Drawing Maps

A problem:

A lot of us don’t have a feel for how the world fits together — and so we have a hard time understanding what’s going on. After 13 years of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, I, for example, still can’t remember whether Iraq and Afghanistan touch each other. (I think they don’t. Maybe Iran is in the middle?) Nor can I draw a rough map of my hometown, or the city in which I currently live. This is ridiculous!

Sometimes, when schools want to focus on geography, they have students label the names of places, on pre-drawn maps. But this doesn’t guide kids to think about the shapes — rather, it’s just a trivia/memory contest. We need to understand names and shapes.

If we don’t understand the stage, we won’t understand the story.

Our basic plan:

Students, from kindergarten on, regularly draw maps. They do so calmly, almost meditatively — to silence, or to music.

They begin as simply as possible, just learning where the six vague continental blobs (Africa, North America, South America, Eurasia, Australia, Antarctica) go on the map. Later, students focus on one particular blob, and see if they can get begin to get the details right — its rough shape, its specific outline, its rivers, its mountains, its deserts and forests and reefs, then its cities and capitals. Over many years, the kids cycle through all the continents, and the major island chains.

Students will also make maps of their local areas — their blocks, their towns, their states.

Because we move so gradually, there’s little pressure on the kids to get it right — and the actual act of drawing a map can be pleasant, a healthy counterpoint to the rest of the day.

Each time they draw a map on paper, students are drawing the information in the memories. After a few years, students will have an intuitive understanding of the geography of the whole world.

The goal:

Our main goal is for students to be less limited by the particulars of where they were born, and feel more at home in the whole world. People and events that happen far away should feel less “exotic” to them, because they’re familiar with the areas.

On the other side, drawing local maps should root the students more to their local geographies. They should feel more at home in their communities than they would otherwise.

Also, students get regular practice at drawing: getting a pencil to go where their mind tells it to. (This is, for most people, quite hard.)

Finally, students get a daily break from analytic thinking and social concerns, and just be able to focus on the perceptual exercise of re-drawing a map.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

You might see kids, sitting at tables, intensely concentrating on the paper in front of them, while music plays wordlessly in the background. You also might see students’ most beautiful (and accurate) maps hanging on the walls.

Some specific questions:

  • How often should we engage in this — every day? every other day?
  • In what ways might this be a hard sell to parents?