Most history teachers and historians (even though they often won’t admit it), enjoy playing the “what if” game. What would have happened if the 20th Maine had retreated at Little Round Top? What if Native Americans had been resistant to European bacteria? What if the early Chinese had sailed its fleet of ships east instead of west?

It’s this sort of speculation that has a way of engaging kids in the content. But it doesn’t have to be just questions about events. It can also be questions about stuff. Several months ago, I wrote a quick post about photos that changed the world. And recently, Adelyn Soellner sent me an article discussing maps that impacted history.

I hadn’t really thought about the impact of maps on history. I know that maps can lie, both intentionally and unintentionally. I know that maps are used in many different ways. I know that maps can be used to spread ideas. And, yes, I know that maps can be important players in the story of history.

But the article suggests that certain maps have had a dramatic influence on events – that maps can not just spread ideas but help to generate new ones.

The idea that maps can cause events rather than just reflect them is one I haven’t really wrapped my head around before. We’re not taught this as pre-service teachers and so it’s not one that we pass on to our students.

The article’s author, Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections at the British Library, lists his top ten influential maps.

Most, like the 1490 Martellus World Map and the 1782 Red Line Map of North America, I’ve heard of. But the London Underground Map and pro-Bolshevik propaganda maps were new to me. I also enjoy the inclusion of Google Maps in the list.

I like the idea suggested by Barber. I’ve always loved a good map and enjoy reading things such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and How to Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier. So now I’ve got a new, fun way to think and talk about maps with other teachers and students.

Perhaps use a influential map as the opening hook to a specific unit. Cut copies of the map into smaller piece, give each student and piece and ask them to predict what their piece might be, when it was made, who made it and how it might affect events. Have students mingle to put their pieces together and compare their predictions to reality.

Perhaps leave certain pieces missing and force kids to “fill in the blanks.” Find maps from differing perspectives, say election maps as projected by Democrats and Republicans, and ask kids to explain the differences. It’s said that history is written by the “winners” – have kids create their own maps from the perspective of the “loser.”

I’m just brainstorming out loud here but it seems that we can create a much richer learning environment when we think of maps as the makers of history rather than just a simple document.

You might be interested in the British Museum’s Mapping History site. Try the Strange Maps blog and Google Maps Mania. The Library of Congress has some great maps as does Harvard and the University of Texas. You’ll run across all sorts of maps that you can begin incorporating into your classroom.

Let me know how it works out!

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