Beyond “Did you know…”: Teaching Geo-Literacy Using the Vanishing Cultures Book Series

JillJill_Eisenberg Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

Vanishing Cultures: Mongolia

Vanishing Cultures: Mongolia

Last week on the blog we spotlighted the work of Jan Reynolds, an author and explorer who has written nonfiction for young readers about cultures across the globe. If we had read the Vanishing Cultures series when I was a classroom teacher, my students would have been competing with each other over who knew the most outrageous fact. Did you know the Tiwi, an aboriginal tribe from an island off the coast of Australia, eat mangrove worms fresh? Did you know the Inuit from the Hudson Bay build rock piles that are stacked to look like men in order to scare caribou toward the real Inuit hunters?

My students loved to play the “did you know…” game. That became a popular sentence starter in our classroom. Students would scramble for the latest book or periodical on animals, prehistoric times, and exotic locales. The peregrine falcon, megalodon, and the giant panda were unshakable favorites.

Yet, we don’t want students to know “just facts” as if they are mini-encyclopedias. We aspire for our students to wonder and to investigate how our world works, how we are all connected to our environment and other humans halfway around the globe, and how our actions here affect others way over there.

The Common Core brings a refreshed spotlight to the nonfiction genre in children’s books, challenging publishers, educators, librarians, and parents to present children with high interest, high quality texts. What a time to engage students’ senses, sustain their wonder, and teach them geo-literacy!

National Geographic affirms, “with the rapid pace of change in the 21st century, it is more important than ever that young people understand the world around them.” It has adopted the concept of “geo-literacy,” and even gone so far as to create a community to support and cultivate “geo-educators.”

Vanishing Cultures: Himalaya

Vanishing Cultures: Himalaya

Enjoyed in classrooms around the nation, Jan Reynolds’ collection on at-risk traditional cultures is even more significant and striking today than when the series was first published. The persistent popularity of the Vanishing Cultures series speaks to its captivating power to make geo-literacy learning personal and tangible. This collection supports geo-literacy learning because each book challenges students to examine:

  • the characteristics of each culture
  • what makes this featured culture unique
  • how this group of people has adapted to survive in its environment
  • what challenges this group of people faces
  • the modern human impact (positive and negative) on this traditional culture and the environment
  • why the author would want to share this story with children and create a whole series on this topic

When we educate children about other cultures and geo-literacy more broadly, we are implanting the idea that we learn in order to make better, more informed decisions. Before our students become adults in positions of power, we want them to have practice in pausing and thinking how their choices to construct their community could disturb the environment of another community or animal species.

The Vanishing Cultures books encourage students to reason and reflect critically and deeply about how humans affect other humans and why we all benefit from diversity. As classrooms around the country can attest, Jan Reynolds’ books will not only spark enthusiasm that we hope ignites into lifelong careers and hobbies, but also conversation on what information we need to make decisions that will shape our and others’ health, environment, and well-being.

Vanishing Cultures: Down Under

Vanishing Cultures: Down Under

Classroom Ideas for Comparing and Contrasting Between Vanishing Cultures Books and Teaching Geo-Literacy

(Reading Standards, Integration of Knowledge & Ideas, Strand 9)

(Writing Standards, Research to Build & Present Knowledge, Strand 7 and 9)

  1. How are these cultures similar and different from each other? What actions do these families take in both books to protect their ways of life?
  2. Compare how the challenges of each culture are similar or different.
  3. Compare how the children in each book demonstrate their pride in their culture. Why is it important for the children to feel proud of who they are and their way of life?
  4. What is the author’s purpose in starting each book with the parents telling their child a story from long ago? How does this affect the tone of and set the mood in the series? How does this opening support the central idea?
  5. After reading two or more of the Vanishing Cultures books, what common features or characteristics does a Vanishing Culture book have? If you were to write a book about your family’s culture, what kinds of things happen in a Vanishing Cultures book? What are some things that will not happen in a Vanishing Cultures book? What central ideas and lessons will be in the book?
  6. Have students create a chart to compare different aspects of life across two or more cultures. Write the name of each cultural group being compared on the top of the chart, and list the topics for points of comparison down the left side. Here are some possible topics: Food, Clothing, Climate, Geography, Important Animals, Homes, How Children Help (Chores), Roles of Men & Women, Family Life, How People Have Fun, Beliefs, Means of Transportation, Challenges Faced Today, Celebrations, Honoring Loved Ones. Have students record appropriate information as they read and re-read the texts.
  7. One elementary class created the “Around the World with Jan Reynolds” project on Google Earth. Explore where each of the books takes place. Compare the political map with the satellite map. Reflect on how geography has helped or hurt the survival of these ancient cultures. Students can create their own maps of the different cultures at National Geographic’s MapMaker’s 1-Page Maps.

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