Choices videos capture expertise of map specialists at the Boston Public Library.

When I posed the question, “What is a map?” to my middle school students, their first response was something to the effect of, “It tells you how to get somewhere.” They mentioned Siri directing their family to a destination on a car ride. Some students referenced the world map on our classroom wall: “A map can show you borders and where rivers and mountains are.” Whether a tool in daily life or a classroom resource for studying geography, a map was an objective representation of our world—one that students trusted. It wasn’t usually in their repertoire of critical thinking skills to question a map’s information or author.

Understanding maps as sources that present selective and biased information is an important critical literacy skill. Teaching our students to examine a map with the same critical eye they apply to written documents should be a goal of any social studies teacher. Knowing how to teach this kind of analysis, especially in a way that is clarifying and enabling for students, can be a challenge.

That’s why The Choices Program, in collaboration with the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, has developed a new set of online resources focused on critical analysis of maps. The Choices curriculum writers and digital media team worked with the Leventhal Map Center’s Curator of Maps, Ronald Grim and Director of Education, Michelle LeBlanc to produce a collection of six videos that invite students to consider maps as sources that tell stories. The videos introduce a framework for analyzing a map’s bias and demonstrate how to apply this framework to several historical maps.  

The videos featuring Grim focus on the design elements of a map—including its projection, decoration and symbols, orientation, and center of focus. With example maps displayed on screen, Grim demonstrates how examining a map for these elements reveals the mapmaker’s bias, or the particular story a mapmaker set out to tell. LeBlanc’s videos present a framework for analyzing a map based on four big ideas—perspective, audience and purpose, choices, and what LeBlanc refers to as “knowledge and change.” LeBlanc introduces these big ideas in her first video and in two subsequent videos demonstrates how to apply the framework to two historical maps.

The Choices Program has created a companion lesson plan to guide teachers in presenting these videos in their classrooms. The lesson and associated resources support students to apply the analytical framework from the videos to any maps that teachers determine are relevant to current work going on in their classrooms.

For students and teachers with an interest in mapping innovations in the 21st century, the final video in this new collection focuses on georeferencing, or the process of aligning real-world coordinates to a map’s image. Georeferencing is used by researchers and professionals in a range of fields to extract current data from a historical map by connecting the map to its spatial location in the present day. Teachers will find an “extra challenge” included in the map analysis lesson based on this georeferencing video.

The videos, lesson plan, and associated handouts are available on the Choices website.

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