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!
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