Tag Archives: Social Science

A Time and a Place for Elsewhere: The Role of Context in the Social Science classroom

How do you help your students discover local and global contexts in History and Geography classes? Tell us by commenting below, or tweet to @learnquebec

In the Quebec education system the notion of the “elsewhere” society appears in several programs, and especially the social sciences: Students are encouraged to “compare here and elsewhere, past and present, thus making them aware of change and diversity.” However, for teachers making this happen is far easier said than done. It’s a question of time (class time, but also time periods) and of place (but sometimes we forget about location). But before we get to all that, let’s ask if and why it might be interesting and useful for students to learn about places and cultures other than their own.

Historical events presented “in context” can certainly help to explain things (causes, effects, reasons), but one could also add that most contextualization can be extended to a global scale: geographical and historical realities happen in the world, one area’s disasters affect another area’s success and growth, and vice versa. Always a compelling notion — that we are not alone in our suffering or success — but does that make learning interesting or fun? My own experience as a teacher of history tells me that, if anything else, “difference” is something that students do appreciate.  Learning about other areas of the world, completely new areas I mean, offers them a break from the mundane, the routine. And, importantly, it serves our educational goals, by giving students a fresh perspective on our own region, our culture, our story, which refines and deepens their understanding of what they are learning in class.

Recently I approached a certain teacher with these questions on my mind, after being intrigued with how he using was our Cartograf mapping tool in his history classes. Daniel Martin teaches the secondary cycle 1 ancient and world history course at Chambly Academy (RSB).  Granted, compared to other more Quebec-centered programs, this course already permits (and allows some time for!) an exploration of world histories, other societies that informed and contributed to our own (Greek democracy explaining our political system, the Christian reformation the roots of our religions, etc.). But as Daniel showed me, just learning about these few societies for comparative purposes isn’t enough. What was happening all around the world is also essential to fully understanding each era, each place:

[Below I paraphrase some thoughts Daniel and I shared, along with pics of his Cartograf maps.]

When you don’t show students what else was going on in a given time period, they begin to believe nothing else was happening at all at that time. If you teach only certain “important” civilizations, students get the impression that no other civilizations existed at the same time. This gives them a skewed and incomplete representation of the era, of the time period. Other cultures must have existed in other time periods, they say.

Secondly, in terms of location, students not only misunderstand distances and placement in a global scale, but they also don’t realize there were different peoples and cultures “in between” the two or three societies they study. They conceive of the world as a mostly empty and disconnected patchwork of selected societies, which it never was and never will be.

2000 BCE. Urban kingdoms, farmers, hunter gatherers and nomads

And finally, when neglecting to consider other cultures in distant places, students easily loose sight of the varied evolutionary paths that different societies follow. They get the false impression that everyone changed at the same time and same rate. When instead you show them certain evolutionary steps (sedentarization, for example) on a more comprehensive world map, they quickly see that during any given period some societies were still nomads while others were living in cities while others were trading across the seas.

Not just classical Greece in 500 BC. Other cultures worldwide

In 500 BC, while the Greeks were developing city-states, the first democracies and various other aspects of what became our culture, throughout the world other peoples were changing too. Democracy happened, philosophy happened, all at a time when Greeks were in contact with a wide range of cultures in different stages of evolution, but also when they were completely unaware of other cultures. Change and culture happened everywhere, just differently and at different rates. And that should remind us how some aspects of our culture arrived via completely different routes too:  think about aboriginal influences on New France, about Eastern influence now through immigration, about a growing African influence in an inevitable global future.

A complacent and superficial acceptance of traditional terms and approaches to history is sometimes the cause: The Middle Ages were called “middle” by 19th century scholars who saw it as a culturally empty time between two periods of enlightenment. But were these so called Dark Ages dark for our whole world? During this same period Islamic cultures were living their golden ages, expanding on the sciences and logic of the Greeks, eventually passing it all back to Europe via translations of their texts that sparked our own Renaissance! And what is more, even during that same time period of so-called darkness Europeans themselves continued trading to the east, and cities developed at home and along those routes.  But again, don’t imagine easy paths through empty lands all the way to China. Across those same years the Mongol Empire expanded to cover most of that known world!

Routes around Europe and to Asia. Mongolian Empire covering half the ( known) world!

This exchange of thoughts with Daniel helped me reflect on my own teaching and curriculum design at LEARN, which has always been highly suspicious of the language in the provincial programs, of all programs really. I remember how I questioned the way Native peoples were all said to share the same spiritual outlook, all said to share the same relationship to the land. While certain commonalities were obvious, I admit, I couldn’t help but think that the program de-valued the many distinct societies that existed at the time.  And so I helped students to discover those unique cultures and experiences through research, and as such to fill in the timeline, to fill in the map.

And finally, the exchange also helped me to reflect on how we view our world of the present day, on how easy it can be to compartmentalize according to what makes the news, or according to what language or culture is more familiar or reachable. We don’t consider the details about what or who is actually there, we don’t investigate what is beyond or between the disaster zones and the clashes of belief, will and power. But I do now, I can’t help it, when I see a map of the world I see it differently. Immediately I ask questions about what is not highlighted, about what is not shown, about what is elsewhere. I zoom right in, and what I find there becomes uniquely my own discovery.  The process itself is fun and revealing. And I can’t help assume that it would be the same for students too. What are your thoughts?

Geolocalize it: The global context of everything

The idea for this blog post came to me after I presented a short webinar on the mapping and drawing application Cartograf last week (Archive available here).   Previously I had published a post about Cartograf’s incredible power for subjects like History and Geography.  (Cartograf info and tutorials here!)  But interestingly my web event attracted educators from a variety of different subject areas.  I thought, why such broad interest in a mapping application?  What relevance did it have for them?  I wanted to find out more, so I gathered together a few friends from different domains to brainstorm some potential uses for Cartograf (and for geographic skills in general) in subjects other than secondary Geography and History.  

Over a few days I interviewed or corresponded with:

  • Annie-Claude Valois, Consultant for F.L.S (French) from RSB
  • Sylwia Bielec, Consultant for the Arts from LEARN
  • Anne-Marie Desilva, Consultant for ERC (Ethic and Religious Education) from EMSB
  • Susan Van Gelder , Consultant for ELA (English) at LEARN
  • Craig Bullet, RECIT and SS (Social Sciences) consultant for the ESSB

Below are not exact quotes from our exchanges, but rather short paraphrases of some of the suggestions they made.


Location, location, location


Paul:   Is location important for your subject area?  Why should students in your subject know where things are taking place, where things are made, created, written, imagined?   In Cartograf you can mark precise points on the globe, and within that “marker” you can provide or they can interpret information in the form of texts, images, even videos.  But why should students care about the where?

Annie-Claude (FLS):   In French it is very important for students to learn about Francophone culture, from here but also from around the world.  Students often read stories that take place elsewhere, or do a formal report on a topic external to Canada, like war, or poverty. Cartograf and the use of Google Satellite view could help students actually see where things happened or where they are happening now.

Craig (SS):  In elementary cycle 1 students learn to construct and represent their space, by mapping simple things like their neighbourhood, key buildings, etc.   Cartograf markers could be used to identify these places even at young ages.  Images in the markers could help teachers convey information.   In their History courses students could tag specific locations too.  For the explorers to New France students could mark where they came from and also where they landed and later settled.

Sylwia (Arts):  If you believe art history is important and are a teacher that likes to provide historical contexts for art, then location is important.  Consider a group like the Impressionists and how learning about where and when they painted will provide a context for what and how they painted.   Location can also be seen an impetus to create.  For example, geographically-based conflicts or events have often inspired artists to create works based on their reaction or interpretation of the situation.  Showing students the location of the conflicts, with specific examples using the marker tools in Cartograf, could inspire them to respond to those conflicts or events themselves. They could also mirror the process and seek out local issues that are important to them and use those as an impetus for creation.

Anne-Marie (ERC):  Location is essential to understanding religions and religious culture.  In the elementary program students need to know how to locate religions in their society and also around the world.  For example they need to understand which countries are predominantly Muslim, Christian, and so on.  They also need to understand information about those countries, like whether state and religion are separate entities.  Students learn also about the founders of religions, so marker points in Cartograf could include information about those individuals, where they were born, how they lived, as well as where and how they founded a religion.  Similarly, students learn about famous religious places.  Cathedrals, mosques, temples of course,  but also sacred regions like Jerusalem.  An explanation of why a site is important to a particular religion could be added to a marker, an image or even a Streetview panorama could provide more information about that site today.

Susan (ELA):  One might forget that in English we often read books from authors outside of Canada.  When reading literature from other countries, students could locate specific scenes on a map, and include images and texts to help them flesh out an understanding of the area.  Similarly, when learning about the authors themselves, students could mark locations for them too.  Have the authors travelled? Has this influenced their writing?  Learn about where they live and how this might relate to their stories.  As a class, using the share codes in Cartograf, we could even build up a common map of the authors we’ve read.


Leaving a trace

New York Simple Map

Paul:   Could tracing routes or delineating territory be useful?  In Cartograf you can draw simple maps, lines and shapes that delineate borders, land use, relationships between territories?  Could these type of cartographic skills come into play in a learning scenario in your subject area?

Annie-Claude (FLS):  Some stories are complex geographically, like one about a Quebecois child, whose parents are of Haitian descent, whereas his grandparents were African slaves.  Using Cartograf we could mark the origins of the family and trace their voyage, their immigrant experience, from one place to another.

Sylwia (Arts):  To understand art sometimes we need to understand schools of art, as they existed in a geographic area.  Think about the Bauhaus movement and the particular German cities in which it developed, the regions in which it took place.   Or think of Rome and the religious art that developed around and along lines marked by the spread of Catholicism.   Students could learn about these types of art and influence through simple maps, or they could trace equivalent patterns of influence today on maps of their own?   These sort of activities could help springboard them towards finding their own “religion equivalent” if you will, their own artistic movement to follow.

image005Anne-Marie (ERC):   At the secondary level students could enhance their understanding of religions by plotting the routes of famous pilgrimages!  Cartograf’s ability to include information in shapes means the route could be explained at each stage.   Another common activity asks students to trace religions down through time, to show how they from one place to another.  Again, information added to each line and shape could note why people moved, how and why beliefs spread and transformed.  Think of the silk roads, think of historical contexts like the Crusades or the spread and retreats of Islam.   And even for the Ethics competencies I think simple maps could be used, to help delineate differences between one country to the next, as concerns children’s rights for example, or perhaps the legality of homosexuals.   Even ethical issues stemming from certain events, like the movement and acceptance of refugees, could also be better explored by tracing maps of their routes and of their origins.

Susan (ELA):  Often the storyline of a book takes us to a variety of places.  Using Cartograf students could trace the routes that different characters take.  Call it a Cartograf lit trip!  Think about books like Underground to Canada, Walk Two Moons, or the Grapes of Wrath.  Sometimes the routes taken are almost as important as the development of character or plot.  Keep in mind too that knowing how to read maps, images, any sort of media or graphic representation, all that could be considered part of ELA too.  “Texts” are much more than just words.


Does an image paint a thousand words?

Sketch on street view

Paul:    Cartograf also contains powerful ways to use and analyze images.   Photographs can be localized and explained inside a marker point (i.e.  “attached” and thus geolocalized to a specific location, a city, a street corner, a cliff side, a mountain top, anywhere on the globe.)  You can also access Google Street panoramas, and insert actual street-level imagery and point of views for consideration, maybe for comparison.  And what is more, you can even sketch on top of images, labeling, tracing shapes, adjusting transparency, using advance drawing tools right in the application.  Could you use images in any of these ways?  What type of learning activities could students do using Cartograf’s image analysis tools?

Annie-Claude (FLS):    We often use images during activities where we pose questions to students.  Sometimes students also use images in order to make predictions.   Images inside localized points on maps could inspire other questions about location and the environment as well.

Sylwia (Arts):  Google Streetview in Cartograf could be used to find and display works of art that are relatively permanent, like a graffiti by someone like Banksy for example!   Or a series of graffiti examples could demonstrate a general street art movement.   Murals on buildings in certain cities, in certain countries, could also be tagged and explained, in terms of location, but also in terms of culture, or local social issues.  In Competency 3 students appreciate an image, and must talk about it in terms of things like artistic techniques.  Certainly the drawing tools could be used to help identify techniques in images they attach to points, the play of light and shadow, pointillism, etc.  As an actual creation tool I am not sure though.  When it comes to using technology, multimedia art teachers are more likely to introduce their students to more specialized drawing or photo editing software, like Photoshop.

Anne-Marie (ERC):  Religious places could be compared by using Cartograf’s image editor, to combine and compare images, like now-and-then image pairs, or uploaded photographs juxtaposed or overlapped with streetview images.  Religious art could also be labelled and thus explored, in terms of location yes, but also as concerns their meaning or significance.  For example, for Michelangelo’s David, you could include it in a point where it was created, then place it again where it stands now, and then make an analysis of the statue using text and drawing tools as well.   Of course there is also religious architecture, its identifying features and making an analysis of individual differences as it appears in different locations.  And finally, at specific sites, or as part of specific cultures, students often identify and analyze religious expressions, like an object, or the way someone prays to express their faith.  Using a tool that also helps localize the religious expression can only help to explain them, to show differences and to show contexts.  For example, an object in a Montreal mosque might be compared to one in a Saudi mosque using two images in marker points at their respective locations.


But why bother learning geographically?  What is the “place value”!?

Paul:  Okay, I always understood that our world is… “a complex battleground of physical and human interactions. [And that]  Local is no longer local, but a collision point for the interaction of many ‘locals’ drawn from a global stage.”  (Tony Cassidy)   But after these few conversations and brainstorming sessions (thanks folks!) I also discovered that what we learn, in pretty much every subject area we learn, is only about our little corner of the world insomuch as it relates  to everyone else’s.  Everything has relative place value.

image009That being said, the question I still asked myself at the end the day was why?   Or for me specifically, why should my son, who is about to graduate high school, care about where things are?   I found some of my answers in how these short reflections show that geography, and the maps we live by, help us understand who we are and what we know, in pretty much every way we learn.   But then I also stumbled on an excellent little video I thought I’d share to end this post, by (who else other than) National Geographic, called “Why is Geo-literacy Important?”    Geo-literacy, it said, is basically about sufficiently informing the decisions we make (where sufficiently now also implies globally) so that we can better take action, and so our decisions are healthy, balanced and real in the global context in which we live.   Pardon me?  What?  Where was all that said again?  Well, in this case, right about here!


Information on Cartograf:

CartoGraf is an interactive web-based mapping application to enhance learning in geography and history classes in schools and colleges. It is free and Open Source and produced by following partners:

Conceived and developed by RECITUS,  in partnership with LEARN and Parks Canada
En français @ http://www.recitus.qc.ca/ et http://cartograf.recitus.qc.ca
In English @  http://learnquebec.ca  and http://cartograf.learnquebec.ca
More information here @ our Cartograf info page >> 

iPadding… upstream! How do you manage it?

Ambitious, or is this boat just overloaded?  Recently I dared to venture away from my consultant’s desk and enter the classroom again, to help a teacher, my good friend Mr. Matt Russell, with an ambitious project on immigration experiences for his Secondary 4 History course.

IMG_5713Our project, our idea,  to boldly explore immigration experiences throughout Canadian History.  The process, a historical method of course, where we start with a question: “Was it worth it, their Canadian dream?”.  Then we had them hypothesize, research, organize information and interpret it.  For one of the final tasks we had students script and produce a green-screened video project, an interview with an imaginary immigrant while key images of the times were projected as backgrounds to the texts of their journeys. And all that, pretty much each step, was accomplished on iPads. (The whole LES, how we did it, and loads and loads of materials are all posted here!)

Our process, our successes and our failures were all part of a workshop at the Tablet Summit in October. We learned a lot, and worked a lot to make it happen. But in the end, one remark Matt made afterwards continued to scratch at my brain, until it finally bore its way out and into this blog entry. He said, “You know, I couldn’t have done all this alone without your help.” Now, most of the time one would take that as a compliment, but in this case I think both of us saw it as a criticism, or at least a caution, about our whole project, about the use of iPads or any technology in the classroom at all. The problem was just that: it was a ton of work! But does it have to be?, was my inner response –  And how can it not be? was my question.

Hot on the heels of these reflections, I asked four questions to several teachers in a survey I sent out just last week. About 20 teachers graciously responded, and I thought sharing some of their responses would be a good way to see what is possible, to see what can be done in a manageable way.

Who sets up and configures your iPads for you? Is this something a teachers normally do alone?  Many respondents referred to help from the board, and technicians, but not all. About half mentioned groups of teachers who collaborate on finding and installing applications for use in all classes considered. About a third of teachers mentioned they only use about five or six iPads, and they were willing to do it for their class at home, one teacher with the help of her 12 year old daughter!  Teamwork seemed essential, good technical contacts yes, but also a willingness to put time into the configuration process on your own. But teachers weren’t complaining at all.  The tone:  it was just par for the course.

But how are the students with technology? How much technical instruction (modelling, guides, etc.) is required? Can students figure out things on their own? I asked this question because creating tutorials, instructions, and taking part of the class to model how to use the application’s features took a lot of time and was not always as successful as we hoped.  Several students just got it.  Maybe if we just stayed out of the way? Indeed, most of the teachers I surveyed indicated students learned the applications very quickly, with only minimal guidance.  8448122632_6461070b83_c“The kids are really quite good. Often we need to just show them a little and they figure it out or say I know how to do this!”  “They are really good at figuring it out on their own as well and pretty fast.”  Like us, several teachers had a way to project their iPad onto the screen, so they could model a the task, but not necessarily in great detail.  “Very easily. I can model once and they are off and running.”  Actually only one teacher mentioned producing instruction sheets, and that was more about the pedagogical task than the tool, while another teacher emphasized time spent time on safe use.

What about getting students to do things at home? Can some of the work with iPads be offloaded to students? (Full disclosure on this question, I asked this because I personally believe it was our error to try to do it all in class time.) Well, most teachers that responded said they didn’t expect or want students to do work at home. Many said it was because they didn’t have either the iPads or Internet there, or couldn’t be expected to. In part, I think this was because most were elementary teachers, and also that the school doesn’t let students bring home the devices. And also, I think the question might have been misinterpreted too.
7950148048_f0b78b3ce7_cI was trying to find out whether some parts of the process (research, writing, even filming or recording using a cellphone for some of the media work) could be done by students on their own. After looking over my responses I talked a bit with Julie Paré whose excellent article iPad en classe de FLS: mission possible! had inspired me to respond with this entry.  Though she didn’t actually have her students do many tasks at home for that particular iPad project, for another recent project she did require them to research and learn about a multimedia presentation tool (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc.) on their own, and on their own to put together a presentation at home.  Secondary level for sure, but still, they weren’t privileged well-off students by any means, and it at least speaks to the fact that 1) students are capable of learning technology by searching for tutorials and instruction, and 2) there is enough internet and technology outside the classroom for students to be expected to use it on their own time. (Yes, that might mean going to a library, something that “in my day” I had to often do in high school for research projects. What happened that kids who are on computer all the time at night aren’t regularly expected to use them for school?)

But how can you manage it all? My last questions were to ask iPadding teachers to “share ways to manage the distribution of iPads, their shared use in class, the way students backup or send work.” None of the questions were mandatory, but no one missed this one. They all had interesting gems of advice.

“In pairs” and “they share use in class.” It sounds obvious, but for us too it was key that only two students use an iPad. Three meant one person was always apart and distracted, two meant one could work the iPad while the other took notes or read instructions or other texts.

“We’re not authorized to print… but by using print screen every work can be a jpg we can put in the portfolio. Another said “teachers email the work to themselves for printing… screen shot then email it”. Though one teacher indicated saving of files right on the iPad, most expressed our reality well: that we had no time to go and plug in iPads to get their projects off them for backup or evaluation. The LES package we created describes how we got (perhaps too) creative. We used iCloud for sharing links and uploading photos and screenshots, Dropbox for syncing the research and film work, Mail for sending a copy (blocked! never mind), we saved copies to iTunes, and to get work back to students the next day we used folders on Google Drive.  For the few stragglers we got at the end of each class we used Disk Aid to manually copy out their work.  It was work for us setting it up, yes, but it meant we didn’t loose their assignments… much.  Couldn’t any of that, couldn’t all that have been the responsibility of the students?  Wouldn’t lightening the boat by distributing the load have benefited all?  Well, of course, at certain grade levels, yes.  Because that is exactly what they’ll need to learn how to do anyway, as a class to use the school’s networks, but also on their own, with their own devices or their own cloud-based accounts.

But finally, what are your tricks…. for using, handing out and retrieving the iPads themselves. “It depends on the subject…the teacher decides when to take them out.” Obviously, using iPads doesn’t have to mean using them for everything! “Keep a list and work my way through class.” A brave adventurer, rapids ahead!  “iPads are used in one specific physical location in the class.” The waters are calmer there.  And  “they have numbers…I call them up one by one to the cart and they are to keep ipads face down at their desks until instructions are complete. They are asked to bring them back the same way…if they do not comply the ipad is removed for the class.”  Splash!  That’ll wake you up to reality.  Let’s face it, these devices are….easily lost, easily taken, easily broken devices worth a lot of dollars.

For our LES process Matt and I adapted a few tools passed on, again, from Ms. Paré!, including sign out sheets, parent’s letters and permission slips, also available as part of our package. And, for sure,  after a few days we also started to develop a routine. But one thing was for sure, until you get this routine down pat, nothing is routine about it. The devices were new to us, even to hold and carry them in a pile was new.  And they were new to the students too, every class a new configuration of apps because they weren’t on the same devices each day, sharing meant you couldn’t touch one for a week, etc.  Still, all that being said, I expect that for classes who do use them regularly, and in which rules and routines are well set out and clear, management of devices like these are possible, even once the time finally comes when students start using their own devices and not just the school’s. It is all a question of organization and expectations and consequences.  It all about how you manage the ebb and flow of what’s ahead.

As to the teachers who responded, I would like to thank them all for sharing their thoughts and ideas, and welcome them, and others, to comment on anything said in this article.  If anything, I have noticed that teachers who are able to and who dare to take the plunge and start using mobile devices in their classes, well, these are also teachers who appreciate the sharing of experiences and strategies with other teachers.

So what do you think? Can mobile technology’ like iPads’ be done, up river?  Can some of the work to implement technology be offloaded to students? Can even the next generation of students, who will be bringing their own devices into the classroom be managed, so that the subjects we teach can get taught? Please, add your thoughts to the comments below!

Photo credits:
Matt Russell for Greenscreen Mystery Guy!
Flickr user flickingerbrad for all classroom photos





3 a.m. blogging, and why social sciences (/school) should be social, and public!

Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff
Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff

First I will partially explain the title, as NOT being because my new baby boy woke me up earlier at 2 a.m.  It’s about what kept ringing in my head afterwards, and the fact that it continued to ring at all. In part it was because I knew I was going to be writing this blog entry for others, for public consumption.  That’s what made it important enough to keep me awake, to drag me out of bed, again, to seek out tea and cookies and finally a keyboard. And likewise, it certainly was not because I was being marked on it, or because my job depended on it.  It was instead because I had an idea I thought was worth sharing. And also, it was because something of me was about to end up “shared” on the web, and I wanted that something to be made up of my ideas, or at least in this case my slant on a lot of other people’s ideas.  I wanted to represent myself.

These two profound ideas resurfaced for me recently during a highly inspiring workshop I attended by Tanya Avrith, a Digital Citizenship Teacher for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and a pioneer of their Digital Citizenship Program. On the one hand, she helped me reflect on why my other (teenage) son’s school assignments always ended up in the garbage. They were for marks, nothing more.  And as to the other idea, she alerted me to something very important that I hadn’t ever considered, to the fact that my older son already had an extensive digital/internet footprint, mostly made up things he wouldn’t be proud of, and more often than not of things others wrote about him, pictures he didn’t take, etc.  Not an ideal situation for someone searching for schools and jobs, whose college registrars and future employers would be Googling my older son’s unfortunately uncommon name.

For a Better Online Reputation, from LifeHacker
Better Online Reputation @ LifeHacker

The question is, why does this happen to him and so many others, this accumulation of embarrassing memories? It’s not for lack of information, not because he hadn’t been warned about the risks and told about the complexities of  life online. It was because, and I agreed with Tanya on this, that no knowledgeable adults regularly followed him there, to guide him and set examples.  And also… it was because none of his good work, his school work let’s say, followed him there either, to offset all the questionable traces left by others.

Already 5 a.m. and my work day about to begin, so that brings me back to thinking about my main dossier at LEARN, and if and how ideas like this might apply to the Social Sciences (History, Geography, Economics, Ethics in some programs, etc.). These subjects are “academic disciplines concerned with society and human nature” and as such they do serve to engage past and present events and issues, but usually from within the school walls. Obviously you can see from what I presented above I don’t think avoiding the internet during student activities is fair to our students on a personal and on a career-related level, but more than that, I think it is especially ineffective and inappropriate in the Social Sciences.

The Social Sciences Perspective

Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC
Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC

Let’s start with what I mean by ineffective. In the social science competencies we examine, establish and balance the facts, we interpret realities then we learn ways to voice our opinions. For me these basic skills read like a list of things one cannot do effectively, not in this day and age, by avoiding the digital, social and public space that is the Internet.

Examining what? Balancing exactly what facts? When it comes to subjects like history and geography, are we really talking about facts in textbooks alone? Are we meant to avoid current sources and interpretations, meant to ignore the news and the myriad opinions of the non-experts, the young and the old, and the stories from those who “were actually there”?  Sure, the number of sources in our digital world is vast, and many are even unreliable, but is that a reason to filter them out or avoid them altogether? Shouldn’t we be teaching students how to sift through them, how to use search engines effectively, how to compare online sources?

Interpreting, but how?  Voicing our opinions, but how, where, and for whom?  When we talk of creating good citizens, do we really mean to create citizens who avoid interpreting events, past and present, based on current representations of those events? Do we want to form students who can only write their opinions in a laboratory, for their teacher’s eyes only? In the real world, modern historians … Okay, I will get to that one a bit later, for now let’s say…people. In the real world people balance and reflect on all kinds of sources. They might read the Gazette, catch a clip from CNN, then watch a feature documentary on CBC. They might actually look it up in a library. In Quebec even Anglophones check out La Presse occasionally, or watch half of  Tout le monde en parle on Sunday nights.

From flickr user cliff1066™
Fleeing Kosovo. Flickr user cliff1066™

The world has opened up, and mobile devices help.  BBC and Al Jazeera now offer great English-language news services on devices like the iPad, and following a link from any of the above sources can now lead you to unexpected places, to bloggers and tweeters on the ground in Israel, Africa, China or Iran, to powerful and personal images shared via Flickr that scatter a thousand words worth of information across your screen in an instant.

Okay, not all people balance and reflect. In the real world, people also read short articles recommended by friends on Facebook. Are those documents the best sources of information too? Maybe, and maybe not. But either way this is one way people, probably even academics, get information, by sifting through even these social sources, through all sources.

So, given all that, then where do people, or let us now say citizens, effectively voice opinions?  Perhaps not on Facebook, which doesn’t lend itself to “reasoning historically” and doesn’t encourage one to really develop an articulate argument. But maybe, maybe even on Facebook, and that possibility is key here to what I am trying to say. What guides educators should be this:  any forum that allows and inspires students to articulate their opinion, and encourages and allows them to examine, establish facts, compare, accept and understand difference, any forum that does that is good.

For whom?

Okay, now it is a few days later and I am in the café across from my local, public library, and I am thinking about a conference I went to mid-April, which had also been what had inspired me to stay up all hours blogging this all down. To write, for whom?  That was the question.  For you, of course, is the answer! But also and in general terms for the larger public domain, to scratch out thoughts that inevitably become a small part of a larger history, that might take part in a dialogue, or that might completely disappear (but that’s okay, really) like the slow fire of so many old books printed on acid paper. Now, I am indeed talking about a kind of historian, and the conference that inspired me was the National Council on Publish History’s annual meeting in Ottawa, and in particular a workshop series I attended entitled “Connecting Communities: Social Media and Public History Practice.”

What is public history? Okay, I am going to swipe this one from the NCPH site directly:

“Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. […] Public historians come in all shapes and sizes. They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many, many other job descriptions. All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.”

Relevant, useful, local.  Archivists, curators, and jobs!  I really like those words.  In my eyes, this conference was about social science students (albeit life-long students) actively being citizens by “doing” history, and actually making a difference in the real world.

Here are a few quick examples I caught at the conference:  University students develop content for a mobile application that maps the history of Cleveland, process repeats for Spokane and other cities, regular users of the application can submit their stories and history becomes on-going and active. Facebook is used to disseminate unidentified photos of a ghost-mining town, so as to identify the places, people and experiences in them.  Twitter is used to present the diary entries of an individual farmer and soldier during the War of 1812, in daily entries that coincide with the same dates in 2012, in order to better represent the timing and sequence of events that occur in actual economies of war today.  Tumblr is used to reflect on historical ideas themselves, and on how social media techniques and popular culture are used to disseminate information in public life.


Public life=my students’ social world,  the community, their small tribe as connected to other small tribes, along paths I absolutely need to dare to cross.

And that’s it.  These are some of the many reasons why in the middle of the night I woke up thinking that school really should be more social, and that social sciences (and maybe all subjects) should be more public, and why now, finishing up this blog entry over a cold coffee across from the library, I might just walk across the street to see what that cryptic exhibit poster in the window really means to me, and what treasures I might find there to take home and read, contemplate, pass on.



Cartograf: Taking time for power mapping

When your day is long, and you are intellectually spread thin, nothing refreshes like a quick afternoon map.  I don’t know about you, but even when I can’t focus on anything else, maps are easy to fall into and get lost.  They are places where I can dream, in both space and time, of the captivating worlds that we study in school.  I can wander through maps, like a nomad wandering through a desert, and I can find myself face to face with wonders.  And what is great about maps is that in no time at all the scope and perspective of the past and present can be visualized clearly and with great complexity.  You could call this power mapping. But the best power mapping process requires a tool equivalent to the task.   We are calling that new application Cartograf, and we are inviting you to visit its first installation online at http://cartograf.learnquebec.ca/  and take the time out to try it and start thinking about how you could make it part of your daily routine.

Cartograf Homepage

Cartograf in a Nutshell

Instigated, designed and developed by teachers and counselors at the RECIT en univers social (RECITUS), together with LEARN team members like myself and several other partner organizations, the Cartograf application originally responded to student skills contained in the Geography and History programs in the QEP (Quebec Education Program).   In familiar terms that could apply to other subjects too, these programs require students to:

  • Examine phenomena from various perspectives (think different aerial views, zooming in to street level, examining relevant photographs!).
  • Situate those phenomena in space and time (think of pinning “markers” on the globe!).
  • Gather and organize facts, which they must also interpret (think coloured maps, legends, shapes, labels and descriptions).
  • Compare the information gathered to other facts, which is then shared with other students, and becomes the centre of debate, opinions and conclusions (think now of more than one map, viewed simultaneously or in alternation).

Though each competency or skill is relatively evident and simple to accomplish, when taken all together, the process social scientists follow is one that is complex.   Until now, what was lacking was a tool that allowed for that complexity to be played out with students.

Why Cartograf?

So why not just use existing tools like Google Earth, Google Maps and alternatives like OpenStreetMaps? In this case, less is more. Cartograf basically  uses all three technologies at once, allowing students to toggle from one view to another without changing tools – making the tool more practical for classroom use.  Cartograf also bypasses thorny security issues because student access and private information is managed by RECITUS or LEARN.

Students who are developing competency through an examination of phenomena do more than just read and draw on maps.  They interpret territory and societies in Geography and History. In other subjects, similar processes help them deconstruct cultural representations, artwork, texts and other documents.  With these student processes in mind, a second challenge emerged for the designers of the Cartograf application:  to be able to include texts, images and documents within the mapping space, and to have at one’s finger tips the tools (such as more complex sketching tools, custom legends, and customizable iconography) needed to more completely interpret our world.

Marker InfoA Student Scenario

Imagine a scenario like this in your class:  A student uses one of Cartgraf’s mapping tools to zoom in to a historically important neighbourhood in England, and she places a pin or “marker” at that location.  Within that marker she makes initial observations using a built-in word processor; she can even link to a video on Youtube.

Tracing regions
Using simple drawing tools, she delineates other areas of her map, uses icons to label points of significance, inserts shapes and lines to explain worlds both past and present.


Image in MarkerPerhaps our student would like to do more for certain key points. She uploads representative images collected elsewhere on the internet (such as photos, relevant artwork, or scans of primary source documents).  And then, to further examine a monument, an old quarter or port as it exists today, she uses the built-in Google Street View feature to capture that moment in a marker, and she includes it it as part of her project.

SVG Editer for sketchesLet’s say that our student wants to interpret her documents even further.  Imagine the sort of programs she would need to sketch her ideas right on the images she has collected – Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.  Without leaving the Cartograf application, and without installing any other software, she can click a button to reveal a complete drawing suite called SVG Edit.  This allows her to trace ideas over the uploaded documents.  These edited sketches are retained within the location markers, thereby keeping her work in the context of her map and assignment.

Now imagine she is not alone and she wants to work collaboratively with others!  When students use Google Map services they are able to share maps by sending them through email.   But what they can’t easily do is work together on maps with other students.   Similarly, the teacher task of marking different mapping assignments can be daunting, requiring the same sort of mailing of links or access to individual maps one at a time.  Cartograf is an application for teachers and students that eliminates the hassle involved in sharing and working simultaneously on the same projects.

Share code panelFor example, now two students are working on mapping historical sites in England.  They might start out on their own, then move to using the sharing feature in Cartograf.  The sharing feature allows them to see (but not edit) each other’s work, toggle their partner’s points off and on, and view their combined document collections and sketches in progress.  Once all the students’ tasks are complete, they can then share their maps with their teacher. The teacher can also share starter maps and instructions to students.

Using a system of secret tags for sharing and security eliminates any need for a teacher administration section and therefore doesn’t burden the user with additional management interfaces to learn.

In short, Cartograf allows the teacher and students to learn using maps and images, to situate their learning on a worldwide stage, and to visualize their interpretation and opinions using only one tool.   It is a rare example of an online collaborative application that is easy to use and quick to manage, yet is powerful and limited only by the user’s imagination.

If you want to see how a mapping tool like Cartograf could be used in the context of a complete LES, consider the LES recently produced by RECITUS/LEARN  for Secondary Geography on the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park: A Protected Territory at  https://www.learnquebec.ca/geography#teach  Students can now use Cartograf in this LES to identify and describe Marine Parks around the world.  The other tools in Cartograf could help them sketch the territory and indicate players and factors involved.

Could your students use a little power mapping to get them through the day?   How might you use Cartograf in your subject area?  What could you do with images, maps, views and the ability to draw on documents in your class?  Consider commenting to this post and sharing your ideas!