• Nova Scotia geography teacher John Trites with his dog Atlas

    Retired high school teacher John Trites sits on the front steps of his home in Berwick, N.S., with his dog Atlas. (Photo courtesy John Trites)

John Trites, the former Atlantic representative for the Canadian Geographic Education executive committee, honed his craft as a geography teacher at Horton High School in Wolfville, N.S. After 33 years in the public school system, Trites moved on to a different role, mentoring the next generation of educators. For about a decade now, he has been teaching geography methods to pre-service teachers at Acadia University. Trites has also been teaching educators about advanced placement human geography, a subject close to his heart, for the College Board of the United States. In 2000, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society recognized Trites’ lifelong commitment to geography education with the Geographic Literacy Award.

On teaching human and urban geography in high school

One of my favourite projects was having students build a physical model of a subdivision. They started with an empty piece of land with a few contour lines and a bit of water in the system. They had to develop a subdivision with a certain number of single-family dwellings, duplexes, row housing, an elementary school, recreational facilities, and they had to follow the zoning bylaws, but they had complete freedom as to the street patterns and where they wanted to group certain types of houses. I had students who used to come into my classroom during spare periods to work in the back. It was a huge room and I’d often have eight to 10 students working around the edges while I was teaching another class. They just loved doing it—it was really hands-on planning.

On the lasting impact of getting students to think differently

We need to work with the environment as opposed to against the environment. For example, when building their subdivision, they had certain contour lines that showed the height of land within these 160 acres they had to work with. But did they want to come in with a bulldozer and change it all or did they want to work with what they had? I tried to encourage them to work with nature as opposed to against it. I run into some of my students years later and they still talk about it and how much fun they had doing that. And it actually affected their decision on where they wanted to live years later when they were buying a house. Some would say, “We thought about that subdivision and where we wanted to live.” I think it left them with something useful.

On what he’s learned over the course of his career

When I first started teaching, it was probably 80 per cent lecture and 20 per cent activities, and it changed drastically, not just for me but the whole education system, toward getting students more involved. The students ended up getting more choice and input into what we were covering. Early on, you get this curriculum document from the province that you feel you have to cover, but you shouldn’t feel restricted in when and how you cover it. If something big was happening in the news, it might not have been on page 43 of the curriculum document, but what a great opportunity to teach geography! Don’t become so married to the curriculum document that you can’t explore other opportunities. So much of what’s on the news on a daily basis fits into a geography course and it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

On the value of learning about geography

I believe that geography is not so much a set of specific topics as an approach to any topic. I’ve always looked for the geographical aspect to something students were interested in. Virtually anything can be geography. At Acadia University, the very first assignment I do with the students is ask them about their favourite topic, and they have to do a presentation on the geography of that topic. It’s called “the landscape of desire,” and they fill in the blanks. So, the landscape of Bond movies, the landscape of football, the landscape of dress shops, the landscape of karaoke—the whole point of this is for students to see that there’s a spatial aspect to almost any topic you come up with. 

A lot of them come into it with the mindset that geography is going to prepare you to go on Jeopardy! and answer trivia questions. I hate that reputation that geography has. It has a lot more to offer than just simply memorizing the capital cities of all the countries of the world. I really believe that when taught well geography no longer focuses on learning facts but on understanding issues and looking at different options.