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3 ways to foster critical thinking with historic digital maps

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 2.27.39 PM

I’m in Denver at the 2016 version of the madhouse that is the #ISTE2016 conference. Helping to spread the Best Keynote goodness and doing a session on Google tools later on. And it’s always fun. I see old friends and make new ones. I learn new things. But it can get to be a bit of nerd overload. After a while, the conversation about server loads, bit rates, digital learning environments, edtech synergy, companies that spell their names with a Z instead of an S, and the next technology revolution gets to be a little much.

So it’s kind of nice to slow down a bit with other social studies folks to talk about maps and historical thinking skills. Yes. It is a session with the word digital in the title but it’s digital maps from the Library of Congress. I’m okay with that.

Presented by Sherrie Calloway and Cappi Castro, the session focused on ways to support historical thinking and problem solving while using maps. Sherri and Cappi are part of the very cool Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS)  program maintained by the TPS Western Region people at Metro State here in the Denver area.

And just so you know, the TPS program is awesome, if for no other reason than for their very useful quarterly journal called The TPS Journal. While they could have perhaps spent a bit more time developing a catchier title, it really needs to be one of your must reads. Helpful strategies, resources, tips, tricks.

tps journal

And this spring issue focuses on integrating historic and geographic thinking so a nice seque into our session this afternoon.

We started by discussing their online primary source analysis tool. The cool thing about this is you can print out hard copies or enter the data directly into the tool. The online version also has handy, built-in help boxes your kids can access by clicking the question marks. You can also select the type of evidence being analyzed so that questions specific to that medium are displayed.

loc worksheet

The Library of Congress analysis worksheet asks kids to do three things with evidence, including maps:

  • Observe (What do you see?)
  • Reflect (What can you infer?)
  • Question (What do I need to know?)

The point of the worksheet  is not just the collection of foundational content but to train kids to think historically. The help questions are powerful but need to supported with teacher guided questioning as well:

  • What are you thinking?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What can you point to support your thinking?
  • How do you know?

We practiced this by looking at small parts of a larger map. None of us had the entire map so it was difficult figuring out the big picture. This is all part of good history instruction that forces kids to feel what I call “academic discomfort.” We don’t want to give kids the answers, we want create problems for them to solve and not giving them all of the necessary info is a good thing.

drake's map

Once we had had a bit of conversation about the three different parts of the bigger map, we worked to create a title or heading that describes the map or provides information about why the map was made.

  • Consider the most important aspect of the map
  • Catch the attention of your audience
  • Create a sub-title with a possible date

What kids need to understand here is that their title doesn’t have to be “right” but students do need to have some evidence to support their title.

We looked at three parts of the map but there were nine pieces all together in the entire map which is part of five map series documenting an entire voyage by Sir Francis Drake and his 23 English ships.

A good way to end the lesson is to ask kids to complete the following sentence:

I used to think this but now I think this because  . . .


It appears that  . . .

And then perhaps ask students to write the story from the perspective of the Spanish, or the English, or the Native Americans.

Another idea? The map has letters scattered around it. These are part of key that the LOC version does not include. So go to the World Digital Library and get the map with a key at the bottom. Have kids break down the key using the same analysis worksheet – linking the places on the map to the key.

How about another idea? You can find the same map, drawn by a different person at a different time here. Have students compare and contrast the different maps, working to figure out why they might look different. Are there pieces missing? Pieces added? Why?

All of these help build historicla thinking skills that our kids need.

Get the Drake maps we used here. Get the full key to the map here. You can find the lesson we walked through here. Get other LOC lessons here. Go to the LOC Maps page here.

Have fun!



4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Connie Fink #

    Love this idea. How do you segment the digital map into parts? What program do you use?

    June 29, 2016

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