Abra Koch points to a hand-drawn map titled "Las Islas Galápagos" and taped to a whiteboard in a classroom

Strategy Share: Employing Map Talks in the Classroom

Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by Abra Koch after her expedition to Galápagos as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Abra Koch leads a map talk. Photo by Lisa Brinkman

Maps provide opportunities to look into the experiences of other people and consider what life may be like in other places. They are unique windows onto the rest of the world’s stories. I use Map Talks in my classroom to help my students read the stories that maps offer us and allow them to draw conclusions based on clues from the maps.

My class is based on stories. I teach Spanish, and we constantly use Spanish to narrate the nonfiction adventures in our daily lives and fictional imaginings in our sillier moments. I started using Map Talks as part of a National Geographic lesson about mapping storybooks. I projected a map related to the book Make Way for Ducklings. To give my students the language to understand what we were seeing, I asked them questions in Spanish: What building is this? Is it far from the river or near? Where do you think a duck could live? 

After we had discussed the concrete aspects of the map, a magical question took us in a whole new direction: Who lives here? Suddenly there was a whale living in a courtyard swimming pool who needed help because he was growing too large. Before long, we had effortlessly constructed an oral story entirely in Spanish based on just a map. It was beautiful, engaging, and fun!

A student works on creating her own map. Photo by Abra Koch

Maps can also tell us nonfiction stories. As part of a unit on sustainable agricultural practices in my AP Spanish class, we used a map of Latin America on National Geographic’s MapMaker Interactive with overlays related to climate, crop production, and undernourishment. As a class, we talked in the target language about what we were seeing with the overlays and how that might affect food security in the region. Students then brainstormed in groups and wrote possible effects on the board for everyone to consider. These disparate ideas began to form a picture of agriculture and food security in a different region of the world. My students were creating a mental narrative of climate, economy, and food production. 

When I returned from my expedition to the Galápagos Islands as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, Map Talks allowed me to introduce my students to the islands. I talked them through a map on the board, explaining the distance of the islands from the mainland (600 miles), the origin of the islands (volcanic), and the influence of ocean currents on the climate and biodiversity in the islands. Then I gave them time to consider the following questions in Spanish, based on what they could see and what we had discussed:

  1. If the Galápagos Islands have never been connected to the mainland, how did they become so biodiverse? Where did the animals and plants come from?
  2. Why are there so many endemic species on the islands?  
  3. Why do we not have a large number of endemic species in Ohio?
  4. Do you think that plastic pollution is a problem in the Galápagos Islands? Why?

They had to use the map to think through the answers to these questions. The next day, when we looked at other maps of the Galápagos and considered the stories that they were telling, students already had experience with interpreting maps. As they examined the maps with their groups, students wrote down 10 additional details about the islands that they learned just from exploring the maps. This led us into the production of a section of their naturalist journals in which they created their own maps that tell a story about a place in nature that is meaningful to them. 

An example of a student map during map talks. Photo by Abra Koch

Map Talks are simply a conversation with students about what we see on a map. They could lead to profound conversations and deeper understanding, or they could lead to the development of a funny story of a whale in a swimming pool. They can be used in countless ways, including:

  • as a pre-reading activity to activate knowledge about a place before following a character’s experience there;
  • in the middle of a text to clarify why a character might be making certain choices or behaving in a certain way;
  • following a reading to review a character’s movements throughout the story;
  • to launch a class story.

The usefulness of maps is not limited to a world language classroom. Maps can transport our students to another place and time if we allow them to tell us their stories.

Abra Koch is a high school Spanish teacher in Loveland, Ohio.

This post reflects a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow’s field-based experiences on a voyage with Lindblad Expeditions. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education

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