Posted by: csdailyblog | September 3, 2012

Hands-on History: Map-Making Skills Circa 1800

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Late last week, Conserve School students learned to appreciate the cartographic skills of William Clark (of Lewis & Clark) as they attempted to draw their own maps of a few wooded acres of the Conserve School campus. I happened to run into the students as they straggled one by one out of the woods, clipboards in hand, at the end of class. Inquiring about their activity, I found that students were a bit sheepish about how unsophisticated their maps looked, despite the fact that they had explored the area and drafted and re-drafted their maps for over an hour and a half.

Historians say that Clark had an uncanny ability to transform the landscape into a two-dimensional representation, a skill that is easy to take for granted now that we’ve become so accustomed to having satellite images at our fingertips. You can read (or listen to) four different writers and historians briefly describe Clark’s remarkable cartographic skills here, on the PBS website. Students are currently reading Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose, whose comments are included on this page.

Unfortunately, hands-on activities like map-making are often considered too time-consuming and insufficiently rigorous for a college-preparatory high school history classroom. Consequently, history instruction at the high school level can be classroom-bound and textbook-heavy and, from the student perspective, dull.

At Conserve School, by contrast, we take it for granted that “interesting” and “intellectual” go hand in hand.

Our “History of Wilderness Exploration” course has been designed by Conserve School History Teacher Michael Salat to engage students’ hearts, minds, bodies, and imaginations in the pursuit of historical understanding by blending three components:
1) Leadership studies, which impress the students with the courage, creativity, and ingenuity of major historical figures;
2) Challenging, thought-provoking non-fiction articles and books, which, like Undaunted Courage, are written for an educated adult audience and have been best-sellers and award-winners.
3) Hands-on activities like map-making or trail-building (this week’s activity), which help students imagine themselves within the historical setting and develop empathy for people from different times, places, and cultures.

One of the most common comments we see on the surveys that students fill out at the end of their Conserve semester is, “I had no idea that studying history could be so interesting! Now I like history!”

~ Mary Anna Thornton, Assistant Head of School


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