Organizing Information for Social Studies

the Roman empire

Do your students think that Ancient Egypt happened and then Ancient Greece happened and then Ancient Rome happened — and so on? We love teaching history and geography in units, but we don’t like the way students learn to think of civilizations and time periods as completely distinct from one another. We like to encourage perspective.

The question is: how?

What you need is a central organizing principle. Michael Jones, one of the inventors of Google Earth, told us that place is the best central organizing principle for information, because everything happens somewhere. Add data to maps, and it will end up organized no matter how you teach it. We feel the same way about time, which is why we think every classroom should have a timeline. As you study, you add to the class timeline, and you end up with a clear view of history.

Better yet, use both time and space. We saw this series of maps on a wall near the Colosseum when we went to Rome with Google Earth. It shows Rome at different time depths as it grows from a tiny village to a great empire.

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You can do this in your classroom in several ways.

Timeline plus map

Create a classroom timeline with Trend’s timeline kit, a length of string with index cards pinned to it, Timeglider, or your own favorite method. Just be sure to leave plenty of space if you use physical rather than virtual space. Add a world map and color-code your timeline additions to show the region in which each event took place.

We like to use cut outs to tag the events, too — people cutouts for important individuals, footprints for population movement, flags for political events, books for literature, music notes for music, and so on. This makes it easier to grasp information at a glance, and the timeline looks cool, too.

Map plus timelines

Choose a very large world map and add small timelines for each continent. This offers some mathematical challenges, as you determine how long your timeline can be, where best to place the timelines, and how to divide them. Let your students get involved with the calculations for some real-world math and critical thinking practice.

If you have a wall to devote to this, you can have a very effective information center which grows throughout the year as you add information to it.

Book with overlays

You know that extra bit of laminating film you always end up with? Press it into service as overlays. Put a topographical map as the bottom page, and add overlays showing what was going on at different time depths as borders changed and events too place.

This option is in many ways the most trouble, but it also creates a book for future reference.

Virtual historical map

You can create your own maps with Google Earth, adding pop-up information as you learn. If you create your timeline with Timeglider, you can add links to your maps. This option allows pretty much unlimited amounts of information and gives you a nice tech lesson. It may not be accessible enough for you, depending on your hardware options and teaching style, but it allows sharing of data among classes and creates references for the future. Click on the links in this paragraph to find step by step instructions for using these tools.

Whatever method you choose, be sure to work it into your lessons. When you learn about opera, take a moment to ask students where it should go on the timespace continuum. When you read a book, identify the place and time of the setting. Is it the birthday of some historical figure? Find his or her birthplace and year, and notice what was going on during his or her lifetime.

You’ll find that your students are much clearer on the general flow of history, and the interrelationships of different parts of the world.


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