1st map lesson: Maps Lie – geteach.com

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why geography educators have to constantly justify geography’s importance to decision makers. In a previous post I shared a working definition of geography being an “…interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything across Earth’s space.” To me, geography requires students to use all their knowledge to investigate the one, and currently only, world people live on. You cannot get more Project Based, Problem Based, Connected Learning, Vertically and Horizontally Aligned, *insert latest learning theory here* then geography. Geography is no easy task because, once again, geography is a perspective. One of my quick “checks for understanding questions” is for students to quickly write their description of the classroom. While there will be similarities among the 25 students in the room, no one description of the classroom will be identical. Again, there are 50 eyes perceiving the same place differently. Scale that up to 7+ billion people and all the places on  Earth.

Another giant issue with students, and adults, is that the primary tool people use in observing the world is the always flawed map. In my opinion, our very own mental maps are so entrenched that our brains will flat out deceive us. Disclaimer…I am not a brain expert, but my brain has lied to me.

Above image/idea from National Geographics Channel Brain Games

One way to demonstrate our own ignorance to the Earth is using flawed maps. Many geography teachers start their “Map” unit with skills like cardinal directions, map legends, scale, title to maps, etc. I completely understand this approach, especially for younger grades. However, high school students tend to be more engaged with these map lessons when they buy into why these skills they have learned since kindergarten are important. Ideally, students will transfer this approach in critically observing maps, an implicit authority on truth in space, to any perceived authoritative source. Please do not get me wrong. I love maps and believe in their usefulness and a visualization tool; so much so that created a mapping website. But, every student should know maps limitations.

In the past I, like many geography teachers, started my map skills unit using the below West Wing clip. I still use this clip in class, but later in the lesson. To me, the clip takes too much thinking away from the students.

Now, students experience (observe) issues with the Mercator projection using geteach.com. Students themselves draw polygons around Greenland and drag the shape to equator. See Below Video

You can also use Google’s My Maps

http://thetruesize.com/ site is great too!

**You can use any of the three sites above. I use geteach.com because students will be using the site throughout the year and this activity gives them an opportunity to learn how to navigate the site.**

After demonstrating Greenland’s size, students are given to opportunity to draw polygons around anything and explore how the Mercator Map distorts size as objects move away from the equator. Hopefully, these observations are building curiosity and engagement for when they, or sometimes I, ask why? Why does Google use such an inaccurate map? (analysis) The responses often center around peoples familiarity with the Mercator projection and also on the purpose of Google Maps…primarily as a resource used for giving directions. That happens to coincide with why Mercator maps were created in the first place. (students had read about map projections before entering class and the direction comments often stems from that).

Once the students start asking why, again sometimes prompted by the teacher, the next question is always the “so what?” “why is it important?” “what are the implication?” It is at this point where I show the West Wing clip from above. Then highlight that maps are visualizations that are to help people make spatial decisions, but better spatial decisions are made when the user understands the advantageous and disadvantageous with a visual tool that has to generalize spatial information in order to make sense out of the complexities of places.

This year I added to this idea of critical observations and analysis of maps by including this warm-up to the the next day’s lesson via Google Classroom’s question function. Students were to read this article “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ New Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.“, brought to my social feeds by Dr. Seth Dixon, and answer, “In what ways and why are all maps biased?” Students were very quick to point out Google’s commercial purpose of Google Maps being an advertising platform. However, they struggled connecting Google Maps to Google’s overall search strategy in selling advertisements. In other words, Google’s traditional search methods attempts to use key terms, past and present, to add context to the user in order to tailor advertisements. Google Maps does the same, but attempts to add spatial awareness to that context. Next question…”what are the implications?”

Again, there is nothing new or earth shattering to this activity/lesson. In fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of methods that can be used to get student thinking about sources and spatial distributions. Hopefully, this post provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on why geography is important in education.

Always looking for suggestions. Please use the social media links to make a request.

geteach.com – A project that got away from me

It all started with a simple idea of using Google Earth in the classroom. My initial desire in using geo-spatial technologies in the classroom started while student-teaching back in 2005. As a geography major, I had taken a course using ESRI’s ArcMap. I am a huge fan of GIS and currently use QGIS and ArcGIS Online. Both are great technologies for creating, observing, and analyzing spatial distributions. However, there is something about Google Earth that captures the imagination and fosters a greater sense of engagement for myself and others. This imagination and engagement created via Google Earth was what I wanted to package and deliver to my 9th grade students. That packaging of content, pedagogy, and technology eventually became the driving force for geteach.com. Later in my career, and at graduate school, I discovered many educators strive for this same balanced mixture of content, pedagogy, and technology. It even has a framework(see TPACK)

(image above: Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org)

My issues in 2006 are as follows: I knew nothing about Google Earth; other than how to navigate to my house. I was a new teacher and knew little about good pedagogy. I had acceptable to great geographic content knowledge, but little experience with what content was required and applicable for a Texas high school student. However, the largest hurdle, by far, was my lack of training in using technology in the classroom. After two years, thanks to some awesome mentors, my geography pedagogy and geography content knowledge greatly expanded, but my technological knowledge was still weak to non-existent. That started to change in the summer of 2008. That is the summer I learned my first bit of html code.

<td>United States</td>

That code created this table

Country: United States

One of my favorite professors, Brock Brown, taught me that, “Geography is a perspective! The geographical perspective provides a broadly applicable, interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything across Earth’s space.” Geography was teaching me how to code. Instead of observing and analyzing distributions across Earth’s space, I was observing and analyzing distributions of html tags from websites. Later in that summer of 2008, I applied that same reasoning to kml (the markup language/code used by Google Earth). I spent most of the 2008-2009 school year creating simple webpages and Google Earth files for my students via notepad++. I also spent an obscene amount of time searching the internet for any Google Earth files to bring into the classroom.

(image above: Early version of geteach.com – the entire layout uses tables with the width set at 998px for use with projector. Round corners/glossy colors where in then.)

By the 2009-2010 school year, my content, pedagogy, and technical knowledge were at the point where I was able to integrate Google Earth in the classroom. At first I adapted lessons that I had already taught for years into Google Earth lessons. These included lessons on climate and levels of development. As the lessons progressed, I desired a more streamline process to create and share Google Earth files with the 25 – 30 students in each class. This was long before (in technology years) we had Google Apps for EDU in our district. In the 2009-2010 school year, while searching for an easy way to share kml files, I stumbled upon the last two pieces to geteach.com: a shapefile to kml converter and the Google Earth API/plugin. With my kindergarten knowledge of html, ArcMap, KML, css, and javascript, I created the first html sketch up page for what is now geteach.com and shared it with my father. My father, an electrical engineer, initially could not understand why students needed two Google Earth globes showing different spatial layers, but began teaching, cleaning, and improving my code to the point where the students could start using geteach.com in the classroom. To this day, our workflow is the same…I find problems, I will then code a solution, take it to my father, and he cleans its up; making sure the code is future proof.

(image above: Later version of geteach.com – this layout adjusts with width of the page…no more round corners, but still sports the gloss)

Without a doubt, my most memorable moment in teaching was the first time students used geteach.com. On average, I probably only slept three hours a night in the 2010-2011 school year. I spent the days at work building my content and pedagogical knowledge and the nights learning and coding geteach.com. So, I went through the roof when I witnessed students using and enjoying what their teacher created for them. Even to this day, I get excited when I see my students, or hear of other teacher’s students success in using geteach.com. My greatest achievement with geteach.com so far was when my 10 year daughter came home and said she used my site in her classroom to explore population density.

In December of 2011, Google Earth Blog (link) wrote its first piece on geteach.com. A couple of months later I reached out to Richard Byrne’s Free Technology for Teachers and he wrote his first blog post (link) on geteach.com. Also, in 2012 geteach.com received an Excellence in Media award from the National Council for Geographic Education. And then in the summer of 2013 I was invited to present geteach.com to Google’s Geo Teacher’s Institute (GTI). 2012 through the middle of 2014 was an awesome time for geteach.com; students were creating and using their kmls in the site, students all over the world were using the site, and teachers from all over the world were contacting me about how they were using geteach.com.

However, in 2014 rumors began to swirl that the Google Earth API used by geteach.com was being deprecated (retired) and in December 2014 the official announcement was made by Google on discontinuing the Google Earth API (Please note: this is only the web version of Google Earth NOT Google Earth). After December 2015 the Google Earth version of geteach.com was not going to work. Therefore, in the summer of 2014 I redesigned geteach.com, this time with some knowledge of what I was doing, using the Google Maps API and hosting the spatial data on Google’s Map Engine platform. While the Maps API is lacking some features found in the Earth API, the new version does have some serious advantages. The first, and largest advantage, is that it works on Chromebooks; which were taking off in 2014 and still used in many schools. Plus, the Maps API works with ipads, though mobile safari is a css nightmare, so I do not design for ipads (I am happy if it works in ios ecosystem, but do not go out of my way to make sure of it). In addition, the Maps API is much easier to use and design other page elements around.

(image above: Last Google Earth version of geteach.com/v5.html – Finally got the layout nailed and can switch between one an two Earth’s without linking to two pages. This page still works if you can find a browser that supports the Earth API)

Funny thing happened in December 2015…the Google Earth API was not officially turned off and Google sent another technology through its deprecation process. This time was actually a bigger blow for geteach.com. The Google Maps Engine platform that was storing all the spatial data (raster and vector). The platform that seamlessly hooked into the Google Maps API used by geteach.com was now being discontinued. This was a much larger issue to geteach.com because I had to learn new methods to host and serve raster and vector files. In other words, Google was discontinuing the way I used to put content (over 120 maps) into geteach.com. Over the life of geteach.com the content has moved from all kml files -> Google Maps Engine Files (which could host and serve both rasters and vectors) -> to me creating and hosting raster data using GDAL and Google Cloud Storage and creating and hosting vector data through styled geojson files. Sorry about the geeky/techy language here, but keep in mind, I had to learn all these technologies to keep geteach.com going.

(image above: Current, but odds are not the last, version of geteach.com)

In January 2016, the latest version of geteach.com came online and where today’s story will end. While the mission of geteach.com has always been the same, a “Free site dedicated to help teachers educate and engage students using Google Geo Services,” the rewards are not measurable. I have seen my students benefit from using all the geo-spatial technologies developed over the past decade, I have had countless complements from other teachers using the website, but most of all, I have grown as an educator in my content, pedagogy, and technical knowledge. All because of a project that got away from me.

Here We Go!


Thanks for making it this far. Who knows… this might be my first and last post, so I will attempt to make it adequate.

I have oscillating views about doing a blog. On one hand, I feel that after ten years of teaching using Google Geo tools and some success building the website geteach.com I have something to give to an online community. On the other hand, I feel that my thoughts and ideas will be uniquely unoriginal. At the very least, I feel I can echo the incomplete ideas that run across my reality and social feeds; maybe even add some value to the conversation. This blog itself will focus on integrating teaching and geo spatial technologies (with a focus on Google Geo tools) into public education classrooms.

My educational background is not out of the ordinary for a high school teacher. I have a B.S. in Geography and a Masters of Education. My greatest professional accomplishments include teaching at one of the best high schools in Texas, a Geographic Excellence in Media award from the National Council for Geographic Education, a member of the Google Geo Teachers Advisory Board, along with creating geteach.com. I am a self-taught coder who loves Google Earth, Google Maps API, HTML, and GIS. This passion has given me the opportunity to present on how students can use Google Geo tools in the classroom at several Google Geo Teachers Institutes along at other events.

While I have a few ideas about future posts, if there is something you are interested in please connect via social media (icons at the top and bottom). You will also find me most Tuesday nights chatting on the twitter #worldgeochat. I hope to write about once a week, but during the school year that might be a stretch. That stated, the next post will be about geteach.com and how a high school teacher with little coding experience created this little site to help teach spatial thinking.

Sneak Peak of geteach.com:

Upcoming Presentations:
10/01/2016 – Innovate to Elevate: TCEA Area 13 Fall Conference
10/14/2016 – 2016 Texas Council for the Social Studies Conference
02/07/2017 – TCEA 2017 Convention & Exposition: The Power of You

Please note that the thoughts and ideas stated in this blog are my own and do not represent the thoughts and ideas of my employer.

Thanks for starting this journey with me,
Josh Williams