Helping Students Learn : Use Simpler Maps, and Teach Students How to Do Quick and Efficient Research On Line

Map Locations of North American Indian Tribes

This map of North American Indian Tribes could be used to help students make a similar map, greatly simplified. I would suggest an outline of North America,boundary lines for Canada and Mexico, with the Mississippi River and Appalachian Mountains drawn in. Students could make a colored map key for the various Indian Tribes.

Some maps and charts are better than others.

The types of maps we often had to make in school I found were not always very helpful to me as a young student.  As a teacher, many years later, I now realize WHY.  There was too much information on the map, and it was TOO complicated; thus, the salient points were lost to the student.

Physical Map Showing Elevations of North America, by color

A better way to use maps in History or Social Studies class, especially in middle school but also in high school, is to use a series of maps prepared by each student, with each focusing on a particular point.  If there are several things to learn about an area, such as climate, history, and geography, instead of putting it all on ONE map, make three DIFFERENT maps (or more) each one illustrating fewer points.  The students remember the points better if the teacher guides them in drawing their own maps, as opposed to just looking at maps, or coloring maps which other people have drawn.

Simple colored map showing European settlements in North America

I had a middle school student who was directed to write a paragraph on something he could find out about European settlers in North America.  The student had a lot of homework that night in  different subjects, so I decided the most efficient way was simply to draw a quick map of North America on the board, dividing it into the three countries.  I had the student copy it on a paper very quickly.  I then put in a few bits of essential information, such as drew the Mississippi River and had the student label it.  Then in four colors we marked the general areas where English, French, Spanish (and Russian) settlement took place, and creating a map key for the four colors.  We labeled the countries and oceans.  The point about this is that we put no more information on this map than was actually necessary; thus the point (where different groups settled) was very clear.  (We did not mark any smaller groups such as the Dutch or Germans, since this was only the barest introduction.)

Next, I pulled out an American history textbook and showed the student some pictures of Spanish explorers in the American Southwest and Florida, and some pictures of the Puritans, some pictures of French trappers.  We searched for a photo of each on-line to include with the student’s report.

I suggested a short paragraph on the Spanish, one on the English settlement, and one on the French settlement.  Because we were short of time, I simply taught a short history lesson to the student, and had him put it into his own words and get it down on the paper.

If we had had a little more time, I would have sat with him in front of the computer to work with him on some quick ways to research on the computer some of the same questions.  With this particular student, I have already done this on several occasions, so the student is making great progress in doing his own work.

In doing research on-line, one of the major problems middle school students encounter is that their reading level is not yet at an adult level and they cannot understand many of the articles they read either on Wikipedia, or elsewhere.  This is one of the reasons some students just copy (plagiarise) what they find on-line.  They cannot put into their own words what they do not understand!

To deal with this problem, I would like to share a very helpful trick I  learned many years ago while part of a professional fiction writer’s group in the United States    Published authors in the group shared that whenever they needed to do quick research on an area, they always looked for CHILDREN’S books on any non-fiction subject.   Why?  Because children’s books summarize the essential information much more briefly (and for our purposes, at a much lower reading level).

So extrapolating this technique to today, I show my middle-school students (and high school students, too, if they are having trouble understanding what is written on a topic) to type into Google “the topic + for children.  This technique usually brings up websites that explain the same topic much more simply.  Then students can have much more success not only with understanding a topic, but also with learning to put it into their own words.

–Lynne Diligent

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