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Beyond Memorization: Rethinking Maps in the History Classroom

Clara Webb


     As teachers, it's hard not use our past experiences as students as a barometer for what we do in our classrooms. When I think about using maps in my history classes, my mind often replays a memory from my own ninth grade Western Civ' experience: Mr. Johnson distributed blank outline maps of Europe. Like good honors students, we dutifully looked up and labeled each country. We memorized the map. We took a test. We repeated this process for each continent until we had memorized every country in the world. Test, test, test, the end. As a student I loved this kind of work—quickly accomplished, definitive answers, and doable while watching TV. Now, as a teacher, I am troubled by what that experience taught us: aside from being able to locate Luxembourg and Lichtenstein for a few months, we learned that maps were static and ahistorical. They were to be passively looked at instead of interrogated with a critical and inquiring mind. It wasn't until college that I realized what every historian knows: we need to know where things are—geography starts with that—but it doesn't stop there.

     Maps can be powerful visual tools that provoke us to think about the how and why of history. Yet it's my impression that in many history classrooms—including my own when I started teaching—maps are something of an afterthought. We might occasionally look at a pull-down map or include a map in a handout. Or worse, we relegate maps to mechanical fill-in-the-blank exercises, and inadvertently teach our students that geography has no real-world application or historical context. It's understandable that with pressure to meet standards, geography can easily fall low on our list of priorities. We rationalize that geography should have been "covered" in lower grades or that it's only tangential to teaching history.

     If our goal is to prepare students to work, communicate, and solve problems in today's world, then we need to move them move beyond memorizing. Every September, I ask my 9th graders to draw a map of the world from memory and identify as many physical and political features as they can. The results are, predictably, awful. The 2010 NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) scores confirm that my students are not unique: only 27 percent of 8th graders and 20 percent of 12th graders scored at or above proficient in geography.1 Contrary to what we might expect from standardized tests, the NAEP measures both knowledge of places and "knowing, understanding, and applying geography content . . . so students can apply geography to real-world problems."2

     As history teachers of particular courses, we may not be able to teach every dimension of geography, but we can get students in the habit of analyzing issues—past and present—through a geographical lens. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards calls this lens the "essential issue of 'whereness'—Where is it? Why is it there? So what?"3 In fact, these questions are at the heart of historical thinking. Recently, widely-read books such as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Charles Mann's 1491 have made compelling arguments for a cross-disciplinary approach to history that integrates geography, anthropology, and the sciences.

     However convincing these ideas may be, the challenge is how to execute them in the classroom. During my first year of teaching, I struggled with maps. No, truth be told, I ignored geography completely. Nothing in my teacher education program had prepared me to use maps meaningfully in the classroom. Fill-in-the-blank mapping was still all I knew, and a quick Google search revealed that I was not alone. Luckily, my colleague James Diskant introduced me to "mental mapping"—a strategy he learned from a fellow world history teacher, Deborah Johnston (See Mapping Resources for her packet that explains mental mapping).4 It was the first step to transforming my approach to maps in the classroom.

     Mental mapping involves teaching students to draw each continent by using a sequence of simple shapes. Through modeling and practice, students can eventually produce a reasonably proportional map of the world from memory. Once I learned to mental map, I started teaching my students. At the beginning of a unit about Spanish colonization, we drew the Americas, Europe, and Africa. We brainstormed key political and physical features and labeled them on our maps. Students with prior knowledge could share what they knew, and I could make additions or corrections when necessary. Already, students were thinking and constructing their own reference map that could be accessed throughout the unit as they learned about the Spanish conquest, the Columbian Exchange, and the rise of the Atlantic slave trade.

     Mental mapping, I discovered, was also a literacy strategy. Making maps together served as a quick assessment of student knowledge (or lack thereof). It revealed how often my students must have encountered phrases like "south of the Sahara Desert" and "across the Mediterranean Sea" in their textbooks and glossed right over them, having no internal schema in which to visualize and comprehend these terms. From then on, I strategically selected important mountains, rivers, and regions to label that would help anchor their readings for the unit and provide vocabulary for writing and speaking.

     As mental mapping became a regular part of our routine, the physical act of drawing, adjusting, erasing, and sometimes starting over, pushed students to better appreciate proportion, distance, and perspective. Rather than passively filling in blanks, students were developing an internalized sense of place—a context for learning about the unfamiliar. Mental mapping transformed my students' roles from passive observers to cartographers. But the maps were still floating in an unchanging, timeless state and could be created without much intellectual sweat. They needed content and context. To that end, I developed "annotated mapping." Annotated mapping is not brand new, but rather an attempt to synthesize many existing strands into a teacher- and student-friendly assignment that can be adapted to different purposes, grades, and skills.

     An annotated map is simply a historical map with annotations, and it is entirely student-created. Working from a particular theme and set of guidelines, students draw and label a map, design a key, write detailed annotations, and craft an overarching thesis statement to explain the main process or change shown in the map. (See Appendix A for a sample assignment sheet.) The assignment requires students to plan, think, draft, synthesize, and discover something new—much like the writing process. It tackles both content and skills.

     Before explaining how to plan and teach annotated mapping, it will probably be helpful to first look at examples of the end product. The following annotated maps from world and U.S. history represent the higher end of maps created by my 9th grade students. None are perfect by any means, but overall they succeed in meeting or exceeding the key criteria: 1) a relatively proportional map, 2) accurate and reasonably detailed annotations 3) a thesis that synthesizes the annotations and responds to all parts of the question, and 4) effective use of symbols and color.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: "North America Before the French and Indian War": This is a typical annotated map, assigned after students read about the causes of the French and Indian War. The reading was loaded with references to the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, and the Ohio River Valley. By mapping out the physical space, the thesis becomes clear to students: a major cause of war was the physical reality of three groups vying for the same territory.  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: "Asia Before 1492": This map is the first of a three-part series that looks at Asia, Europe and the Middle East/Africa before 1492, to set the stage for our study of European colonization. As this is one of the first maps that students do, students are learning how to annotate and write a thesis. Ideally, the annotations should describe and explain significance, and the thesis should link all of the annotations. Holistically this map earns a 4 on my scale. Most but not all of the student's annotations discuss significance, and the thesis links three of the four annotations. These small issues are made up for by the fact that her map, itself, is clear and accurate.  

Figure 3
  Figure 3: "The Americas After 1492": This is a more complicated map that deals with the effects of Columbus's voyages on multiple continents. The challenge of this map is in the design because there is so much going back and forth across the Atlantic. I don't mind if the maps are slightly chaotic because it means the students are attempting to make sense of complex and abstract concepts like the Columbian Exchange. Translating this to paper reveals what and how much students understand.  

Figure 4
  Figure 4: "The Atlantic Revolutions": This is a much simpler map that I use to introduce a unit on revolutions in French, Haiti, and Latin America. Unlike the previous maps, students haven't learned the content yet, except for the American Revolution. The only annotations are dates of successful revolutions, which students found in a historical atlas. Based on the map and prior knowledge, students have to speculate about the impact of the American Revolution and create a hypothesis. The main point is for students to wonder about how the revolutions might be linked to each other. A basic hypothesis says that the American Revolution came first and therefore inspired others. A sophisticated hypothesis might recognize more than a chronological pattern—all of the revolutions, except France, took place in colonies—or make a connection to France's role in helping the American Revolution succeed. This type of inquiry map establishes a baseline of knowledge and generates questions and interest at the beginning of a new unit.  

     Because the maps have multiple layers, it's essential to be clear about what you want students to do and to provide them the resources to do it. The following questions are ones that I ask myself during the planning process. Once I answer these questions, I create an assignment sheet with specific directions for students. (See Appendix A for sample assignment sheet.)

1) What is the theme and time period of the map? Choose a map theme based upon a key topic or content objective from your unit, e.g. the causes of World War I. Most of my maps deal with the causes and effects of wars and revolutions, migrations of people, the exchange of goods and ideas, and change over time. It's helpful to be specific about the time period; dates will help anchor the map for both the mapmaker and the viewer.

2) What will students annotate? Choose 3-5 people, events, places, or key terms that are most important to understanding the overall theme. In addition to the annotations, these items will also need to be labeled or otherwise identified on the map.*

3) What will the map look like? Determine the borders of your map. Should the map show one region, one continent, or multiple continents at once? What will be at the center? Determining this ahead of time will help students plan their maps effectively.

4) What other information should be included? List any additional political or physical features that you want students to identify, but not necessarily annotate. Maps easily can get crowded and messy, so less is more in this area.

5) What is the main point of the map? Create a thesis question that students can answer in 1-2 sentences using the information from the map and annotations.*

6) What else will students need? Determine what resources your students will need to do the assignment. Will they need access to other maps or atlases? White paper and colored pencils? I direct my students to reference maps in textbooks, handouts, or websites.

7) Is this doable? Try the assignment yourself before giving it to the students.

*Note: Many of these steps can be modified based on student skill level. Older students or students comfortable with the process can come up with their own annotations and thesis questions.

     Once the assignment is planned, the next step is equally critical: teaching students how to do it. Mapping is a skill that students will learn with time, practice, and a good amount of guidance when it is first introduced. Over time, annotated mapping can become second nature.

     Model everything. When I introduce this assignment, I show students many models of what I consider to be high quality maps (this could be student work from the previous year or examples from historical atlases). To help their planning process, I sketch out a rough template on the board to help students see that they need to block out space for their map, the annotations, the key, and the thesis. It's important for students to see that there is no single correct way to design the map, as long as it contains all of the required elements.

     Provide class time to get started. Especially in the beginning, maps can be time-consuming and students will have questions. I have found that providing 15 minutes or so of quiet in-class work time allows me to help students who are confused and ultimately increases the number of maps that are turned in the next day. Investing time on the front-end will help students be able to make the maps more quickly and independently in subsequent assignments.

     Do the assignment more than once. It follows logically that the first batch of maps will not be the best, but that the quality will improve over time as students gain more experience.

     Display exemplary maps. This is the easiest and most effective way to help students see what a good map looks like and also shows them that there is more than one way to make a map. Seeing their map on a bulletin board motivates my 9th graders to work harder—seniors may find this less thrilling.

     Grade the maps. Maps will only improve if students are held to a standard and receive specific feedback. I assess the maps on a simple 1-4 scale based on content and visual design. In the beginning, it might be helpful to prioritize simply following the directions and having all of the elements present on the map. Later, students can work on writing more analytical annotations and thesis statements. A well-done annotated map requires a considerable amount of time and effort; it's only fair that students receive more than a checkmark as feedback.

     Require that maps be drawn on unruled white paper and in color. Again this is about expecting a certain level of quality and helping students think about the purpose of the assignment. A map is a visual presentation. Maps that are done on lined paper are informal and difficult to read. Black and white maps are okay, but effective use of color is usually better (and colored pencils are more refined tools than crayon and marker).

     Encourage risk taking. Inevitably, mapping will elicit a variety of reactions and anxieties. Students who see themselves as artistic will love it, those who feel they "can't draw" will complain, and perfectionists will ask if they can trace the map or ask if they can use a bigger sheet of paper. I encourage students to see this as a creative design challenge, like Project Runway or Top Chef: these are the parameters of the assignment, and in the words of Tim Gunn, "Make it work." I prefer that students challenge themselves rather than always do what they think they're good at. As a side note, while students can certainly look at a map as they draw, I discourage tracing. Where's the challenge in that? The point is not to produce a perfect map, but a reasonably accurate and proportionate one.

     Refer to the maps later in the unit. The maps are most successful as learning tools when they have a purpose. By ensuring that students will need the maps later—to study, to reference for a project, to include in a portfolio—students will be more motivated to do the assignment well and save their work.

     Make the maps adapt to your needs. Annotated mapping is flexible. I most often assign maps as homework after students have read and learned about a significant topic because mapmaking forces students to go back to a text, reread, and synthesize information. However, quickly drawn in-class maps can also serve as a form of class notes. Maps can even become multi-day group or individual projects that assess student learning at the end of the unit.

     With 9th graders, I provide significant structure and spend a good chunk of class time modeling and working on maps, but the assignment can be modified to suit different skill levels and classroom contexts. Older students or students comfortable with the format can make more choices about design and content; this would also produce wider variation in the final product that could stimulate further discussion about the perspective and choices of cartographers. The assignment can also be simplified to require only one or two annotations, or the teacher can provide a template to scaffold the design process.

     One of the most unexpected benefits of mapping is that it has helped create equity in the classroom. As mentioned earlier, mapping can be a literacy support for English-language learners, a time to shine for visual learners, and a cognitive challenge for students who are less artistically inclined. My students are largely first and second-generation immigrants. When we start mapping, suddenly students are clamoring to make sure we identify all of the Caribbean islands or that we remember to label Madagascar. Mapping affirms their personal history and the importance of knowing places outside of Boston and the United States.

     Once my students starting looking through the geographic lens, it's hard to stop. Behind every war, conquest, and economic boom or bust, we see geography lurking. Annotated maps invite students to question, hypothesize, and make meaning. They bring lifeless texts into colorful and complex visual spaces, creating a nice intersection between creativity and analytical thinking. While students dig deeper into history, they also learn that maps, themselves, change over time and with the perspective of the mapmaker.

     I have not completely abandoned rote memorization of countries and capitals. I still make my AP European History students memorize the map of Europe before the school year begins, but only because I know we are going to refer to the map over and over again and make historical maps during the year. Otherwise, what's the point?

     Annotated mapping works well for my students and my teaching style, but it is meant to be flexible and adaptable to different contexts. Therefore, I share it less as a formula and more as a concept. An area that I have yet to explore is using GoogleEarth and other online resources to create digital maps—this may be the next phase in the mapping evolution.

Mapping Resources

Appendix A: Annotated Map Assignment Sheet

Directions: Design an annotated map that shows your understanding of key political, economic, and religious developments in Asia before 1492.

1) WRITE A TITLE at the top: Asia Before 1492

2) DRAW MAP: Draw a map of Asia

3) ADD GEOGRAPHICAL FEATURES: Draw and label these places on your map. Create a key if necessary.

• India

• China

• Southeast Asia

• Japan

• Arabian Peninsula

• Europe

• Arabian Sea

• Bay of Bengal

• Indian Ocean

• Pacific Ocean

4) ADD HISTORICAL FEATURES: Draw and label these historical features on your map. Create a key if necessary.

• Mongol Empire

• Silk Road

• Marco Polo's Travels

• Spread of Buddhism

5) ANNOTATE each historical feature.

In your annotation, DEFINE the feature (who, what, when, where, why) and EXPLAIN ITS SIGNIFICANCE. Annotations should be 1-3 complete sentences. You can write the annotations on the sides of your map (and number them) OR you use lines or arrows to point to the appropriate location on the map

6 ) WRITE A THESIS at the bottom—your thesis is a 1-2 sentence response to this question:

In what ways did the Silk Road play a significant role in the development of Asian civilizations before 1492?

Clara Webb teaches World & U.S. history and AP European History at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston. She welcomes questions and responses to the article and can be reached at


1 "Geography 2010 Report Card," The Nation's Report Card (2011), accessed August 15, 2012,

2 "In Geography, Proficiency Overall Remains Low…" Press Release, National Assessment Governing Board (2011), accessed August 15, 2012,

3 "Social Studies-History Standards for Teachers of Students Age 7-18+: Standard III: Content," 2nd edition (2010): 46, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards,

4 Deborah Smith Johnston, "Using Mental Maps for Evaluation, Assessment, Review, Notes, and Thematic Study", New Approaches the World History, last modified 2010, accessed August 15, 2012,


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