Mapping the Columbian Exchange and Globalization – Mental Maps

Posted on 12.23.2014

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A few Mental Maps

A few Mental Maps

I’ve found myself using mental maps with students quite more than I have in the past – asking them to visually represent a topic or idea we are working on in class.  There are some great digital tools to do this, however I’ve found that in a school that isn’t 1:1, students do best with making a quick poster on butcher paper. For now (big ideas on using movable white-board walls down the road).  Mental Map activities can serve several purposes and the role they have depends on the topic you do it on. Our current unit on Entrepreneurship and Globalization really lends itself to using mental maps because we are constantly trying to understand the nature of this process.  (I hope to write about this unit a bit later. For now, you can check out the Understanding by Design Unit Plan for this unit here)

This activity asked students to map the Columbian Exchange with the hopes that we’d better understand the reasons, process and effects of this historical topic, and ultimately of globalization.  The process for this activity is as follows:

Before we started, I assigned HW for students to read about the Columbian Exchange – have them inventory the types of things exchanged – a simple list containing the item and it’s origin and destination and destination is fine.

A group revising their mental map from a rough draft made at home

A group revising their mental map from a rough draft made at home

The first day, students started out in newly formed Project Team groups (yet another blog post topic for the future) and quickly discussed their HW, compared their lists and shared out the good or service they think was most significant in the exchange.  This task acted as an icebreaker of sorts and also provided us with a nice review of how the exchange works.

Next, each team got the same handout: Columbian Exchange Handout – I made it a class set and posted it digitally.  I told the class that they had 2 class periods to complete the activity (it actually took longer because we had special programing that cut a period short).  Each group had to read through the handout, could ask me 3 clarifying questions, and then had to come up with a plan on how to complete it. We then shared out as a class.

This left a bit of time for students to work on step 1 & 2: creating the actual map and labeling the goods in different locations. Not a lot though, I didn’t want them to spend a ton of time on serious details of the maps (I’ll say more about this later in the post). At the end of the period I asked students to revise their plan and share what they would do in preparation for the following day. I gave one key requirement: Each group member had to work on the same thing – I didn’t want groups dividing tasks.  I find that my students need help and to practice working with each other on refining their craft – not necessarily on ‘getting it done’.

At the end of Day 1

At the end of Day 1

The first day went great, groups started labeling their maps based on the previous nights HW and realized they had to do additional research on step 2 and for step 3.

On Day 2 – their supposed final day, I was met with lots of anxiety about getting the map done in time and quickly told the students that I would probably give them half a period more to work on it if they were focused in class.  This settled them down and they got to work completing steps 2 and 3 and begun to do some research on step 4.  I provided them with a few resources on the internet and a few reference books.  While they worked, I spot checked their notes for a HW grade.

We had a shorter class period but students still were in a great position to annotate their maps and discuss an answer to step number 5 the following day. At the end of class students talked about their HW and most groups decided to bring in drafts of step 4 and 5 tomorrow – I told them they would have 15 minutes to finish their maps before we discussed them.  I used the same rule about giving a HW grade as before – each group member had to work on the same goal to bring back to the group the following day.

Day 1 of mental maps

Day 1 of mental maps

Last Day – I was very strict about giving students 15 minutes to work.  Each group put their map on the wall and we did a gallery walk.  As students examined the maps I gave them a simple prompt: what do you notice about the different maps?  What do you observe? (this is part of a larger activity I use to analyze historic events and sources: observe, reflect, analyze – yet another future blog post)

When students made their rounds I asked them to share out on the board: We listed our observations (lots of lines, most goods flowed from Europe to the Americas, etc.)  I asked the students what the observations meant: lines mean that there was lots of exchange taking place, Europeans dominated or controlled the exchange, people’s in americas didn’t have much say in how this worked, etc.  Finally, I asked students to analyze their reflections; to come up with a judgement on what their observations and reflections say about globalization and the columbian exchange.  This part of the discussion was really really incredible, some students took a moral relativist approach while others focused on the injustice of the process.

Debriefing from Gallery walk

Debriefing from Gallery walk

I had students then revise step 5 for HW and the following day we did a quick whip around reading and created a wordle to see if there were any larger take-aways to wrap things up.

Mental Maps rock.

This activity met a few larger goals I have in my practice:

  • Geography – I find that students are getting better at understanding and knowing scale, distance, location, climates geographical features and regions.  There were so many moments where students were revising their understandings of geography and engaging with it on a more personal level.  I used to try and find ‘the right’ blank map; now it’s not just my responsibility to make geographical decisions – we all get that opportunity.  Sure, students tried looking up maps after a while, and that was another great moment of discovery because they started grappling with an issue of how to represent space, distance, climate, etc.  Students had to make choices about which map to use and discussions about different tools they could use started to bubble up.  Ultimately, they get better at mapping what they find on the internet to what they think they have in their head.
  • Discussion – Every map is different and every map has truth in it.  So many different discussions came out of a simple question: ‘what do you notice?’
  • Collaborating in Project teams – There are times when you can use your team to jigsaw work – break up tasks and become experts; most groups do this when working on a project and that’s fine.  There are other times when groups should also work on the same task in the hopes of better crafting their product.  This is what this activity asked them todo.  To work together to make decisions on historical representation, research, and product design.
  • Formative and Summative – It had another unintended consequence of acting as a nice formative assessment for me.  I then took the opportunity to review the key concepts so everyone seemed to have a good understanding of the process.  I never graded the maps, I didn’t want students ONLY focusing on geography; instead, I learned a great deal about the content knowledge and understandings of my students through discussion, HW checks and a final journal I had them do later.
  • Part of a larger unit goal – I was very transparent with my students about why we are doing this: because they can use this example a bit later when writing their guides for entrepreneurs.  I told them that the skill of mental map creation will help them in future research on the globalization topic.  I was honest that this is just one example we could pick and as their teacher I thought they would benefit from knowing about, and understanding the colombian exchange.

I’ve used mental mapping 3 different times in this unit alone, sometimes my goals are a bit different than above but one thing stays the same – these maps always produce rich discussions that allow students to engage in further developing their historical reasoning skills.

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