Saturday, January 2, 2010

Maps, Globes, and Stories

December 18, 2009

The Whole World in Their Hands

Our first grade students have recently been delighting in the exploits of Sam Krupnik, the main character in Lois Lowry’s book See You Around, Sam. After his mother bans his plastic vampire fangs from the house, Sam decides to run away to Alaska, where he can hang around with walruses, whose tusks seem very fang-like. Last week, after Mrs. Scholes had read a particularly Alaska-focused passage, some of the children asked where Alaska is. Mrs. Scholes immediately turned on the digital white board and opened a web-based atlas of North America to give the students a sense of the distance between Massachusetts (where Sam lives) and Alaska.

This teachable moment emphasizes a component of cultural literacy that is critical for children’s knowledge and familiarity with the world. In the same way that we expose children to written language and text to build their word recognition and reading abilities (known as “environmental print,”) we also present them with multiple opportunities to look at maps, globes, and atlases so that they can develop the visual and orientation skills to identify locations, understand the spatial relations between places, and build a sense of our global community.

Many of our classrooms feature maps of different areas of the world, some of which are displayed for specific lessons or units, while others remain as permanent elements of the visual array. A recent survey of the faculty produced a wonderful range of uses and types of maps: in one corner of fourth grade, a series of maps from Heifer International present information about the regions of the world where the charitable organization provides animals for families in need. In the world language classroom and in the hallway just outside that room, world maps highlight language centers. Mr. Sucich’s fifth grade classroom is full of maps, including a map of historic Boston, a direct connection to the geography and history lessons that punctuate the social studies curriculum. In 8th grade, Ms. Gerner’s room includes a satellite photo-mosaic of “the earth at night,” with lighted areas showing the regions of the world that are the most electrified.

After Mrs. Scholes showed the children where Alaska is, she left the image on the white board. Later in the morning, a small group of children became engrossed in the map, counting the number of hand spans between Boston and Alaska, and exclaiming over the places they touched along the way. Just as environmental print surrounds children and provides them with constant experience with the forms of written language, maps and geographic images give them the same basic vocabulary for visual representations of locations. Although they may not pore over the rivers and political boundaries of the maps every day, the shapes and positions of these places become familiar over time, and they can be quite engaging.

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