Don’t know much geography

‘Don’t Know Much Geography’
Helping Children Learn About the World

By Emily Puro

It’s no secret that geography is a weak subject for many American students (and often for their parents, too!). A 2006 sampling of over 500 recent U.S. high school and college graduates between 18 and 24 years old found half unable to locate New York on a map of the United States. More than 60 percent couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and nearly three-quarters incorrectly named English as the most widely spoken native language in the world.
Many of us aren’t even certain what the study of geography covers, although a better question might be, “What doesn’t it cover?”

“We like to say geography is the mother of all disciplines,” says Teresa Bulman, a geography professor at Portland State University and co-coordinator of the Oregon Geographic Alliance (OGA). “We study the Earth and everything in it.”

Locating places on a map is important, but geography doesn’t stop there. “You need to go much deeper into the interactions that connect that place and what’s going on there to other places in the world,” says Charles Cleveland, a social studies teacher at Hillsboro High School and an OGA-trained educator. Geographers don’t ask merely, “Where is it?” They ask, “Why is it there?” and “What is its influence on the rest of the world?”

Where’s the Geography?

So why has geography slipped through the cracks of America’s educational system? One reason, says Cleveland, is geographic. “American kids are very isolated,” he notes. “It’s not like Europe where you have lots of small countries and lots of interactions with different languages and cultures.”

Other reasons appear to be systemic. Decades of school funding crunches have led districts to eliminate geography courses, says Bulman, on the assumption that the content would be taught in other subjects. But without jobs for geography educators, she adds, prospective teachers had little incentive to study it. And while the No Child Left Behind Act includes geography as a core subject area, it fails to provide funding for it. Likewise, geography standards are included in the Oregon Education Department’s curriculum goals but not on its assessment tests.

Why Does It Matter?

With today’s global economy, geographic literacy is becoming an essential life skill. Professionals in countless fields collaborate with peers in other countries. Understanding foreign cultures – as well as their systems of government, measurement, communication and currency – is crucial for effective teamwork. “Geographic illiteracy impacts our economic well-being, our relationships with other nations and the environment, and isolates us from the world,” says National Geographic president John Fahey.

“If you look at the geopolitical realities of the world, whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq or trade with China,” explains Cleveland, “it usually isn’t isolated to the United States (and) the solutions aren’t isolated to the United States.” If we’re to remain a global power, and if our children are to become effective world leaders, the experts recommend that our youth obtain a solid understanding of other cultures and global interconnections. “Geographic education,” says Cleveland, “can offer that.”

Teaching the Teachers

OGA and other National Geographic Alliance Network programs nationwide focus on teachers as the most effective way to improve geography education. “If we teach teachers,” says Bulman, “they will reach generations of students.”

A 2001 survey of U.S. eighth graders showed a significant increase in the mean scores of students whose teachers were involved in Alliance programs. In fact, the study found teacher involvement in Alliance Network activities was the only statistically significant variable related to increased student achievement.

OGA invites public and private school teachers throughout the state, from all grade levels and disciplines, to participate in its free summer institutes. (Since its inception in 1986, OGA has trained over 500 Oregon teachers in geography content and how to teach it.) After attending an institute, participating teachers meet regularly for professional development and collaboration and are eligible for grants to purchase classroom resources.

Becky Wandell, a teacher of a fourth-fifth grade mix at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland’s David Douglas School District, has used OGA grants to purchase maps, atlases and globes as well as science, social studies and reading resources to incorporate geography into other subjects. She teaches geography through literature, for example, by selecting books with strong settings to show students what other places look like and how other people live. Wandell incorporates maps and other geography concepts into science lessons about rocks and minerals, volcanoes, weather and climate and more. “I spend a lot of time integrating geography into those different subjects,” she explains, “by choosing what we read, how we discuss something, how I answer questions, or how we work through major themes and ideas.”

While OGA’s beginning institutes are held in Oregon, advanced institutes are often held abroad. They’ve traveled to Nepal, Botswana, Canada and Wales with Oregon teachers, many of whom had never before been abroad.

“My goal is to bring the world into my classroom,” says Wandell, who attended an OGA institute in Botswana last year, “so the more international opportunities I can have to become more knowledgeable, the better.”

Keeping It Real

To make geography meaningful to their classes, OGA teachers try to connect lessons to familiar concepts. When she teaches units on American colonists and Oregon Trail pioneers, for example, Wandell encourages her students to share their families’ experiences with immigration. Many know first-hand “what it means to be an immigrant to a new world,” she says. “We spend a lot of time talking about what that feels like today compared to what the colonists felt like back when they were settling America.”

For John Kavanaugh, an OGA-trained social studies and language arts teacher at southeast Portland’s Lane Middle School, a study of Egypt and the influence of the Nile River leads to discussions about the Willamette and Columbia. How did the ancient Egyptians depend on their environment? How do we depend on ours? “Once you learn how people are influenced by and how they affect their environments,” he says, “you can take that knowledge from one place and use it as a way to look at another place and understand that place and the people who live there more deeply.”
At Hillsboro High and other high schools throughout the state, students delve into world politics by taking on roles in a model United Nations. Feeling connected to their adopted countries, says Cleveland, helps students become engaged in investigations about issues they might otherwise not consider relevant to their lives.

At home, maps can help connect geography to a family’s daily routine. “We have a world map hanging in our dining room,” says northeast Portland mom Anne Trudeau. “When a country or city or region comes up in discussion, we use the map to locate it.” Bulman suggests keeping a world map or globe next to the television. Every time a place is mentioned, point it out. “It takes all of a minute,” adds Wandell, “but it’s a great lesson to keep showing (kids) where in the world they are.”

Geography Begins At Home

A meaningful introduction to geography can start at an early age, ideally close to home. “I feel like the best foundation for any cultural learning experience is to truly understand your own culture and world first,” says southeast Portland mom Diana Kirk, a homeschooler who majored in geography in college. Kirk encouraged her map-loving son Ryder, 6, to make his own map of their neighborhood. “He went up and down the street writing all of the addresses,” she recalls, “then he spoke to our letter carrier and found out the direction (he) walks to deliver the mail.” Ryder included the places he knows, making the map especially meaningful. “Teaching him about Egypt or China seems a bit far fetched to someone whose whole world exists in about a 10-mile radius,” says Kirk.

To introduce Ryder to volcanoes, Kirk focused on nearby Mt. St. Helens. They watched videos of the 1980 eruption then drove to the site. “I could have included Hawaiian volcanoes or the Ring of Fire,” she says, “but he doesn’t get the big picture yet. He has a small world and needs to learn how this one works before adding pieces to it.”

Even older students who study far away lands and ancient peoples can benefit from exploring geography closer to home. Cleveland accompanies his students to downtown Hillsboro to observe how the area has changed using historical clues and interviews with locals. He takes them through the city on light rail, too, asking them to document what they see – from residential and commercial to recreational and natural areas – then create their own land use maps.

Kavanaugh has taken students on walking trips to observe and catalog neighborhood geography. Beginning on a plateau at school, they follow the slope down to Johnson Creek and discuss how it later flows into the Willamette. They talk about the water’s path before and after flowing through their neighborhood and the different types of land use within walking distance of their school.

Nurturing Citizens of the World

“From taking a world history class, to watching the news, to becoming friends with international students,” says James Williams, 18, who won the National Geography Bee in 2003 representing Vancouver, Wash., “having a basic understanding and awareness of geography and cultures is important.”

Few skills will help our children live and work in a global economy as effectively as geographic literacy. As Trudeau puts it, “Knowing about other cultures and the land that shaped them is an important part of being a world citizen.”

My Wonderful World

For over 20 years, National Geographic Society Alliance Network members, including the Oregon Geographic Alliance (, have been training teachers to provide high-quality geography education. In May 2006, the National Geographic Society expanded its efforts with “My Wonderful World” (, a comprehensive campaign to improve geography education in our homes as well as our schools.

The Web site includes a plethora of information, ideas and interactive tools for educators, parents, children and teens. You’ll find engaging activities to share with your kids, curriculum materials for the classroom, interactive quizzes and online games, information about bringing quality geography education to your local school and guidance in contacting key politicians to lobby for improved geography education nationwide. You can even test your global IQ (if you dare!).

The Buzz on the Geography Bee

Each year, fourth through eighth graders nationwide are invited to compete in the National Geographic Bee, a geography tournament with a top prize that includes a $25,000 college scholarship. The first level of competition is organized by local schools and homeschool associations registered with the Bee. The winners of these competitions take a written test and the top 100 scorers compete at the state level.

On March 30, seventh-grader Michael Ling from Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton won the 2007 Oregon State Bee (for the second time!). Caitlin Snaring, an eighth-grader from Redmond, won in Washington. In late May, Michael, Caitlin and other state winners will compete for the national title at National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, DC. Ask your child’s principal for information about next year’s competition, or visit to learn more.

Emily Puro is a Portland freelance writer and mother.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Craig1:23 pm on September 4, 2010

    Didn’t know there was a National Geography Bee. That’s great! With so many great tools out there that make learning geography easy, there’s no excuse for kids to not be better at it than their parents. Google maps is so fantastic. Also lets you make a map on the fly that helps you remember a few places on a map in very little time. You can just make up a url like There are also existing maps and a wizard for creating new ones.

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