Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

Many surveys have been conducted and articles written about American students’ knowledge of geography, or lack thereof. A quick Google search results in article titles such as “Young Americans Geographically Illiterate” (National Geographic) and “Another Piece of Evidence that America’s Students Know Little About Their Country” (The Atlantic). At the same time, reading charts, maps, and graphs is a huge part of standardized testing and it’s a skill that students must practice regularly. So how do we get students to retain information about geography and also make it tie into Big History? The Human Migration Patterns activity from Lesson 6.3 is certainly a good place to start.

A map of early human migrations. Public Domain.

Human Migration Patterns asks students to read the article “The Great Human Migration” from Smithsonian Magazine and write down or highlight any clues given about the migration patterns of early humans—basically, the who, what, when, where, and how of human migration. After this, they compare their notes with other students’ to fill in any missing blanks. Before they begin to draw the migration routes, they must label the map with a number of locations in order to orient themselves to modern countries and natural features that were traversed by early humans.

Many students find this activity difficult, especially since they’re unsure they’ve picked out all the clues needed to complete the map. However, with some guidance from me and members of their group, they usually get most of the necessary information. Students begin to piece together the routes, learn about modern and historical geography, and figure out where Homo sapiens and Neanderthals might have coexisted.

One thing that students frequently forget is the dates of migration, which is the last numbered item on their instructions. I would say that it’s about a 60-40 split, with the majority of students failing to label the map with this information. I think they have brain fatigue by the end and simply overlook it; however, this ends up being a great learning moment, as their grade reflects this and any other omissions and teaches them to finish reading directions to the end!

Human Migration Patterns requires students to use many skills—close reading (both for information and comprehension), researching, and mapping—as they work through the story of human migration out of Africa. While a happy byproduct of Human Migration Patterns is that students retain knowledge about geography, it is not the sole focus. Regardless, maybe one day soon we’ll see those Google search results about students’ lack of geographical knowledge change for the better.

About the author: The 2016/17 school year marks Bridgette’s fifth teaching BHP as a semester-long history course. She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.

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