Educator Spotlight: Evaluating Map Projections

Amy Kennedy led her sixth-grade students in evaluating map projections based on accuracy and bias. Students wrote letters to the U.S. Secretary of Education explaining which map projection they think should be used in schools.

Amy Kennedy is a sixth-grade literacy teacher at Orchard Middle School in Solon, Ohio. At the time of this project, she was teaching sixth-grade social studies. Photo by Faith Kirtley

What was your inspiration for having your students evaluate different map projections?

My goal was to have students begin to think like geographers and view maps as primary sources. I wanted to find an authentic way for students to evaluate maps. We looked at which maps are used in schools, how they may be biased, and how those biases may affect people’s perceptions of themselves. Ultimately, I asked students to take ownership of their own education and evaluate which map projection they’d like to use in our classroom.

Did you change which map projection hangs in your classroom based on this project?

I actually did not because my students could not agree on which map projection to use. Every map has its pros and cons. Instead of relying on one map projection, we use multiple maps when we examine issues using a geographic lens. We evaluate maps based on the perspective and purpose. This leads to great discussions about which sources to use in a given situation and how to evaluate sources.

Students researched map projections and chose which one they thought should be used in classrooms. Photo by Amy Kennedy

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

In what ways was this project interdisciplinary?

Another one of my goals was to engage students in civic action. Students wrote letters to the U.S. Secretary of Education advocating the use of a specific map projection in schools. I wanted them to realize that they can participate in a democracy by writing a letter to a government official.

Students also practiced language arts through letter-writing. First, each student selected which map projection they thought was best based on their research. Then I placed students who chose the same map into groups so they could share their research and brainstorm points for their individual letters. Student then used Google Docs to type drafts of their essays, which went through many revisions. This helped them realize that writing is a multistep process and formal writing takes time and thought, especially when writing to a government official.

Students worked together to brainstorm points to include in their letters to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Photo by Amy Kennedy

What surprised you about this project?

Months later some of my students were still debating which map projection was best. Some students favored the most technically accurate map. Other students evaluated maps according to their potential biases. Some traditional-minded students preferred to continue using the most widely used classroom map because they didn’t want to change something that seems to have been working for so long.

It’s interesting how the different perspectives in my classroom represent a microcosm of society. I’m proud of the way my students could debate and still stay positive and supportive of each other.

How did you involve parents in this project?

Parents read a draft of their child’s letter to the Secretary of Education. I welcome parent involvement in my classroom. I wanted students to get the perspective of another adult on their draft. The idea is that, as much as possible, students have a larger audience than the teacher for their work.

School is not just a place where you teach and learn; it’s a family. Teachers, students, and parents are all in this together. Students know that I am in communication with their parents. This creates a more positive learning environment and increases motivation.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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