3 Map Project Ideas to Spice Things Up Essay

What is more hallowed to the Social Studies classroom than maps? Our walls are covered in them, and you can often find our students making them. For good reason. When used correctly, a map project is a powerful formative assessment that helps students understand spatial relationships, the world at large, relative location, and a host of other useful skills.

Yet map projects can be deadly boring. My single worst memory of 9th grade is coloring in the countries of Europe, and then Asia, and then Africa… I learned how to shade inside the lines very well, but little else. Those memories remain one of the events of my life that continue to color (pun intended) my teaching. I have 3 map project ideas you can use to spice things up.

1.) Your map project should tell a story

Geography for geography’s sake is boring.  But geography is powerful when it helps us understand our world. Most students won’t care that Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, but they will care that there are 38,000 US soldiers stationed there. Which are they more likely to remember?

Connect the map to your students’ world. If you give geography meaning and context, you make a powerful argument about why geographical knowledge is relevant. And if students know that your map project matters, you’ll get more engagement, enthusiasm, and higher quality work.The possibilities are endless, but here are 3 specific map project ideas that tell a story:

  • Instead of just labeling countries in Asia…  have students chart where 30 items in the class are from and represent that on their map.
  • Instead of a map of ancient Rome… make a map showing the expansion of ancient Rome and highlight a key moment that led to its rise or fall.
  • Instead of doing endless map skills work sheets…  have students create their own island with physical features, or countries, etc.

2.) Your map project should give students options

If all your student’s maps look the same, you don’t have a project. You have a recipe.Map projects are one area where students will blow you away, if you let them. Keep the map outline for those who need it, but give others the option of drawing their own on bigger paper. Artistically inclined students will thrive, and you’ll have some great work for your walls. I’ve been given maps of Egypt decorated with pyramids and hieroglyphics, and maps of ancient Greece bordered by the pantheon of gods. I didn’t ask for it, I just let them know they could.

For the artistically-challenged (like myself), I include optional locations, cities, and landmarks to research and annotate if they choose. By giving students options, you allow them to take the content and create something of their own with it. That kind of learning is fun, sticky, and long lasting.

3.) Your map project should have annotations

Annotations, a few short sentences about items on the map, guarantee that their map won’t just be an exercise in shading and atlas copying. Whenever we study the physical geography of a region, we first study the major geographical features, how big/long/tall they are, etc., and how people adapt to them. The students then have to annotate the major geographical features on their map.

While my research projects take a few days, you can easily incorporate your previous lessons and readings. Annotations are particularly fun with historical maps. Students can annotate the difference between Sparta and Athens, a few major battles of World War II and on and on. I always like to leave it a little open-ended, so if they find a topic that interests them, they can pursue it as much as they like. You’ll end up learning some things too.

Maps can be amazing assessments. Don’t be afraid to unleash your student’s creativity. And unless they are in pre-school, don’t have them color in the blanks!

High School
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