Geography: An “Elective” Subject?

By Eric Fournier, NCGE President

At the end of my ninth-grade year a guidance counselor informed my classmates and me that in the coming year we would have the opportunity to choose between two electives—European History and World Geography.

This was the first time I had heard the word “elective” and the first time I had ever been given a choice in the classes I would take. Prior to this, in 10 years of schooling, classes were just classes, but now I had a choice. And, for me, the choice was easy.

At home we had a well-thumbed world atlas and a groaning shelf filled with gold-bordered National Geographic magazines, and my mother had an endearing (or annoying) habit of quizzing me on state and world capitals in front of her friends. So it had to be geography.

The teacher, Miss Romansky, introduced me, and the rest of the class, to the formal study of geography. She told us about exotic-sounding places like Skagerrak and Kattegat and explained that places where land pinched seas into narrow passages were called “choke points.” She pulled down the world map and asked us to find similar places around the world. There were lots of them—Gibraltar, Malacca, Hormuz, Bosporus—and she later explained how those places were crucial to understanding patterns of history and commerce in the world.

That lesson helped me understand that knowing exotic place names and locations, which might allow me to show off for mom’s friends, was only the beginning of geographic understanding. It was the underlying concepts that really made the subject come alive.

Three years later, when I was a freshman at Syracuse University, a college guidance counselor explained that after three “core” classes I had room for an elective. There was that word again. When she showed me the eligible classes, I was surprised to see geography on the list. They taught it in college too? I had no idea!

I signed up for Cultural Geography, and on the first day of class made my way up the steep hill from my dorm to the Hall of Languages, where I joined 120 other undergrads in the lecture hall. From the moment the professor strode into the class—and he did indeed stride—he had command of the class. He looked and sounded exactly like a professor was supposed to: tall and dignified, unruly white hair, tweed suit, and a deep resonant voice. He proceeded to deliver the first of many spell-binding lectures. Over the course of the semester he introduced us to more of the underlying concepts in geography—core and periphery, diffusion, perceptual regions, transition zones, and more.

It turned out I did not have just any professor. He was Donald Meinig, one of the preeminent historical geographers of the 20th century and author of a magisterial four-volume series called The Shaping of America. The care and attention he gave to this introductory geography class made it clear that he considered teaching a very important part of his job. Too often we hear about the trade-off between teaching and scholarship and how success in one must come at the expense of the other. But taking teaching seriously, especially elective classes, should be considered an obligation of every geography educator.

So what is the point in dredging up these memories? Don’t underestimate the power of elective classes to change a student’s life. For high school teachers, a geography class might be one of five or six other classes in your daily schedule, and for college professors it might be one more prep that is getting in the way of your latest research project. But these elective classes have the power to open our subject to a large audience of future decision-makers, voters, and citizens. In the process, we help build a more geographically literate society.

Take these “electives” seriously, and remember that someone in the class—like me—might be paying attention.



Robert N. Saveland Receives NCGE’s Highest Honor

Robert N. Saveland

Joseph Stoltman (left) and NCGE President Eric Fournier (right) with Robert Saveland after he received the 2012 George J Miller Award on October 6.

Dr. Robert N. Saveland was awarded the George J Miller Award at the 2012 National Conference on Geographic Education on October 6 in San Marcos, Texas. The George J Miller Award, the highest honor bestowed by the National Council for Geographic Education, is given for a distinguished record of service to geography education.

Dr. Saveland began his teaching career as a seventh- and tenth-grade geography teacher in the junior/senior high school in Kirkwood, Missouri, following World War II. Research on textbook design for his dissertation led him to the field of professional editing in the early 1950s. In 1968, he joined the University of Georgia as professor in the College of Education’s Department of Social Science Education.

Dr. Saveland served NCGE as a member of the Publications Policy Committee and as a regular participant in the annual conferences. His articles and book reviews have been published in the Journal of Geography and book chapters appeared in other NCGE publications. He is one of a select group of geographers who has been an NCGE member for more than 60 years.

Updated National Geography Standards Published

Geography for Life CoverAfter five years of careful work involving dozens of content experts, editors, and reviewers, the updated National Geography Standards have been published. The new document, Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, Second Edition, outlines 18 Standards that identify what students should know and be able to do in grades 4, 8, and 12.

According to Roger Downs, professor of geography at The Pennsylvania State University and chair of the Standards Content Committee, the updated Geography for Life reflects many of the changes in geography since publication of the original document in 1994. Topics such as globalization and human dimensions of global change are more fully integrated, he said, and the skills have been revised to incorporate the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and geospatial technology.

Short essays, designed to guide teachers but also allow them to find their own creative ways to encourage students to learn geography, introduce each of the Standards. “The Standards are better thought of as guidelines for what teachers might do, not a template for what they should do,” said Downs.

The new document’s layout and organization received attention during the revision process. “The major difference from the first edition, apart from the substantive updating, is in the structure of the Standards,” said Downs. “For each Standard, by use of careful scaffolding, there is an explicit attempt to build understanding from grade level to grade level.” This scaffolding illustrates how the geography content could be presented at each grade level.

“The redesign of the document enables a teacher or curriculum developer to see simultaneously how ideas are structured within a grade level and across the three grade levels,” Downs said.

“If you want to look ahead to see where students are going, or if you’re at the 12th grade level and want to look back to see what students may or may not have had… it’s all on one page for you as you look at a Standard,” said Susan Gallagher Heffron, Senior Project Manager for Geography Education at the Association of American Geographers and a member of the Standards Content Committee.

Gallagher Heffron served as project manager for the updated Geography for Life. She and Downs were co-editors of the document. The second edition also has new photographs and maps and an expanded glossary of geography terms, which Gallagher Heffron said should be a useful instructional tool for teachers using the Standards, especially those who are new to geography.

She also cited new emphasis on “doing geography”—helping students learn to ask and answer geographic questions—as another important update. Other modifications should make the document itself easier to use. The book’s spiral binding allows it to lay open on a desk.

Geography for Life was developed under the auspices of the Geography Education National Implementation Project (GENIP), a consortium involving the Association of American Geographers, the American Geographical Society, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the National Geographic Society.

NCGE will manage sales and distribution of the document. The National Geographic Society is developing a companion website focused on the updated Standards.

Gallagher Heffron said she hopes curriculum developers, educators, textbook publishers, and others embrace the updated Standards and create products that aid teachers.

“The overall goal remains the same,” Downs said. “This is geography for life, an indispensable way of understanding the world and functioning in it.”

To order your copy, please visit

–Tim Hill

National Geographic Bee Registration

School registration for the 25th annual Bee is now open. Since the National Geographic Bee made its debut in 1989, millions of American school children have competed in this annual geography contest. Schools with any of the grades four through eight are eligible to participate. Principals must register the school. The fee is $100 before the deadline of October 15, 2012, and $120 from that date until December 14, 2012. Schools receive the questions and other materials needed to conduct their Bee. The national champion will receive a $25,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society, and a trip to the Galápagos Islands. For detailed information and registration instructions, visit

Watch the winning moment from the national finals of the 2012 National Geographic Bee: