Geography & International Literature, Part I

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

If some peoples pretend that history or geography gives them the right to subjugate other races, nations, or peoples, there can be no peace.

~ Ludwig von Mises

hotblack_20070818_Mumbai_077Because I like to travel, as I mentioned in my last post, geography has become of real interest to me. How can we engage international literature without thinking about geography?

I grew into my fascination with geography, but I believe I have always liked maps and movement. Thinking about Kathy Short’s post about the often dated illustrations of picture books set in present day, I find it important to educate young people about geography, and the present reality of a particular location. Frequently the best of places blend past and present, but young people need to know that the world is connected on a myriad of levels and that progress is a world event. So, what happens “at home” is connected to the world and what happens “a world away” may have an impact on the immediate neighborhood. We could think of it as the butterfly effect in more political or economic terms; an event that may not be noticed by young people in one location, but is prevalent in another place and could influence the former. A case in point is how young people in the U.S. may not be aware of child labor issues in other countries, but wear articles of clothing manufactured by children in sweatshops.

To overcome the limited historical (in the sense that history also concerns the present) schema we may have for places outside our neighborhoods, we need to do a bit of investigation of the geography we encounter in texts. Getting a sense of people, the beauty of the places they live, and what their lives are like through photographs can build our knowledge of the world we are reading; they can also build our sense of wonder. Books and photographs, movies and illustrations can also build our curiosity and our desire to know and see more.

An inquiry curriculum can also help, and webquests can be fun. If you don’t already find geography fascinating, the National Geographic Web site is amazing. Their photo galleries show all types of photos from young people in Mumbai playing along a beach right across from a financial district to panoramas and vistas that will take your breath away.

Working with photos is a great way to introduce young people to the world! Even juxtaposing current images from a country along with picture book illustrations that may not accurately portray current events or geography will help young people gain a more complex schema in respects to the text they are reading.

Most states have a requirement for teaching geography during the middle school years, but because my experience coming to geography later, I feel that as educators we can teach with real passion the geography of the literature we use and read as part of our routine. This way not only do young people have access to the text, but its setting as well. I cannot convince someone to teach with a passion they do not feel, but I think that passion can grow. And if we love to read stories set in locations around the world, it follows that we would also have an interest in the places the literature represents.

One way to build passion is through photographs! When I find pictures such as the ones below, I want to know more, I want to see more, and I want to read more. Does that happen to you? If so, how do you grow geographical passion through the literature you read and the literature you share with others?

Photographs can build great interest in a place! When I find pictures such as the ones on the National Geographic website, I want to know more, I want to see more, and I want to read more. Does that happen to you? How do you grow geographical passion through the literature you read and the literature you share with others?

threecupsInquiry is another way to explore the places represented in the text, and perhaps begin a passion that includes geography. Another way to build passion is through text sets that highlight geography and culture. One text to get started with could include Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Journey to Change the World … One Child at a Time (Mortenson, Relin, & Goodall, 2009). What a lovely text for learning about Afghanistan!

Oh, the places we can go, and the interesting information we can acquire!

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3 thoughts on “Geography & International Literature, Part I

  1. I’m glad you mentioned Three Cups of Tea. Greg Mortensen’s work is powerful, and the way he has involved U. S. children in supportng this work is empowering – a model for all:

    Still, when the children’s picture book (Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and the Three Cups of Tea) was released, I wondered about the illustrator’s choice of media. Does it accurately and authentically capture the people and place of Pakistan?

    I think the collage technique is problematic in portraying cultural specificity. Thankfully, there are photographs in the back matter that clearly show young readers Pakistani culture.

    If you haven’t seen or shared it, there’s a brief video on Amazon that’s worth sharing with young readers:

  2. Ragina Shearer says:

    I have really enjoyed learning about the Pakistani culture and sharing this with my students through the use of Three Cups of Tea and Listen to the Wind. Greg Mortenson has written these books in such an intriguing and educational manner that US students truly become engaged as they learn about this culture. Even though the war has brought this area into focus, I believe US children, and adults alike, truly do not see and understand this cultural group with every day similarities, needs, hopes, and dreams of their own. My students felt a new compassion for and connection with these children as we read and discussed these two books.

    Thanks Judi for sharing the link to the audio from Amazon. I had not seen it before and it was very enlightening.

    You all also might like to know that Greg’s daughter Amira Mortenson & Jeni Fleming have an audio CD, called Three Cups of Tea. On it they sing a beautiful tribute, it is also available on Amazon.

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