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5 ways Google Earth can save your bacon

Google probably doesn’t need my help selling any of its products. But I usually end up sounding like an intern from the marketing department at least once a week. I love their stuff.

I especially love Google Earth.

And the more I travel around, the more I discover that many social studies teachers are not fully aware of the different ways Google Earth can save their bacon. As in, engaging and useful teaching strategies that are aligned to Common Core Literacy and College, Career, and Civic Life standards.

So today? Five awesome ways to use Google Earth in your classroom:

1. Google Lit Trips
When most people think of Google Earth, they think maps and geography. Great literature rarely comes to mind. But one way that we can become better social studies teachers is to find ways to integrate our content with fiction and non-fiction sources. One of the best ways to do that is by using Google Lit Trips. Google Lit Trips focuses on the idea of creating Google Earth Tours based on historical fiction, novels and non-fiction.

So. You’re looking for ways to meet Common Core Literacy standards? Here ya go. No brainer.


The site encourages teachers to create and share their own Google Earth lit tours as well as download the tours of others. There are currently 59 tours that you can download into your Google Earth software. Titles include such books as Night by Elie Wiesel, My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Journey to Topaz by Yushiko Uchida.

2. Google Historical Tours and Events
Carol Larow, creator of Google Historical Tours and Events, takes the Google Lit Trip idea and changes it just a bit. The site focuses on historical events and is designed so that students are the ones doing the tour creation. You still get the chance to download Google Earth tours but the goal is tp provide a place for students to upload their own work.

So . . . a great place for you to find teaching tools but also a great place for your students to post their own research and work.

3. Historical imagery
Google Earth offers imagery from the past several years worldwide. In the U.S. and select other locations, we have acquired older imagery, some going as far back as World War II, and many major cities offer a dozen or more views throughout time and during various seasons. Simply click the clock icon and scroll through time — the notches indicate every point in time for which we have a photo within the current view.

historical imagery2

So what might this look like in practice? Use the tool to help kids compare and contrast the same place over time and to practice historical thinking skills. Get a specific example of a lesson here. It can also be used to introduce fiction and non-fiction – use the previous lesson to hook kids into the book Night (which then, of course, plugs right into a Google Lit Trip!)

4. Tour Guide
A newer feature of Google Earth, Tour Guide provides guided excursions to and through a wide variety of geographic places, both famous and obscure. There are over 100,000 tours in 200 countries with more than 1,000,000 photos now available – from flying tours of the Roman Coliseum to Dodge City’s Boot Hill.

It will display interesting places, even if you didn’t know to search for them. Thumbnails of available pre-created tours will update automatically with interesting locations near your current view. Click the thumbnail image to start a tour or to fly to a point of interest. Flying tours are marked with a tour time in the lower right hand corner of the tour thumbnail.

tour guide1

Where available, the tours and points of interest include 3D models (be sure to turn the 3D Buildings layer on) for the most realistic experience possible. Information from Wikipedia also provides more information on famous sites, so you can learn more about the places that interest you as your virtually fly over them. The tour guide also includes user-contributed Picasa and Panoramio photos as thumbnails for a preview of the featured location.

tour guide2

Use Tour Guide to lead discussions on cultural geography, to create sweet writing prompts, or to support student research. Tour Guide is on by default. To turn it off, simply toggle it off in View > Tour Guide.

5. Earth Gallery
The Gallery is 1000 pre-built Google Earth Tours available for immediate use. You can access the Gallery by clicking the button right beside the Layers area. A separate browser will slide in, letting you search or browse for specific tours. Clicking one of the tours will automatically install the tour into your Google Earth.

GE gallery

You can find a wide range of historical maps, geographic features, and other social studies related goodies. The Gallery is also accessible online via a traditional browser.

6. Need a few more resources?

Google Earth for Educators
Social Studies Central
Teaching with Google Earth: Awesome Tips and Tutorials
History Tours

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Glen,

    Great post with great ideas!


    October 30, 2013
    • glennw #


      Glad it’s something you can use! Have a great week!


      October 31, 2013
  2. I am a high school science teacher and have been adapting primary source, maritime-themed material for Google Earth touring. Most of the books take place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a fun way for students to read text and explore history and geography. Feel free to use the material at:

    February 6, 2014
    • glennw #

      Cool! Thanks for sharing. Site looks pretty good – I’ll be doing some GE training on Monday and will be playing with this that day.


      February 6, 2014

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