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Choose a set of documents to locate on a historic or outline map. Plot primary sources around the map and ask students to form geographic conclusions; ask students to analyze documents and position them on the map; or use the drawing tools to visualize geographic or manmade features.

Learning Objectives and Historical Thinking Skills

Mapping History activities teach students to use geographic information and information gleaned from primary sources to formulate historical conclusions. Create activities using the Mapping History template to help students understand geographic themes and the impact of distance, location, landforms or waterways, and other geographic features on society and history.…more

Mapping History activities teach students to use geographic information and information gleaned from primary sources to formulate historical conclusions. Create activities using the Mapping History template to help students understand geographic themes and the impact of distance, location, landforms or waterways, and other geographic features on society and history.

Mapping History activities can help students visualize geography and understand the themes of place and location. Choose a set of primary sources and ask students to examine the documents carefully. Students place document pins on the map according to the locations, events, or historical figures referenced in the documents. For instance, students might analyze documents related to World War II and move document pins to the locations referenced. Students learn the locations across the world where World War II was fought. Or, in another activity, students can analyze documents associated with major presidential decisions and move document pins to the locations of the appropriate Presidential Libraries, learning about the Presidential Library system in the process. Optional hint pins can guide students. Students should always be prepared to explain their placement of each document — how they gleaned geographic information from the documents and how that translates into placement.

A teacher may choose a historical map or a blank outline map as the background for the activity. If a teacher chooses a historical map, students should practice map analysis as well as document analysis with other primary sources that relate to the map. Students engaged in Mapping History can explore human-environment interaction and the theme of movement through map analysis. In the activity “Lewis and Clark's Expedition to the Complex West,” for instance, students analyze a historical map and other primary sources to understand that there were multiple parties involved in land use and ownership in the western portion of the continent at the time. Mapping History activities can also help students appreciate changes to society over time. Students see how historical maps often look very different from contemporary maps and closely examine them to discover what has changed since the historical map's creation.

Students can practice forming historical conclusions about geographic regions through Mapping History. Choose documents that reference locations and ask students to plot document pins on the map according to these locations. Ask students to analyze the locations pin-pointed on the map and formulate a historical interpretation. For instance, a teacher can choose documents from the Civil War era — some that show the manufacturing industry and some that demonstrate an economy based upon agriculture. Students analyze the documents, place them on the map, and realize that the documents pertaining to manufacturing tend to go in the North while documents pertaining to agriculture tend to belong in the South. Students draw the conclusion that the North had an industrial-based economy while the South's economy was primarily agricultural. Another example is an activity on New Deal programs. Students analyze documents showing New Deal programs in action, place them on the map, and consider the physical and economic features of each geographic region portrayed.

Mapping History activities are also useful to help students understand the influences of physical geography and the environment on history. Students can see differences in landforms, resources, and climate in regions of the United States or across the world through photographs placed on a map. For instance, an activity on the physical features of the Great Plains can juxtapose photographs showing a flat and often treeless landscape with forested, hilly land in the East. Students begin to understand the challenges that settlers from the East faced in dealing with a different environment in the Great Plains as they explore the themes of regions and movement.

Students can use the annotation tools in Mapping History to show their understanding of manmade or geographic features and the interaction of humans with their environment. A teacher can create an activity in which students analyze and place documents related to the transcontinental railroad on a map. The teacher can ask them to come to a conclusion about the probable location of the railroad route and draw it on the map to demonstrate knowledge. A teacher can also use the annotation tools to demonstrate a manmade or physical feature on the map and ask students to draw conclusions about it.

Teaching Tips

  • Consider the goals you have for your students before planning your activity. Choose a map and documents, and structure your activity based upon those goals.
  • Students in early grades can also develop map skills through Mapping History. Activities can introduce primary sources to younger students and help them practice basic document analysis. Construct an activity with simple written documents or photographs, posters, drawings, or audiovisual media. Walk students through analysis of the map and each document, instructing them to look at the document first as a whole and then pay close attention to the details. Students decipher what each particular document is, brainstorm a location for the document, and move it to the map.…more
  • Consider the goals you have for your students before planning your activity. Choose a map and documents, and structure your activity based upon those goals.
  • Students in early grades can also develop map skills through Mapping History. Activities can introduce primary sources to younger students and help them practice basic document analysis. Construct an activity with simple written documents or photographs, posters, drawings, or audiovisual media. Walk students through analysis of the map and each document, instructing them to look at the document first as a whole and then pay close attention to the details. Students decipher what each particular document is, brainstorm a location for the document, and move it to the map.
  • In many instances it is valuable to ask students to hypothesize about the placement of the documents or annotations on the map before formally beginning the activity. The exercise can act as a pre-assessment and can help to guide students' thinking. Once students begin to examine documents to determine their content, therefore, they have a purpose for viewing them and begin to contextualize them on their first encounter.
  • It is important to model careful document analysis for students before beginning the activity. Be sure to analyze both the historical map (if using) and other types of documents used in the activity. Analyze an example document in isolation using the Focusing on Details template, or open up a document from the Mapping History activity before asking students to begin. Ask the class to look at the document in a very general sense. Ask, “What type of document is this?” Once the class has determined the type, ask them to point out unique physical characteristics of the document (the kinds of unique features vary depending on document type). Use the zoom feature available in the document detail view to note letterhead; handwritten versus typed portions; stamps, seals, notations, or signatures; background items; facial expressions; color or shading; symbols; special effects or background items; tone of voice; and any other telling features. Ask students to identify the date and creator(s) of the document. Students should now speculate for whom the document was created, the content of the document, and why it was created. Rephrase the document in plain language. Be sure to instruct students to do the same with each subsequent document before attempting to determine the correct document sequence.
  • Due to the open, interpretive nature of Mapping History, follow activites with class discussion or writing assignments to further contextualize the documents and the historical conclusions made. Activities can be designed to allow for more or less student creativity in their interpretations. Ensure that students understood your goals in having them do the activity.

Mapping History

Link primary sources to locations on a map to practice spatial thinking and understand the impact of geographic factors in history.

Lessons Created Using this Template