How My Geography Class Used Tins to Tell the Story of Place

Educator Marianne Braca wrote this post.

The “thinking outside the box” mantra really suits me, so when the pandemic upended my life as an educator I embraced the possibility of changing things up (and the necessity of doing so) with open arms. I used the GooseChase app to run scavenger hunts for my students; I exchanged education and photography ideas on Twitter; I took courses through National Geographic Education, including “Teaching Global Climate Change in Your Classroom” and “Storytelling for Impact in Your Classroom: Photography;” and I achieved my National Geographic Educator Certification. These activities were the perfect way to focus on what I could do in education instead of on what I could no longer do in person. Then I applied what I learned with my students.

Last year I took my ninth-grade geography students through a “Story of Place – Photography” assignment like the one we did in the Storytelling for Impact course. I did this to help them realize the scope of geography, the importance of place and perspective, and the fact that geography is all around us. It allowed students to share their physical surroundings while school was online. Because they’re at a vulnerable age, I didn’t make students share their photos with others in the class, but I did encourage them to share their photos within their households. I notified parents and guardians of this project so they could ask their children about it.

I loved and appreciated the insights that students shared with me through their Story of Place assignments. Fast-forward to this September: we were back in the classroom full-time, and I wanted to transform the project into something more tangible.

Last spring on Twitter I learned about the artist Tanya Shadrick‘s “Concentrates of Place” project, a beautiful way to make memories tangible by filling small tins with items from particular places and times. Tanya describes her Concentrates of Place as a “deliberate way of honouring places and people.” The project resonated with me.

This week is Geography Awareness Week, and as a geographer I am so interested in place. I also love the idea of collecting little pieces of a place and putting them in a tin for safekeeping, and I figured if I loved this idea my students would as well. I went out to the local Michaels craft store and picked up a bunch of little tins meant for wedding favors. I asked each of my students to go out and collect four or five items from a place that is important to them. I told them to try to put the essence of the place inside their tins. Their place could be the one they took photos of in their Story of Place assignment, or it could be a different place, maybe one with more little items to pick up. For me, the real fun started when students brought in their tins. It was so exciting seeing what they had collected!

The locations and items they chose include:

  • Grandparents’ place – fabric, thread, flowers, little bag of flour, old coin
  • Family farm – hay, stone, stick, wild berries, mulch, leaf, feed
  • Golf course – grass, tee, Golf Ontario ball marker, used golf ball
  • “The creek” – stone, mud, grass, water… yes, he added water from the creek
  • Dance studio – dance tape, false eyelashes, bobby pin, earring, fabric
  • Grain elevator – wheat, corn, soybeans, leaf

Other places from which students gathered “concentrates” include: Gravel pit, bedroom, trailer, hockey arena, park, garden, friend’s house, baseball field, and cottage.

For the Concentrates of Place assignment, students collected plants, rocks, shells, and an array of other natural and human-made items from specific places and filled tins with them. Photographs courtesy of Marianne Braca.

Educators who replicate this project may want to note:

  • Students really will bring in anything and everything (like water!)
  • Live plants eventually die and rot (we have some decomposition happening in the tins right now)
  • Students may alter items to make them fit (like cutting a hockey puck to add a piece to the tin); if you set limits on the items students include, be clear about your expectations
  • Baby-food jars, gum tins, or other small containers that you have on hand can work well too

Once students brought their Concentrates of Place tins in, I had them create a document listing the items and an explanation of why they chose them. Under the list, I had them write a quick paragraph about the idea of place, responding to these prompts:

  1. How is place, as a theme of geography, different from locale or location?
  2. Write a little more about how your perspective on the place you’ve chosen may be different than the perspective of other people.
  3. Why is perspective important to understand when studying geography?

Educators could extend this project by having students number their tins and map where they are from; link the tins in a more integrated way to their Story of Place photography; or look at the National Geographic scales and perspectives handout and discuss what items someone viewing that place through a different lens might collect. To help students understand the different aspects of geography, educators could have them choose one object from their tin and, in groups, discuss all of the things that could be studied about that object. These could include, for example, its origin, identification, and cultural significance.

I loved having students create their Concentrates of Place because it makes geography more tangible. It takes the subject of geography out of the book and helps students realize they’re living geography every day, that their perspective matters, and that every single place on Earth has value in so many different ways.

This project requires students to notice more deliberately and therefore take on an Explorer Mindset. The students in our lives have shown such resilience during the pandemic. They amaze me. As teachers, we create the lessons. Our students go along for the ride whether they want to or not, some with gusto, others by giving what they can through difficult moments. If, along the way, I can give them the gift of noticing and exploring, I am happy.

What is your special place? What’s going in your tin? Let us know. To learn more about this project and see additional submissions from Marianne’s students, follow the hashtag #ConcentratesOfPlace. For more details on National Geographic’s free online courses for educators, visit our website. All courses are now open for registration!

National Geographic Education is celebrating Geography Awareness Week all week long on the Education Blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Check in regularly to hear from educators about their innovative and inspiring approaches to teaching geography, and learn how National Geographic tools and resources can help you empower your students to think geographically.

Marianne Braca is a National Geographic Certified Educator who has been teaching high school geography for over 20 years, currently at St. Michael Catholic Secondary School in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. She hopes to inspire and encourage students to make deeper connections with the natural world around them, as connection eventually grows into care for the environment. When not teaching, Marianne can be found on local hiking trails taking photographs and sharing her love of the outdoors with her son and husband. You can see more of Marianne’s teaching ideas, photography, and occasional dashes of retweeted inspiration by following her on Twitter @Braca_M.

Featured image courtesy of Marianne Braca

2 thoughts on “How My Geography Class Used Tins to Tell the Story of Place

  1. What a great project for students and congratulations to Marianne for leading them.

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