Monday, July 27, 2015

Poetry, Geography, and Writing: Lesson Plans

Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado
Photo Credit: Storm Crypt
Is this class a geography class that incorporates elements of writing and poetry? Or a writing and poetry class framed around geography? I'm not entirely sure, but I do know that when I can combine subjects, it makes homeschooling feel snappy. I also understand that what we all really want to do is get through these pesky "curricula" and move on to the part of the day where we're endlessly driving our children to their enrichment activities. Amirite?

Last winter a friend, Be Essert, put out a call to local homeschoolers to see if anyone would be interested in combining forces to teach geography. Six of us joined her and organized a morning class divided into three age groups. We decided to study a country a week, starting with Canada and moving down through the Americas. We added a lunch at the end -- a weekly potluck of food from whatever country we were studying that week. We met for fifteen weeks and got all the way to Australia. I have collected fourteen lessons here, from the teen group.


1. Learn basic geography of the Americas: locations of countries, mountain ranges, rivers, state capitals in the US, capital cities abroad. Tectonic plates, ocean currents, climate zones, etc. 
2. Learn map skills like identifying and using different kinds of maps, but also learn to think critically about mapping and what maps are, how and why they're made, what functions they serve. 
3. Read poetry in context, encountering authors from the countries we study and learning how poetry functions as more than entertainment and self-expression, but as a physical and historical record.
4. Practice writing in a time-limited situation. Practice looking back on first drafts to identify rhetorical strategies, find best sentences, and tighten structure.

Florida Swamp
Photo Credit: Stevie Gill
Age level: 

This class was taught to seven students ranging from 8th to 10th grade. Some of the materials we looked at were disturbing -- drug trafficking in Colombia, poverty in Honduras, and of course those Aztecs. All of the writing assignments would be appropriate for high school. 


Some countries got merged with other countries, and some got skipped entirely. Some of this was due to weather and missed meetings. Ecuador is missing because I was out of town and Be Essert did that class on her own -- maybe she will add it!

Warm Up:

Each week we did a warm-up activity while students were arriving. This could be filling in a blank map, doing worksheets, or verbal review of the last week's material. Once all the students had arrived, we put this aside. Just by working on the blank map every week, some of the students were able to remember and fill in all the countries in both continents by the end of the semester. 

The book I used for worksheets was World Geography Daily Skill Builders, which was geared for middle school and up. I have no particular love for it -- I happened to already have it and it served the purpose just fine. 

Belem, Brazil
Photo Credit: Daniel Zanini H.
Six Things:

Each week we looked at six things from the country we studied. You may feel you need to be outraged: "Only six things from each country? Way to trivialize, Netzer! Way to reduce other cultures to factoids!" Yeah, well. We only met once a week and there was no homework assigned, so this could hardly count as a full high school geography class. In 2.5 hours a week, we scraped along the surface. 

My objective with the "Six Things to Know" part of the lesson was to introduce them to some common knowledge that might spark deeper interest or learning down the line, but honestly I was okay if it just sat there as an isolated fact. They should know that Iguassu Falls are between Argentina and Paraguay. They should know that Pinochet was a dictator in Chile. They should know how the Panama Canal changed hands and why. Their understanding of the histories of each of these countries was not going to be comprehensive in an hour, but they could take away little things, and for me in this class, that was enough. 

The other purpose of the "six things" element was to teach note-taking. In the first few weeks, I didn't ask them to take notes on paper, just to get used to the format of the class. As class progressed, I had them writing down the six things with increasing detail. A predictable outline for their notes was helpful for them in learning to take notes and listen to a lecture at the same time. 

Some of the lesson plans are more detailed than others. If you're teaching this class you will probably need to do some research. I brought up a lot of images in different tabs on my laptop to show the kids as I talked, and that worked pretty well. Showing videos in class takes up a lot of time, so for videos longer than three minutes, I tried to put links out ahead of time for them to watch on their own. 

Iguassu Falls
Photo Credit: Colm Linehan

In my lesson plans sometimes I just have the name of the poet and the poem with a link. Depending on our time available, we learned a little about each poet and identified the time period in which the poem was written. We also read all the poems aloud, going around the room stanza by stanza so everyone could read. I had a few objectives with the discussion of these poems:

1. Understand how words can evoke place, how a poem can be a map. 
2. Understand how poems can be an emotional history, a necessary companion to a more factual history. 
3. The usual literary stuff like stanzas, imagery, voice, etc. 


We did a few art projects: Guatemalan worry dolls and Australian aboriginal dot paintings, for example. The kids probably would have liked to do more, and I was really happy that even the older boys enjoyed the art projects without too much eye-rolling, but time was an issue. They liked coloring with markers while we did verbal review. I used the following books for that: 

Mola Designs (from Nicaragua)
Dreamscapes (a Colombian artist)


This class was meant to teach a verb particular kind of writing: the kind where you have a short amount of time and must produce an essay without preparation. We talked a lot about taking the necessary time to think through a plan before writing, even when time is short. One of the students found it easier to draft by talking into a recording device, and that worked out fine. They all turned in what they'd written at the end of the class, and I went through it looking for high points and potential for expansion. I would never mark negatives on a first draft, so I only looked for questions to ask, good moments to underline, and places where they used rhetorical strategies to good effect. I often read aloud from their own work (without identifying the author, if the author preferred to remain anonymous) to illustrate different things I was trying to teach them. Sometimes I'd read a paragraph and ask them to pick out the best sentence. Even the "fails" where the student barely wrote anything can be used to talk about process. 

My hope is that repeated exposure combined with enthusiastic positive reinforcement decreases apprehension. And learning to look critically at an imperfect first draft while not getting paralyzed by its imperfection is a skill they really need. 

Future Plans:

This class will continue, but will be blended into my planned high school English class for next year, World Literature. We will continue to learn "Six Things" but will also be reading novels and short stories, and writing papers. We'll start in Russia, head down through Asia, over through Europe, and end in Africa. And I'll post those lessons here as we do them. 

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