A Different Way to Make a Map Essay

As a geography teacher, my students occasionally make maps. While I try to spice my map assignments up, the formula is the same: 1.) Find items  2.) Place on map.  Predictably, this results in a map. One more or less looks like the next, some are just prettier.

Recently, I decided to change things up for my Europe unit. I loved the result. Instead of copying information from at atlas or computer screen, the students had to analyze a complex question and come up with a creative way to show their answer. Here’s what I did..

1.) I threw out my list. No cities to find, rivers to label, or mountains to color. Instead, I decided they would just answer one open-ended question.

How does geography influence people in Europe?

Map making is often a low-tech “copy and paste” operation, and a lot of the information leaves students’ brains as soon as the assignment is turned in. I moved a few steps up the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid and gave them a question that requires analysis and synthesis.  

2.) I broke that question into smaller pieces.

There are a lot of ways to answer, “How does geography influence people in Europe?” So I gave them some guidance by breaking it into 4 smaller questions:

  • What geographical features serve as boundaries?
  • How does climate affect where people live?
  • On what type of geographical features are most cities located, and why?
  • Why does Europe have so many small countries and regions, with their own unique language and culture?

We weren’t going to look at local minutia “the Swiss reheat old cheese and call it fondue!“, we were going to look at the big picture, continent wide picture. Climate, countries, population centers, etc.  

3.) To answer those questions, I divided them into groups and gave them atlases.

Specifically, I directed them to the political, physical, climate and population density maps. I said the answer to those four questions can be found in those four maps. Originally, I planned to have them work in groups to create those maps, but scrapped that idea since it was just busy-work, copying from the atlas.

They had 15 minutes to come up with answers While they were answering the questions I moved around the room, answering questions and providing guidance. 

5.) Research in hand, I gave them their learning task.

1.Using the maps in the atlas and your research, create a visual that answers this question: How does geography influence people in Europe?

2.This visual must include at least one map. DO NOT simply recreate a map from the atlas. Use your map to combine, demonstrate, or synthesize information in a way that supports your answer.

3.You can also use text boxes, drawings, annotations, or whatever else you deem appropriate. 

What I loved about this was how wide open it was. The students had to construct their own meaning. 

6.) I made it a contest. 

I told them the top two maps would be displayed. I said the winners would receive bonus resources for the upcoming Renaissance Italy simulation. That got them to perk up.

7.) I had them create the criteria for the winning map.

Amazingly, every class came up with the same three criteria: Organization/Neatness, Accuracy, and Creativity.

One class added teamwork.

8.) I let them work.

9.) Students did a gallery walk.

This was my favorite part. Students commented on the merits of the different visuals, on the accuracy of the text. They got to talk to other students and get feedback on their visual. Here I heard lots of students go “Ohhhhhh!”

10.) I gave them time to fix their map.

This completed the feedback cycle. Students made changes and corrections.

11.) Students voted and we discussed.

Review: I loved this activity. Students were engaged the entire time. They had to collaborate. They had each take a similar set of data (the maps) and interpret it to answer a very open-ended question. Normally when I assign maps I get questions like “Where is Paris?” This time, students were bouncing theories off of me.

While each visual was different, students more or less arrived at some of the same general conclusions.

  • People like to live in moderate climates.
  • Cities are on oceans and rivers because of trade/food/water.
  • Europe has lots of islands, peninsulas, and mountains that divide the land. People adapt differently to different geography.

And since they arrived at those answers by wrestling with that question over the course of an hour of half, I’m willing to bet those concepts are going to stick with them a lot longer. 

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments, or if you’ve done any out-of-the-box map activities.

High School
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