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Brenda's Blog

Using Digital Place-Based Storytelling
To Teach Geographical Thinking


"Placed-based storytelling enables a connection between the past and the present that enriches both; enriches our understanding of both. Not only in terms of how we view them, but especially in terms of how we use both the past and the present to guide us into the future."
~ Elizabeth Lay, Historiographer, Teacher

Many teachers have an uncanny ability to turn emerging technologies into thinking tools for students. Annette Moser-Wellman, author of The Five Faces of Genius, would likely refer to those teachers as Alchemists -- people who join seemingly unconnected ideas to create new ideas and unique ways of doing things. Few occupations are better equipped to do that than teachers. Each day, you can walk into classrooms across the country and see creative teachers using their broad range of interests and understandings to create meaningful learning experiences for their students. Like the Alchemist of the past, they combine unlikely elements to try to develop magical results.

Conversations often stimulate Alchemists to create new ideas. Moser-Wellman identifies Bob Dylan as the consummate Alchemist, a poet/song writer who has always had an ear that was finely tuned to conversation," a person who would eavesdrop on people and scribble down things they said" to produce a new piece of poetry or a song. Like Bob Dylan, many teachers have their ear to the ground; listening for rumblings of new ways of using emerging technologies in the classroom.

I admit it -- I am a virtual eavesdropper. I read the blogs and wikis of teachers who use the virtual venue to wonder out loud and share their ideas about how new technologies can be used to extend knowledge. It was on a blog that I first read about a new form of digital storytelling called place-based storytelling, an adaptation of digital storytelling that combines digital mapping tools with the power of the narrative.

There, I also learned about Jerome Burg, a high school teacher from Livermore, California, who created a brilliant project that combines Google Earth with great works of literature. Google Lit Trips gives new meaning to the term novel study by turning that age-old language arts tool into a multidimensional learning experience for students. Through Google Lit Trips, novels like The Grapes of Wrath, Night, and Homers Odyssey come alive for students by bringing all three senses into the learning experience. Burg believes the success of that application of Google Earth hinges on its multi-sensory appeal and its ability to put kids in the middle of the story, not just at the periphery.

Another use of digital mapping tools came from my own Alchemists tendencies. After reading about digital mapping tools like Google Maps, Community Walk, and Wayfaring, I wondered how the geographical thinking outcomes from Albertas Social studies Program of Studies could be addressed using digital mapping tools. To get started, I decided to create my own example.

Returning to my 1950s childhood neighborhood, I drove around stopping to take a picture whenever I found a location that had special significance for me. That included pictures of my first house, my first school, my music teachers home, the corner grocery store, my best friends house, the church, and the street where I was hit by a car (not fatally!).

Back home, I opened up the Community Walk Web site and found out how easy it was to locate the map of my old neighborhood and to create place makers for the places I had taken pictures of. In the place maker space, I downloaded the appropriate picture and wrote a short memory about why that location was significant to me. The result was a map full of memories and meaning. Along the way, I had honed my map-reading skills and learned how place, story, and community helped shape who I am today. What a powerful lesson for all of us to learn!

Using my digital story map as an example, I created a project for teachers to use with their students. Find a Story Map a StoryTell a Story provides a beginning example of how digital place-based learning can be fleshed out in the social studies classroom. And just like Bob Dylan, those with their "ear to the ground" have picked up on this idea and are thinking about how it could be tweaked in their classrooms. Thats what Teacher-Alchemists do

About the Author

Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.

Author: Brenda Dyck
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Updated 09/10/2010