Using Maps to Tell A Story: Cartography, Visualization, and Research – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 9

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.


Christy Gill kicks off our third and penultimate week of the ISI with a presentation on combining research, maps, and writing. Students research a topic they’re interested in, create some sort of mind map, sketch note, or visual, and then compose a write-up about the process.

Quickwrite: How have you used student-directed learning in your classroom? What are the challenges? The successes? 

Although I haven’t implemented Genius Hour or something similar, I try to create assignment structures that allow for a fair amount of student choice. I’ve let students come up with assignments, pick topics, pick formats, create individual timelines, and self-assess. Many students enjoy the ability to direct aspects of their own learning. That said, placing decision-making power in the hands of students can be a daunting task for a few key reasons. 

Most students (and teachers) aren’t used to equitable power sharing in the classroom. In fact, even the term ‘equitable power sharing’ is amorphous and ambiguous. Some students can become frustrated and recalcitrant when provided with freedom. Sometimes this is because I did a poor job of scaffolding and building up to the freedom. Other times it’s because our culture of education is often one of compliance. Whether through rules, punishments, or rewards, students are used to 1. being told what to do, 2. being told how to do it, and 3. given feedback on how they did what they were supposed to do. 

We share out. A few of us speak on the ethics of student-directed learning. How children from certain backgrounds have resources at home to help them while others don’t. How certain types of children (white & middle/upper middle class) typically receive more guidance and exposure to student-directed learning. Heads around the room are nodding.

Christy tells us that students do not need a lot of geography knowledge in order to succeed with this project. Maps can tell a story and provide inroads to different types of literacy (research, visual, cartographic, to name a few!). Christy’s map project begins with asking students the following questions:


Student examples include literacy rates and crime, erosion at the Outer Banks, the geography of NFL fans, to name a few. Here are a couple examples:



Here’s a truncated version of the process students worked through:
1. Brainstorm topics both interesting and robust enough to sustain research. What do you want to know more about? Is the topic easy to research or obscure? How can you visually represent what you learn?
2. Create a daily timeline and to do lists.
3. Create the map.
4. Write the map story.

Here’s my number 1:


Here’s what she gives us for number 2. We’re not going to do this now because of time constraints. Christy tells us that this is an easy place to add or remove scaffolding as necessary for each student. Daily check-ins also the teacher to touch base with every student and offer guidance and support as necessary.


Here’s the map I made for step 3! It visualizes my thinking about teacher subjectivity. I tried to use pictures to represent school climate, public discourse, U.S. climate, philanthrocapitalism, center/margin, and binary discourse. So fun!


We spend the least amount of time on the fourth step: writing the map story. This makes sense to me, because while many of us do plenty of low-stakes writing, we rarely spend time on creating visual mapping products.

The questions for the map writing piece are:
1. What did you create?
2. How did you create it?
3. Why is this topic important?

This project is rife with possibilities for differentiation. What a great way to start off the day!



One comment

  1. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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