Educator Spotlight: Exploring Human Geography Outside

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Eric Carlson, this week’s Educator of the Week, is an American educator teaching human geography in Beijing, China. Eric is as passionate about geography as he is about teaching, and he uses his own personal travels to enhance his classes. In an effort to get his students out of the classroom and to bring geography to life, Eric created the Beijing Explorers Club, which tackles topics from GPS to organic farming to urban planning.

Eric poses by the Shared Harvest Organic Farm outside of Beijing after cleaning out a greenhouse with his students. Photo by Lin Yan

What inspired you to become a teacher in Beijing?
Well, I completed my masters in Social and Cultural Foundations in Education from DePaul University, which got me interested in educational policy and social issues. I worked at Kelly High School in Chicago for six years, but the idea of living and working abroad was always in the back of my mind. I had previously taught in Honduras, and I didn’t feel I was done teaching abroad.

So I started looking at international teaching opportunities, and one school was offering a human geography teaching job in Beijing. Since that’s my favorite subject, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s been such a professionally and personally gratifying class.

What drew you to geography as a topic?
I’ve always been interested in global political issues. When I was teaching in Chicago, I found out about the United Nations Association of the USA, which was putting on a Model United Nations conference in Chicago. Working with them, I started a global issues class and became the lead teacher for model UN instruction in Chicago.

Before teaching human geography, I taught history, and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t have an intense passion for it. But when the human geography opportunity came up, it felt like the perfect next step. Diving into the subject has really opened my eyes. I also teach a class called “Theory of Knowledge” that aims to let students explore how our brains work. I like to say that I get to study how the world works and also how we work as individuals.

So in addition to being a teacher, you created the Beijing Explorers Club. What is it, and why did you decide to start it?
As a geography teacher, I don’t think that it makes sense to just learn from a textbook. Sure, there are amazing resources, but I think we should take students out of the classroom as well. But at my school, field trips were considered too disruptive and were never really a part of the school’s philosophy. The emphasis was always on studying and testing.

Still, I saw a lot of value in getting outside, so I used the Beijing Explorers Club to host geography-related trips that students could take on weekends and at the end of the school year. I wanted to bring to life what my students were learning inside the classroom.

The Beijing Explorer’s Club learns about urban design in Tianjin. Photo by Jerry Huang

What kind of trips did the Beijing Explorers Club do this year?
I collaborate with a Chinese geography teacher named Lin Yan and an American psychology teacher named Karyn McDaniel for the Beijing Explorers Club, which helps bring a multidisciplinary perspective.

This year we held four different trips, and the topics ranged from learning about GPS to China’s cultural diversity. The first trip consisted of geocaching in a park, which allowed students to learn about GPS, GIS, and careers in geography. It also ended up being a great way for students to get some exercise and practice teamwork.

Another trip centered on learning about urban design and urban planning. We went to Tianjin, a city close to Beijing that has a history of European concessions. At one point, there were eight foreign concessions occurring simultaneously. We were able to walk through Tianjin from the Old Chinese neighborhood to the British and French neighborhoods. It was such a powerful example of how different cultures impact city landscapes.

Wendy, a member of the Beijing Explorers Club, stands in front of Tianjin’s modern architecture. Photo by Eric Carlson

What drives you to do the work you do?
Since I was a child, I’ve had this deep personal passion to learn about the world, whether it relates to culture, politics, economics, or what have you. I think every teacher should be teaching what they personally are inspired by because that’s going to come through in the classroom.

I also think that there’s a real, practical purpose for offering a class like human geography. We live in a world that’s globalizing, and the events that are occurring in any one part of the world have a broader effect than ever before. For example, the political events in Syria have impacted migration in Europe and indirectly led to the Brexit decision in June. Beijing is one of the most internationally important cities in the world, and I want my students to have an understanding of the ways their lives connect to others around the world—no matter what field they go into.

What advice would you give to teachers who haven’t had many personal experiences abroad but want to deepen global learning in their classrooms?
I would encourage teachers to get students into the real world as much as possible to enhance what they’re learning in the classroom. Not only do these trips bring learning to life, but they also have a built-in community strengthening aspect. By the end of the day, students have been talking on the bus, shared a meal, and gotten their hands dirty. It always brings a class together and it’s great to do that in the beginning of the year.


This interview has been edited and condensed.


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Do you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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