Charting a new course for geography education

On a sunny Thursday morning at Fuller Elementary School in Tempe, a dozen sock-wearing first grade students scrambled on their hands and knees across a giant vinyl floor map of Arizona, hurrying to put their fingers on black dots representing their favorite Arizona cities. 

Instructed by their teacher Amy Evans, they were learning about populations, cities and how to become more spatially aware.  

“The kids just get so excited when using the map,” said Evans, who teaches kindergarten through fifth grade in the Tempe elementary school district. “We made predictions about why the dots were different sizes, then discussed the meaning of population and how it relates to the map. Learning about geography helps students build their spatial awareness and confidence in the world around them.” 

The giant Arizona floor map activity was made possible in part by Arizona State University's Arizona Geographic Alliance, a K–12 outreach organization aimed at bringing more geography into classrooms. 

The organization, housed within ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, is the only group in the state that works to increase geographical literacy in students by providing teachers with lesson plans, education tools, workshops and geography leadership training. 

“We’re here to help teachers teach more geography,” said Heather Moll, a science teacher at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, for 13 years and now co-coordinator of the Arizona Geographic Alliance. “We want students to become more spatially attentive, so they can look at the world differently.”    

Last month, the Arizona Geographic Alliance reached a milestone. Since its inception on ASU’s Tempe campus nearly 30 years ago, its programming has reached more than a million Arizona students. 

But those closest to the organization say the greater impact of the Arizona Geographic Alliance lies not within statistics but in the individual influences it has had on students and on fostering the growth of teacher leaders throughout the state. 

“A million impacted students sounds impressive, but I prefer to think about what Arizona Geographic Alliance has done at the classroom level of an individual teacher and the taught students,” said Ron Dorn, co-coordinator of the Arizona Geographic Alliance for more than 20 years and professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “Every single teacher who is empowered and all the students with enhanced geographic literacy is what Arizona Geographic Alliance is all about.” 

Teaching kids to be good stewards of our world

Started in 1992 by ASU emeritus geography professors Robert Mings and Malcolm Comeaux with funding from the National Geographic Society, the Arizona Geographic Alliance began as a small outfit of nine dedicated elementary and high school teachers with a shared focus: to advocate for geographic literacy in Arizona. 

Flown to Washington, D.C., for a monthlong geography immersion, the men and women from various Arizona school districts went through training, learning from National Geographic photographers, videographers and writers about the art of geography storytelling and the use of creativity to reinvigorate learning in the classroom.

“It was a magical experience being in D.C.,” recalled Gale Ekiss, a teacher for the Mesa School District for 28 years and one of the nine teachers who traveled to Washington the summer of 1993. “Not only did we learn from National Geographic, but we had field trips all over the place. They taught us how important it is for kids to have this winning combination of content field studies and knowledge that you get from a book, then how do you tell a story.” 

Returning to the Copper State, the nine worked together to take what they learned and incorporate it into what would become the foundation for Arizona Geographic Alliance’s programming, which would reach nearly 20,000 teachers in the next three decades. 

Today, the organization has ballooned into a network of passionate teachers, administrators and community members that offers support to fellow teachers and free educational resources to help inspire Arizona students and beyond.  

From annual conferences to daylong geography workshops in GeoLiteracy and GeoSTEM — integrating geography and science, technology engineering and math skills — and programming focused for English language learners, the Arizona Geographic Alliance has educational opportunities for teachers with diverse levels of geographic literacy. 

Through summer institutes, spring educational conferences and annual field-work trips called “GeoDay Trips,” the Arizona Geographic Alliance has forged an interconnected network of like-minded educators who find value in encouraging students to develop a deep understanding of the connections in our natural world. 

“We try to press onto teachers that we're not into reading the map, memorizing countries or capitals, or finding places on a map. That's not what we're all about,” said Ekiss, who served as Arizona Geographic Alliance co-coordinator from 2001–19 and still stays involved as an academic professional for the group. “We're about digging deeper and looking at issues that affect human features and physical features and how we can teach kids to be good stewards of our world.”

The Arizona Geographic Alliance website is a knowledge hub for teachers and a model geography-focused resource page for other geographic alliances across the nation. 

It houses more than 400 free lesson plans, hundreds of teacher-inspired maps and teacher resources like activity books, worksheets and links to upcoming events. 

“I’ve always looked to the Arizona Geographic Alliance website as an example of how to provide information to teachers. Their library of lesson plans and resources are unparalleled,” said Kurt Butefish, executive director of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance. “Having been involved with the alliance network for 20 years, I can say that the Arizona Geographic Alliance consistently provides as high a quality teacher professional development and resources for students as any of the alliances.” 

Teacher consultants: Carrying the torch of modern geography education    

At the heart of the organization are the growing number of teacher leaders called “teacher consultants” who are crucial advocates for geography education. 

Trained at an annual Arizona Geographic Alliance summer geography institute, teacher consultants sharpen leadership skills and learn how to make presentations that facilitate the professional growth of their teacher colleagues, in addition to grasping new ways to teach geography concepts to students. 

“Becoming a teacher consultant for Arizona Geographic Alliance allowed me to grow professionally,” said Rachael Henry, a psychology and honors world history teacher at Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, who has been a teacher consultant for more than a decade. “Our pedagogy must evolve with what's happening around us. They provided multiple trainings and resources that I could share with others in my more rural district.”  

Through the geography institutes, teachers learn from their peers on various self-development topics, from best ways to do presentations, to tips on how to approach people, to advice on how to navigate asking for school funding and how to apply for Fulbright scholarships.

The organization fosters a community among teachers from different districts and grade levels that spans professional ties. 

“The Arizona Geographic Alliance community has become like an extended family. I can contact any of them for suggestions, ideas or advice on just about anything, and know they can do the same to me,” said Cheri Stegall, an Arizona Geographic Alliance teacher consultant and a seventh grade social studies teacher at Cocopah Middle School in Scottsdale for the past 20 years. “Arizona Geographic Alliance has broadened my professional and personal life by providing me with colleagues who also have a passion for being the best teacher they can be.” 

Jeannine Kuropatkin, a pre-AP world history and geography teacher at Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Arizona, who has been involved with the Arizona Geographic Alliance for more than 25 years, agrees. 

“We cheer each other on,” she said. “Their victories, just shows what a great organization we have and that we're here to support each other. We all share in a great camaraderie.” 

In the teaching field, sometimes you don't have enough hours in the day, but then you remember you have such a supportive network and no one's going to let you fall. I've always felt supported by the Arizona Geographic Alliance.”

Pay it forward: A more geographically literate world  

As the Arizona Geographic Alliance continues its work to educate, empower and strengthen geography in the Arizona community, its efforts are buoyed by teacher anecdotes of former students who are now working in fields related to geography with their interest sparked by ties to an Arizona Geographic Alliance resource or training.

While it is uncertain to know what may capture the imagination of an individual student, it could begin with an interesting topic, a field trip or maybe a giant vinyl floor map of Arizona. 

Fuller Elementary teacher Evans’s message to teachers who have never participated in the Arizona Geographic Alliance’s programming or used the giant floor map of Arizona is simple and clear: “Take a risk.” 

“Participate in their training, drive to ASU, pick up that map and do it. You won't regret it.” 

In addition to the people mentioned in this article, the Arizona Geographic Alliance recognizes the contributions of Cathy Davis, the former alliance executive secretary, ASU geography faculty and staff, and the growing network of teacher consultants and teachers. If you are interested in getting involved or attending the 2022 annual conference on Feb 5, visit the Arizona Geographic Alliance website at geoalliance.asu.edu. There is also a donation link to support this work. 

David Rozul
drozul@asu.edu