Geography Re-emerging in School Curriculum Planning
Nationally and at home in Vermont, curriculum writers are rediscovering geography. Schools are doing everything from using the new national geography standards as their primary resource, to requiring geography courses at elementary , middle, and high schools, to restructuring the entire curriculum under the unifying theme of "Geo-discovery ."
How have schools effectively incorporated geography into their core curricula? At Sedalia Park Elementary in Cobb County, Georgia, the school began by using geography as a parallel theme to complement other subjects in traditional textbook- based courses. That experience led them to an interdisciplinary and experiential curriculum that used geography as an "umbrella topic" in the classroom. The new structure was very successful because teachers did not have to radically revise existing lesson plans, but simply taught classes with the five themes of geography (locatiol:1, place, relationships, movement, and regions) as their structural framework. For instance, a fifth grade history lesson on Colonial Jamestown was enthusiastically received after the geography of the colony's story was highlighted: Why was that particular site chosen? How did the colonists interact with their new environment? Where did they come from and why? What were they expecting in this new land? Since their restructuring, Sedalia Park Elementary has seen an increase in student and parent interest and participation in academics. For its efforts, the school was awarded the 1995 School of Excellence Award by the National Council of Social Studies and was selected as the 1996 Georgia School of Excellence.
At Sumner Academy in Gallatin, Tennessee and at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., geography courses are now required at the elementary , intermediate, and secondary levels. An emphasis on world regional geography at the primary level is used to provide a solid conceptual base for global issues like population growth, urbanization, and climate change at the high school level.
The current trend toward geo-centric studies can be seen in Vermont as well. The Rutland City School District is in the midst of redesigning its curriculum, and VGA Teacher Consultant Mary Cassarino has been co-chairing both the social studies curriculum committee and (the larger) social sciences curriculum committee. Cassarino, a sixth grade teacher at Rutland Intermediate School, feels that restructuring can clarify and expand geography's role in public education.
It became clear during the early research phase of Rutland's redesign project that geography was not being fully utilized as a teaching tool. So, when the social studies committee began work last summer, they leaned heavily on the new national geography standards as their primary resource, as well as the history and civics standards (or equivalent) and the Vermont
Framework. The curriculum committee needed to adapt the national geography standards, since they are written for grades 4, 8, and 12, but the Rutland schools are organized into four levels with grades grouped K-2, 3-6, 7-8, and 9-12. They developed exit criteria for grades 3 and 7 (to promote cooperation between different levels) and graduation standards.
The next step for the committee was to put together what would be taught at each grade, keeping in mind the exit criteria and graduation standards. The scope and sequence of what was taught from grade to grade was carefully defined to help alleviate repetition and smooth the transition between learning concepts. According to Cassarino, this would take care of the problem they found in their initial research that "there was more geography being taught than we thought, but it was being taught haphazardly."
Cassarino points out that good research has been integral to the success of the restructuring process. All changes to the curriculum have been proceeded by committee meetings, teacher and student surveys, and numerous rough drafts. At a January in-service, the committee met with K-12 teachers with the current draft of their document to see if they felt that it was appropriate at all the grade levels. Teachers were very forthcoming with their comments and suggestions, although very little of the document needed to change. They found that a consensus was being reached long before the restructuring process was over, which has cut down on both social and bureaucratic friction.
The draft document for geography will be going to the oversight committee soon. When the geography is done, the committee will concentrate on history and civics, and then assessment and best practices. They hope to have a product ready to work with this fall. Whatever it's final form, geography will certainly be better represented than in the past.
So, what is fueling the successful re-emergence of geography in Vermont schools and elsewhere in the nation? First, a new emphasis on the importance of geographic knowledge has developed both nationally and at the state level. Nationally, this is exhibited by geography being chosen as one of the five initial core subjects designated in the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act which mandated new academic standards for public schools. The new national geography standards were written as part of that mandate. Also, because of Goals 2000, an advanced placement (AP) geography test will be coming out in 1999-2000 which will allow college students to "place out" of an introductory level geography course and, simultaneously, upgrade the complexity of geographic concepts taught at the high school level.
Many states, including Vermont, have revamped their own geographic standards. Vermont's new academic standards were released in 1996 and they allocate geography its own category Witll three subsections (on par with history). Many states are also seeing an increase in the role being played by the 50 state geographic alliances that promote better geography education through teacher workshops, resource materials, and training and providing geography teaching consultants.
A final factor contributing to geography's new importance is the rapidly changing nature of our world. As the twenty-first century arrives, the economic, cultural, and political glabalization of our planet highlights the growing necessity of the field. Geography has never been more relevant to the preparation of students to contribute to, and function within, our rapidly changing world.
Several years ago, Mary Cassarino heard national education figure Roger Taylor say that "every good interdisciplinary unit can be based on geography." In her work on the Rutland City Schools curriculum restructuring, she sees more geography coming to Rutland and lots of opportunities for teachers to develop and use geography as a unifying theme to reach the proposed exit criteria. It is clear that many schools across the country are discovering the same thing. Certainly, it is safe to say that geography curriculum in Rutland City Schools is improving, and their students and, ultimately, Vermont and the nation will benefit.
If you would like a copy of the new national geography standards or other help with curriculum revision, contact: Vermont Geographic Alliance, c/o Joe Taparauskas, Castleton State College, Castleton, VT 05735, or call the VGA Office at (802) 468-2106 (24 hours).