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Maps as storytelling tools

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I love maps.

Seriously. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love maps.

I spent countless hours during my growing up summers in the cool basement, browsing through boxes of old National Geographic magazines – searching for and studying their wonderful maps. And even today, the monthly arrival of the National Geo mag means nothing gets done until I flip through all the pages checking for those very cool inserted maps. We have more than a few old geography textbooks in my house. Atlases. Gazetteers. Boxes of state maps collected during trips. Folded city maps.

When I left one particular school district, I even took the pull-down maps with me because I knew they were being replaced over the summer and would get thrown out. (That’s just between you and me, of course.)

So today when I ran across the book titled A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers, my to-do list got pushed to the back burner. It’s a very cool book that captures a wide variety of map styles and tells a powerful story about how people view the world.

Drawing a map means understanding our world a bit better. For centuries, we have used the tools of cartography to represent both our immediate surroundings and the world at large–and to convey them to others. In our age of satellite navigation systems and Google Maps, personal interpretations of the world around us are becoming more relevant. Publications, the tourism industry, and other commercial parties are using these contemporary, personal maps to showcase specific regions, to characterize local scenes, to generate moods, and to tell stories beyond sheer navigation. A new generation of designers, illustrators, and mapmakers are currently discovering their passion for various forms of illustrative cartography.

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Several weeks ago I wrote a quick post about how we can use the worlds contained within video games to help kids understand geographic concepts. A Map of the World is the type of book that I think can also be used to inspire kids. We so often present maps as just a part of the story – using Google Earth, for example, to supplement our lectures.

We need to start using maps as the main character in our stories, not just as a walk-on with a couple of throw away lines. I think we can do that by having kids create their own maps. This is why I like A Map of the World. There are so many different types of maps, created in so many different ways, that kids can begin to see map creation as just one more form of digital storytelling.

Instead of asking for a written summary of whatever text you assigned for students to read, why not ask them to create a summary map instead? Instead of asking kids to create some sort of informative presentation using PowerPoint, why not have them create maps that tell the same story? You could have persuasive maps. Technical writing maps. Group maps. Maps that have plot, characters, and setting.

So go a little crazy. It’s okay to love maps. And it’s even better if your kids do.

Need some fun and useful map sites? Try some of these:

(You might also try my geography page over at Social Studies Central.)

GapMinder

Visual Complexity

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