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Teaching Geography

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #77, 2007.

How to become fluent in geography.
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Michael Maloney

As our world changes and shrinks, our children need to become more and more aware of their global neighborhood. Some of the basic tools to help accomplish this task lie in the use of maps, charts and globes. Our children need to know about their own backyard and those of their neighbors locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

We can either work from our own particular location out to a wider world or take a global view and shrink it to our locale.

For this article, I am going to begin with the larger picture and zero in to our own backyard.

You Are Here

Using a set of globes that demonstrate the solar system, or a chart of the same information, students first learn where their celestial home is within our particular galaxy. Once they come to appreciate the location of this small blue planet tucked into this sun's orbiting spheres, they can begin to understand why we can survive here where we could not do so on any of the other globes in our system. Children can also begin to appreciate their unique position within a larger system. Learning that they live on a water-dominated planet that is tilted in a particular way and constantly circulates in a fixed orbit, will help with their understanding of other geographic explanations about climates, seasons, temperature, weather, and many other factors which affect our daily lives.

My World

Upside-down globe In my view, it is important to teach the student the larger view of his or her world as a basis for future lessons about geographic laws, principles, and phenomena that affect the entire planet. To do this the child must be taught the general layout of the planet which they inhabit. Knowing information such as its size, its continents, its oceans and other major features are a first step. When we add the man-made information such as distances, areas, heights, grid lines for latitude and longitude, and the labels we have put on such entities as countries, cities, mountain ranges, rivers, and bodies of water, there is much for any student to learn. If a student can pinpoint a location based on a geographic fix, as navigators do, they may be able to tell a lot about the place based on its latitude and longitude alone.

Teaching Geographical Principles

Once a student has some orientation as to where their planet is and where they are upon it, they will benefit from knowing at least some of the universal geographic principles which affect our globe. If the student has a basic knowledge of major concepts in physical geography, they can apply this learning to a wide range of situations.

Having a geographic fix for a location, plus the concept that temperatures decrease at a rate of about three degrees per thousand feet of elevation, assists the student in predicting the climatic influences in any particular place. Knowing that the distance from the equator affects the amount of heat and light an area receives is a major insight into the kinds of plants and animals we might find in a variety of places. Knowing the patterns of prevailing winds and the principle of "orographic rainfall," that moisture falls on the windward side of elevated features, helps a student to determine which areas are likely to be lush and which will probably be arid. These effects have a huge impact on the humans who live in such environments.

To help the student learn the principles and phenomena which affect our lives, we can create a list of these various principles from texts on geography. Each of these principles can then be written on flash cards and their information learned fluently by reading the term and saying the definition or reading the definition and labeling the term.

Students should be able to provide definitions as quickly as they speak. That is at a rate of approximately 200 words per minute.

I recommend that you write the number of words for each flash card on the upper right corner of the card. After a one-minute timing, you can estimate the rate by doing a word count. If the number reaches approximately 200 words per minute, the student is fluent with these definitions and is ready for more curriculum.

Using Maps to Teach Geographical Concepts

Geographic textbooks and atlases provide a host of different maps for teaching geography. It can be very helpful to use the same type of map, such as one which depicts physical features, for different areas to show how a concept applies. For example, if you use a map of the physical features of the western United States and another map of the physical features of the western coast of Chile, you can demonstrate that given the areas of mountains, and the prevailing winds, it becomes relatively easy to determine areas of high and low precipitation. Such information helps to explain the amounts and types of agricultural activities in those regions, e.g. what products are grown. Such information may also help the student to understand the economic and cultural geography of an area.

Starting at Home

In the first instance, maps can be used to teach the location and boundaries of states, provinces, territories, protectorates, parishes, counties, cantons, or whatever are the particular components which constitute a state or nation. These are other political borders within an area.

As a first step, an outline map of the United States showing the state borders and the location of each state capital is a good place for American students to begin. Students should learn to touch and say the name of each state within a one-minute period. They should do the same with state capitals.

Beginning students may initially use a map that depicts the state and capital cities' names and once fluent, switch to one that has only the borders and a dot designating the capital.

The task can also be done as a written exercise in which the student writes either the name of the particular state or its two-letter abbreviation on the map. Students can write as many as 160 characters per minute when they are fluent printers or cursive writers. Given that there are only 100 characters in the abbreviated names of 50 states, students should be able to complete the task within one minute, if they are fluent. Knowing the total number of characters to be printed or written and the speed of fluent writers, makes it relatively easy to determine whether their knowledge or their writing speed is the holding them back.

Students who cannot name or locate specific states on a political map of their own country will have a much more difficult time understanding other aspects of their geography. Not knowing at least the capital city of any state shows another distinct lack of knowledge. In a few minutes a day, while practicing to a known standard, the student can at least begin to learn about their world.

Progress or Not

As more and more voice-controlled, electronic direction systems and aids become available, there is the tendency to no longer worry about learning basic geographical data such as the location of particular states or capitals. Maps and atlases are disappearing to be replaced by digital displays. These technologies may assist us when we are driving from Austin, Texas, to Pierre, North Dakota, but they are no replacement for understanding many other aspects of geography. Reliance on a satellite, while helpful, does not substitute for knowledge if we want our students to appreciate the world in which they live.

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