Geo-Literacy: Using Technology to Forge New Ground

Students use visual learning and communication tools to build an in-depth understanding of geography, geology, and local history.

June 2, 2003

Editor's Note: Since this article was written in 2003, teacher Eva La Mar has moved on from Tolenas Elementary School to teach third grade in Oregon. However, she still codirects the Geo-Literacy Project, which now offers curriculum and projects to schools worldwide, and Tolenas still uses the Geo-Literacy curriculum.

Mark grips the iron bar at its upper end, the cold end. The opposite end has been heated in the blacksmith's forge, then placed in a slot that holds the bar upright. As the third grader pulls the bar toward him like a lever, the fire-warmed segment bends under his pressure. When his classmate tried it moments ago, with a completely cold bar, it remained rigid.

His eyes widen beneath safety goggles. Cool! Heat makes the metal flexible.

Mark and his classmates from Tolenas Elementary School are visiting nearby Rush Ranch, in Suisun, California, north of San Francisco Bay. The property, which includes significant portions of the Suisun Marsh, was once a Native American village, then the working ranch of settler Hiram Rush. Now owned by the Solano County Farmlands and Open Space Foundation, Rush Ranch's remaining buildings have been converted into an information center and a blacksmith shop.

As students learn about blacksmithing, marsh ecosystems, and local history here, they are developing a sense of what their teacher, Eva La Mar, calls geo-literacy. La Mar defines it as "the use of visual learning and communication tools to build an in-depth understanding -- or literacy -- of geography, geology, and local history." Today the class is gathering digital photos, video footage, and audio and written interviews with docents.

Planning sheets help students get the information they need.

Credit: Edutopia

Creating a Master Plan

Successful geo-literacy projects take planning. Before beginning a project, La Mar works with her students to develop an essential question to be answered through research and interviews. The essential question for Rush Ranch was "Why is the preservation of Rush Ranch important?"

The class used books and Web sites to research the ranch. From these sources, they decided that the essential question might be answered by studying three topics in particular: the Native Americans who had lived on the land, the blacksmith's shop that stands on the property, and the plants and animals that live in the marshlands. Because these subjects are covered in different academic subjects, they would also facilitate cross-curriculum learning.

Each student joined a group studying one of the topics. With the essential question in mind and on the bulletin board, children developed questions they wanted answered and noted items they might want to photograph with digital cameras. They filled out planning sheets (download this PDF of questions, this PDF of a QuickTime Virtual Reality checklist, and this PDF of a photographer's checklist) before they visited the ranch so they would be sure they got the information they were looking for.

Students gain perspective on history by discussing choices made by their own families.

Credit: Edutopia

Relating to the Big Picture

Geo-literacy focuses closely on local history, but it is not meant to supplant a global perspective. Ideally, this type of learning lends a deeper understanding to the larger themes, such as U.S. history and world history, of traditional curricula.

La Mar says the secret is finding a bridge, a piece of prior knowledge that can be used to help students make the connection between a national event and a piece of local history. She asked students to learn about their own family histories, incorporating these accounts into a timeline. The class then read a book about Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss and his fellow settlers during the California gold rush. They talked about reasons these people moved to California, comparing the reasons to those that brought their families to Solano County.

Finding the students' prior knowledge means understanding their circumstances. Many of the Tolenas students have never traveled outside of their communities. It was important, therefore, to use maps, movies, books, and Internet research to build up their knowledge base about the larger world before the project had even begun.

Interdisciplinary studies: After a field visit, the students use writing skills to convey what they have learned about nature, geography, and social studies.

Credit: Edutopia

Combining Disciplines

The Rush Ranch project also involves science -- geology, geography, and the study of plants and animals. And, in presenting the information, students practice research and writing skills, too.

"Our students became the authors, the photographers, the videographers, and the local historians," says La Mar. They learn to examine ecology and other elements of science and geology, showing their interconnectedness with human settlement patterns and geography.

During a class discussion, Karina, a third-grade student in the plants-and-animals group, incorporates a social-history perspective into her description of the ranch's stand of eucalyptus. The trees that provide such a good habitat for hawks and raptors, she says, are there because "some immigrants brought the eucalyptus trees from Australia. People used to try to use the eucalyptus trees to make buildings, but it didn't work."

After the students share their newfound knowledge, each uses a portable keyboard to type up findings. La Mar's school allows teachers to check out a classroom set of keyboards. Students then take turns connecting their keyboards to one of the room's five desktop computers and watch as their writing appears onscreen in a Microsoft Word document. These documents form the backbone of the students' Web writing.

An Armijo High School student helps one of the Tolenas third graders shoot video for use on the class Web site.

Credit: Edutopia

Working Across Grade Levels

The Tolenas third graders aren't going on this journey of learning alone. "The video technology was beyond third graders," La Mar says, so she looked to some of her friends for help.

To put the students' findings online, she has enlisted help from Armijo High School's Women in Technology, or WIT, program in creating panoramic shots and taking video footage. On the day of the Rush Ranch visit, WIT students shoot video footage of the students at the site for the purpose of creating a Web site similar to their site for the Sonoma Mission.

The group has already been to the ranch the day before to check the light levels and video possibilities. Mike Keisling, who heads the WIT program, is proud of his team's dedication to production quality and to the community. He also knows how beneficial this work is to students. "When WIT member Sarah Serota filled out her UCLA scholarship application," he says, "they wanted at least 50 hours of community service. Sarah had just over 700."

Students from Fairfield High School's multimedia program also come to the classroom to help with object rotation, using Apple QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) software. This tool allows the students to display objects such as the skull of a black bear from all angles, giving the user a more complete experience.

Fairfield multimedia teacher Kathy Link, like Keisling a friend of La Mar's, welcomes the chance for her students to work on the skills that they will need after high school. "Car manufacturers and shoe manufacturers have object rotations online, and panoramas are used to sell homes and showcase hotel rooms," she says.

Fieldwork is only part of the program. Among other skills, Tolenas students are assessed on reading, writing, and creating informational text.

Credit: Edutopia

Assessing the Situation

To assess her students' work, La Mar works with them to create rubrics (download a PDF of a group-activity rubric and a PDF of a writing rubric) for the geo-literacy project.

In addition to measuring students' learning with the rubrics, she inserts mini-lessons into the year's project to reinforce standards. Much of the impetus for the focus on standards comes from parents; though they appreciate the creative curriculum, they want to make sure their children continue to meet state and national standards. (In 2001, Tolenas was one of four schools in northern Solano County to reach California's target score of 800 out of a possible 1,000 on the Academic Performance Index, or API. Only 18 percent of schools statewide reached that goal.)

Sample Mini-Lessons

Here are suggestions for various projects you can undertake with your class:

Reading a Chart

Using the old directions and charts for materials in a blacksmith's shop, the class practices visually scanning a document for the main idea. Then the students list, on a KWL (Know-Want-Learn) chart, what they want to learn from the document. They go through the chart to find the information.

In doing this, they learn to read headings, subheadings, and numerical data (times, amounts, and so on). Students use the Internet to find photographs of the tools listed on the chart, then write a descriptive paragraph about a tool, referring to the chart. (This mini-lesson addresses California social studies standards, as well as national social studies and national geography standards.)

Descriptive Writing, with a Clear and Captivating Topic Sentence

Each student writes a draft of a descriptive writing paragraph. The class reads some samples together, evaluating the topic sentences in terms of quality and power to engage the reader. Then students work in teams to peer-review the paragraphs, with each reviewer listing one thing he or she likes and one area of improvement. (This mini-lesson addresses the California language arts standards.)

Writing and Reading Informational Text

Students work from a collection of books on the Suisun Marsh, colonial life, tools, and Native Americans. They practice using the index and table of contents; reading the back page for an overview; and reading chapter titles and picture captions. Students also explore how note taking, concept mapping, and illustrations can be used to show the main theme of the text. (This mini-lesson addresses the California social studies and language arts standards.)

Starting a local geo-literacy effort can be as simple as finding an old trail.

Credit: Edutopia

Build Your Own Program

An important feature of the program is its replicable nature. La Mar would like to see this project serve as a template. Her dream is for geo-literacy sites to blossom across the country, with students on the Oregon Trail corresponding with those who live near Gettysburg.

La Mar advises schools who want to participate against choosing an entire county. "Pick a specific region, perhaps an old building, an old schoolhouse, or a park. Start with that and then build on it each year."

And, she adds, the program's possibilities aren't limited to traditionally historic locations.

"I first thought when I went to Solano County, 'What history is there?' But once you start digging in and you talk to local historians, you find some of the stories. Look for old trails. Look at the geography. How many quarries do you have on your land? Where did the rock from those quarries go? What monuments are in the area, or what geological aspects? Start learning about the history of your area. It's quite fascinating."

Ashley Ball is a former staff writer at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. She has written for Classroom Connect's Quest program, Grolier Books's Questions Kids Ask series, and the Discovery Channel School's Teachers A-Z Resource Guides.

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