Thinking Outside the Book: Reading the World with Google Earth

Book Links May 2008 (Vol. 17 no.5)

By Jill Castek and Jessica Mangelson

Extend the enjoyment of literature with three-dimensional annotated maps of the world.

Great books take us to new places, spark our imagination, and make it possible to experience the world in new ways. Google Earth is an interactive geography tool that can enhance learning in a variety of content areas. In a language arts curriculum,
Google Earth can transport readers around the world to see the settings in their favorite books up close and firsthand. This free software allows students to visit sites and learn more about the places where book characters lived, traveled, struggled, and triumphed. These virtual tours enhance the enjoyment of books and support readers in visualizing the incredible journeys portrayed in books. Google Earth, used in conjunction with reading experiences, encourages higher-order thinking skills, such as interpreting, analyzing, comparing, and explaining. These skills are important to content learning as well as literacy.

Google Earth Teaching Resources

To learn about Google Earth’s easy-to-use features, you’ll first need to download the free
Google Earth program and explore the
tutorial. Most educators begin by locating their school. You’ll be amazed at how Google Earth displays a map’s worldview and then quickly zooms in on your continent, country, state, and region, arriving ultimately at your school and surrounding neighborhood. Once you have a general sense of the tool, visit “
Google Earth 101 for Educators.” This free site offers a series of screen casts and help sheets that introduce the wide array of Google Earth features. Visit the “
Curriculum Ideas” link for a list of teaching ideas organized by grade level.

Google Earth Lessons” contains free resources, such as “World Wonders,” “Exploring Time Zones,” “Personal Heritage and History,” and “Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation.” Visit Wiki Chicks’ “
Google Earth for Teachers” page to find other great lessons, ideas, and resources for using Google Earth with your students. “
Google Earth Blog” and “
Google Earth Education Community” both contain sections that address literature connections.

Google Lit Trips

Google Lit Trips are virtual expeditions created by teachers and their students for use in classrooms. These free resources offer a unique reading experience that pairs the exploration of geography with great literature. Google Lit Trips enhance popular stories at all grade levels by taking students on a new form of road trip. Readers will enjoy visualizing scenes and activating their imaginations as texts come to life in full-color imagery. Resources are organized into four grade ranges, from kindergarten to higher education. To orient yourself to the Google Lit Trips format, watch a step-by-step video introduction on
Teacher Tube. Then explore the trips that accompany the literature. Once you see how easy it is, you’ll be inspired to create your own trip!

Lit Trips for K–5 Students

The Lit Trip based on
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (Viking, 1941) invites readers to follow the path of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard as they find a safe home to raise their ducklings. Along the way, the Lit Trip highlights 14 points of interest in and around Boston and the St. Charles River. Each place mark matches up with a corresponding aspect of the story. At the end of the trip, readers arrive at the pond in the Public Garden and see where the duck family settles down to live. This journey is a perfect introduction to rivers, lakes, and streams. Young children will be engaged by the Lit Trip’s visuals and will appreciate the book in a new way.

Paddle to the Sea by Holling Clancy Holling (Houghton, 1941) remains timely 67 years after its initial publication. This story traces the path of a young American Indian boy’s hand-carved toy canoe through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The Lit Trip resources that accompany this book include place markers, plot summaries, geographic features, discussion questions, and links to kid-friendly Web sites.

The Lit Trip based on
The Yellow Balloon by Charlotte Dematons (Front Street, 2003) was developed by first-grade students. The trip takes you on a tour around the world to discover the geographical features mentioned in the book. Along the way, landmarks, directions, landforms, and water features are discovered. To create this trip, students chose the places they wished to visit from the book. They told their teacher where to place the markers in Google Earth and what information to list. When the students completed their trip and returned home to their school, they placed a picture of their class on top of their geographic location to mark their trip around the world.

Lit Trips for Grades 6–8

The Lit Trip based on
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (Simon & Schuster, 1974) provides a wealth of background information on each of the battles in the book. Information on each of the geographical locations is included, as well as pictures of military uniforms, historical documents, and other artifacts that make this classic Revolutionary War novel come to life. The vocabulary links and chapter summaries provide added support to help readers grasp the book’s historical events.

The Lit Trip based on
The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (Simon & Schuster, 1973) offers students a tangible way of experiencing
The Moonlight’s travel route. Resources highlight the book’s events, complete with discussion questions, chapter summaries, and vocabulary supports. This Lit Trip engages readers with images of what the main character, Jesse, would have seen and heard on the journey. The prompts embedded in this Lit Trip help readers construct a deeper understanding of the changes witnessed over the course of the voyage.

New technologies such as Google Earth and Google Lit Trips provide rich reading and learning experiences that support comprehension and visualization. These tools make it easy to integrate literature and geography in powerful ways that engage readers of all ages. In the process, students gain valuable experience with the new technologies that are revolutionizing the way we think about the world and our place in it.

Jill Castek is a literacy specialist with the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading project at UC Berkeley. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut.
Jessica Mangelson has worked as an elementary-school teacher, reading specialist, and professor of reading education.