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Maps and the power of “infinite, eloquent suggestion”


Before sitting down to write Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson apparently sketched out a map of his imaginary island.

As I pored upon the map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

And while Stevenson did have to eventually put pen to paper, he seemed reluctant to take total credit for the book:

The map was the chief part of my plot.

I think that as social studies teachers we sometimes forget the power of maps. We have “too much to cover” and “don’t have time for geography.” But we do our students a disservice when we ignore the fascination and appeal of maps.

Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps, understands what a good map can do:

Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory or the fantastic landscape of dreams.

This is what history can be . . . an emotional connection with the past that excites the soul and provides a foundation for who we are.

Stevenson believed that maps have the power of “infinite, eloquent suggestion.”

How often do you begin a new unit with a map that good?

Not one of those cheesy, sad outline maps that comes as part of your textbook’s supplementary materials package. I’m talking about a map with depth and richness and mystery, one full of questions and possibility.

I think we need to start more instruction the same way that Stevenson started Treasure Island – by letting a great map speak of “faces and bright weapons” peeping out from unexpected quarters.

How to get started?

Get to know maps better. Read a a great map book. (How to Lie with Maps, Longitude, The Mismapping of America) Have fun with strange maps. Use the Treasure Island map with your kids. And just about any of the maps at the Library of Congress would be a nice beginning.

Most important? Share your excitement with your kids!

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. RPU #

    Great book, reading it right now for a second time around!
    As a youngster, I was always interested in maps, especially ancient maps.
    Later in life, as a U.S. Army solider, I had a chance to really learn how to utilize maps in a more practical sense, you might say…
    Maps are a lot of fun and certainly a great teaching tool for any classroom.

    The NY State Department of Education, Language Art Standards and Social Studies Standards state that:

    • Students will read, listen and speak for information and understanding as well as recognize map information about people, places and environments.

    Great lesson plan idea that I found online via the National Geographic Society website at:

    Pirate Map Lesson
    In this lesson, students will learn the reasons pirates frequented certain areas, taking into account the relationship between piracy and the slave trade. They will visit Web sites to find out more about pirates, and draw pirate maps showing some of the places a pirate might have traveled.

    Students will

    * discuss what they already know about pirates;
    * read and answer questions about the “triangular trade”;
    * map the triangular trade routes, and discuss where pirates would most likely have been spotted;
    * discuss other places and time periods when pirates were active;
    * read and discuss information about the Whydah;
    * visit Web sites and answer questions about pirates;
    * discuss what it might have been like to have been a pirate; and
    * draw maps that a pirate might have drawn.


    “Drawing” would certainly help facilitate learning in such areas as geography and history. Children could even make topographical maps of Europe and Africa out of papier-mâché as well.

    As someone who currently does not teach, what do you think about this particular lesson plan?

    Graduate Student

    October 8, 2009
    • glennw #

      I love this! (I don’t think that I’ve ever not liked a National Geo lesson plan!)

      These are the things that can get kids interested and thinking about geography in more human terms. Many of my memories of geography instruction was simple, basic maps with no soul. There was never any reason why a student would want to interact with many of the maps of that time or the present, for that matter.

      The pirate lesson plan would be a perfect place to incorporate the Treasure Island map. Thanks for sharing! I am already planning ways to use this with teachers at my next geo standards training.

      (Thanks also for the link at your site!)


      The lesson plan

      October 9, 2009
  2. RPU #

    Nice to hear from the author.
    Really good to know also that you may use this lesson plan for an upcoming training session. I guess the “blog” is one way in which teacher’s can collaborate and share ideas with one another.

    Oh, the link to my site… almost forgot about the signature at the bottom of my emails, yes.

    Thanks again for your insightful comments!


    October 10, 2009
  3. RPU #

    Yes, well…in high school, I was lucky enough to have a very good geography teacher who was in fact, interested in maps. He used to incorporate map work into the daily curriculum and I remember being excited about the “world” as a whole because of this fact. But, I also remember that most students were bored with map work. So yes, a nice interactive lesson, like the lesson mentioned (above) might help to stimulate map-related interest in children.

    October 18, 2009

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