How My Fifth Graders Found Empowerment Through Mapmaking

This post was written by educator Aaron Kugler.


Ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve been obsessed with maps; I appreciated the immense detail of some and the true beauty of others. There is deep significance to me in knowing my place in the world, both physically and figuratively, and maps have always proven to be an avenue toward that self-discovery.

When I became a teacher, I wanted nothing more than to pass on these same passions to my students: to be an inspiration to the future explorers of Earth, the ones who’d be drawing the maps themselves and driving us all into a new age of discovery both within our world and outside of it. So I vowed that in every school year I’d lead some sort of lesson involving maps and finding our place in the world.

I work at a school where global-mindedness is at the forefront of what we teach. Our transdisciplinary lessons live outside the borders of a conventionally segmented classroom schedule. With this model comes the flexibility to draw from a number of sources of content to promote deeper thinking about the things that matter, rather than a focus on teaching a long list of skills or standards one at a time.

Fifth grade has always been my favorite year in a child’s development. The students are old enough to take true, independent ownership of their learning; begin to think outside of themselves; and understand my quips and puns. For my National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project, “Why Do Humans Move?”, I designed a lesson to really challenge my students to consider how maps can influence the way in which we see the world. It begins with a discussion:

  1. We observe a standard political map of the United States. I ask my students what they know about the legend, compass rose, and other symbols and labels on the map and what measurements the mapmaker may have used to create the map.
  1. Then, I prompt them to consider a map that doesn’t necessarily represent land area. Could we base a map of the United States on something else? A previous student mentioned seeing a map with states sized according to their number of electoral votes.
  1. Eventually, I steer the conversation toward population by asking, Does land area always correspond to the number of people living in a specific state? Quite often the answer is an immediate “no,” with students giving specific examples of states whose land area and population do not align.
  1. We begin an investigation, brainstorming what we guess are the five most populous and least populous states in the U.S. (it helps to think of major cities we know) and comparing their land area to their assigned ranking.
  1. Then, I hand students their own blank land area map of the United States and have them imagine what the United States would look like if we grew the area of the top five states to match their populations. The resulting drawings can only be described as interesting or sometimes even “funny-looking.”
A drawing of a map on white paper and a ruler
A student modified this political map of the U.S. to enlarge the most populous states and shrink the least populous ones. Photo courtesy of Aaron Kugler.

This exercise provides a great segue into observing a population cartogram of the world’s countries. Many students are shocked to see just how populous China and India are, especially in comparison to their own country, the United States. We then zoom back in to the 50 states, comparing our drawings with an accurately measured population cartogram. As a group, we consider the difficulty in creating a precise model to diagram such statistics, and that’s when I provide them with a challenge. This is the second part of the lesson:

  1. Using the Data-Z project website, students locate a particular statistical data point for all 50 states. I split students into groups and have each group focus on one of three U.S. Census Bureau statistics: the percentage of each state’s population that is Black, Asian, or Hispanic.
  1. Students then enter this data state by state into a cartogram visualization website called Tilegrams, which generates a hexagonal cartogram for them.
  1. In a final step, I provide hexagonal graph paper and the students practice copying the resulting cartogram by hand, including all the components of a map we discussed at the beginning of the lesson.
A colorful map of the United States
This student-made cartogram shows the percentage of each state’s population that is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Photo courtesy of Aaron Kugler.

Once students have completed their hand-drawn cartograms, we have another whole-class discussion about what they notice in the state population percentages for these specific demographics. We determine some push and pull factors for each group, considering economic, historical, spatial, and even geographic factors. Many students are surprised once again by what they discover: that the majority of people who have immigrated to this country remain in the places where they first arrived. We conclude the activity with a triple Venn diagram comparing the three groups and all the push and pull factors we can brainstorm.

While I always expect the deep conversations that come out of this lesson, I am impressed each year I teach it with how empowered many students feel after having created their very own “official” cartogram of the United States. I have had quite a few students come back to school in the following days with additional maps they drew at home comparing states using another metric, such as education, poverty, debt, taxes, or crime rates.

Using maps to cross the figurative borders between subjects like math, history, science, and geography provides students with tools not only to relate to the ideas or issues they explore, but also to create new visualizations to increase the awareness of others. After all, the story of all of us begins and ends with a map.


Enrollment in National Geographic’s free online courses for educators, including “Mapping as a Visualization and Communication Tool in Your Classroom,” is open now through April 7.

Feature image courtesy of Aaron Kugler

One thought on “How My Fifth Graders Found Empowerment Through Mapmaking

  1. Such an interesting method to teach map. Applaud for her teaching and engaging skills! Her students must be so lucky.

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