• Geography teacher Steve Cope biked across most of Europe and Asia

    Steve Cope, pictured here in Pakistan, once biked across much of Europe and Asia. He infuses his love of travel and the outdoors into his teaching, taking students on field trips where they can apply their classroom learning to real-life situations. (Photo courtesy Steve Cope)

Travel is at the heart of Steve Cope’s teaching philosophy. Cope started teaching in 1983 and taught in various places around the world, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, before finally arriving in Canada. Currently, he teaches Grades 9 to 12 at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ont. His courses include Canadian geography, physical geography, and world issues. Cope has also developed an interdisciplinary course, which combines leadership, outdoor physical education, and spatial technologies in geography. Cope works to provide his students not only with practical geography skills but also a well-rounded global perspective.

Where did your passion for geography begin?

I remember daydreaming in 9th Grade geography class in the U.K. and looking at the maps and photographs on the wall and figuring out where I would travel. I’ve been travelling independently from a very early age; from the time I was 13 years old I took trips through the U.K. with friends. 

Later, I biked from Munich to Melbourne — the schools I was teaching at — and I often invoke my knowledge of the places I cycled through with the kids. I’ve actually had about four kids from my school do bike rides themselves. One former student who had never ridden a bike before is now a third-year student at the University of Toronto, and last summer he cycled from Vancouver to Toronto. The kids are psyched by things like that. There’s nothing better than travel to get a real picture of people.

Do you have a specific approach to teaching geography?

I’ve never been the type to make a five-year plan, but my philosophy would be to make geography fun and practical. I believe that the most authentic and the best learning you can have is outside the classroom. For instance, we’ll do geocaching around campus and I’ll set a course for them to learn how to do it. The true way to know if a student has understood something is to get them to teach it. So, for the next lesson I get them to form their own course for their peers to find.

We also partner the kids up with the junior school kids, kind of like a reading buddy program except they’ll do geography skills. For example, we’ll set up treasure hunt for them and the older kids will make their own maps without technology. I always try to do old school stuff as well, so when they’re doing elevation profiles, I’ll have them do it with a pen and pencil. I try to make sure that they’re well versed in the traditional methods of practical and physical geography.

What other kinds of projects do you do with your students?

I try to do whatever’s in vogue. We have a program in the school called the global leadership program. The Grade 9s have to come up with a project to work on throughout the year. This year, the theme is sustainability. The geography students, using ArcGIS mapping techniques, want to look at water run-off and saving water from the roof. In the news lately, there are certain municipalities, like Mississauga, that are taxing houses that have more concrete than green space, so a neat thing I’ve done with the kids is to look at the ratio of green space to concrete on campus.

In the interdisciplinary course that I devised, we do three trips per year. For example, in the fall we’ll go canoeing for two or three nights, and in the winter we do a sled pull on Manitoulin Island. I involve the geographical aspects and I get them to do an ArcGIS story map afterwards and elevation profiles. I allow enough time on the trip for them to make mistakes. If you stick to a specific itinerary, oftentimes you’ll do the job for them, so I always make sure that there’s enough time. On the canoe trip, I allow them in pairs to navigate for half a day. It gives them responsibility.

What do you want your students to take away from your lessons?

I guess two things: how significant they can be and how insignificant they are in the bigger picture. Looking at things like human geography, social geography, political geography — they can be as big as they want to be. However, with physical geography, they are little ants on this giant planet. I want them to have perspective, a really in-depth knowledge of where they are on the planet.