A passion to learn about our world

A passion to learn about our world

Cunha, Stephen F

I like geography best, he said, because your mountains and rivers know the secret. Pay no attention to boundaries.

-Brian Andreas, American Poet

From space I saw Earth-indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.

-Astronaut Muhammad Ahmad Paris, Syria (1988)


We live in an increasingly borderless world where people, ideas, and commerce flow across time and space with alacrity. So do disease, weapons, and pollution. Jet travel from Shanghai to San Francisco consumes 10 hours, while air pollution covers the same distance in 10 days. Some believe that wealthy nations-those comprising just 20 percent of the world’s population-can invoke superior power and technology to avoid the undesirable elements of a more interdependent mass society. This attitude obligates one to ignore the cataclysmic changes in human fertility rates, income disparity, and environmental change that are sweeping the globe. The contributing authors in this publication vehemently disagree. As an alternative, we share a desire to teach and learn about Earth’s diversity through a geographic perspective. In fact, we are immensely pleased to share our passion for geography with you in this special issue of Social Studies Review.

Geography: More than Pretty Maps

A recent National Geographic Society poll indicated that despite improvement in the last decade, American youth still trail their industrial world counterparts in geographic knowledge (San Diego Union Tribune 2002). That is to say, our youth have an inferior grasp of the physical, cultural, and economic forces that order our complex world. Perhaps the most startling revelation is that our students still have trouble identifying major geographic place names such as countries (including our own), mountain ranges, and manufacturing centers on a world map.

Although the National Geographic Society should worry that more young Swedes than Americans can locate the United States on a globe, geography is much more than finding places on attractive maps. Their inability to apply geographic information to specific places is of far greater consequence. Identifying Iraq, Chile, and the Pacific Ocean on a map are to geography what the alphabet is to reading. They open the gate for boundless and lifelong learning. The real heart of geography is understanding the global patterns of climate, landforms, economics, political systems, human culture, and migration that govern Earth. Geographers investigate not just where something is located, but why it is there, and how it relates to other things. Geography explains why your grandparents moved to Tucson (warm and dry climate), how oil from Kuwait reaches Spain (by way of the Suez Canal), where the tropical rainforest grows (near the humid Equator), who faces Mecca as they pray (Moslems), and which continent is the most populated (Asia). In a nutshell, geography is the “Why of Where” science that blends and enriches history, literature, mathematics, and science. Developing the ability to “think geographically” raises a flat map to life.

Thus while it is important to locate Mexico on a map, it is vital to know that since half their population is under 16 years old, the immigration pressure on our border has just begun. Moreover, pinpointing Alaska is great, but knowing that with just one percent of proven global reserves, Arctic oil will not reduce our dependence on foreign sources or affect the price of gas. Our youth will share a more promising collective future when they recognize how epidemic poverty-half the global population drinks filthy water and survives on less than two dollars per day-provides Osama bin Laden and his ilk with an endless cohort of angry suicide bombers. Geography helps students at any grade level understand these cause-and-effect relationships. Understanding people and environments influences the location of everything from K-Marts to hospitals to software manufacturing plants. City planners need population projections and environmental data before they can approve plans to build housing developments, office buildings, and shopping centers. Engineers must study water resources and the lay of the land before starting any project (even a small hill or creek can greatly increase construction costs). Imagine trying to advertise a new product without knowing the ethnic composition (Hispanic, African American, Asian, European), age structure (are they mostly teenagers or grandparents), and economic characteristics (are they mainly farmers or office workers) of the people you want to buy it. Highway construction cannot proceed until information about climate, soil, vegetation, and how many people will drive the proposed route are considered. Each day, kids everywhere awake in sheets woven of Egyptian cotton, pull on clothes stitched in Bangladesh, woof down bananas grown in Central America, and grab schoolbooks printed in Singapore, to board buses assembled in Michigan from parts made in Japan and Germany.

During the last decade, the hurried pace of our global society-the rising dependence of nations upon each other for trade and security-makes geographical studies more important today than ever. Acronyms such as NAFTA, GATT, and WTO are heard on the evening news. The Cold War ended just as new conflicts in Europe and Africa emerge. Schools from Alaska to Zambia stress second language and culture studies to better prepare their students not just for a global economy, but for a more crowded planet where migration, tourism, and the Internet connect our global family more each day. America’s recently declared War on Terrorism and military buildup near Iraq further underscore the great importance of more fully understanding the people of the world, how they live, what they believe, and the environment we share.

The Choices We Make

Teaching geography across the curriculum will also help students understand what zoologist Jane Goodall calls the “Power of One” – that our individual choices make a big collective difference in how humans live together and care for our shrinking planet. Geography illustrates the connections behind our choices. It links declining old growth forests in British Columbia and recycling paper at school. It equates water conservation at home with enjoying migratory waterfowl in the desert. It contrasts military expenditures with the need for better schools and medical facilities the world-over. These presumably adult issues will impact our young students to a degree thought unimaginable a decade ago. We educators must address them across the curriculum today. To that end, this issue provides examples of how inspired California teachers use standards-based geography to instill a passion for our planet.

The Geography in Writing, Literature, and History

Today’s teachers are efficiency experts who squeeze as much curriculum into the school day as possible. With increased attention to writing in the history-social science classroom, college instructors Rhoda Coleman and Diane Hembacher explain how to blend instruction and assessment in both writing and geography. For example, illuminating the themes of region and place through letter writing enhances the value of letters as rich sources of descriptive language about regions and places around the world. The authors remind us that evidence of descriptive language is found throughout time and place, and offer excellent models for students to study and imitate within their grade-level content. Many of these writing activities are easily adaptable to various grade, ability, and historical content requirements.

As coordinator of Pages of the Past and Tales of Time, the two guides that align state History-Social Science Standards to grade-appropriate literature, Peg Hill maintains that geography serves to enliven reading at all grades and in all genres. Her article reinforces the fact that every piece of fiction must have a setting, and geography explains the why of where. Hill also provides examples of useful nonfiction, and challenges teachers to consider geographic perspectives in all that they read with their students. An accompanying booklist allows teachers to rethink their own literature collections and determine whether or not they have maximized titles that teach geographic literacy.

Social Studies Review Editor Al Rocca probes the impact of geography on the American Revolution. This scholarly piece demonstrates the strong link between history and geography, and that teaching one without the other is like separating mercury-it can’t be done.

Teaching Geography in the Classroom

California boasts a strong and growing network of educators trained to improve standards-based geography education. They’ve participated in summer institutes, conferences, and local workshops. Their specialized preparation and teaching has also produced geography lesson plans, programs, and useful resources to share with colleagues. This is evident in third-grade teacher Stephanie Buttell-Maxin’s efforts with the Newspaper in Education program. Her article describes how the daily newspaper enables students to learn real and applicable geography. She provides useful, standards-based ideas for K-12 teachers and encourages us all to take a geographic look at our daily source of news and information.

Building a case for effective, interactive and developmentally appropriate geography education programs in the primary grades, first-grade teacher Cynthia Vaughn shares her expertise and successful lesson plans with readers. Her article captures a spirit of exploration and meaningful mapping, which translates to powerful lessons for teachers at all grade levels.

Teachers and learners alike universally embrace innovation in geography education. The National Geographic Society awarded one California program a grant to explore history and geography through music. Jenny Scholl’s article briefly outlines the work of Arts-Bridge America at the University of California, San Diego.

Using Contests to Spark Geography Awareness

Easily duplicated and fun academic contests involve entire school communities, including families. They both celebrate and highlight students’ knowledge and skills in geography. The National Geographic Bee and Geography Olympiad fit this bill, while also generating positive school publicity. California Geographic Alliance Director Stephen Cunha writes about the power and purpose of the National Geographic Bee, and provides the information you need to register and conduct school Bees. A resource section and ideas for incorporating the contest across the curriculum will have you thinking, “Why don’t I do this at my school?” Featuring a different type of geography contest, middle school teacher Steve Prendergast presents San Diego County’s annual Geography Olympiad. Prendergast chronicles the ten-year history of this highly successful event featuring Olympic-style competitions that draw on the geographic knowledge and skills of 3rd – 8th grade students. Sharing some example events, the author encourages teachers throughout California to mentally muscle-up for their own fun and rewarding Geo-Olympiad.

Teaching Geography in the Field

Chances are you’ve met (or work with) a professed “geo nut.” Geographic Alliance Regional Coordinator Emily Schell explores how these teachers practice their passion for geography. In the process, she admits membership to the team. The teachers she highlights in this article will empower you to put students in the front seat to better navigate their studies and their educational adventures. Whether it’s reading a textbook or en route to a field trip, pass out the maps and charge your students to be geo-aware so that the journey also becomes a learning destination.

On the subject of field trips, San Diego State geography professors Barbara Fredrich and Alan Osborne share their experience with teachers during a summer institute that offered geography content and teaching strategies. They first explain their own preparation, and then critique recent field trips to art galleries, museums, and conservation gardens. Their findings can also apply to numerous other sites, and their stories should inspire many to do so.

In the adventure of a lifetime, middle school teacher Mike Murphy describes his geo-trek through the public lands in the Rocky Mountains. Government agencies, private-sector companies, and the National Geographic Society sponsored this three-month expedition. His electronic journal entries from the field were edited especially for this article. They should inspire teachers to explore California’s public lands with (or without) their students.

Geography Resources

The final articles present resources to learn and teach geography. Texas A & M geographers Sarah Bednarz and Gillian Acheson make an excellent case for improved teaching about and with maps. These authors throw down a challenge for all of us to consider in preparing today’s youth for participatory citizenship. They suggest that map skills are essential for today’s citizens to make reasoned and intelligent decisions. This is an article to share with teachers who might question or undervalue the importance of maps in the classroom.

Tapping into Cyberspace, Humboldt State University professor Joe Leeper presents online resources that support standards-based geography education. Similarly, Western Michigan professors Lisa DeChano and Joseph Stoltman explain the ongoing transition in between traditional hardcopy learning materials, and the new electronic sources of information. In presenting two new teaching materials, the authors acknowledge how emergent technology can obligate a steep initial learning curve.


Geography unites and enriches our curriculum across time and space. It prepares young people to live and work on a shrinking planet that is facing serious demographic, economic, and environmental challenges. Whether you are the President of a country, or president of your class, geography is a tool to carry everywhere. We invite you to explore geography with us, and hope that our ideas ignite a passion to teach and learn about the Earth.


San Diego Union Tribune (2002). A Big Dose of Reality in Geography Knowledge. Nov. 21, 2002


The guest editors extend warm thanks to the contributing authors of this issue, to Social Studies Review editor Al M. Rocca (Simpson College), to Mary Beth Cunha (Humboldt State University), and to the California Council for Social Studies. Portions of this introductory manuscript were reprinted with permission from the National Geographic Bee Official Study Guide by Stephen F. Cunha. Copyright (C)2002. National Geographic Society.

by Stephen F. Cunha [Guest Editor]

Professor of Geography, Humboldt State University & Director, California Geographic Alliance


by Emily M. Schell [Guest Editor]

Visiting Professor of Education, San Diego State University & Coordinator, California Geographic Alliance

Copyright California Council for the Social Studies Spring 2003

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