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Adding Spice to Any Lesson

Geography is such a great subject to incorporate into just about any other topic of study and many daily experiences. When it snows, as it did here in Kentucky recently, study climate conditions that produces snow, learn why it melts, and observe where the water flows. On a hike learn about the trees and wildflowers. Find out where else they naturally make their home and what conditions are needed for them to thrive. Draw pictures of flowers and label the parts.

In history pull out an outline map and mark your study on it. Learning the places is just a start. Your students can gain much from mapping what they learn. Kids love maps, and taking a break from the books to DO something encourages a love for learning. Pull out the colored pencils and an outline map, or the Vis a Vis markers and a laminated map and you have an instant project that is sure to improve student interest and memory.

For those more adventurous, try making 3-D maps with clay or salt dough. Here are a couple of recipes you can use to make your own medium.

Salt Dough
2 part flour
1 part salt
1 part water
Mix well. Add more water if crumbly.

Coffee Clay (from Teaching Geography Through Art from Visual Manna)
1 C flour
1/2 C salt
1 C used coffee grinds
1/2 C cold left over coffee
Stir until well blended. Knead on flowered surface until smooth. After creating 3-D map, air dry or bake at 175 for 30 minutes.

A Practical Example

To add a geography lesson to your study of Lewis and Clark, for example, study the Missouri/Mississippi River Basin. Add a 3-D map, a few vocabulary words, an outline map or two and you've incorporated geography in a meaningful way.

Here is a bit of background information and some interesting facts to get you started.
Note: a great website for studying this river system is located at http://www.nps.gov/miss/index.html

The Mississippi River

The Missouri - Mississippi River System forms the 4th largest river system in the world. The Missouri River finds its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of southwest Montana where 3 mountain streams converge. It flows into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. The headwaters of the Mississippi River are at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. Water from 40% of the contiguous 48 states flows into the Mississippi River, which is 2340 miles long, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans, LA. The Mississippi River carries an average of 436,00 tons of sediment a day. The rich fertile land of the river basin contributes to 92% of the nation's agricultural exports.

Fascinating Facts about the Mississippi River

  • Drains 40% of the water in the U.S.
  • 3 1/2 miles wide north of Clinton IA
  • 4th longest river system in the world
  • Small ships can travel up the river 1800 miles from New Orleans to Minneapolis Land formation of coastal Louisiana is a product of deposits of sediment from the Mississippi
  • Average daily discharge of water is 470,000 cubic feet/second
  • Elevation is 1475 ft at Lake Itasca and sea level at the Gulf (Half the drop offoccurs in MN)
(Students can find additional facts and include them in a notebook with an outline map and a picture of their 3-D map)

  • Vocabulary
  • Watershed
  • Tributary
  • Headwaters
  • River basin
  • Sediment
  • Silt
(Ugh—some students hate vocabulary, but I include it anyway. Sometimes I'll look them up and read them aloud while they are building, drawing, and mapping. This keeps the project fun while providing more depth to the lesson. The vocabulary words make it on their list for the week, anyway.)

Activities Make Learning Fun

1) Make a 3-D map of the Missouri-Mississippi Water Basin using clay or salt dough.
2) Optional 3-D map: Learn more about this large watershed and create the 3-D example in a pan. Try to make it so that water would flow downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. Form indentions for rivers (tributaries) that flow into the Mississippi and continue on to the Gulf of Mexico. Place small objects, such as beads or sand around the rivers and produce "rain" by using a watering can or spray bottle. Students will be able to see how sediment is carried and settles at the mouth of the river.
3) Using the outline map provided, trace and label the Missouri River and the Mississippi River.
  • Draw and label 2 other tributaries of either river.
  • Lightly shade the area that represents the Mississippi drainage area.
  • Label each state through which the Missouri - Mississippi River System flows or is used as a boundary.

For further study here are some additional ideas:

  • Flooding: Major flooding occurred in 1927, 1937, and 1998. Study the impact of flooding and learn what measures are taken to reduce the disastrous effects of flooding.
  • Wastewater treatment: Learn about the various methods of wastewater and visit your local wastewater treatment plant.
  • Steam boats: Over 300 steamboats exploded at one time or another in the early days of steamboat travel. The opening of the railroad reduced the need for steamboats. Learn how steamboats operate and why they were so vulnerable to explosions.
  • Wildlife: Over 260 species of fish, 320 species of birds and 40 species of mussel make their home in this river corridor. Study the Wildlife of this region.
  • Transportation and shipping: Study what products are transported on the river and what types of vessels are used.

Taking a geography detour with your studies can add delight and depth to many varieties of topics. It helps students get the bigger picture and recognize order in the universe. So pull out those outline maps you've been meaning to use and have fun with your children. They'll enjoy the break and remember that lesson much better to boot!

These ideas are provided just to get you thinking. Don't give yourself a hard time if you don't do this much with your students (no one else does either). Use them as a springboard for seeing ways to add spice to your school days.