Do You Have a Map?

Michael Robinson, 2019 West Tennessee Teacher of the Year and high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown, shares this first article in a three part series on resources for geography instruction.

“In our changing world nothing changes more than geography.” -Pearl S. Buck, author and winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature

Geographic literacy is critical knowledge for our students to have in order to better understand our ever-changing, diverse, and interconnected world. Examples of people not having basic geographic knowledge are unfortunately easy to find. Recently I noticed as I was watching a video on YouTube about the 2019 Final Four NCAA basketball championships that the map (found at 2:48 in the video) showing the location of the four cities hosting the final four had two glaring mistakes. The map was supposed to show Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas City, Kansas, and the map showed Washington, D.C. as being in Maryland

In a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll conducted in March of 2017, fewer than half (47%) of Americans knew Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. In another example, there are countless examples of people referring to the country of Africa and not realizing it is a continent of 54 countries.

One of the first steps to geographic literacy involves having, using, and reading a map. The more often we can have our students interact with maps the better prepared they will be for our dynamic and global world.

Below are a few websites that provide maps, many of them free, and other map-related resources for teachers of all grade levels to use in their classrooms.


Tennessee Department of Transportation – Maps

The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s website has state, county, and city maps for all of Tennessee. In addition to all the maps that can be downloaded from the website, there is the 2018 Tennessee highway map that can be ordered for free. I recently requested a classroom set of 35 maps, and in less than a week the maps were delivered to my school’s address.


National Geographic Mapmaker Kit

On this website National Geographic has large wall maps you can download, print, and arrange on a wall in your classroom. The maps are high quality and detailed and provide teachers with multiple ways for students to interact with maps. There are large wall maps of the World, the USA, Asia, Europe, World physical map, Africa, etc.


Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has over 37,000 maps on its website. This is an excellent website for primary map resources to use in the classroom. There are 613 maps that include Tennessee. From a map of Nashville in 1863 and a map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to a bird’s eye view of Memphis in 1870, there are several maps for multiple subjects and multiple grade levels.


What is GIS?

GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information Systems, and it is a way of layering information on a map in a framework to organize, communicate, and understand the science of the world. GIS is used in multiple fields from education, real estate, manufacturing, insurance, transportation, etc. The applications are wide and varied.


World Map (Harvard – GIS)

GIS maps start with a “base map,” a map usually with basic geographic information, from place names to streets and buildings. Click on the link from Harvard University to see different types of base maps. The base maps themselves can provide highly detailed maps of neighborhoods with the outlines of schools, churches, homes, parks, etc.


New World Map – Peter’s Map

Many maps in classrooms across Tennessee as well as across the United States use the Mercator map projection. This particular map projection makes Africa and South America appear much smaller than they do in reality while making Europe, Russia, and Greenland appear much larger. Whereas the Mercator projection does have positive attributes, the size distortion of land masses can easily confuse students. Some school districts in the United States have introduced the Peter’s projection as an alternative. The Peter’s projection attempts to show the world’s landmasses as close as possible to their actual shape and size.


So, how can you tell if the maps you have in your classroom are up-to-date? One way is to look for the country of South Sudan. It was the newest country in the world to join the United Nations and became a county in 2011. If your map does not have South Sudan then it is definitely not up-to-date.

For example, this sign with a map of Africa is at the front of an exhibit that opened at the Memphis Zoo in 2016. The map of Africa is not an up-to-date map, because it shows Sudan as one country (black circle). To see an up- to-date map of Africa, scroll to the top of the article, where you will see a map of Africa that shows both Sudan (purple) and South Sudan (pink).


Whether you teach elementary, middle, or high school grades, giving your students plenty of practice with maps is critical for their knowledge of the world around them, and these resources have helped me do that with my students. Be sure to check back on Wednesday for the second post in this series: Helping your students think geographically.