In my grade 7 practicum, I taught a geography lesson I titled Discovering Canada Using an Atlas . Students labelled a blank map of Canada with the names of provinces, territories, cities, bodies of water and other important landmarks using an atlas as reference. I thought this would be a decent way to introduce students to the idea of mapping and familiarizing themselves with some of key places and features of Canada.
When I announced what we would be doing one student asked me, “What’s an atlas?” Momentarily taken aback I replied, “An atlas is a book with maps and charts and can tell you things like population, and elevation of land compared to see levels. “Another student raised their hand and asked, “Why would we ever need to use that? We have the internet.”
At the time I gave some weak response along the lines of, “Well what if the internet was down? You’d be glad you knew how to use an atlas then!” and encouraged them to use the atlas. But realistically speaking, that student was quite right; there are very few reasons to use a paper Atlas. Google could tell you where anything is in the fraction of the amount of time it would take to look it up in an atlas. And only today did I wonder: could I have completed the same assignment using Google Maps? Or better yet, could it have been better? In short, the answer is yes. Much better.
Most of us have probably used Google Maps at some point in our lives but I didn’t know until quite recently that it had applications in education. In fact, Google Maps provides a whole web page explaining just how useful it can be right here. It suggests different applications and resources to better educate yourself on how to use it in the classroom. The tool that I found within Google Maps that had the most promise was My Maps.
My Maps is a shareable Google map that can be customized in many different ways; it is similar to how a Google Doc is essentially a shareable Microsoft Word document. Here is a picture of one detailing the minor league baseball teams found in the USA.
Contributors can add “pins” to any location that they click on the map by clicking on the “Pin” icon on the toolbar (on the map above, these are the names of the teams). If they click on one, they can then add any relevant information they want: name of pin, description, images, you name it. All of these pins are automatically added to a “layer” which is basically just a group of pins. Ideally one would want to group like pins into the same layers (as illustrated above by the different classes of teams). From here contributors can use the “Line” tool (next to the “Pin” icon) to draw lines, or travel routes between pins (even having the option to pick their mode of transportation). The search bar at the top of the screen functions just like it does on Google Maps; type in the name of any location or even the GPS coordinates and My Maps will immediately place a pin at the relevant destination. They then have the option of adding that pin to an existing layer and editing its information tied to it.
With these tools, I could have put a whole new spin on my lesson. My students could have collaborated and worked together to make something useful and meaningful, rather than just idly flip through an atlas and jot down the names of places on an 8′ by 11′ paper map. I could have had them go on a GPS coordinate scavenger hunt. I would assign each student two or three different GPS coordinates of interest on the map of Canada. They would enter their coordinates into the search bar and find out where the coordinates took them. Then they could add that place to an appropriate pre-existing layer that I had set up (perhaps sorted into cities, bodies of water, landmarks, parks, etc.), research it and add the relevant information and pictures to the pin description. I would probably want to outline exactly what type of information needs to be found but, in the end, my students would have created a relatively comprehensive map of Canada that they can access on any device with an internet connection.
Rather than just make a map, I could have them make a road-trip through Canada. I could put them in groups of two and charge them each with a province. I could have them pick two or three places that they would want to visit, research them, and then connect them via the travel route options. Not only would students get to see what they thought was the most interesting parts of each province, but they could laugh at the laughably long journey that they would doubtlessly create. I could extend it and restrict the amount of time they had to make their trip, forcing them to work together to make a more efficient route.
These are only two potential options, but I think they are far more interesting than my initial lesson idea. The collaborative element and the tangible final product would have significantly increased drive and interest.
Should the class have finished early, there are a couple of neat games powered by Google Maps that could be entertaining and educational. Smarty Pins is a game where students must drop a pin on the correct location on the world map based on a provided description. After each guess, they are told how far away they were from the correct location in kilometres. That distance is subtracted from a pool of “Kilometres Remaining” (below the description). Should it hit zero, it’s game over.
Earth-Picker is another cool game where students are given a Google street view of a location on Earth and are asked to guess where in the world it is. They are then told within how many kilometres of the correct answer they were and compared to the average number of kilometres off they were.
Given all the tools Google has made available, I’m hoping my next lesson on mapping will be a lot more interesting!
If you are interested in resources, I found this TheThinkingStick article very handy for ideas (also where I found the games). Additionally, I found this video to be useful for a quick overview of how to use My Maps in the classroom.