Students often struggle with picturing a novel’s characters and plot. Often referred to as “making a mental movie,” this skill is vital to getting through a long and complicated piece of literature. When students struggle to picture what they’re reading, reading itself becomes much more challenging.
Every year, I teach Frankenstein to my senior English classes, and it is not uncommon for my students to struggle to imagine the story as we read it. Most of them have never been to Europe. Nor are they typically familiar with the streets of Geneva or the weather conditions of the Swiss Alps. How can I expect them to feel the bitter cold of the howling mountain winds as the Creature tracks Victor, if they can’t fathom the distance between Switzerland and the North Pole, or picture the mountain ranges looming over Europe?
To address this issue, I have often asked students to do rudimentary contextual research before starting a novel, which I then have them use to produce short presentations using Google Slides. This works pretty well, though it won’t result in their interacting with the material as much as I’d like. When working with Slides, they’ll typically copy and paste the information (and hopefully cite it!), but they won’t work with the information in any meaningful way. And if I ask them about their presentations a few days later, they’ll often scramble to pull up their work again, having completely forgotten what they said only a few days before.
The KQED Making Interactive Maps Course
As a KQED Teacher Ambassador, I’m encouraged to poke around the KQED Teach platform, and to take as many courses as I can. I started with the course Making Interactive Maps chiefly because of the word “interactive” in the title, and because it can easily be applied to context research. It also seemed like it might be able to solve some of the issues I’ve mentioned around helping students connect with the contextual information they need before starting a novel.
The course clearly lays out the number of modules one needs to complete, and each module has the approximate time commitment listed. I love that you can pick at the course in pieces — in other words, you don’t need to complete everything all at once. You can determine your own pace, and complete the modules and course in whatever time frame works for you. The lessons build on each other, however, so you do need to complete one module before proceeding to the next.
Specifically, Making Interactive Maps has three modules: five lessons on how to make a basic interactive map; seven lessons about adding layers to maps; and three to practice making interactive maps.
The course concludes with the teacher making a lesson plan that is then shared on the platform. There’s a very handy template for those of us who are no longer in the habit of writing out formal lesson plans; this can help guide you through the process.
The great thing about this KQED Teach course is how the call for a lesson plans forces you to create something based on what you’ve learned, rather than just thinking abstractly about the concepts. (KQED Teach stores these lesson plans in a searchable database accessible by anyone. This allows other teachers to see your brilliant lesson plans, and for you to see theirs!)
The Mapping Frankenstein Assignment
After completing the course, I told my students that I had just learned about some new technology and I wanted to try it out with them. I figured the students were familiar with Google Maps, but I learned how limited their comprehension of Maps actually was by the time our new project was completed. Many of my students had no idea that you can build your own map.
Nor did they have an idea that you can populate it with whatever information you have.
As we added each layer of information, it was fun to hear their conversations about how they might use this technology for non-school-related things, like building a map of San Jose to share with visitors. Most importantly, they learned a great deal about the various locations in the novel, which helped them form more accurate “mental movies” as they read.
The KQED Teach course on interactive maps recommends that students begin with a base map and then add layers of information. For Frankenstein, I broke my class into small groups and assigned each group a specific location from the story. I asked that each group include a certain amount of mapping per contextual layer of information. If distances are important to what you are teaching, you can ask students to create a layer that includes walking routes, which can be fun: how far did Victor have to walk to reach the North Pole?
Click here to view my lesson plan for the Mapping Frankenstein assignment.
In the end, I noticed that my students were much more engaged in processing, collecting, analyzing and interpreting contextual information in the novel as they put together the maps. Rather than simply copying and pasting information into a slideshow, they considered each piece of information, and how to include it in a relevant and informative way. There was a slightly larger time commitment upfront, as I had to lead the students through this new technology, but I consider it an investment, as they can now use both the maps for any other book or project we undertake.