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Educator’s Guide for Analyzing Historical Maps

Applying historical thinking to a map means a student can: decode its basic elements (Encounter), understand its unique story (Investigate), and interpret how the map reflects its time (Build). Students need frequent experiences with examining, using, and creating maps to develop these historical thinking skills.   

The following framework guides all of the map examinations in this curriculum and can be used with any other maps. Not all questions need to be answered: choose appropriate ones for your map and activity. When answering Investigate and Build questions, encourage students to provide evidence for their answers. 
 

Encounter 

Activate prior knowledge about maps. Engage background and personal knowledge about maps. Discuss how maps are used, especially in this day and age when electronic map apps have largely replaced traditional print maps in Americans’ everyday life. 

Become familiar with the map. Encourage students to describe the map in detail and discuss familiar and unfamiliar details. Such an activity helps students overcome any hesitancy they may have of working with historical maps. By providing their first impressions of the map, students are encouraged to both look at it closely and later revise their views based on further investigation. Explain that going through the investigation will help them find evidence to support their thinking or prompt them to consider an enhanced or completely different conclusion. 
 

Investigate 

Support fluency in basic map reading skills by finding and interpreting common map features. Practice locating common features with modern maps and then search for them on older maps. Comparing maps of the same area from different times emphasizes how these features are used on all maps. Use map features, particularly the compass rose, in three-dimensional space inside or outside the classroom to give students experience engaging with map skills. See “Tips for Studying Maps,” which is the last page of the Analyzing Maps worksheet, for map glossary words and a listing of the types of maps. 

  • Title or caption. What information is shared through these? What questions do they raise? 

  • Orientation. Use the compass rose to travel around the map. Move from topological language (above, around, near, etc.) to using cardinal directions. 

  • Key or Legend. Define the symbols in the key to enable students to decode the meaning of the map, make inferences, and construct predictions. 

  • Grid. Make the connection between the map’s 2-D projection of a 3-D space by using latitude and longitude to locate a place on the map and on a globe.  

  • Scale. Identify and use the scale to measure distance so students make the connection between actual space and represented space. 

Details. Continue using close-looking techniques to discover more details of the map, which will help students understand the map and the time it represents better. 
 

Build 

Explore life then and now. If someone made this map in a different time or today, how would it change? How would it stay the same? These questions help students understand continuity and change over time, as they explore facets of geography that seem to be universal (e.g., the White Mountains) and facets of geography that seem to be products of their time (e.g., the growth of towns and cities or the construction of roads). 

Reflect on the map’s moment in time. Expand students’ comprehension of how the map reflects the time in which it was made by combining everything learned previously in the activity. What does the map teach us about the time in which it was made and used? Use focus questions for the unit or new questions developed by students to drive inquiry to connect the map specifically to the objectives of the activity. 

Add to the story. Provide students with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations in regards to the map, which will help them connect their own lives to the lives of people in the past. This activity also allows students to place themselves in history, leading to greater engagement.