Teaching the Art of Geography

This post was written by educator Sandra Turner.

My life and teaching practice has been made richer by the study of people, place, and the natural world. This insatiable curiosity to see and discover more has cultivated a zeal for travel, photography, and diving. My journey is always crafted with the unfolding of a wall-sized paper map given to me by a world traveler. Oddly to some, my choice of destination is largely driven by how remote the location and how much of the ocean surrounds it.  I then immerse myself into learning everything I can about its people, points of interests, landscapes, culture, and history. My favorite part of the journey are the life-long memories that I return home with that get stitched into stories while sharing photos. 

To me, geography means intellectual expanse and awakening. Our planet is an inexhaustible exploration to behold. It can begin right where we are! I became a National Geographic Certified Educator to share my adventures with my students and teach them what I call, the art of geo.

National Geographic Education (NG): Geography helps build bridges and create connections. How do you see this play out in your work?

Teaching global climate change is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as an educator. It hasn’t always been easy. Midway into my first year of teaching elementary students, I was asked, “What does global warming have to do with me?” After a bit of contemplation about my students and teaching curriculum, it occurred to me that my students were not connecting to the learning objectives because they didn’t know enough about the natural world and how it works. 

So as a preamble to teaching about the science of climate change, I now begin lessons with an introduction to the concept of earth as an ecosystem with a myriad of species dependent upon its resources to sustain all life.  Students learn spatial skills as they illustrate models of the carbon and water cycle and create detailed maps of their neighborhood. To increase their geographic knowledge, students read carefully selected books and watch videos to learn how young people in other parts of the world experience their environments. Our discussions include the use of interactive maps to deepen their discovery.

Surprisingly, until holding a globe during our class instruction, many of my students didn’t know that the ocean covers more than half of the Earth’s surface.  Because of their hunger to know more, I added additional geo-inquiry activities to help them make the human connection to the ocean. They also learned that the ocean is home to a vibrant marine life and with virtual reality headsets, they were able to have an immersive experience to glimpse the wonder of life below the sea.

Lastly, we set our compass coordinates and navigated across the Atlantic to the Caribbean Island of Jamaica where we met up a youth adventurer and free diver for a live YouTube session. As he walked through a tropical rainforest, he shared stories of his boyhood memories growing up close to the land and sea.  Then he marveled the students as he made a backward triple somersault into a hidden waterfall. The students cheered with excitement!

I am amazed to see the transformation of my student’s zeal for learning by simply incorporating the use of geographical tools and thinking activities. These activities created the bridge to connect students to understanding climate change in a meaningful way and across multiple scales. To demonstrate their understanding of how interconnected humans are to the natural world, my students are now able to communicate and visually model how unsustainable human behaviors in one part of the world can negatively impact the environment of people living in another part of the world. That’s Geography!

NG: How is geography relevant to 21st-century thinking and what might we do differently with geography in mind?

As an informal educator who works primarily with elementary students in afterschool settings, I enjoy having the flexibility to design interdisciplinary lessons for students to develop a wide range of new skill sets without the pressure of achieving perfect grades and test scores. Students can take risks, try new ideas, and expand their creativity while working on project-based assignments that will send them around the world to brainstorm solutions to real time problems.  

This year I had the unique opportunity to partner with Esri to create a collection of StoryMap lessons called, On An Island.  The lessons in the first collection address the importance of stimulating early geographical thinking and spatial skills through creativity and visual storytelling. Students act as cartographers and explorers who design and analyze maps to learn about Earth’s dynamic physical features.  

As a backdrop to this assignment, I shared the personal story of being a non-swimmer who was petrified of deep water, to becoming a certified scuba diver who partners with marine protected areas on coral reef restoration initiatives in the Caribbean. Connecting with my students through storytelling is a 21st century thinking strategy that I use to help students to begin to envision their future selves. They learn how to craft their identity narrative and tell the powerful story of who they want to be! This is an important mindset development particularly for underrepresented students who are often confined by limited identities and opportunities.  

In the forthcoming second collection, students deepen their geographical competencies as they examine the cultural and environmental challenges unique to the Caribbean region. Students broaden their understanding of scale, perspectives, and scientific modeling as they learn about the growing inequities faced by small island developing states. Students will create a final multimedia StoryMap to help tell the story of a people who are on the frontlines of our climate crisis.

With close to 8 billion people on this planet, developing global knowledge through geographic study is vital. So that my students can thrive against the pressures of studying about a burgeoning planet and global environmental unrest, in the activities described above, I’ve incorporated the ancient practice of mindfulness and breathing techniques to help my students cultivate connection to the natural world. I am curious to see how the lens of social emotional learning in my teaching practice can help my students to become resilient thinkers and compassionate observers. 

I would love to be part of a global think tank of educators to brainstorm ideas, best practices, and to co-create learning experiences with resilience thinking in mind. Our learning environments can become safe operating spaces for our student’s overall well-being as we call upon them to grapple with the complexities of a changing world. I’m not sure if we have given enough consideration to how our need to keep students informed, may unknowingly cause additional burden to our students. 

NG: Where/how do you see geography playing out in the news/world today? (related to relevant topics)

Although alarmed by the increased coverage of environmental degradation taking place around the world suspected to be due to climate change, I believe the media has done a fair job to help raise awareness on its global impacts. However, the commentaries and debates remind us of how insular and intolerable we are as a nation. This also points to how very little we know about people and places in other parts of the world. This presents a tremendous opportunity for educators to frame discussions that will help students take ownership of their geographic knowledge by learning to analyze information, formulate and ask their own questions, and communicate to demonstrate their understanding.

NG: How can we connect geographic thinking to solving the world’s most pressing problems?  

We all have an instinctive desire to be a part of what makes life on earth more sustainable for our own survival.  It’s only human! The pressing problems we face can be overwhelming, leaving us perplexed as to how and where to begin.  

Kudos to our National Geographic Explorers and Storytellers for their mastery of connecting geographic thinking to our unprecedented time and place.  Their brave pursuits give voice to stories that inspire our intentions and ambiguous beginnings.  Their images open our vision to what we are unable to see or have refused to give attention to because of our own discomforts.  They invoke in us the moral courage to say, yes to new possibilities to achieve a sustainable planet.  I think every educator should be a storyteller…for every storyteller, is an educator

NG: What geography fact fascinates you the most and why?

I have always been fascinated with the geological Strand of Pearls formed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. With more than 7,000 islands, this region is home to a diverse culture of people, indigenous knowledge, and one of the world’s richest biodiversity.

Photo from Wikipedia.

I have seen much of this paradise during my travels across islands as I research how people arrived at these places. 

With each sojourn I gain a deeper appreciation for the sacredness of the natural world as I capture the images of vibrant rainforests, mountains, flora, landscapes and its intoxicating blue water. I have devoted my conservation efforts and life’s work to this region and its people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. 

Hope the Fisherman. Photo Credit: Kirk Elliott.

I took the image, “Little House of Hope” while traveling through the island of Carriacou with Kirk Elliott, a fellow National Geographic Certified Educator and photographer. As I framed the house against the bejeweled sea, I began to imagine who may have lived here and what were the circumstances that led to the abandonment of such a quaint house. The laughter, children at play, family gatherings and such. Moments after taking the photo, another story came into view as a weathered, yet graceful gentleman emerged from the house to greet us. Hope McLawrence, a soft-spoken, veteran fisherman of Scottish descent, shared with us secrets of a long life lived on the wild seas. Transfixed by the story he shared of discovering a foot long, red-lipped batfish, we knew that he was no ordinary man. We made a promise to return and to see him again.

Sandra Turner; photo taken by Kirk Elliott.

Sandra Turner is a National Geographic Educator and Explorer who teaches global climate science and ocean literacy. Trained under former Vice-President, Al Gore, Sandra is a member of Climate Reality Corp and serves as a facilitator and training mentor. She received additional certification training from the SDG Academy and Harvard University’s, The Health Effects of Climate Change, and Educating Global Citizens programs. 

Sandra uses a unique blend of field experiences as an ocean conservationist, certified scuba diver, and Caribbean photographer to cultivate new generations of young explorers who connect with the natural world from geographical and cultural perspectives. An ArcGIS enthusiast, she incorporates StoryMaps and the Living Atlas of the World to deepen geo-literacy development. Just Breathe, Our Human Connection to the Ocean, is her most recent project that integrates aquaculture, ocean science, and ecological justice with mindfulness to foster resilience and compassion.

Explore the StoryMap Sandra created about the Little House of Hope and check out National Geographic’s selection of online courses for educators to follow in Sandra’s footsteps!

Lead photo: Little House of Hope, the seaside Home of Mr. Hope McLawrence, Carriacou. Courtesy of Sandra Turner.

One thought on “Teaching the Art of Geography

  1. This blog highlights the importance of connecting students to the material they are learning and to the world they are living in. In the social studies discipline, we constantly talk about historical empathy, which is understanding how people in the past felt, thought, lived, etc. It is incredibly difficult for students (well all of us actually) to connect their experiences to the experiences of people in the past. The activities proposed here go a long way in connecting students to the larger problems of climate change, which is a huge step towards connecting students towards their own agency in the problem. These same strategies could be used to connect students to the past or to at least connect the problems of today to the problems of the past.

    I love the idea of using case studies for climate change to make the interactions between the environment, identity, and advocacy cleaer. I have seen the use of case studies in some classrooms, but it is obviously easier to do at the elementary or middle school level where the curriculum is more flexible. I think that the Caribbean case study makes connections clearer while offering students the chance to forge their own connections to the environment and advocacy.

    The effectiveness of this type of teaching comes down to the “storyteller” aspect. Just as indicated, teachers are storytellers!!! I am working on pulling in the tools and sources that tell an overarching story that students can understand and see themselves in.

    The only reservations I have are surrounding the idea of “resilience,” especially as it is framed with mindfulness. I do not know that I would want to pair mental health exercises with the concept of critical resilience for my students. This is more an issue with the term itself and not the actual concept proposed. There is an obvious attention to the “burdening” of students today in this post, so it is not discounting any personal difficulties or mental health issues that students may have. At the secondary level, this becomes even more prevalent as new stressors enter students’ lives and workloads increase.

    Overall, I loved the attention to connecting students to the content learned, especially in relation to world problems like climate change. I anticipate this will be an ongoing exploration in my own classroom, and I can see myself using these practices in my discipline going forward!

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