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The Geography Bee

By Joyce McPherson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #87, 2009.

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Joyce McPherson


Geography is one of the most useful subjects that students will learn. They will use this information as adults when they watch the news, as believers when they pray, and as citizens as they function in an increasingly global community.

Like many homeschool subjects that appear daunting at first, geography can be mastered with a strategy of learning a little each day. It also lends itself to fun games and may even lead to participation in exciting competitions, such as the National Geographic Bee.

Small Beginnings

When I first began homeschooling, I had very little knowledge of geography. I considered it a perk of the job to be able to learn alongside my children. We began each day with a short “group time,” and I found that we could learn and review a good amount of material in fifteen minutes a day. We used the Singin’ Smart series and later discovered Audio Memory’s excellent Geography Songs. (I am proud to say that I can sing the capitals of the United States to this day.) We printed blank maps off our computer and labeled the states or countries as we learned the song. Our map collection grew into a notebook, and we reviewed one or two maps each day. As we sang slowly, we would point to each place in turn.

Fun and Games

After we conquered the world, we decided it was time to memorize the capitals of all the countries. We focused on one continent at a time and used silly mnemonics as needed. (Most of these are too silly to print, but here’s an example: the capital of Iraq is Baghdad. We had a funny mental picture of a boy holding a sack and his sister asking, “A rock?” The boy responds “I bagged Dad.”) We would review what we had learned and then add one new capital each day. Once we had a large enough body of knowledge, the fun began. We drilled in various ways such as going around the circle and asking the capitals of countries given at random. We even played home-made “Jeopardy” type games.

The National Geographic Bee

At about this time we learned about the National Geographic Bee. It turned out to be a very appealing competition. It differs from a spelling bee in that a contestant is not eliminated the first time he responds incorrectly. Instead, everyone stays in for the first seven rounds, and then the top ten contestants progress to the final round. One of my sons missed almost every question the first few rounds, but still had the satisfaction of answering several questions correctly.

One of our favorite rounds involves identifying the correct continent from the given clues. If you don’t know the right answer, you can at least guess one of the seven continents. Of course, it’s important to memorize the continents before the bee! Another round of the local competition is based on map reading, which is a common component of many curricula. My students were quite motivated to acquire map terminology with the geography bee in view.

Tooling Up

After our first bee, our children were hooked. They developed a taste for geography games, quiz cards, puzzles, and prep books. The Geography Bee Complete Preparation Handbook by Matthew and Jennifer Rosenberg is one of the best books we found. It contains 1,001 questions similar to those featured at the National Geographic Bee and key material such as geography and climate vocabulary that appear frequently on the bee. With the basics our students were learning in homeschool, they could answer many of the questions in games and books, and they acquired more knowledge from the process. The games often led to pulling out the globe, atlas, or encyclopedia.

The organizer recruits one person to administer the bee and two judges who check responses and take care of time-keeping

Getting the Connections

The National Geographic Bee includes facts about physical geography, current events, culture, political geography, and history. It encourages students to study the connections between physical features, culture, and climate. Understanding how regions are influenced in these ways helps students to remember information about specific countries. We realized that the study of geography enhanced many areas of education, and created ways for our students to integrate all that they were learning. The more we learned, the more we saw connections in our history class, literature assignments, and current events.

Sharpening Logic Skills

Another significant component of the National Geographic Bee is the skill of using logic. Students are allowed to ask for the question to be repeated, and this often helps them to recognize a clue that they missed during the first reading.

Here is a sample question that allows for several different avenues for using logic: “In the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, France sold the United States all of the territory drained by which river-the Colorado or the Mississippi?” If a student does not know about the Louisiana Purchase, he may know enough geography to identify that the Mississippi River flows through Louisiana.

Here’s another example: “Which state’s major crop is oranges: Wisconsin or Florida?” Even if you didn’t know this specific fact about Florida, you could guess, based on the regional climate in the United States.

Starting Your Own Geography Bee If your homeschool community does not have a geography bee, consider starting one. Check out the website at nationalgeographic.com/geographybee/.

To create your own geography bee, you need only six students in grades four through eight (who are not over the age of 15). The students must live in the same state, because the competition is organized by state.

Registration is due in mid-October and costs $70. National Geographic sends a packet with all the materials you will need.

The packet cannot be in the hands of a family member of a contestant at any time, so it is important to recruit someone to receive the packet and serve as administrator of the bee. The organizer will also need two volunteers to serve as timekeepers/judges.

The winner of the bee is given a written test (also in the packet), and the top one hundred scorers for the state are invited to the state competition. The state champion then competes in the National Geographic Bee. Homeschoolers have been excelling at every level of the bee, and five of the last eight national champions have been homeschoolers.

Starting Somewhere

My husband suggested that this article should be titled: “If You Want to Study Geography, You Have to Start Somewhere.” Geography is one of those areas of study that serve as a model for the rest of homeschool. Even when you don’t know where you are going, you can start small and build over time. In the process you will have a lot of fun and discover fascinating connections that you will use the rest of your life.

--------------------------Geography Resources--------------------------

Handbook The Geography Bee Complete Preparation Handbook by Matthew and Jennifer Rosenberg

Online Games A fun online game that requires students to identify countries or capitals on a blank map: purposegames.com/games

Online Quizzes Ten questions a day from the National Geographic Bee: nationalgeographic.com/geobee/today.html#/quiz

Map Puzzles of both the United States and the world (our children felt that our puzzles were the single best help in creating a mental map of the world)

Song CDs such as Singin’ Smart (singnlearn.com) and Geography Songs (audiomemory.com)

Blank maps printed from the Internet: Outline maps are easy to find with online searches, but one of my favorites is eduplace.com/ss/maps/

National Geographic Magazine Though the worldview is questionable, it has wonderful photos and maps, and the articles give great material for discussion. Board games such as “Where in the World?” “Great States” “Name that Country” “Mindware Atlas Adventure” and (our favorite for younger children) “Scrambled States of America Card Game”

Interactive Globes such as “Smart Globe” (from Oregon Scientific) or “Geosafari Talking Globe”

Card Games Professor Noggins’ “Countries of the World Card Games” and “Geography of the United States” (These are good for car trips.)

Wall maps, atlases, and globes Keep these handy at all times-you never know when you might need to refer to them during a game or family discussion.

Joyce McPherson is the creator of the online programs “Homeschool Tools” and “Shakespeare Tools,” as well as the author of a series of biographies for Greenleaf Press. With her husband, Garth, she homeschools their nine children. She can be reached through teachingtools.org or at mcpclan@comcast.net.


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