Maps Teaching Ideas

Look at different kinds of maps in the matrix- battleground, pictographic, weather--to see how maps differ in what and how they represent information. What do they have in common? Val Ross says in the introduction to The Road to There that maps "are another way that we have of telling stories." What stories do these maps tell?

To determine the level of map skills in a class, teachers can introduce this game. Ask learners to locate the label on an article of clothing to discover the country in which it was made. Find the country on a world map.

If you and your students want to review map-reading skills to become familiar with the parts of a map (title, directional orientation, source, scale, grids-- usually longitude and latitude--, and the legend that includes symbols), there are several excellent web sites to help you:

For an opportunity to practice your skills, choose a map from one of the books in the matrix that does not have a scale or legend.
Here are some suggestions:

  • Far Beyond the Garden Gate by Don Brown (Tibet)
  • The Silk Route by John Major (Central Asia)
  • My Name Is York by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (Northwest U.S.)
  • Mansa Musa by Kephra Burns (Sahara)
  • Saladin by Diane Stanley (Middle East)

Locate a map of the same geographic area using an atlas or one of these web sites:

In order to determine the scale of the map, measure the distance between two points on each map. For example, in Brown's book above, measure the distance across Tibet on the illustration (12 inches) and on the atlas (8.25 inches). Look at the scale on the atlas and figure the distance across. Since 1 inch equals 100 miles in the atlas, the 8.25 inches across equals 825 miles. Using a ratio, compute the distance across Tibet in Brown's illustration. Therefore, 1:8.25::X:12 or 1.45 inches = 100 miles. Create a scale for your map. Pick a location on the map (like Llasa, Tibet) and find the latitude and longitude (30o N, 90o E). Exchange coordinates (but not the name of the place) with a partner who has another location. Find your partner's location using the latitude and longitude.

Historical maps can be a valuable resource when studying particular events. Use the books on this matrix for Western U.S. to trace the route and the adventures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Library of Congress site ( has maps on the Expedition as well as many on the Civil War, which could be used with the books on the Eureka matrix on Civil War and Slavery.

Pictographic maps use pictures in addition to the usual map features to provide information. Ask students to choose a pictographic map from the matrix or from the suggestions below:

  • The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, Cheryl Harness
  • City of Angels: In and Around Los Angeles, Julie Jaskol and Brian Lewis
  • Journeys in Time, Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley
  • Starry Messenger, Peter Sis

Discuss what "story" each map tells and what it reveals about the interests of the mapmaker. Then ask students to write the "story" of the map they chose.

Using Mapquest ( or ( find your home and neighborhood. Compare these with a street map of the community. Create a map of your neighborhood, either physical or pictographic, showing the important sites and intersections. Give your map a directional orientation, a scale, a legend, and grid (probably streets). For the truly adventurous mapmaker, use Wheatley and Rawlins My Place or Millard's A Street Through Time to show the neighborhood at two or three different time periods.

In addition to the familiar computerized maps with zoom capabilities like Mapquest at or the (where you can see satellite maps), there are others that provide ample information and searchable material:

Library of Congress:
Contains map collections from 1500-2004 under these categories: Cities and Town, Conservation and Environment, Cultural Landscapes, Discovery and Exploration, Military Battles and Campaigns, Transportation and Communication, and General Maps.

U.S Geological Survey:

University of Texas at Austin:

bullet Maps Matrix

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