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Studying Geography: "Alaska? It's either up there or down there." - A Discussion

Updated on August 12, 2016
donnah75 profile image

I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.

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Can you name all the states on a blank map of the United States? Can you name all of the continents and countries on a blank map of the world? Can your students? Can mine? I rather doubt it. Although I am an English teacher, I have been tempted a time or two to pull out a blank map and put this challenge before my students. Why? Because knowing our geography is not an American forte. There are three experiences that will forever be burned into my memory when it comes to the lack of knowledge our students today have for geography.

In my classroom here in the United States, I have had three disturbing experiences over the last eight years. The first came several years ago when I first acquired the Activboard interactive whiteboard system in my classroom. It was the first technology of that kind installed in our school, and the local paper came to take photos of my students and I using it. I pulled a map of the world out of the resources and asked the students, who had stayed late to get their picture in the paper, to point to different places on the map and identify them. I had an African American student who could not identify Africa on a world map. As a descendent of Irish and German ancestors, I would be mortified if I couldn’t place those countries on a map of the world. I was shocked and prompted to pull the world map down during English class a lot more often.

A couple of years passed before I was again shocked by the lack of knowledge of geography. I often will assign my English classes an article of the week assignment. A few years ago, I assigned an article which discussed the leaf-peepers who drive into New England to see the beautiful fall foliage. When I began to read the students written responses to the article, several of them made references to the country England. When I brought this up for discussion, it became clear to me that many, many of my ninth grade students didn’t know that the article was discussing the geographic region known as New England in the northeast of the United States. I suppose if we were in California, this might not have been so disturbing. However, we are not in California. The school I work in is less than a ten minute drive from the New York – Massachusetts border! They practically live in New England, but they couldn’t identify it in a news article.

My final, and most recent, shocker came a couple of weeks ago when I was administering a Global History test to a student. This ninth grader had to identify several places on a map of North and South America. She was stumped by Alaska. When she looked at me with a blank stare, I tried to prompt her by giving her the main body of the United States as a reference point. I said, “If this is the main body of the US, where is Alaska?” “Well,” she said, “it’s either up there or down there.” She had no idea.

I am quite sure if I dig deep into my memory, I can come up with more examples, but I think my point is clear.

Taking a Look Back at Myself

All of these incidents prompted me to wonder if I too had these gaps in my knowledge at that age. Looking back, I don’t think that I did. I recall geography being a topic that we were expected to learn and know. When I was in elementary school, we had to learn all of the states, their capitals and where they are placed on the map. We even had to do an in depth study and create a state report in the fourth or fifth grade. In our home, we played a computer game to learn the states and a bunch of facts about the states. In middle school, the countries of the world became the focus. I recall my sixth grade social studies teacher was a bit of a madman when it came to us knowing all of the continents and countries. He used to keep a water gun in his desk drawer, and he would shoot at us if we got an answer wrong on the map. By high school, it was just an expectation that this was information that we already knew. Where did that expectation go?

Why Geography is Important...

So why do I care? I believe it is essential for our young people to learn and know about the world around them. Our world is “shrinking” because of technology. Countries do not live in an isolationist bubble; we depend on the resources of other countries of the world. As our world changes, the United States is on the decline and other countries are on the rise when it comes to many industries and skills. In other words, we don’t make very many goods in this country and we depend on other countries, like China, to produce those goods that we consume.

Like it or not, we are also a major military force in the world. We are sending our young soldiers to the far reaches of the earth, and sometimes I wonder if they know where they are going on the globe when they receive their overseas assignments. I wonder if school children could find Afghanistan on the map when their teacher talks about a heroic soldier who has just returned from there or when they are asked to write a supportive card to a soldier who is still there.

What We Can Do About It...

Teachers and parents together can take steps to solve this knowledge gap. We should make it an expectation for our young people to know the makeup of the world they live in. They should know where places are and what those places are known for. They should understand how the physical make up of the world has helped to shape history. They won’t ever get to those levels of knowledge though, if they can’t even fill in a blank map.

Here are a few simple ideas to begin incorporating geography lessons into your children’s daily lives.

1. When the Olympics come around again, spend some time discussing the different countries that are participating. Print a map of the world and identify where the countries are as you watch the different teams compete. Keep track of which countries win medals and tally them on the map.

2. Play online games. If you type “geography games” into the Google search engine, you will get a huge list of sites for kids to play learning games. (See the side panel for a few links that I found.)

3. Do puzzles. There are a lot of map puzzles for every age level. Doing these puzzles over and over will help children learn where the states and countries are on the map.

4. Read and watch the world news as a family. When a country is mentioned in the news, ask your children if they know where that country is and why it is important. If they don’t know, pull out the map and have a discussion.

5. When I was a child, we would eat at a pizza restaurant that used placemats that pictured a map of Italy. It is amazing how the image of that map sticks in my head to this day. Enjoy family dinners that focus on different culture's food traditions. Ask your kids to research the dishes of the country and decorate to create the right cultural atmosphere. Start with Poland and try my recipe for Polish Beef Roulade or Zrazy zawijane.

Global Citizens

As our world “shrinks,” we should be raising global citizens. Our young people should be curious about the places in their own country and in the world at large. We should inspire them to travel and see the wonderful world around them. If they don’t know that other places exist, then how will they ever be motivated to travel and learn? I know that travelling the world has taught me a lot about other people, myself and what it means to be an American. I hope that all of our young people will gain the knowledge they need to be productive global citizens who enjoy adventures in this great world.

Written by Donna Hilbrandt, 2012

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    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      PS: there are days where I think my title will be changed from teacher to tester. It is a sad reality. I will keep fighting the good fight though, and I will keep pulling out those maps! Thanks for reading :)

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      It is pretty amazing what many, not just kids, don't know about geography. Like you I had to know the states and capitals and be able to locate them. Then we went on to be required to know the continents and large major countries and cities of the world.

      It somehow has taken a back seat to all of the testing testing for whatever reason that happens today

      Thanks for sharing.

      Voted u++++ and shared Angels are on the way :) ps

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 4 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      An excellent article donnah75. I like your geography teacher's idea with the water pistol. Ours used too hit us over the knuckles with a wooden ruler. I find it quite frightening that today's generation hasn't a clue where they live on the planet.

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Rajan: this is definitely an area where we need to improve education for the sake of our future. Thanks!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Awesome hub and spot on. As the distances are shrinking and we are going global we ought to know about other countries and cultures as well.

      Voted up and useful.

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      RedElf: It is not a separate subject here, but geography is part of the curriculum of social studies (history) and earth science classes in high school. Required or not, we are clearly not doing enough to get the message across. Thanks for the read!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 4 years ago from Canada

      I think Geography is not taught in your school system - nor is ours taught in ours as much any more. I remember learning to draw a map of North America, and being able (and required) to draw in the provincial borders (and the territories), as well as the Great Lakes, Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes, and all the major rivers for our Grade Six geography test. I can still do it quite well :D and found it a good background for learning world geography.

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Adam, you give a great example that happens way too often. It is so sad that our citizens don't know the parts of our country at the very least. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Adam Vera profile image

      Adam Kullman 5 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for the nice welcome to HP. Great article! I completely agree geography is not stressed enough and your making a point of bringing the map out during English class is a great practice. You also make a lot of good suggestions. I am still an undergrad and have witnessed startling ignorance among college students about geography as well. The worst incident which springs to mind is one a professor told me. When he was asking students if they wanted to live in the U.S. or another country, one young man said "I don't want to live in the U.S., I want to live in Hawaii." The professor's reaction was similar to yours when you found out your student didn't know where Alaska was. But brief let me be, you have an excellent article and I look forward to reading more.

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks TToombs!

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 5 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      You make some very valid points, donnah! And folks wonder why we're falling behind in academics. Eons ago, in one of my AP classes, we had to memorize all the states locations on the map and their capitals. Then we moved on to countries. I really doubt if I have the brain power to be able to do that today. :) Great hub. VUM!

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      B in blogs: What a fantastic idea! I am going to share that with the history teachers I work with. Thanks!

    • B in blogs profile image

      B in blogs 5 years ago from Alabama, USA

      This is not as surprising as you might think. I have loved geography since my high school days, but my kids are woefully ignorant. My favorite history teacher used geography as a weekly boost to our test grade. We would draw names of countries, regions and land areas out of a large bucket, and then we would have three to five seconds to identify them on the world map. If we got our selection right, we got a bonus point. We got points for each correct answer. It made us all want to be proficient to get those extra points!

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      BWD316: No worries.

      SPK5367: In my experience, many, many HS students lack this knowledge. Like I said above, it is sometimes shocking.

      dmhenderson: I think you are right. The emphasis is not what it used to be.

      Thanks for reading!

    • dmhenderson profile image

      Dave Henderson 5 years ago from Missouri, USA

      You're right, donnah75; it's all about awareness. It's pretty distressing when a student isn't even aware of the continents. Africa has also been misidentified as a country. Part of the problem is the decreasing emphasis on geography. I can remember when I was in the fifth grade and had to memorize the states and their capitals. I'm not sure kids have to do that anymore.

    • BWD316 profile image

      Brian Dooling 5 years ago from Connecticut

      donnah75 oh no the comment about geography being more then states wasn't supposed to take away from your hub! It's kind of a knee jerk reaction when I talk about geography lol, I also forgot to mention that I love your idea of using this summer's Olympics to teach world geography, it seems like a fun interactive educational activity!

    • SPK5367 profile image

      SPK5367 5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      I like your suggestions, Donnah. I think puzzles are terrific for younger kids and we've found lots of great websites with geography games that make learning fun. I hope you are finding exceptions to the rule. I wonder how many high school students really lack basic geography knowledge?

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      BWD316: Thank you for your thoughts. There is definitely more to geography than filling in the map, which I touched on above. I hope I didn't make it sound as if that was all we should know. It is a vast subject to write about in a 1500 word hub. Maybe you will add to the discussion with your hubs, since this is your field of expertise. Thanks for the read, the great comments, and the support!

    • BWD316 profile image

      Brian Dooling 5 years ago from Connecticut

      I agree with Bill, this article, sadly, paints an accurate picture. I have a BS in Geography and almost finish with my Master's in Geography, so I've been in a number of geo classes and you would be even more shock to find out that some college kids can't even locate the state they are sitting in!!! It's crazy! Even worse is I know some very intelligent people who still have a problem naming or locating the states. And this is just the states in America never mind countries of the world! There is a definite lack in geographic oriented studies in this country and it will have an impact on our location on the world stage. The ironic thing is when I tell people I'm studying geography, majority respond with "so you know all the states and capitals then?" and I always get frustrated because geography is so much more than just states and capitals! Of course these same people saying that probably can't name all the states themselves! The lack of geographic knowledge in this country is nothing short of a tragedy and I can't even imagine what impacts it has on things like politics! Now that I'm done ranting lol I voted your article up, useful, interesting, awesome and shared!

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Bill. It actually worries me when I see such a gap in student's knowledge. Thanks for reading.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, I taught Geography, and I can tell you without hesitation that this hub is right on! My kids had to be able to locate all the states and much, much more because I believe our kids need to be more aware of the big old world and all that is around them. Great hub!