Educator Spotlight: Considering the ‘Why’ Behind Fantasy Maps

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Ralph Covino, this week’s Educator of the Week, combined a lesson on map-reading skills with a lesson on the Byzantine and Mongol Empires. By creating backstories for the maps of fantastical lands in Martin O’Leary’s “Uncharted Atlas,” students explored the many reasons behind borders throughout history.

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Ralph Covino teaches world history and Latin to ninth- and tenth-graders at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo courtesy Girls Preparatory School

Tell us about your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone. What did your students do and what were the learning objectives?

I wanted my students to gain a deeper appreciation of the complexities that underpin the expansion and contraction of existing states, such as the Byzantine Empire, as well as peoples like the Mongols. It was also our goal for the year to work on map-reading skills.

We began with a National Geographic activity which introduced the topic of borders and got the girls to think about how it is not just natural features such as mountain ranges and rivers that impact where borders are, but also linguistic and religious differences. They wrote reflections on what other factors beyond those three may also contribute to a border’s placement. It was great to see them really start to question why things are where they are now.

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Ralph’s students studied the many factors that impact borders, including natural features, linguistic differences, and religion. Photo by Carolina, a student in Ralph’s class

In the next phase of the project, I gave students samples from Martin O’Leary’s generative art project, “Uncharted Atlas,” in which he maps fantasy lands. I asked them to imagine the backstories for the unknown lands in the maps. This gave them a chance to flex their creative muscles–and flex they did! I shall not soon forget the tale of the three lands that broke into factions over how best to deal with their collective dragon problem.

The final phase of the project was an application of the terminology and map-reading skills to the history unit they were in, covering, among other things, the Byzantine Empire, the world of Islam, and the Mongol Empire.

Educators: Download the full lesson plan here!

Why did you incorporate fantasy elements into an activity about a real-life issue like borders?

Students learn best when they have some kind of personal connection to the material under scrutiny. Even for the best of us, that is a challenge with a topic like the Byzantine Empire–so much of historical peoples’ lived experience is just not relatable.

By giving the girls a chance to create something of their own and having them use the vocabulary pertinent to political borders to describe their projects, they became invested in their own creations.

For the next week or so, cries of “Oh! That’s just like when…” started off comparative discussions between the subject matter and their imaginary realms.

Why is it important to consider the “why” in environmental features like borders?

Looking back on the project and on my students’ reflections, I am now far more aware of how much students take borders for granted as things that just need to be memorized.

With borders, every fiber of their beings wants an answer to be something simple like “because there’s a river/mountain range/impassable desert there!”

As teachers, it is our job to model the questioning process so as to prime the pump of students’ critical and deeper thinking. The answers to the easy questions will always be just a click away. The challenge is to help them to start asking and answering more complex questions for themselves, the kind of questions which a cursory Googling will not resolve. Topography and other environmental factors are infinitely more complicated than they initially think!

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Ralph’s students crafted boundaries on an imaginary land mass, taking into account physical as well as cultural factors. Photo by Sydney, a student in Ralph’s class

Why are critical thinking and self-expression so important in your classroom?

As a teacher who cares deeply about my students and their success, I need to know that they will be ready for college. That means ensuring that every day we do something to build a solid foundation of skills, and no two skills are more important than critical thinking and self-expression.

Individual facts in historical study have been rendered trivia by data storage and retrieval technology. It is impressive if you can recall things, but that is a talent with limited application.

Tomorrow’s leaders will be the ones with skills that allow them to find, filter, and analyze data and then passionately and persuasively articulate their findings.

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.

2 thoughts on “Educator Spotlight: Considering the ‘Why’ Behind Fantasy Maps

  1. I love that you emphasized the skills, rather than just data retrieval. A really great lesson! 👍🏻

  2. Ralph – this is such a creative and effective example of cross perspectives and bringing the power of maps into your students’ lives! Cool. — Terry

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