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Where in the world is geography? 

click to enlarge JULIE HILL: Says new framewords will hinder improving Arkansas kids' understanding of the world.
  • JULIE HILL: Says new framewords will hinder improving Arkansas kids' understanding of the world.

None of the students in Dr. Brooks Green's geography classes last week could tell him where the Strait of Hormuz was. One of his history students said she knew it was in the Middle East — somewhere.

Green, who is a professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, is dismayed by the fact that none of the 46 students he quizzed knew about what some consider the most important spot on earth currently: The narrow sea lane that provides the only passage to the open ocean for the oil from the Persian Gulf states.

If students don't know where a country is, or a people, how can they understand them?

With the change in the way Arkansas schools are to teach geography, he fears, ignorance over the world we live in is going to get worse.

Thanks to an increased emphasis on world history in middle school (it was previously taught in elementary grades), geography as a stand-alone course has gone out the window. It will now be “embedded” as one of four social studies “strands” (history, economics and civics are the other three) into other classes in grades K-8.

The department says the idea was not to de-emphasize geography but to teach it in context with other subjects. How the teachers will get the information — in a form suitable for children ages 5 to 14 — is up to the districts.

Teachers who specialize in geography say the subject will now become lost — at a time in which it's crucial to understand global issues.

“It's a disaster statewide,” Green, who is also coordinator of the Arkansas Geographic Alliance, said. Green based his assessment on communications from schoolteachers who fear that students will now “learn less about the world.”

Paul Gray, who teaches Advanced Placement Human Geography and regular world geography courses at Russellville High School, said the new frameworks mean that the course is “essentially disappearing,” a tragedy since there is “no more important course in the post 9/11 world.”

“It's absolutely right” that one could embed geography across the curriculum, Gray said. But, he added, “If you name [a class] world history, they're going to teach history. If you don't name it geography, [teaching it] is not going to happen.”

Dora Bradley, a former geography teacher at Lakewood Middle School in North Little Rock, has empirical evidence that, without a textbook, geography will be lost: Her master's thesis, for which she surveyed 200 teachers across Arkansas to see what was being taught in geography classes in middle school. “And far as frameworks, most didn't pay attention to frameworks we had then,” she said. Most teachers follow textbooks, “because it's complicated if you get away from the textbook. So it's important for textbooks to have frameworks incorporated.”

Gayle Potter, the education department's associate director of curriculum, says Arkansas's frameworks will now more closely resemble national standards for social studies information. The committee of 43 educators who drew up the new frameworks said they were “a better approach” based on research and advice from outside experts.

The committee wrote the frameworks last year over a six-month period. The state Board of Education approved them in February. The frameworks are charted for grades K-8 in a 70-page document available online at www.arkansased.org.

Previous frameworks were vague in addressing what students should know in the four social studies areas, Julie Johnson Thompson, the department's spokesperson, said. The new frameworks address that, and also make sure that students who miss the class altogether when they transfer districts (geography wasn't taught in the same grade) won't lose out.

Green, however, said the department had created “chaos” with the frameworks and said there was “no central leadership” coming from the top. The result, he said, will be a “hodgepodge” of courses from districts struggling to meet the frameworks.

So how are teachers dealing with the new frameworks?

Julie Hill, who has taught geography for the past 10 years at Courtway Middle School in Conway and who now is teaching ancient history, is using the book sixth graders used last year, trying to cover material they didn't get to. She said the other social studies teachers in the Conway School District worked “for countless hours” over the summer, consulting with a UALR professor studying the frameworks to find a way to implement the four strands middle school teachers are to cover. Initially, Hill, a veteran teacher of 34 years, said, “I could not make any sense of it at all.”

Hill said she's traveled widely — to China, South Africa, Belize, Canada — and found that “the students I've visited within those schools know much more about America than we know about them. They all study geography in school.”

Hill cited a Roper survey prepared for National Geographic that found that half of young Americans can't find New York on a map, 63 percent can't find Iraq on a map, nearly half believe that India is a Muslim country (it's Hindu) and one in five answered that Sudan, the largest country in Africa, is in Asia. One in five can't even find the Pacific Ocean. The report can be found at www.mywonderfulworld.org, the website for National Geographic's campaign to improve geographic literacy in the United States.

Jacque Hogg, a geography teacher at Pulaski Heights Middle School, said the problems she and other seventh-grade teachers face are “unique.”

“The books we have are geography books. We're having to bring in other sources to bring in ancient world history.” Hogg is using old world history textbooks so the seventh-graders won't feel like they're taking the same class they had the year previously — though, in some sense, they are. Fortunately, the geography textbook contains the economic information the new frameworks require in seventh grade.

A veteran teacher, Hogg said she's better prepared for the change because of resources she's accumulated over the years. She's working with other seventh-grade teachers in the district to standardize what's being taught.

Will geography be lost? “I have no doubt,” she said.

The fact that there is no funding for testing in social studies — either from the state or in the federal No Child Left Behind legislation — is somewhat of a sore point for teachers.

“Until social studies is tested,” said Courtway's Hill, “we feel nobody cares about what we teach anyway.”

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