Teaching geography by comparing a small town in Idaho (pop. 62) to the bustling, cosmopolitan cities of Barcelona and Madrid may at first seem a bit unusual. But in their spring geography unit, Grade 2 teachers Suzy Light and Elise Koretz, each of whom traveled to the respective destinations, took this innovative approach to create a dynamic social studies unit.
The three-week study began with a focus on the United States, with students labeling Massachusetts and other familiar states on a map. They then honed in on Idaho, to which Suzy traveled last summer.
“After doing some research and learning more about the richness of the area, I was excited to apply for (and receive) a faculty grant so that I could teach my class about this interesting area of the U.S.,” Suzy says. “Initially, my focus was on the rich storytelling of the native people and the history, but it's always curious how your focus can change when you arrive at an interesting, new place! I knew I wanted to come back to Brookwood and share the unique geography of Idaho with my second graders.”
Suzy shared a slideshow of her trip and students discussed attributes of Idaho such as mountains, rivers, naturally occurring hot springs, and population.
“My goal was to teach second grade about the deep canyons carved out by the Salmon River, the crystal clear (salmon-depleted) waters of Redfish Lake and the beauty of the Sawtooth Mountain Range,” Suzy explains. “These are all natural land features that are very different from coastal Massachusetts. The kids learned about the region through my photos, and they were equally excited to see the recreational opportunities I had while I was out there, such as white-water rafting and horseback riding.”
She continues, “In addition to mountain ranges and rivers, we discussed the differences between cities, states, countries and continents. We thought about how the culture of Stanley, Idaho (population 63), would be different than much larger cities like Salem and Lynn. As part of our cultural study, we also made comparisons between urban and rural environments.”
“After my presentation in class, second graders were asked to bring in a picture of a special place close to home. They are writing about man-made places, such as a local library or basketball court, as well as the natural beaches and marshes that are part of our landscape and special to us. We hope to share these to compare and contrast what we have with the Community School in Ketchum, Idaho, a school I visited during my trip,” she says.
The study then turned to Spain and Elise’s March trip to Barcelona and Madrid.
After locating Spain on a map and then the two cities, second graders discussed differences between continents, countries and cities. “We discussed features of urban environments, such as parks and buildings with 'green walls' – walls that plants grow off of such as on the side of the Caixa Forum building in Madrid,” says Elise. “We compared populations of these cities (1 million people in Barcelona, about 3 million in Madrid) and looked at buildings designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi. During our weekly Friday 'Tinker Time,' children drew their own Gaudi inspired buildings and then used cardboard to build them.”
Learning these lessons from teachers who had just visited the places made names on a map come alive for the students. Seeing photos, touching artifacts, and hearing firsthand about cultural experience made far away places much more real for the students and made them more deeply invested in the unit.
“If they didn't before, they now know that Madrid and Barcelona are cities in Spain, a country that is part of Europe. Stanley is a small town in the state of Idaho in the U.S. on the continent of North America. We also want them to see how life might be similar/different when you live by the coast (like us) vs. surrounded by mountains and rivers,” Elise says. Their global awareness expanded to include an understanding of continents, states, and cities, and an understanding of how life differs in large urban settings and small country towns.
“The students LOVED meeting as a whole grade and sharing in our photos together. Bringing our personal experiences into the classroom deepens our connections with one another,” explains Suzy. “In our makerspace 'Tinker Time' on Fridays, we are all Gaudi-inspired architects. After sharing my photos, one child came up to me afterwards and said, "Now I want to go to Idaho!"