application to classroom course, Geography 2, Cultural Geography
Spring semester, 2011 was the first time that I adopted a new textbook for Geography 2, Visualizing Human Geography by Alyson L. Greiner, that employs a visual and case studies central approach to introducing fundamental concepts in human geography. It was also the first semester in which I sought to experiment with Reading Apprenticeship methods in an effort to more actively engage students with the text. The synchronous launch of the two new resources for introducing basic geographic concepts seemed to dovetail well in providing a platform for, at the very least, making student interaction with the geography text visible.
INQUIRY In the first week of the semester, I announced to the Cultural Geography class (enrollment at census: 53) my intent to integrate, on an experimental basis, 2-3 Reading Apprenticeship strategies. My initial objective was really an extension of a multi-semester effort to improve rates of student achievement in mastering basic geographic concepts about space, place, and the cultural landscape. After 2 FIG meetings, I formulated the primary inquiry question: “Can the use of a series of RA techniques (talk to the text’, ‘think aloud’, gallery walk, and a metacognitive log) measurably improve student recognition of essential geographic concepts through more conscious, repetitive exposure to definitions and real-world illustration of geographic ideas in the text?”
METHODS In class on February 9, students were divided into 5 discussion groups and asked to “think aloud” interactively while reading a section of a chapter on the topic of cultural ecology. I briefly modeled the verbalization of “think aloud” using a couple of introductory paragraphs. Following a period of about 30 minutes for the interaction, each group member was invited to write a comment, question, example, or interpretation on the group’s common theme on class chalkboard. The themes of cultural ecology covered included such concepts/definitions as: possibilism, human modification of Earth environments, and Earth as a “dynamic, integrated system.” The class as a whole participated in a discussion I led on the posted comments. This exercise enabled the topic of cultural ecology to be partitioned into major themes of inquiry and research, focusing for a time on each.
On February 28, the class participated in a “gallery walk” exercise on the general topic of globalization. I extracted 6-7 expository statements from a textbook chapter on globalization and wrote each on poster-board size paper as a thematic quotation for a group’s discussion. Each group of 5-7 students worked bout 25 minutes with their assigned quote to isolate its context in the chapter and write reflections about the statement on the large-format paper. We then posted the quotes with group comments around the classroom wall. All class members were invited to walk around “the gallery” and add Post-it notes with additional reflections, questions, or comments on the quotation-headed pages. To summarize the collective thinking, we reviewed each wall-posted quotation, the group’s interpretations and illustrations thereof, and the pertinent ancillary comments from class members. Perhaps most illuminating from the class’ experience with the “gallery walk” was the air of sensitivity to cross-cultural issues (such as neocolonialism, indigenous peoples’ rights, Americanization, etc.) that arise from the processes of globalization. Verbalized comments were often a reflection of the cultural diversity of student experiences.
Geography of religion was a major subject of classroom activity in the last two weeks of the course.
On May 11, I demonstrated in class the process of filling-out a “metacognitive log” using the document reader equipment and a short introductory section of a textbook chapter. The log form was distributed as a writing homework assignment. The log contains the two column headings, EVIDENCE(I saw/heard/read in the text…) and INTERPRETATION(I wondered/I made a connection/I thought…). Students were asked to individually sit down with the approximately 7-page section (probably ½ of the section was filled with images and graphics) of the chapter on religion and jot down on the form both major points encountered in their reading and their reactions/connections/elucidations on the significant themes they encountered while reading. My initial overview of the submitted logs revealed a positive pattern, that students mostly exceeded expectations in writing detail about their feelings and reflections on some major cultural processes related to religious practice, such as “sanctification”, “sacred spaces and places”, “secularization”, and the like. I viewed the metacognitive log as a culminating written exercise to illustrate this semester’s students willingness to engage, and appreciation for, the self-reflective component of the Reading Apprenticeship approach.
RESULTS/REFLECTIONS For Geography 2, Spring 2011, there is no doubt that the integration of Reading Apprenticeship methods, however inadequately introduced in my first attempt at implementation, increased the level of student engagement with the textbook. The ‘think aloud” and “gallery walk” exercises revealed that students, through group discussion, can come up with real-world illustrations of the cultural processes that emerge in defining landscapes in a globalizing world. Those two interactive class sessions also brought to light that terminology chosen by textbook authors to define fundamental geographic concepts can be stumbling blocks to comprehension. This reality of frequent convoluted definitions and phraseology in human geography texts has motivated me to pay closer attention to essential definitions, and to avoid overuse of what can appear to be more the popular jargon of the discipline than essential terms.
As part of a Basic Skills Initiative that I developed for geography beginning in fall of 2008, I have sought to keep some record of student success in achieving learning outcomes that pertain specifically to the student’s comprehension and appropriate usage of essential geographic vocabulary. On three (3) objective tests administered to the Spring 2011 Geography 2 class, I observed noteworthy improvement in responses to questions designed to evaluate the student’s grasp of a key term or concept. These questions focused on essential ideas such as: spatial distribution, core-periphery, cultural landscape, globalization, colonialism, site and situation, sustainability, etc. Percentages of correct answers on the tests for the class as a whole were definitely up from previous semesters, and through the semester, there was a trend showing quicker attainment of familiarity with key concepts.
More active and classroom-visible engagement with the textbook is really but a stepping-stone toward higher rates of student mastery and “level of comfort” with basic concepts in geography. The ultimate goal, at this introductory course level, is improved comprehension and demonstration of that comprehension in written or oral evidence. Do the key concepts, the basic terminology, of the discipline become part of the student’s vocabulary? Classroom-visible evidence of progress toward answering this inquiry requires interaction and tangible evidence. Reading Apprenticeship techniques can foster the atmosphere to bring out the visible.
PROSPECTS In future semesters teaching cultural geography, I would like to ‘compartmentalize’ the topics of the course into more compact learning modules that each incorporate a Reading Apprenticeship method to elevate the text in class lectures and discussions. Because this was the first semester of my attempt at implementation of RA techniques, the linkage between lesson plans, chapter readings, lectures, and assessments was apparent, but not closely bonded. Among the strategies I would like to employ next are:
more structured modeling/demonstration of the processes (e.g. how to “think aloud” in a group setting; how to distinguish annotating from “talking to the text” or compiling a metacognitive log);
assigning group activities that require some preliminary organization by/of the groups;
asking individuals/groups to extract meaningful passages of the text for a “gallery walk” exercise;
giving groups, as well as individual students, more instructor feedback on their posted or shared comments and on their metacognitive writing;
asking the FIG members for suggestions and feedback on assessing the value of particular RA approaches;
using RA feedback from the students to evaluate the effectiveness of the readings themselves (Is the textbook a good one to use?);
Continuing to participate in the Reading Apprenticeship FIG at Chabot.
Most importantly, I hope to more actively, and deliberately, integrate Reading Apprenticeship methods
to elevate students’ level of “comfort” with the literature of geography, and to invite students to one day perhaps include geography in their list of favorite, pleasurable reading.
—Don Plondke, 6/10/11