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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

New Horizons Middle School

I’m quite fond of fall in New York, and as luck would have it, today is a lovely election day here in Manhattan. To be honest though, I’m finding it rather difficult to think about any map that isn’t a patchwork of red, blue, and maybe a splash of purple. So instead, I thought I’d write something about a visit I made to a sixth grade classroom last week.

At the end of the summer I was approached by a teacher in Brooklyn who was looking for someone to give a presentation about maps to her students. Curious to find out what these kids knew already and excited by the challenge of trying to teach them a little more about geography, I agreed to visit her school during my lunch hour. I discovered a few things while I was there: first (and I suppose this wasn’t really a surprise), our teachers have their work cut out for them. I did not have the full attention of her class much beyond the first 10-15 minutes, and the wide range of ability that I saw in just one period was daunting. I was both over-prepared (in terms of the amount of information I was ready to cover), and under-prepared (with respect to the difficulty some student had in grasping basic concepts). I talked about my job a bit, showed them six different types of maps, and encouraged them to ask lots of questions. Then, with about 30 minutes remaining, we attempted to walk them through the basic steps of creating a map of their own neighborhood.

I’m glad that I had an opportunity to visit New Horizons Middle School, and now that my feet are wet, I would actually like to talk to more kids about maps and geography. Because what I learned that afternoon is that our educational system has some room for improvement in this realm, and our children can’t afford to enter the adult world without some basic knowledge on the subject. As a colleague of mine likes to say: Without geography, you’re nowhere!

Ben Keene is the editor of Oxford Atlas of the World. Check out some of his previous places of the week.

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