April 25, 2005
Jeannine Kuropatkin can connect anything with geography. "It’s a challenge I give my students," says the teacher at Rhodes Junior High School in Mesa. "I’ll tie anything to a geography lesson."
She can, too.
Rap music? Cultural diffusion of African- and Jamaican-influenced music into an urban environment. Middle Eastern conflict? Contradictory religious creeds sharing the land of their holy sites. Global pecking order? National boundaries superimposed over natural resources.
The science of place can offer a broader understanding of the world. But geography struggles to keep its place in America’s schools. "No Child Left Behind (policies) tie school funding to reading, writing and math scores," Kuropatkin says, "so schools double up on reading, writing and math, and subjects like geography get lost."
In an effort to keep it from slipping between test scores, Arizona State University’s Geography Department gathered experts to take Kuropatkin’s challenge: If geography can be tied to anything, can it be spun around reading and writing lessons?
A well-timed grant enabled ASU’s Arizona Geographic Alliance to try. "In 2001, we received a Grosvenor Grant from the National Geographic Education Foundation," says coordinator Gale Ekiss. "Its purpose was to find a way to help teachers keep geography in the classroom."
The geographic literacy curriculum was born on a simple idea. "Students have to read and write to develop their literacy skills," Kuropatkin says. "Why not have them read and write about geography?"
The alliance assembled teams of teachers, geographic experts and mapmakers. The teams constructed 85 lesson plans for kindergarten through eighth grade, where students cut their literary teeth on geographic principles. In lessons like "Me on a Map" and "Walk Around School," students in kindergarten through third grade develop comprehension and descriptive powers by learning the basics of maps. "Leapin’ Landmarks" conjures youthful enthusiasm about exotic places and challenges kids to locate them on a globe. Kuropatkin was a project facilitator for grades six through eight. "We kept asking ourselves, ‘How do you connect what (students) already know to what you want them to know?’ " she says.
Though simple in concept, the lessons were difficult to develop because they had to meet a variety of standards. "We had to meet the National Language and Arts standards for reading and writing, Arizona’s Geographic proficiency standards and meet National Geographic’s performance standards for the grant," she says.
Reading and writing, then, become the mechanisms by which students explore global issues. In "Jerusalem: A Holy City," students read and write about the city as a tourist attraction, a historical site and the hub of three major religions. "If you can connect what students are learning to what they already know, they’ll want to learn more," Kuropatkin says. "That’s the hook."
Lessons were tested in 20 different state school districts and vetted for their ability to reach a range of economic and ethnic groups. The alliance tours the state with workshops, helping teachers break the program in. "We wanted to make this easy and inexpensive for schools to use," Kuropatkin says. "The best curriculum in the world is no good if it just sits on a shelf."
The program measures effectiveness in terms of student mastery levels — that is, how many students test 80 percent or better on lessons? The program is undergoing an extensive two-state study, but early results from the pilot program are promising: 85 percent of students scored mastery levels in their geographic assessments; 84 percent achieved mastery levels in reading comprehension; and 78 percent reached mastery levels in composition skills.
NEXT UP: GEO MATH
The early success of the geographic literacy program has fostered a sister program. "We introduced geo math in October," Ekiss says. "It’s the same principle. Integrate geographic lessons with math principles, basing our work on state geographic and math standards."
Fusing geography into reading and math is an innovative way to preserve its valuable lessons. But is it a true advancement, or a clever fix for a threadbare system?
Kuropatkin laughs. "You’re not going to get me to comment on that one," she says. "The political answer is that the scores are up."
But she takes a hard stand on the need to preserve the science of place. "As an educator, I feel geography encompasses a greater understanding of the world in general," she says. "We are more globalized than we know. We have to have some way to understand it. How people live on the Earth, use the Earth, influence each other. It’s pertinent to now. If that doesn’t cross over into everything, I don’t know what does."