Storytelling with Maps

StoryMapsI’ve been doing some research of late on how to better integrate ArcGIS into my classroom and I came across Story Maps by ESRI. ESRI and their app ArcGIS have been the de facto GIS software for schools (at least here in Ontario) since GIS was first taught in high school in the late 1990s.

I was an early adopter of the technology having taken the summer courses at Wilfred Laurier University since the days of the pixel-based IDRISI platform. I taught the Gr 11 (Ontario) GIS course for two years before taking up a teaching position overseas at a Tanzania school where the technology was unaffordable. Upon moving to the UK, where we taught cutting edge geography concepts and field work, I was quite surprised to find GIS not in the programme and began to rethink the role of GIS in introductory high school geography courses (e.g. Gr 9 Canadian Geography in Ontario). I came to the conclusion that while it was important to introduce the concepts of GIS and the applications available and even have the students work with it, what is more important is for students to understand basic geography first.

What I was seeing from the immersion of high school students in GIS applications was a lot of “recipe” labs where students click buttons and add data and make spectacular maps, with almost no understanding of the geography behind the scenario and with very little in-depth analysis about the causes, effects and solutions of the problems they were addressing with GIS. Often, the basic geography was completely replaced by learning how to use the software – fine for an IT course, but not for geography (in my opinion, anyway).

A few teachers do it very well, but, for the most part it seems, students are following pre-set instructions and not thinking for themselves. Instead of clicking through a recipe, I’d rather my students leave the technology behind and spend the time thinking through causes and effects from a variety of perspectives them coming up with solutions to address the different perspectives. But I seem to be in the minority on this.

Call me an “old fart” but, for the first time in my long teaching career (most of it at the high school level), I’m having my Gr 7 class build 3D landforms this year. For the past three years we have studied landforms using topographic maps (real and online) and Google Earth (3D and profiles), but many of these very bright and engaged (and well-travelled) students still had trouble conceptualizing and truly understanding three-dimensional landscapes from flat maps and screens – so its back to the basics. Besides, imagine the fun we’ll have! And, no, the geography won’t be lost in the activity! The 3D landforms will be a great jumping-off point for topics like mountain-building, volcanism, erosion, flooding, agriculture, etc.

Coming across the concept of storytelling with maps seems to fit more closely with how I view geography in high schools. There are a number of excellent story maps that may be used to teach various concepts in geography, for example:Anthropocene

Many other story maps have been created where geography is the platform for understanding other disciplines such as history, human rights, biology, sporttourism/gardens, and policing.

I’m not saying that students should be producing story maps like this in Gr 9 Geography. While it would be a great outcome and would allow them to integrate the technology with the concepts in s a summative project, once again, the geography is too easily lost in the production. However, as an interdisciplinary unit (e.g. IB MYP Individuals & Societies + Language and Literature or I&S + Design) combining the geography and the story telling would be just about ideal.

Take a few minutes to visit the ESRI Story Map site and, if you’re like me, you’ll be there for a while, exploring and thinking “Hmmm, how can I bring this to the classroom?”

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