• Geography teacher from Alberta

    Margaret Leland stands in front of the Coba ruins, an ancient Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. (Photo courtesy Margaret Leland)

Margaret Leland teaches Grade 5 humanities at Connect Charter School in Calgary, Alta. She emphasizes the importance of mapping skills and geospatial knowledge as a way to get students curious about the world beyond their hometown. Leland challenges her students’ perspectives and helps them to understand their place in the world, both geographically and experientially. 

On what she considers most important in geography

I find that nowadays children come in not knowing how to read maps, and it’s still a very valuable skill for them to learn. I do mapping skills with my Grade 5s every year in September because I can have them learn latitude and longitude and tracking on maps by pairing it up with studying hurricanes. The kids really get into it; they’re so pumped. I’ll get emails from parents saying, “My kids wanted to watch CNN last night to see what’s going on with this hurricane because they know exactly where it is!” 

On how geography shapes who we are

We have a program all about Indigenous groups and cultures, and as part of that we go down to the Glenbow Museum and look at the different areas of Canada and have students discuss how the people adapted to the land. We make connections through the artwork, the clothing, the lifestyle — for example, the Inuit do not have the opportunity to build very tall cedar totem poles, but Indigenous Peoples on the west coast do.

We also partner with the Tsuu T’ina Nation. We had artists come and work with our students last year on pieces that told a story of place. Most of them focused around family and sports. We encourage them to look at geography as an important part of their lived experience.

On incorporating geospatial technologies in her classroom

I’ve had the privilege of working with Dr. Lynn Moorman of Mount Royal University. This year, she’s doing a research project with my students to understand what kind of knowledge is required to maximize our ability to make use of and derive meaning from geospatial technology. It’s an exercise in two parts. One is map reading; it’s really important for kids to understand that looking at a legend is like opening a table of contents to find out what’s in a book. She’s doing this to help inform the child’s development of geospatial skills and their ability to apply these skills to new geographic locations. The other part of this research involves giving them a map of Canada, which they’re familiar with, and then an outline of Australia and asking them where they think the hottest part would be, or the highest elevation.

When she first introduced this research to the kids, she had a map where she could take Greenland and move it down into Africa to show its true relative size, and the kids were going, “But Greenland was way bigger than that when it was on the top of the map.” So they’re getting that sense of how maps can reflect the biases of their creators or how projections can be flawed. One of the kids asked, “When you’re in Australia, is Australia in the centre of the map?” It changes their perspective.

On fostering curiosity in her students

A few years ago, we brought in the Parks Canada Giant Floor Map. We did a really interesting exercise with about 50 kids where we told them, “Find a place to sit down. Now, check to see if you’re sitting on a body of water.” And about 80 per cent of them were sitting on a body of water. When they realized that it was fresh water, and we discussed what percentage of the world’s fresh water we have in Canada, they were shocked. Geography is all about trying to make those connections. What’s important to me is to get the kids having the curiosity to search out the bigger world that we live in. Curiosity is at the heart of my classroom.