Educator Spotlight: Pop Culture as a Gateway to Mapping


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Kelly Woodard, this week’s Educator of the Week, taught her students mapping skills using pop culture, emerging technologies, and perspective-taking strategies. She teaches 6th grade social studies at CREC Public Safety Academy in Enfield, Connecticut.

Kelly explores the Sapona shipwreck off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas. Photo courtesy Kelly Woodard

You are the first teacher I’ve spoken to from a public safety academy. What is it like to work at a school with this particular focus?
What’s really special is that each of our students has a natural desire to serve in some way. Some want to be in homeland security, some want to work as EMTs or firefighters, and others want to focus on law.

My job as a social studies teacher is to show them the multiple facets of responsibility that come with the uniform. Their jobs will require that they make complicated choices. We try to make sure they get an education through project-based learning that helps them practice the critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and teamwork they’ll need regardless of the field they choose to pursue.

Kelly’s students work on the project, Net Citizenship. Photo courtesy Kelly Woodard

What inspired you to become a teacher?
I took an interesting path to pursuing education. I was inspired to become a teacher by working at Disney World and working in the corrections field. I think if I hadn’t worked in both, it wouldn’t have worked.

I loved Disney for the fact that it wrapped up educational experiences in a theme park. I worked at Epcot and Animal Kingdom, and those parks are especially full of education. There was one moment I’ll always remember when I was standing in front of a ride, and I heard a kid ask his parent, “Dad, is that real?” and his dad answered, “I really don’t know.” I saw two generations experiencing wonder together at the park and learning something new.

At the same time, during my time working in corrections, I was seeing the cycle of recidivism in person. I saw this one man come back several times, and asked him why he kept doing the same things that led to the same result. He told me he didn’t know how to do anything else because he dropped out of school and crime was all he knew how to do. It hit me then that education is the best way to break that cycle.

Kelly’s students explore how technology influences location devices. Photo courtesy Kelly Woodard

For your Nat Geo Educator Certification, you created a project for a class you teach called Net Citizenship. What is that class like, and what was your project?
The class is designed to help students understand all the opportunities they’re afforded with technology as well as the threats that come with it. It helps them make sense of technology’s ubiquity, and empowers them to navigate it with informed digital literacy.

This particular project challenged students to investigate how technology impacts the way we interact with maps and other location devices, including geolocation and GPS. Students examined traditional maps, maps from popular culture such as the Harry Potter or Minecraft universes, and maps that challenged their idea of how the world really looks. For the culminating project, students used Google Maps and research skills to create a persuasive and informative travel brochure about a world landmark.

 Teachers: See the full lesson plan here.

Check out Kelly’s Capstone video below.

Is there a particular memory that stands out from this project when a student had an “aha” moment?

There were a couple of great moments. When I presented the class with the “Marauders Map” from the Harry Potter series, they enthusiastically argued that it counted as a valid map based on our established criteria. However, almost instantly a debate started about the map being cool versus being usable. It was awesome to watch the students facilitate the discussion themselves, and ultimately persuade one another. After that discussion, they were hooked.

Later, we looked at some maps that really challenged their perceptions of where we are in the world and to what extent maps are representations rather than realities. A great clip from The West Wing supported this perspective taking, too. We ended up getting into a huge existential conversation over where we are and how we understand space.

What is your best advice for other educators?
Start from a basis that the answer is not the point. The goal is not to assess but to explore how students got to their answer, even if it’s wrong. And you have to be ready for the classroom to be loud. I got into teaching because I love talking, but I monitor that now. I use a timer in my classroom, and I’m only allowed to talk for 20 minutes out of any 80-minute session. That puts the responsibility on the students to lead the way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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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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