Maps: They're Not Just for Geography Any More

Thu 14 2010

Maps tell stories. Not simply representations of objective spatial realities, they are texts, created by individuals and groups who decide the subject of a map, the purpose, the point of view, what is included, and what is left out.

And thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies, maps are also exciting interactive resources for the classroom; visual platforms that teachers and students can use to create, define, and understand historic themes and concepts as well as the geography in which events unfold.

It's one thing to access the extraordinary historic map collections now available online through private individuals, libraries, and archives. The David Rumsey Collection, the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas, and the Newberry Library Map and Cartography Collections are perhaps among the largest collections. It's more difficult, perhaps, to make sense of maps, to integrate them into the curriculum, and to master the various technologies that make digital maps come alive.

At History Matters in Making Sense of Maps, author David Stevens writes that " fully understand a map we need to know how to decode its message and place it within its proper spatial, chronological, and cultural contexts."

Below you'll find a few resources that may help.

The National Archives Teaching with Documents Lesson Plans offers a Map Analysis worksheet that help map users define exactly what kind of map they're working with and what the map is intended to do or to show.

At the Newberry Library, Historic Maps in K-12 Classrooms consolidates a range of historic maps and lesson plans. Maps are thematically grouped in topics such as Exploration and Encounter and The Historical Geography of Transportation. Lesson plans specifically designed for K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 accompany each map.

Stanford Spatial History Project his is a very interesting and unusual idea. Historians at Stanford have collected very specific and detailed information about historical events within short time frames and then produced graphic representations of these events that you can play over maps. It's very precise and perhaps too detailed for many high school level students to make sense of, however some of them helped show how historical phenomena occurred. Particularly chilling was the graphic showing slave purchases in the Rio slave market in the mid-C19th; you can see individual children being bought at specific times by specific people.

blogspot on google maps
Mapping Tools

The uses of Google Earth seem inexhaustible and invaluable as a teaching tool. It's also a bit intimidating. Joe Woods, a California educator, provides basic directions for getting started, an introduction to Google tools such as Sketchup, and curriculum ideas on the wiki Google Earth (& Maps!) in the Classroom.

Scribble Maps is another of those applications that make learning just way too fun. It enables you to draw and write on Google maps. Map history, create timelines, annotate historic sites, and work can be emailed or embedded in a blog or website. Fortunately, Scribble Maps is fairly self-explanatory, because instructions aren't readily found. The blog, however, includes a user-created short film demonstrating the tools and how to use them.

About the Author

Lee Ann Ghajar is a digital history associate in Public Projects at CHNM and a PhD candidate in American history at George Mason University.