Right now, each student in our small 4th-grade class is making a map of a different continent. We’ve been making maps since the second week of school, starting small (mapping our classroom) and expanding our focus month by month. We’ve learned about maps, and now maps are our first step toward understanding continents and cultures on a global scale.
Eventually, each student will have both a large, hand-drawn map and an information packet to go with it that will combine geography and history. We’re beginning with drawing maps to scale: drawing one-inch grids on printed maps of each continent, and three-inch grids on the large drawing paper we’re using for student maps. As students copy the coastlines and national boundaries into their maps, students notice things about their continents: “Wait, Egypt is in Africa? That’s not what I thought…” When we color in the maps, we’ll be looking at satellite imagery and talking about biomes and habitats. Where is it desert? Where is it tundra? Where are the mountains? We’ve also started researching facts about our continents. Did you know that when you list the most commonly spoken languages on each continent, English always makes it into the top five? Why is that? What religions are popular on each continent?
In the meantime, our reading groups are working through novels set on different continents: Asia, Africa, and South America, while our class read-aloud book is set in Great Britain. As we go, we research the topics that come up: Who was Chairman Mao? What was apartheid? Who is the Madonna?
And finally, after this project is over, we’ll begin the culmination of this year’s social studies focus on geography and identity: a family history project. What historical events did our parents live through, and our grandparents? Where did our families come from? What traditions did they bring with them? How does this shape who we are?