My good friend and worldgeochat moderator Peter Spiegel often times says, “geography isn’t just the most important of the social sciences, it’s the most important subject.”
I must admit that there are times where I sort of give Pete an eye roll when he tweets that. While I’ve always thought geography was important, the most important? With so much emphasis put on reading and math scores, I’ve always considered them to be the granddaddy of the academic subjects. So despite my love for geography and the social sciences, I’ve always accepted our role as being “the other academic subject.”
But this week I did an activity that I had never done before. It was an idea that started on my way to school and evolved as the day went on. The supporting question that we were dealing with was, “what are the tools of geography?” I needed the students to appreciate that maps were a tool, but definitely NOT the only tool. I shared with them a mostly true story (there are always some embellishments) from my time in Pereira, Colombia in 2016.
I went with Teachers for Global Classrooms to Colombia to learn about what education is like there. We spent the first few days in Bogotá with a group of fifteen American teachers and then divided up and went to different parts of the country. When I arrived in Pereira with two other American teachers, we met with a group of teachers and students from the area at a beautiful ranch just outside the city. We learned that Pereira had a problem.
It was hard to pin down what that problem was at first, and that so that became my hook.”If all you knew were that there were problems in Pereira, what would you need to find out what those problems were, and how would you solve them?”
And they were off. Students began brainstorming everything they would want to know about Periera. (And the fact that they knew NOTHING about Pereira made this even better!) They came up with things I expected (a map of the city, the population, and its climate) as well as things I didn’t expect (local news reports, A chance to observe and interact with local residents, and “An annotated map of neighborhoods with information about each of them”).
We divided their tools into four categories, maps, visuals, and data. They amazed me with all the ideas they shared, but the best was yet to come.
I presented the students with the problem we were told about in Pereira. Many of the young people of the city felt that there weren’t many opportunities for them. They were leaving and going to bigger cities like Medellin or Bogotá. The teachers we met were looking for a way to keep them in Pereira.
So geography to the rescue. My students started asking me questions.
- What is the climate?
- Is it near the ocean?
- Are there restaurants there?
- What did you enjoy seeing while you were there?
They decided that Pereira should be a tourist destination. They have a perfect climate (they are about 300 miles from the equator so temperatures are nearly always in the 80s), they are surrounded by mountains, and are right in the center of Colombia’s coffee country. As my students began to plan the future of Pereira they talked about jobs in construction to build new hotels, restaurants, giving tours of coffee fields, and (their favorite) a zip line park. Those new facilities would need employees. They thought they had it figured out. Until I threw one last wrench in the situation.
I told them that in Pereira, the only English speaker I knew was the teacher we worked with. Every hotel, restaurant, and business we went to spoke only in Spanish which would limit the number of tourists coming. But 7th graders are nothing if not persistent, they suggested exactly what is happening in Colombia today – bilingual education. The teachers of Pereira are excited that their schools are giving today’s students a chance that they didn’t have in school.
So Pete is right. Geography is the most important subject. Using geography, students were able to look at real problems, and develop real solutions. And who knows, maybe one of my current students will use geography to save the world.
Have you ever had a geography moment like this? Comment or connect with me on Twitter, and join #worldgeochat every Tuesday night!