One of the things that attracts me to homeschooling is the opportunity it presents to learn things myself… beyond just patience and better organizational skills. :)
My own education was extremely weak in geography. I remember my older brother studying for a geography bee once, and I recall learning a song to help me memorize the names of all 50 states in my country in elementary school. Interestingly, I can still sing bits of the song that taught me the capital cities in Spanish during college but I can’t recall any larger, systematic instruction in geography at all in my 17 years of education.
A few years ago, I read The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of a Classical Education and the chapter on geography grabbed my attention. I pondered how valuable it would be for my kids to have a map of the world in their heads.
Adding anything to our homeschooling schedule consistently is a big deal, but I concluded that the study of geography would indeed be worthwhile if it resulted in lasting, meaningful knowledge. I knew my approach would need to be systematic and “sticky”. Knowing odd bits of information isn’t nearly as helpful as having a firm grasp on the big picture (or map, in this case).
Scott and I decided to approach the study of geography in two different ways, which I’ll outline below. We added this subject about six months ago and it was humbling to realize how very basic my knowledge was.
Example: I’ve gone to Sunday School for nearly twenty years and never bothered to learn where Jerusalem was in relation to the Sea of Galilee or the Dead Sea. In fact, I realize now that I had been mentally glossing over all geographic references in the Bible because I didn’t have any context for them. I had to laugh when in 10 or 15 minutes of deliberate study I had internalized the major features of the Holy Land. Why hadn’t I ever bothered to do that before?
Example: I have talked about how amazing it would be to go to Thailand one day, but I would have been hard-pressed to point to Thailand on a map – seriously – or name any countries it borders. Again, this knowledge is readily available but I’d never bothered to acquire it until now.
I think that because I live in the information age, I have a sense that I can just “look up” anything I need to know but in reality, I rarely do and the moment of connection and insight has usually already passed by the time I get around to googling.
My kids and I been memorizing something by T.S. Eliot lately that reads, in part:
“Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
I think the overabundance of information has actually reduced my individual knowledge base in many areas. (And the dilution of knowledge of what is truly good and beautiful undermines wisdom, but that’s another post for another day.)
In short, my anemic grasp on geography was embarrassing but like so many things in life, it was within my power to change. It’s been rewarding to see the improvement that I’ve made in competence so far.
Here’s how I teach (and learn) geography in our homeschool:
Mapping Memory Work
I have a ring of memory cards we’re continually adding to and the green ones are all maps. (I’ll write more on these memory cards in another post at some point.) These are based on the Classical Conversations Foundations memory work, but I modified them to fit our approach.
The back side of the card has the map number marked in the corner:
We spend ~30 minutes on memory work cards every day. One day a week we devote that time to maps. We pull out our cards and flip to the green ones, and we get out our map binder. Mackenzie and I quiz each other on the locations we’ve learned previously and we add an additional card if we’re up for it. My girlie loves maps so we are almost always up for it. :)
My daughter gets to use dry erase markers and mark everything up. She colors the Red Sea red and the Black Sea black, traces the Ganges River, puts stripes on the Bay of Bengal… whatever helps her remember. She’s 6 and doesn’t know how to spell most of the places so she just marks them with a letter or two and gives many answers orally.
So far, we’ve learned the names and location of: the continents and oceans (these I did actually know beforehand :) ), eight rivers, the ancient cities of Antioch, Ephesus, Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Babylon, Jerusalem, and Carthage, the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia and Sumer, the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the location of seven different seas, four different deserts, and many different countries.
I organized the geography cards to coincide with our history studies as far as possible so that we learn the names and places before we hear the stories.
Periodically, I change up the way we approach our 30 minutes, to make sure our knowledge isn’t linked to a specific map or the prompts from the cards. I’ll just point to a blank world map and ask Mackenzie to tell me what she knows. She’ll hunt for the Mediterranean Sea, for India or for China as a starting point and then from there her confidence will grow and she’ll point out all kinds of stuff.
I bought an earlier edition of The Foundations Curriculum Guide for $25 and used it as a reference for what to put on my memory cards. This was convenient but not strictly necessary. They have 72 chunks of geography written out, which was a helpful starting point for me, though I ultimately changed some up.
I bought several packs of these pre-drilled colorful cards at $3.50 each. I used my copy of WonderMaps ($35 on a great sale) to find and print maps that covered all the memory cards I chose. I numbered the maps, slipped them into page protectors and snapped them into a binder. I typed up, printed, cut and glued all the memory work onto cards. I then put the cards in order to loosely coincide with our chronological study of history, and put a map number on the back of each memory card.
After that initial effort months ago, we’ve just used it and enjoyed it. I anticipate learning the cards over 3-4 years and it’s locked and loaded so that I’ll be able to use with all my kids. I anticipate just starting over when we get to the end and it’ll be new for my younger kids and review for me and my oldest.
Incidentally, this is the pattern I naturally follow in building all of my curriculum… initial cost and effort but hopefully useful for many years to come.
I cannot count the number of times that our ears have perked up as the places we’ve memorized have been mentioned in books or conversation. When we read the Black Stallion aloud, we knew just where the Red Sea was and how Alec’s boat would have had to travel to get home. Just last night we listened to a children’s choir from South Korea (9:09) and Mackenzie jumped straight to the right spot on the map – in her head!
When we read history together and the chapter mentions traders from Phoenicia, for example, we already know where Phoenicia is on the map in our heads. The result is that we are immediately drawn deeper into the story with helpful context pre-loaded instead of being hung up on the mention of an unfamiliar place.
A knowledge of geography has already enhanced our studies of literature, current events, history, art, and much more.
Map From Scratch
Once a week, Mackenzie and I each grab a piece of scratch paper, a pencil, and a ruler and we draw a map of the world.
Here is a wipeable 11×17 map ($1.25) we often look at to help us make our own:
We started with a compass rose, the great circles and the prime meridian. When we became confident grid makers, we added Africa, then North America, and then South America. For this school year, my goal is to be able to make a map from scratch with all the continents very roughly outlined (basically blobs) and correctly positioned, without looking at an atlas. I usually start with drawing from my head then I check on a map and outline things in greater detail.
When we have the continent blobs down, my plan is to focus on one continent each year and draw and label countries, and several geographic features and major cities.
Here’s my freehand map from yesterday:
Mackenzie’s from last month:
As long as you have access to a map, a ruler, a piece of paper and a pencil, the setup on this is zilch.
Building this into our routine once a week means I don’t ever have to remember to make it happen. Because sitting down and drawing are actually relaxing and restorative, the net effort here ends up being negative for me. :)
There are lots of ways to approach this. A post here has you start by tracing an existing map, for example. This post lays out in video clips how a child learns to draw a world map from scratch. There are step-by-step instructions in the geography chapter of The Core as well.
Any way you do it, there are so many benefits:
- It’s fun. We sit down and draw and color and listen to beautiful music together. Even preschoolers and toddlers will want to jump in (and can, on their own level… scribbling with or consuming crayons).
- We get better at drawing. The ability to look at a larger map and transpose details onto a smaller paper increases with practice and it has carried over into our other artistic pursuits.
- We get better at focusing. For a 6 year old, sitting still and focusing intently on something for a period of time is great brain stretching. For a 30 year old, sitting still and focusing intently on something for a period of time is great brain stretching. :)
- We get a hard-won understanding of the relationship between different locations. Particularly as we get into a single-continent focus, we’ll learn which countries share borders and the relative size of different regions.
How about you? Did you get a good geography education yourself?
If you homeschool, does geography have its own place or is it taught along with other subjects?