Bringing Classical Geography Back to the Classroom
- Leigh A. Bortins
- 2013 7 Jul
As a homeschool parent, one of my chief delights is the recovery of lost skills and knowledge. According to national statistics, geography is one of the most neglected subjects in schools today. If your education was like mine, the exposure to countries, capitals, mountains, and rivers was negligible. Years ago, when I began researching the classical model, I discovered how students formerly learned about geography and began to put those methods to use in my own home. Now, many years later, I have refined my understanding of this neglected subject through writing curriculum for homeschool communities and through designing summer training camps for students and parents.
Principle #1: In order to really learn about the globe, students should learn to draw the continents and countries.
In modern classrooms today, teachers distribute photocopied maps for students to label and even offer multiple-choice answers that correspond to letters on a pre-printed map. When students learn geography in this way, the information is stored only in short-term memory. In contrast, consider how students learned geography prior to the invention of the photocopier: Each student in the class received a turn with the geography book. Using a blank piece of paper or a slate, students copied the map they saw in the book and then labeled it.
The first step to learning world geography, then, is to practice cartography, which is the art of drawing maps. This method ensures that students practice the following skills:
1. Proper posture and writing position—Just as with a handwriting lesson, young students will learn to sit still and concentrate. They will also practice holding a pencil correctly.
2. Careful observation—Students who draw a map must pay close attention to the shape of each country and must consider which countries or states share borders.
3. Drawing—Students must focus on replicating the shapes they see on the original map. Thus, students get a lesson in drawing as well as a lesson in geography.
Because students have employed many skills to reproduce a map, they are creating many pathways in their brains for storing and retrieving their geography lessons. With enough practice and repetition, this method ensures that the information will be stored in their long-term memory.
Principle #2: Start with the very first basics of geography—the equator, the great circles, and the continents.
Very young students can begin by learning about how we divide up our globe. To begin, have your child turn an 8½ x 11 sheet of paper so that the long side is at the top (landscape). Then, have him fold the paper in half from top to bottom. The long line across the middle of their page can be traced and labeled as the equator. Students will need to add two lines north of the equator to represent the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle and two lines south of the equator to represent the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle. Repeat this lesson with your family until everyone can complete it quickly and easily.
The next step is to practice adding blobs for each of the seven continents. At this stage, students do not need to worry about replicating the exact shape of each continent. Instead, they should draw large or small circles or ovals to represent each continent. What they should pay attention to is where the continents should be drawn in relation to the great circles they have placed on their map. For example, North America should be drawn so that its top is above the Arctic Circle line on the map and its lower end is below the Tropic of Cancer.
After the continents are on the map, label the oceans. Again, repeat this lesson with your family until everyone can complete it quickly and easily.
After students have mastered the great circles, the continent “blobs,” and the oceans, they are ready to add more detail. Choose one continent at a time and ask students to practice drawing the outline until they can produce a decent approximation of the actual shape. Once each continent outline has been mastered, children can expand their knowledge of that continent. They should learn how to add the borders for countries and to label capitals, mountains, and rivers.1
If this seems too difficult, consider the following two real-life examples. First, I host summer parent practicums around the country each summer. In our geography drawing camps, children aged 6–8 learn to draw and label the continents and oceans in just three days. Some of them have even managed to memorize the states and capitals as well. In my grammar school curriculum guide (Foundations), families focus on three cycles of geography across three years. The maps we use in our programs were drawn by a 12-year-old student in the Challenge A program in which students spend an entire year learning to draw a detailed map of the world according to the methods I have described above.
Principle #3: Make the geography lessons a fun family activity.
Because we were working to recover a “lost tool of learning,” my family chose to draw our maps together during the evenings, when all of us could be home. We would play classical music or listen to audio books as we drew together. If the weather was nice, we drew our maps while sitting on the porch. If you start utilizing these lessons in your home during the winter, light a fire in your fireplace and enjoy a cozy time together as you learn something new.
Teaching our children to draw and memorize the world is a priceless gift. Knowledge of world geography in detail equips our children with tools to read classical literature with greater interest and comprehension. It piques their interest in the news and in missions. Hopefully, they will have deeper interest in and sympathy for all of God’s people around the globe.
1. In my book, The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, I have devoted an entire chapter to explaining this method of instruction, including a plan for grades K–8 that allows children to master each continent in detail.
Leigh A. Bortins is author of the recently published book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. In addition, Ms. Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, Inc. and host of the weekly radio show, Leigh! At Lunch. She lectures about the importance of home education nationwide. She lives with her family in West End, North Carolina. To learn more ,visit her website, www.classicalconversations.com, or her blog.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Publication date: July 19, 2013