first day map

I use the map above on the very first day of school. I ask my students what street the purple line is. Most fail in their guesses. Do you know what street that is?

The correct answer is Madison Ave. I advise my students that Madison Ave in Chicago is the dividing line between the “North” side and the “South” side of Chicago. I then add in a compass rose to illustrate the cardinal directions on our map. I extend the line for Madison Ave all the way to the end of our map. I then circle Naperville the suburb I teach in. I follow it up by asking my students what does this map tell you? They often answer with great, yet incorrect answers. What I’m looking for is that the map above is clear evidence that all of the students in my classes should be White Sox fans and that to root for the North side team would make them a traitor to their region of the Chicagoland area. Go White Sox!

In all seriousness maps tell us a story. In my 10 years of teaching my relationship with maps has changed. For the first 7 years I taught maps were something to be memorized. As we churned through the regions of the world I would require all of my students to memorize all of the nations within that region. Students who could memorize excelled. They memorized all those countries and then they forgot them. Those that struggled with memorization failed those assessments.

Three years ago I gave up map tests. I wanted to shift my instruction away from rote memorization to a skills based approach. I want my students to leave my class knowing the parts of a map, how to use a map, and how to be able to analyze the data that a map may illustrate. I want them to see maps as not only a tool to help them to navigate the world but also get a better understanding of it. This post will detail lessons and materials that have worked for me, resources for maps, and my plans for the future using maps in my classroom.

What has worked: 

One of the hardest things for students to undertsand is latitude and longitude. I have tackled this in a couple of ways. I have used my co-moderator of #worldgeochat Pete Spiegel’s grid activities. (@GeoSpiegs) You can find his posts detailing how they work in his series of posts here: Grid 1, Grid 2, Grid 3, and Grid 4. These activities worked great to build student’s skills with maps. The painters tape idea from Pete was a great one. My only caution is to allow at least 30mins to and hour to set up your grid before class. 

Another way I have tackled latitude and longitude is by playing a large game of battle ship. I set up a grid on the floor with painters tape and cones. Then I stood up wrestling mats dividing the grid in half. Students were each given a handout of the grid coordinates. They were then divided into 2 teams. next they were given 4 markers indicating 4 ships of varying sizes that they set up on their coordiantes. Each side took turns calling out latitude and longitude coordinate until they sunk their opponents for ships.

Two of the biggest assets to my map lessons come with a small cost. Geography Alive has a mapping lab resource pack that is fantastic. This is great because all of the lessons within the mapping lab are geared to get students effectively using maps and not memorizing boundaries. The maps in the mapping lab include maps on climate zones, vegetation, population density, physical features, and natural resources plus economic activity. In addition to enhancing student skills utilizing maps, these labs get students up moving around and working together. The work is very student centered.

The other asset that I had to pay for was not purchased to target map use but was originally purchased to target current events. This resource is Fantasy Geopolotics. I talked about this fantasy football style current events game in this post and this post. What I found as not only did my students become more engaged and interested in following current events, but also students began to be able to identify the various countries in the world better from frequent scouring of the league and trends maps.

In terms of resources there are tons out there. I will break them down into websites, videos, Twitter follows and tools.


Show World Fantastic map resources that illustrates a wide range of topics. Some of the ones they cover are people (demographics, cause of death, education, health, & religion), planet (aninal resources, crops, energy, metal & minerals, environment, & natural disasters), Business (economy, industry, technology, & transportation), and politics (governments, law & order, migration, war and conflict, aid).

World Mapper Another site with a wide variety of maps that tackle demographics, natural resources, tech resources, and economic data. What is cool about these maps are that the borders are resized to illustrate the proportion of the item being displayed. For example, if a country has a large number of internet users that country will be much larger as opposed to a country with limited internet access.

The True Size Of A flat map is a distorted image as you are trying to take something that is round and lay it flat. This is the reason why Greenland often looks so huge on a map. This website shows the effect of that distortion. As you bring countries close to the pole towards the Equator watch them shrink to a closer version of their “true size”.

The Library of Congress The LOC has close to 4,000 historical maps that range from 1136AD all the way to present day.

David Rumsey Map Collection Another collection of over 77,000 historical maps from across the globe. This is Josh Williams amazing Google Earth website. You can toggle between various physical and human geography maps. There are maps for vegetation, climate, demographics, economic data, as well as even ones for CIA World Factbook. It is great stuff!

Glenn Wiebe’s (@glennw98) Geography and Maps Resources

Jerry Blumengarten’s (@cybraryman1) Geography and Maps page


Teacher James White’s “Longitude and Latitude” song

The Singing History Teachers (@SinginHistTeach ) “Latitude and Longitude is Useful” One Direction Remix 

The West Wing Peters vs Mercator map projection clip

42 Amazing Maps from the Vlog Brothers (Hank & John Green)

John Green’s TED Talk about maps

Mental Floss “27 Facts About Maps” (Hosted by John Green…Yes I have a John Green addiction!)

Twitter Follows:

Max Roser (@MaxCRoser)

Max Galka (@galka_max)

Vox Maps (@VoxMaps)

BBC Graphics (@BBCNewsGraphics)

LA Times Graphics (@LATimesGraphics)

New York Times Graphics (@nytgraphics)

Reuters Graphics (@ReutersGraphics)

Washington Post Graphics (@PostGraphics)

OnlMaps (@onlmaps)

Conrad Hackett (@conradhackett)

National Geographic Education (@NatGeoEducation)

Josh Williams (@geteach)


Google Earth Read more about it in Pete’s review . Chris Heffernan’s (@cheffernan75) student inquiry using Google Earth post. Pete has tutorial post 1 and tutorial post 2.

National Geographic Map Maker You can cutomize your map by adding layers pertaining to things such as food, climate, environment, culture, economic data, etc. You can also change the base layer map as well as import data.

Tour Builder This website allows students to create tours using Google Earth. It is simple and easy to use. You can also look at tours that already have been created in the gallery section.

Google My Maps This site allows students to annotate and collaborate on maps. There is a great gallery of My Maps here. Donnie Piercy (@mrpiercEy) has an awesome site on activities using My Maps here. Also, Kevin Zahner (@ZahnerHistory) has a great post on My Maps here. This is a dynaic tool that I’ve used for current events as well as student presentations. I hope to use it even more in the fall.

There is so much map awesomeness out there. I plan to have my students using and analyzing maps daily in my class. I also want my students using the tools above to create their own tours and maps that help to show their own inquiries as well. What are your go to map lessons and resources? What Twitter follows, videos, websites and tools should I add to my geography tool box?



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