Thursday, September 17, 2009

Global Positioning

This week I've been thinking about the many meanings of "distance," both as a measurement of length and as a means of separating events in time. I am fascinated by the ways children envision both space and time; which places seem like a long way from here, or which events feel far away in time. We need to be mindful of the students' developing sense of these measurements, and this awareness leads me once again to the power of narrative and storytelling in helping learners find "anchor points" for their expanding knowledge of time and place. There were some exciting activities in the middle school this week that helped illustrate this idea...

The next time you are outside, pause for a moment and take a look around. In your mind, construct a picture of your location 1.8 million years ago. What plants or animals might you see? What type of climate would you experience? What landscape details would you notice? What features would orient you to the place where you are standing?

On Wednesday, our fifth graders pondered these questions as part of a field lab experience at the Minuteman National Park in Lincoln. With the students gathered in the woods near an enormous boulder, Mr. Downing challenged them to sketch the site as if they had traveled nearly two million years into the past. After some of the sketches and ideas had been shared, Mr. Downing gave a vivid description of how the land would have appeared, deep beneath the ice sheet that covered much of North America. He explained that the boulder, properly called a glacial erratic, had been dropped when the glacier melted at the end of the Ice Age.

Earlier that morning, the children had attended a multimedia presentation at the park’s visitor center, where they learned about the events of the night of April 18, 1775. As the group walked along the Battle Road, Mr. Sucich pointed out several Revolutionary War sites, then stopped to tell the story of Paul Revere’s capture at the exact spot where it had occurred, just a short walk from the 2 million year-old boulder. Farther along the trail, the students searched eagerly for a small plastic box that marked a precise location on a special kind of treasure hunt known as letterboxing. The class engaged in their own letterboxing expedition last week, using compass directions and landmark clues to find a series of similar boxes on the grounds of the Habitat conservation land.

Obviously, the specifics of this lesson were linked to a field lab location that is only realistic for schools in eastern Massachusetts, but the natural history elements are relevant everywhere. Taking the Revolutionary War out of the equation, most schools are located near some historically significant site. I love the idea of simply taking the class outside and saying "Right here, right where we're standing, this fascinating story took place."

What are the essential components of a geography curriculum? How do we come to know about places in the world—large expanses of the globe as well as spaces that are small and familiar? Our students learn the basic skills of geography (in fact, the fifth graders have world maps in their binders right now, which they are studying to memorize the names and locations of the seas, oceans, and continents), but learning geography is more than locating and labeling the proper spot on a map. For our students and teachers, geography involves knowing how to orient themselves in space. Their tools are maps, compasses, observational skills, and an appreciation of the stories, events, and forces that have shaped the world.

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