What Is Geographic Education?

When I first told my friends and family about my selection for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, they were, of course, overjoyed for me. But, well-intentioned, many have since asked me questions like, “You don’t teach geography, so how did you get selected?” It’s true that many Grosvenor Teacher Fellows are not geography teachers. We are kindergarten teachers, elementary school teachers, teacher-librarians, music teachers, math teachers, science teachers, outdoor educators, and the list goes on and on. What we all do have in common is this: we teach our students about the world. 

National Geographic is committed about ensuring that all students grow up to be geographically literate. This means more than simply memorizing countries and capitals, but rather also means appreciating the natural world, communicating across boundaries, and making informed decisions as a 21st-century thinker. The purpose of the Fellows program is to give teachers some of the best professional development on the planet that will help their students become more geographically literate. But what does this really look like in an elementary classroom? Let me share with you two recent examples of geographic education that has been happening in my classroom, and beyond its four walls.  

Our school's butterfly garden with student-created signs and fence

Our school's butterfly garden with student-created signs and fence

One student wrote signs to discourage her classmates from touching the monarch caterpillars growing in our classroom.

One student wrote signs to discourage her classmates from touching the monarch caterpillars growing in our classroom.

A student records the types of seeds he collected from a local wildflower garden.

A student records the types of seeds he collected from a local wildflower garden.

In the fall, we brought in a number of monarch caterpillars and chrysalids to our classroom. The students loved observing them and watching them metamorphose. And, really, I could have left it at that. After all, I would have checked off a number of the science curriculum expectations for Grades 1 and 2. Instead, we used the students’ enthusiasm to launch a cross-curricular inquiry project that is still ongoing, nearly 10 months later. We talked about our prior knowledge about monarchs and brainstormed questions we had about them. We read books and watched videos to help us answer our questions and learn more about their life cycle, migration patterns, and conservation efforts. We tagged the wings of the adult butterflies before we released them, so that we could track their migration to Mexico. We found their winter habitat — the fir trees of the mountaintop Oyamel forests — on maps, and wrote letters to students from the region, all winter eagerly waiting for them to write us back. We took field trips to local parks and forests to collect milkweed and native pollinator plant seeds, and then we planted a butterfly garden in our school yard. Finally, just last month, we created a stop-motion video to submit to our city’s United Nations World Environment Day Student Film Festival, to encourage others to plant butterfly gardens, too. Last night was the Film Festival red carpet gala, and believe me when I say that you have never seen a prouder or more jazzed group of 6- and 7-year-olds! 

Tweeting about geographic education from my Twitter account @penguinlearners 

Tweeting about geographic education from my Twitter account @penguinlearners 

Then in the spring, I took eight 4th-graders who are part of my school’s Eco Club to a screening of the film “The Dark Side of the Chew”. We learned many incredible facts about gum. Did you know that chewing gum is the second most common form of litter in the world? Each year we litter enough gum around the world to build a road to Mars! Although gum used to be made from the sap of the Chicle tree, our collective consumerism for gum almost completely depleted this natural resource, and now almost all chewing gum is made from plastic. That means we are littering tons and tons of plastic onto our earth and into our waterways each year. Animals, birds, and fish can, of course, get sick by eating all this gum accidentally. The Eco Club students came back from this film as passionate advocates against gum litter. Completely coincidentally, the next day was a spirit day at our school where students were allowed to chew gum in class. On their own initiative, the Eco Club students wrote and delivered announcements over the school’s PA system to encourage others to throw away their gum responsibly, or choose not to chew gum at all. At an Eco Club meeting the next week, the students were still buzzing and talking about the film. They expressed how much they wanted a chance to use the app GumShoe Map, created by the filmmaker of “The Dark Side of the Chew”. Anyone anywhere in the world can use this app to upload photographs of gum litter on sidewalks, which is then compiled into a real-time, dynamic map of where gum litter is located. When my colleague Lori let the filmmaker, Andrew Nisker, know about their initiative, he chose to come to our school to film the students and create a video encouraging others to download and use the app. Many students have now downloaded the app onto their own devices and continue to upload data to this citizen science mapping project completely on their own. 

Throughout these two examples, the students were thoughtfully considering multiple perspectives; noticing the interactions between their lives and the natural world; considering the environmental implications of simple, everyday actions; taking initiative to share their learning with others in their community; and creating persuasive messages to communicate with wider audiences around the world. And this is from students as young as 6-years-old. Imagine what could happen if all classrooms from K-12 were committed to this type of learning! These projects do not reinvent the wheel, and are not necessarily difficult for teachers to implement. However, for geographic learning like this to happen, it does take commitment from educators who believe in the importance of expanding their students’ worlds!