Educator Spotlight: Mapping Community Diversity

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Mike Presser, this week’s Educator of the Week, inspires his students to see geography in their everyday lives and to see themselves as agents of change. Mike teaches AP human geography, world history, and U.S. history at Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, California. Learn more about Mike by reading his blog or checking out his capstone project from the Nat Geo Educator Certification Program.

Mike leads his students on a virtual field trip of a Syrian refugee camp, part of a unit on migration geography. Photo by Issac Tafolla

How did you decide you wanted to become a teacher, and what do you most like about teaching?

Since my undergraduate studies, I’ve always had a love for history. It’s the subject matter more than anything that got me involved in teaching—coupled with the fact that my mom was a teacher. I really enjoy teaching world history and AP geography because I love to travel, so it’s just a perfect fit for me to incorporate my travel experiences into the classroom.

How has your teaching practice changed in your time as a teacher?

In the last couple of years, I’ve focused more and more on connecting what we’re learning to the students’ real lives, encouraging them to view their world differently as a result.

More recently, I’ve worked to encourage students to see themselves as agents of change. For example, when we looked at gender inequality earlier in the year, students used social media to help spread awareness amongst their peers. The payoff for me was when one of my students refused to accept any extra credit for participating—that is when I knew I was doing something right.

You recently did an interesting project on ethnic distribution in the U.S., in your state, your county, and your classroom. What were the goals of that project?

It fell into our unit on cultural and ethnic geography. The overarching goal was to look at where ethnicities are distributed and why ethnicities have different distributions. The assignment had students explore that in the context of the U.S. by looking at ethnic distributions at different scales.

Mike’s students create pie charts comparing the racial/ethnic composition of the class to that of the community, state, and nation. Photo by Mike Presser

Teachers, an excerpt of the lesson plan is below. See the full document here!

Within a country, ethnic groups tend to cluster on two different scales. At the regional scale, ethnic groups may live in marked regions within the country or a state. At the local scale, they may live in distinctive communities within urban areas. Segregation by race pervades most urban areas and many suburban areas.”

What inspired you to come up with this lesson in particular?

As I’ve been working to connect the students’ learning to their real lives, it’s led to a deeper awareness and understanding of their own communities. We live in a community that is predominantly Hispanic, and because many of the students haven’t had a lot of experiences with the larger world, they assumed our ethnic distribution was the same as the rest of the country. This lesson gave them a context through which to explore their local environment and compare it to other places.

I bet this sparked some interesting discussion in class. What stood out to you?

At one point, students were analyzing a dot distribution map of ethnic distributions in our local area and they noticed a large Asian-American enclave near the University of California at Riverside campus, which they became very curious about. When we researched it further, we learned that UCR prides itself on being one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the nation and works hard to attract students from underrepresented minority groups. For some of my students, this meant modifying their criteria for what defines a desirable college to attend. In addition, it led to a discussion about the diversity on our own campus and what we do to promote a climate of tolerance, unity, and exchange.

A student analyzes various maps to identify patterns of ethnicity. Photo by Mike Presser

Do you have any advice for educators who are interested in teaching about social issues but not sure where to start?

I think it’s best to start small by building a sense of community within your classroom so that students feel comfortable around each other, as if they were part of a family. And keep it local. Take whatever you’re studying and start by applying it to your environment before branching out from there.

Finally, when possible, allow students to do the research themselves. Instead of giving them an article, give them the data to synthesize and come to their own conclusions.

The 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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