Educator Spotlight: Asking ‘Thick Questions’ to Understand Geographic Data

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Peter Michaud, this week’s Educator of the Week, incorporates geography into his lessons for subjects ranging from math to literacy. In an activity that combined data and statistics with mapping, he encouraged his fifth-graders to ask “thick questions” and consider different perspectives when answering them.

Peter Michaud is a fifth-grade teacher at Ronald Reagan Elementary School in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Photo by Connie Michaud

The goal of your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone was to encourage your students to ask “thick questions”. What makes a thick question, and why are they important?

A thick question doesn’t have one quick answer; instead, there are different perspectives. Since last year, I’ve been trying to incorporate culturally responsive pedagogy in my classroom. I want kids to understand the ways that their culture and experiences define their perspective. I really stress in my classroom that individual students’ perspectives are not common among everybody. It’s time to start recognizing other people’s viewpoints and where they come from.

This kind of pedagogy is especially important in geography education because it hasn’t always been utilized, and we have a lot of work to do to change that.

What did your capstone involve, and what kinds of thick questions did students ask?

We did an inquiry-based activity as part of a math lesson that dealt with statistics and data. We gave 90 fifth-graders a little sticky note and said “If you could travel anywhere in the United States, where would you go?” We put the sticky notes on a large wall map so we could look at patterns, find trends, and ask thick questions.

We didn’t ask how many kids said they wanted to go to each state. Instead we asked, “Why were there a lot of sticky notes on Florida?” Some questions came up in connection, like, “What does Florida have to offer?” or, “Why would you want to go to Florida?” We thought up answers like “Florida has Disney World,” and “Florida is a good place to go for spring break.” We were trying to understand the “why” behind the layer of sticky notes we had discovered on the map. There’s data within the data, and there’s research to do on the research. It’s not just a mapping activity, and it’s not just a statistics and data activity; it’s the union of both of them. It’s the merging of math and geography.

Educators: More info on this activity here

How has this project influenced your teaching?

I do similar activities in other curriculum areas. For example, in literacy class, we get to do a nonfiction research unit on the American westward expansion. When we look at a map of that time, I ask my students to consider why certain boundaries are there. I had pretty sharp fifth-grade students this past year, and when they studied the Louisiana Purchase, they made a point of looking at it from the point of view of Napoleon and the French. Was the Louisiana Purchase good for the French, and if so, why? They considered that question and made thesis statements.

In another activity, students plotted a sticky note on the world map using their birth month and date as coordinates. Photo by Peter Michaud

What advice would you give to educators who want to incorporate more geography in their lessons?

Teaching geography is kind of a mission for me; you can use it in any subject area. In my class we do it with data, statistics, and math. I also consider geography when I pick fiction books to teach in our literacy classes. For example, we read Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, a book about a Somali boy who ends up in Minneapolis in the 1990s. We give students lessons on refugees and what it is like for them to come from a different culture to the midwestern United States. From fiction to nonfiction to reading and writing, don’t be afraid to get the maps out!

If you could take your students on a field trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?

First, I would first think about our curriculum. That would be an amazing opportunity because it would accomplish what I try to do in my social studies classes: bringing learning to life. One reason I enjoy being a fifth-grade teacher is that we delve into the history and geography of our country. We could go to historical cities such as Washington D.C. or Boston. We could travel to diverse habitats such as the Hawaiian Islands, the Florida Everglades or the Rocky Mountains.

Ultimately, I would want my students to use their inquiring minds to come up with a purpose for our travels and then create a plan that meets their needs as learners in exploring our vast country; we would learn together through this experience.

Peter Michaud was recently recognized as the Wisconsin Elementary School Social Studies Teacher of the Year. The award was presented to him by a very distinguished guest! Photo by Connie Michaud

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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