroom, today seem more like posters, or decorative pieces than interactive learning tools that they truly are. When is the last time you really taught with a map? How many of us simply point to a location on a map almost in passing as opposed to actually engaging in a map with children much like we do with works of art?
Maps are showing, not telling. There are many different types of maps that can be used when teaching in a Language Arts classroom I have used the traditional wall map to pinpoint settings in the Americas, Europe or Africa when approaching literature of fiction or non-fiction, I have used timelines in the retelling of Anne Frank’s diary and the events of the Sixties leading up the beginning of The Outsiders. I have utilized Family trees to help students decipher the complicated connections between Greek Gods and Goddesses when studying Greek mythology. All of these techniques are utilizing different types of mapping that are useful in the classroom.
In this unit I will be utilizing maps in my classroom to help students comprehend a nonfiction text that explores the development of nineteenth century brain science through the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who is almost killed in an explosives accident. Although relatively brief, the book introduces a number of science-related concepts that can be difficult to grasp. I believe that using maps in the reading will help bridge gaps that students might have in fully understanding the story and its ramifications to nineteenth century brain science.
Maps are perfect for any lesson in any classroom, and if you look hard enough you can find a way to use a map for any lesson you are teaching, in any subject and for any age group. Maps are a perfect classroom tool that can and should be utilized to help students get better understanding of material on their own learning level. They are a natural tool for differentiation. They can be simple or very complex, they can include illustrations, numbers, symbols and signs. They can be colorful or plain. They can be made of an endless number of materials and used to interpret endless subjects and topics. They can be created with a crayon and a piece of paper, or the most powerful satellites mankind has ever known, and everything in between.
Often understood to be works of art, maps can become visual representations of text and can lead students to understand and complete more traditional Language Arts tasks. A traditional map automatically becomes a visual representation of setting in literature. An illustrated timeline is a dynamic visual representation of a chronological study of a story. A brain or phrenological map becomes a visual representation of a very complex world of emotions that can lead to a better understanding of characterization.
Finally, utilizing maps in the classroom automatically differentiates instruction. We can all create a map. While some of us will create great masterpieces on canvas or digital formats, others prefer a piece of paper and a set of colored pencils or crayons, still others will create a map with clay or papier-mâché. Using maps as a tool for understanding literature allows students to reach the material on their own level and at their own pace.
My unit will begin with a brief introduction to maps and mapmaking. I will bring maps to the forefront of students’ minds as I begin to share the vast variety of maps and their history that will allow students to see maps in different way as I will ask them to explore literature through maps. I will hook my seventh graders in a discussion and exploration of maps that will lead them from the past to more recent times, from the universe to Cavendish, Vermont, the site of Phineas Gage’s accident. We will discuss the Transcontinental Railroad and how important the railways were to the expansion of this country. We will explore what maps mean to us and start with a map of our own neighborhoods.
Maps stimulate storytelling and writing, so I will invite my students to produce travel journals as we read. Studying and creating travel journals will also give my students a place to bridge the creative and the critical as they explore what makes a good travel journal and how the styles of different writers influence the telling of the story of travel. Finally, we will explore what kind of a storyteller, and what kind of travel writer, each student has become as they find their own voices and share their own skills as writers, travelers and fellow storytellers.