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do work!

March 30, 2011

frontispiece from chamber's cyclopaedia, reminiscent of raphael's "school of athens" except better. what school should be.

i’m going to tell a story.  the point of this story is not to make fun or to make anyone feel like a dummy or to make an example of anyone, but simply to illustrate the failings of our educational system, particularly in regards to geography.  (side note:  for more information on the cyclopaedia, for more rad images from it and for details from the above image go here.)

i stopped at the gas station here in minneapolis, to get gas, awhile back.  i still have idaho license plates on my car.  the gas station attendant, a young woman in her mid-20’s (i would guess), came out to empty the trash bins and noticed my license plates.  she asked me if i had come all the way from idaho.  i replied that i had indeed, though not today.  “idaho, that’s just south of minnesota?”  she asked.  this is always tricky territory…i always fear coming off as some sort of geographical elitist, or some educated elitist, or even some western elitist, in situations like this.  although it’s always a bit alarming i don’t want my dismay at the geographical failings of our educational system to come across as some sort of disappointment or judgement regarding the other person, to inadvertently project any of my frustrations or make it personal.  plus i think one might be surprised at the number of people all over the country that mix up iowa and idaho, (which, being from idaho i find extremely offensive, given that idaho brings way more to the table than iowa (the hawkeye state?  really?)).  “nah, i think you’re thinking of iowa.”  i replied offhandedly.  “oh, where’s idaho?”  she asked.  i admired her for this…so often we feign knowing or understanding rather than asking…asking can be hard.  “it’s pretty much due west of here.”  i replied.  “oh, so like through chicago and michigan.”  awkward.  again, i didn’t want to make her feel dumb or be condescending.  “no, other way. ”  i replied brightly.  “oh, right,” she said somewhat sheepishly, head dropping as she shook it.  i’m sure she knew her cardinal directions, but had simply suffered a moment of disorientation.  i have moments in places where i have to run a quick “never eat shredded wheat (or soggy waffles)” through my head.  anyway, she seemed genuinely interested so i pulled out my road atlas.  “you have to drive through north dakota and then montana to get to moscow, idaho, where i’m from.”  i said, tracing i94 and i90.  “wow, that is a long way.  do those states feel as big as they look on the map?”  i laughed, “yeah, they do.  especially when you’re driving through them.  especially the eastern half of montana.”

her authentic and honest curiosity was proof enough to me that had she been exposed to, let alone actually taught, the geography of the u.s. she would have absorbed it, and retained at least a general sense of it.  the failing was not her own, although i suppose the argument could be made that she could have taught herself.  at this point we could branch off into a whole new discussion regarding social dynamics and socioeconomics and so on.  i suppose many with a higher socioeconomic standing often have more tangible and applied reasons for looking at a map of the u.s. due to the opportunity and resources for travel.  but for me the real issue is that this stuff just isn’t taught in school.  you might throw out any number of arguments about how she should’ve known where idaho was.  but sam admittedly couldn’t name all 50 states and i’ve tried as well (a few different times over the years) and tend to always forget some combination of delaware, maryland and new hampshire, though one time i forgot massachusetts.  and before i drove through them i used to mix up nebraska and kansas.  so what i’m saying is it’s not so weird this woman doesn’t know where idaho is.  a lot of this has to do with limited personal geographies and geographical imaginations.  and a lot of that limitation has to do with geographical education and exposure in the home and in school.

to the point.  sam said we have work to do.  true story.  the question is…what work is it that we have to do??  or could be doing?  how do we go about doing that work?  i’m going to ignore the ivory tower geography education aspect for now.  that conversation is a little more…dry and complicated and fancy pantsy and just really sort of icky and not fun.  i want to focus on two things…what can we do at home to help our kids and what should we be doing in schools?

a lot of this goes back to the geography standards post.  the geography standards are really great.  and there’s some good resources out there for teachers (and even parents) who do have some sort of geographic curriculum.  but our main problem is that it’s just not taught, it’s not required curriculum (because it doesn’t show up on any standardized test) in schools, at least not at the national level.  i would hazard that this might change as geopolitics roars to the forefront of our news and stays there…as our need for geographically literate people becomes even more necessary…as our world becomes more globalized and the need for global citizens becomes more urgent.  but i wouldn’t bet on it.  it seems as if this may also coincide with the inaccessibility of a college education, judging by forthcoming tuition hikes.  geography has largely been confined to “the ivory tower” but as college tuitions rise and a post secondary education is restricted to a wealthy elite (which will coincide with the elite who are able to travel) it will be imperative to find a way to create geographically literate students via primary and secondary school educations and via geographic exposure in the home.

i touched on this a little bit in my geography standards post, and in my geographical imaginations post.  how to integrate geography in other subjects and some of the factors that influenced my personal geography and geographical imagination.  but i thought i might break it down a bit more systematically and thoroughly.

what do schools need to do??

-first thing that needs to happen is that geography needs to be required curriculum.  the geography standards provide a curriculum…k-12.  it’s in place, the resources are there.  alright, i’ll just come out and say it:  i think we need to look at standardizing k-12 curriculum, in all subjects, nationwide.  or at least 7-12.

-the geography curriculum i had freshman year should be done in 7th grade…or even earlier.  learning where countries are, and looking at the basic people and animals and cultures that are where, and learning some basic physical geography.  kids should have been taught this prior to entering high school.

-8th grade should be one semester focused on state history and state geography.  i do think this is important.  but i think we need to be careful with our curriculum.  we had to memorize county license plates (in idaho each license plate has a letter/number on it to signify the county).  this is only important insofar as it allows me to show off and impress when dragging out of state visitors on idaho road trips.  and i would spend the the second semester focused on u.s. geography.  geography.  not history.  i’d place an emphasis on physical geography of the u.s.

-9th grade i think you start introducing more critical thinking based geography studies in relation to current world events and more recent (post wwii perhaps?) events.  really use 9th grade as a time to build those spatial analysis and geographic thinking skills.  global issues style stuff.

-10th grade social studies for us in idaho was world history.  this focused mainly on ancient histories.  meh.  i’d spend a month or two on ancient history and then i’d spend the rest of the time focused on colonial-present day histories with a strong geopolitical emphasis.  and not nearly so much time spent on memorizing so many exact dates (especially not for the ancient histories).

-11th grade for us was u.s. history.  i was actually lucky enough to have a pretty great teacher and we had a really strong u.s. in the global context emphasis but still way too much time memorizing all of the presidents.  i think this is a good opportunity to focus on the u.s. in global contexts, really thinking critically about the geopolitics and economics of that history.  apply what you learned in 10th grade and have it be a sort of international relations type of deal.  i’d also take another look at u.s. geography/history but with more of a focus on the human geographies of the u.s.  i’d say we need to use “a people’s history of the united states” as a text but with stuff like this actually happening in real life i don’t have much hope for that (though this is a good sign).

-12 grade for us was u.s. government.  again, meh.  i’d spend a semester looking at the process…i think it is important that we know how our government actually runs (and how it “should” run, as a democracy), and then i think looking at politics in general…different political ideologies and the way that similar ones have manifested…what ways has socialism, democracy, etc manifested in the real world?  on a global scale.

some things to note.  this would take a fairly large paradigm shift…teachers would need to be better at thinking spatially, particularly in a spatially critical way, or at least more familiar with it.  it would also take a shift in the curriculum, away from curriculum geared towards training for standardized testing.  so that’s my thoughts on that.

some tools i would utilize:

-bring back pen pals.  but on a way more awesome scale.  utilize technology.  create a video tour of your school, your community, your state, and email it to your pen pal, or your sister school.  take photos of school and community events, of activities you’re involved in (sports, dance, music, whatever).  make a video of you cooking your favorite food dish, email it.  video conference once a month.  do a research projects on wherever your sister city is.  throw out the textbook, for the most part.  utilize community resources…historical societies/sites, museums, zoos, aquariums…hella field trips.  read stories…fiction, or non…particularly narratives, ideally narratives from youths of around the same age.  MAKE THINGS!  make it as hands on and buildy as you possibly can…kick in the dirt.  more service learning.  get the kids out in their own community, working with people, working on projects.  we need to be creating active, participatory, critical thinking, creative , resourceful, youth.

what about at home?

-discuss current events with your kids.

-have maps everywhere.  we always had a world map shower curtain and various map place mats.  do this.  those are two places where one spends a surprising amount of time doing things that don’t take much mental effort, leaving the mind free to stare at maps.  have them on the wall.  leave a world atlas on the living room table, or floor.  always have a globe handy.

-read to your kids.  and have them read to you.  and just like when you don’t know a word you come across and look it up in the dictionary, when you’re not sure where a place is look it up on the map with your kid.

-plan imaginary trips (or not imaginary).

-subscribe to magazines.  i looked at the pictures in old national geographics and smithsonians before i could read them.  and a lot of magazines have really great kids versions…discovery kids and national geographic kids are the two that come immediately to mind.

-puzzles!  a good start is those big, easy, obvious wooden ones, using maps.  but then just puzzles of people and places and animals that might pique curiosity.

-use your kids other interests to teach them geography.  into music?  introduce them to music from around the world, introduce them to the history/geography behind the music they currently listen to.  food?  do the same.  dance?  building things (architecture)?  do the same.  want to be a fireman or police officer or a soldier or a doctor?  talk to them about recent world events where those folks have played a role…wars, national disasters, etc.  it works with anything.

-it’s really about generating talking points, about inspiring curiosity…about teaching it, making it a habit…and following through with that curiosity…looking stuff up.

ah, so that’s my thoughts on that.  i don’t want to do a conclusion.  so this is my conclusion.  post concluded.  talk amongst yourselves.  cheers.

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