Maps in Action -- New Perspectives in Three Stories

One: A Story by Nate Bander, School Administrator

At Mounds Park Academy, students learn how maps tell a story. 

Take, for example, a map that plots the mean center of the population of the United States from the first census in 1790 to the 1940 census at the dawn of the Second World War. 

In 1790, the mean center of population rested comfortably in Kent County, 23 miles east of Baltimore Maryland.  Makes sense, right?  Most of the population recorded in the census resided on the eastern seaboard.

Fast forward 150 years.  The mean center of population has pushed 603 miles to the southwest, landing precariously in Carlisle, Indiana, waiting to leap across the border into Illinois on its southwesterly march. 

In 2015, the mean center of population reached the Missouri Ozarks, sliding another 288 miles to the southwest.

This map tells us something.  It’s the story of the United States.  It’s the story of westward expansion.  It’s the story of manifest destiny.  It’s the story of migration.

Telling a story of global proportions  

The Peters world map tells a story too.  First debuting in 1974, it made its way into more and more classrooms as criticisms of the continuing imperialist attitudes in Eurocentric world maps mounted.

Mounds Park Academy faculty, knowing that different maps tell different stories, make a conscious effort to incorporate a variety of world maps.  These include the Peters world map as well as world maps known as the Mercator, the Winkel Tripel, Robinson and Van Der Grinten, and various globes.

To lower school music teacher Mari Espeland, it is important that students experience music from around the world. “Listening lessons include music from varied times and places. Showing the students, or having them locate, the music’s place of origin helps to establish context,” notes Espeland.

Teacher Mari Espeland and her first-grade music class; Peters world map is prominent on the wall.

Teacher Mari Espeland and her first-grade music class; Peters world map is prominent on the wall.

As lower school students begin to understand their place in the world, Espeland finds herself asking questions like “Where are we?” and “Where are we in relationship to this other place?”  She uses the Peters world map on the wall in her classroom to help answer her budding musicians’ frequent questions.

“The Peters projection accurately represents land mass,” she says, “The students can see a world that does not make North America huge and in the middle.  When we find countries in Africa (this year we have learned several musical pieces from Ghana and Tanzania) the students search on a large, centrally located continent.”  Adding, “For all of my students, but especially the visual learners, representing the world in a more equitable way is important for their growth and understanding.”

Upper school Spanish teacher Marisue Gleason teaches with an upside down world map as well as a Peters world map.  “I use them for reference points, for different ways of looking at the (sometimes upside down) world,” she says.  “Especially with the Peters world map, I talk about the latitude lines and how that influences the actual size of countries and continents.  When students come to the upper school, they have seen a lot of different maps, but they don’t always remember what each map is called.”

A map that can travel

In February, Mounds Park Academy partnered with National Geographic to bring a 26x35 ft. map of South America to campus.  This map, an azimuthal equidistant projection, stayed on campus for 2 days, affording nearly every student the opportunity to get down on hands and knees to closely examine each feature and detail on the map, spread out over half of a basketball court.

Middle School Spanish teacher Kevin Hagen took students in his classes to see the map.  “It’s really important to have students see how the geography and land formations influence the culture of Spanish-speaking countries,” he says.  “We paired the map activity with a presentation about South America where they got to see more images of key locations and animals on the continent.”

Different Stories

Including a variety of maps in the classroom creates different ways of learning about the world.  Just as the mean center of population map told the story of a burgeoning westward expansion, the varying maps of the world tell different stories about the Earth.

“We try and show our students a variety of different world maps because each map shows a different perspective.  We challenge our students to think about the inherent biases of each map and acknowledge that even the best map distorts.  It’s impossible to portray a 3D spherical object on a 2D piece of paper,” says fourth grade teacher Yamini Kimmerle.

At Mounds Park Academy, maps represent an incredible lens through which to think critically and globally.  They dot the walls of every classroom in the school, each an essential piece in the pursuit of the joy of learning.

 Mounds Park Academy, founded in 1982, is an independent, PreK-12, co-educational, college preparatory day school in St. Paul, Minnesota.  MPA teaches students to think independently, communicate effectively and act with respect and integrity in a diverse community that models intellectual ambition, global responsibility and the joy of learning.

Two: Surprising Things Happen

This post reflects comments made by Ron, a new friend, in conversation.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Some of us – five people, then nine - were engaged in conversation over coffee after church. My friend and I were visitors, and we got asked “So where are you from?” I named my little town, which nobody ever heard of, then added, “If I had a map handy I could show you exactly where I live and some interesting things about the area.”

That’s how we got talking about maps and how we’re dependent on the help they provide.

After a while [Ward Kaiser] brought out a map that was different from anything I had ever seen. It didn’t show my town, in fact, it didn’t show any towns or cities. Surprisingly, it didn’t show countries by how much land they had – instead, it showed how many people live there. This is what it looks like:

2015 World Population Map. Cartography by Paul Breding. Copyright 2015

2015 World Population Map. Cartography by Paul Breding. Copyright 2015

The conversation turned lively: Is this really a map? How do map makers decide what to show and what to leave out? Why haven’t we seen maps like this before?

I was able to take that very different kind of map with me and introduce it to some of my friends. Three of them – teachers – now tell me they have found it useful. It has practical applications in math and science, cultural studies and contemporary history, for example. At least a few classes in two states and Canada are asking questions about climate change, international business dealings, persecution and conflict, birth rates and disease control and how they all interact with population.

Out of a chance remark, good things happened. Was it luck – or something more? Serendipity? Part of our collective horoscope for the day? Since it happened in church, should we see God somehow at work in it? Personally, I can’t say. I just know that an unplanned event happened that I couldn’t have engineered, and I’m glad to be part of it! 

Three: Do the World’s Time Zones Make Sense?

Our third map focus this time comes from Kevin Kaiser, a National Parks Ranger. (Hey, he’s also my grandson, I announce proudly, so if in this 100th anniversary year of America’s national parks you’ll be among the estimated 310 million visitors, and you get to either Big Bend (Texas) soon or to Kings Canyon (California) where he’ll be this summer, say Hello to him, please!) Kevin sent this map of the world’s time zones, commenting

  • This discredited image of the world seems like a poor choice for this purpose. But since it was prepared in 1968, (the Peters map was produced in 1974 and introduced to the English-speaking world in 1983, making size -distorting, mess-with-your-mind maps like this one seem archaic and highly questionable) I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. 
  • It comes as a surprise to learn China has only one time zone!

Commenting further:

The fascinating story behind our present system of time zones – how it got started, its benefits and the problems it creates – may be found in How Maps Change Things, Chapter 5, “A New Day for the World?”  It also sets out Arno Peters’ bold proposal for shifting the International Date Line, represented here by the line zigging and zagging from Pole to Pole through the Pacific including between Siberia and Alaska.

China is the only nation with a long east-west stretch that tries to get by with a single time zone. Almost 100 years ago – it was 1918 – the country set up five time zones; these lasted to 1949, when the Chinese (Communist) Revolution abolished hem. The present arrangement, known as Beijing Time or China Time, works, but makes for sometimes confusing differences in sunrise/sunset times from one part of the country to another. Do you see this as one more way China is out of step with the rest of the world? What, after all, is the point of time zones? Just asking!