Geography Awareness Week started not with a bang, but with a graceful launch. Twenty-two years ago, two schools – one in Los Angeles and one in Washington D.C.– released balloons with small notes attached. The directions on the notes were simple- if you discover the downed-balloon, send a short memo to the National Geographic Society with the town and state where it was found. As the two schools let go of the balloons simultaneously, students and teachers on opposite coasts watched the beginnings of Geography Awareness Week soar into the atmosphere.
The launch was the culmination of a year-long partnership between the two schools. Throughout the previous year, students sent letters to a partner on the opposite coast and learned about their life and home. This exchange was fostered by the National Geographic Society (NGS), and was aimed at teaching geography and increasing awareness of different places at a young age. The partnership was so successful and engaging for students and teachers that the National Geographic Society began to lobby Congress, demanding an entire week dedicated to geographic learning for the whole country.
The Society’s efforts were realized on January 06, 1987 when President Ronald Regan signed a Joint Resolution to promote geography education during the third week of every November. While a significant step in the fight for geographic awareness (a battle that NGS had been fighting since 1888), the resolution did not give guidelines for implementation. If the goal was geographic literacy in the United States, how could an unobserved piece of paper do the trick?
The National Geographic Society realized that without a formalized approach to geography education, the resolution would be signed in vein. In 1989, NGS helped form state geographic alliances around the nation, creating seven new state alliances each year. These state alliances helped to implement the teaching of geography in schools, and aided NGS in their distribution of geographic education materials. With the creation of Geography Action!, a program that helps educators promote geographic fluency in their classroom, and My Wonderful World, a campaign that extends the reach of geographic awareness far and wide, Geography Awareness Week could finally become the culminating, all-encompassing geographic celebration that it is today.
TODAY you can join in with teachers, community members, parents, and kids in realizing one of our nation’s most important issues; kids are not getting the type of education they need. While geography’s importance is recognized more now than it was 22 years ago, the results of the 2006 Roper Poll grimly mirror many of the statements on the 1986 proclamation.
This is why we need geography education in the U.S.! Although NGS can form state alliances and distribute educational materials, it can never match the power of the masses in spreading geography awareness. This is your week! Go fourth and spread the good news that geography has taken over, not for the sake of world domination, but for the love of world education.