The Geography Teacher’s Dilemma

Teachers should think their subject is the most important to the education of their student – or at least that’s what my mentor teacher told me years ago. I believed her then and still do today! But how important can your subject be if it is being removed from the middle and high school curriculum around the country? Geography teachers are asking themselves this difficult question.

The question is timely. Several weeks ago another International Education Week came and went. Schools that I know have long recognized this with activities and presentations are no longer doing so, citing various reasons. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other education leaders marked the occasion by publicly highlighting the need for a 21st-century education. However, the removal of Geography courses across the country is sending another message.

Except for the AP Geography course, which has retained its stable place in U.S. high schools, many Geography courses are being eliminated or integrated into History or Humanities classes. Geography teachers are being asked if they can embrace the teaching of their subject by another name, but the more important question is whether Geography teachers can adapt this critical subject to thrive in the age of the Common Core. The future of middle and high school Geography in the U.S. rests on the answer.

Before the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) rolled out, state standards and the widely utilized National Geographic standards guided Geography teachers with specific learning standards on culture and customs, landforms, migration patterns, and many other geo-related themes. They allowed good Geography teachers to bring the world to the classroom and taught students the “how” and “why” of history, civics, art, religion, and the social and physical world in which we live. But the CCSS emphasis on skill development and the elimination of specific content focuses has left the Geography teaching community feeling marginalized.

In a country where only 21% of fourth graders, 27% of eighth graders, and 20% of twelfth graders are proficient in the subject, is reducing the teaching of Geography helping our students be prepared for college and ready for careers in a global economy? (source: National Assessment of Educational Progress)

Although Geography teachers may prefer a Common Core framework that includes standards that relate to their field, the CCSS do provide a unique set of opportunities. I know this firsthand. Before the implementation of the CCSS, I was urged to incorporate more writing in my World Geography course. Like most social studies teachers, I did not know how to teach writing - but I slowly learned.

In 2006, a small group of teachers and I started a project where students researched and then wrote about a cultural or global topic of their choice. Instead of only focusing on the content, I learned to help them with their writing. Ultimately, their understanding of the content and writing both improved. We then aligned project-based lesson plans to the student-authored writing – creating a platform where students were researching and writing while also reading peer writing and learning about important cultural and global topics from a youth perspective. This project grew into what is now One World Education (OWEd).

As Geography teachers push students to think outside their preconceived notions of people from other places and to expand their worldview, these same educators need to think outside the box to ensure Geography remains relevant in our new teaching landscape. One World Education serves as a model. As the organization has grown into a full-fledged Common Core Writing Program, I tell educators that it’s really a Geography program in disguise. But what’s in plain sight is how Geography teachers can adapt their teaching to the Common Core framework – and the learning of Geography can thrive.


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Thanks Eric for this post. I do believe that our students are missing valuable lessons on how to connect with the world in the present time. While we are living in a global village of the 21st century, our education limits our students with the opportunity to know other cultures around the globe. I do not think that the CCSS service our students for the common good. The analysis of of the current rhetorical discourse does not transcend the national boundaries. We want to prepare our students to be equipped with skills necessary to handle post high school endeavors. However, the CCSS initiative is a myth and distort the reality with a hidden agenda. The "Common Core" fails to represent openly the notion of democratizing process of social relations and neglects the interrelated phenomenon of multicultural society and globalization. As borders are crossed and countries reshaped, attention to differences calls for a re-formulation of identities in the context of power relations, histories, and shaped memories. What is interesting besides the lack of geography courses, is the lack of cultural studies to shape national identities. How can students talk about other cultures when they do not know their own culture? It is time to get out of the New Criticism approach and look forward to a deconstructive way to teach the student the basic skills needed to hopefully position themselves in society.

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