Mapping Place, Writing Home: Using Interactive Compositions On and Off the Trail

Kate Reavey, Peninsula College

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Students will choose a physical place to study, a site that is close enough to visit at least four times during the quarter/semester. Using writing prompts, text-based research, and close observations in the "field" (the chosen place), students will create a "mashup" of spatially referenced pop-up balloons. These will include researched and narrative prose, citations and links, and some visual images, embedded into a map via Google Earth technology. Through this unique presentation, the research and writing can encourage viewers to better understand the place they have chosen to study. This composition is based on interactive technology. The viewer does not have to "read" the piece in a linear manner, just as an individual does not need to stay on "the trail" when exploring a forest or a neighborhood or a village.

Note: This assignment was created by an instructor who considers herself a novice in technical realms. Although the work requires Google Earth technology and the creation of KMZ files, both are user-friendly, and there is nothing here that should intimidate even "green" users of technology.

Learning Goals

Students will:
  • Engage questions of place, including environmentally and socially focused issues.
  • Consider interconnectedness and interdependence within an area.
  • Explore carrying capacity by researching biodiversity in an area.
  • Understand spatial and temporal scales.
  • Learn to make focused observations of their biotic and cultural communities.
  • Carefully view interactions among species and identify further questions of use and sustainability.
  • Implement primary and secondary sources and understand the distinctions.
  • Learn to use Google Earth technology and create a KMZ file/mashup.
  • Read and view each others' work with attention to critical thinking and composition (and use the rubric for focused commentary).
  • Present work first to the class then to a larger audience through posting to the campus-wide site for publication (or the Web).

Writing Objectives

Students will:
  • Utilize drafts in a pre-writing/free-writing, drafting, revising, polishing model of composition.
  • Write coherent, well-organized paragraphs with transitions.
  • Distinguish between narrative structure and other modes of research writing and utilize those most appropriate for the mashup.
  • Incorporate MLA format and correct citations where needed.
  • Consider purpose and audience.
  • Engage the Google Earth technology while keeping main-ideas and thesis-based discussion in mind.
  • Present comprehensive commentary to others through peer-review.

Sustainability Objectives

Students will:
  • Learn that places are vibrant, changing, dynamic.
  • See that through close observation and mapping, the layers of place become more visible.
  • Research the layers of a given place, gaining a clearer understanding of the positive and less positive interactions between and among humans and other species.
  • Explore the layers of history, culture, geography, literature, ecology that have influenced a place.
  • Consider how their own lives impact places.
  • Explore how place creates culture, shapes stories and music and lives.
  • Discuss the grassroots organizations (if any) that have been formed to "save" or influence the place.
  • Explore a place physically and share it with others through virtual technology.

Context for Use

Purpose:This series of assignments was created for English 102-advanced composition-courses, although it can be adapted for use in literature, history, philosophy, geography, environmental science, other humanities and social science courses, and learning communities. The research for this assignment will take place in the classroom, on the computer, in the library, and in the landscape/cityscape/ suburban-scape of the student's choice.

As an instructor, I have learned that critical thinking (a cornerstone of English courses) is best learned through engagement. Using first their keen observations, then following with textual inquiry (both primary source-based and secondary) and interviews with individuals influenced by or living in this place, students will gather notes and images that reflect the place of study. Time will be spent in "the field," both observing/mapping and interviewing/writing. The conclusion of this assignment is more a commencement, as the KMZ file-the composition reflecting the place that has been studied aka "mashup"-will be uploaded to a campus wide (or potentially Web-wide) portal, so others can be guided through this landscape/cityscape and can also take the proverbial "wheel" as they navigate the various elements of place.

MashUps and Lit Trips: the term "mashup" was originally coined in hip hop music; however, recently they have been used in higher education. According to Barry et al (Peninsula College), GIS mash-ups are essential to "getting ahead of the curve in teaching and job skills training" and these can enhance not only learning but employment opportunities. In a poster created by Dwight Barry, PhD; Mia Boster; and Chris De Sisto, the potential for mash-ups in higher education is highlighted, and a "mashup" is defined as a "hybrid application that draws from multiple sources to create something new" (Boss and Krauss 2007; qtd in Barry et al). For a brief introduction to GIS across the curriculum and to Google Lit Trips, see follow the link to the GIS and lit trips tutorials. In simple terms, a kmz file is the technology used for a mashup. An example, created by students in Barry's classes, can be found here:

Description and Teaching Materials

This assignment will be ongoing throughout the quarter with due dates according to each of the four required elements (narrative, textual research, interview/photo research, mapping with pencils and descriptions), then drafts, peer-review, and finished work deadlines.

The Learning Activity

This teaching-and-learning activity can focus on a specific place, such as a street corner or neighborhood; a forested or nature-based landscape, such as a beach or city park or foot trail, or clear cut; an urban/industrial space, such as a warehouse, office building, movie theater, restaurant, or club OR it can be based on personal history in a way that the essay may be partially shaped before the research even begins. The purpose of this activity is three-tiered: to build awareness of the places we inhabit; to emphasize observation, primary research, and engagement with a locale; and to synthesize various research opportunities into a composition that will be published online.

For Students: WEEK by WEEK Assignments

Week One:Choose a locale for your mashup exploration. It must be close enough that you can predictably visit the site at least four times during the quarter (approx. every two weeks). The study will include both biotic and abiotic factors, so consider the interactions that might take place here, the layers of study. A place that is very familiar to you is fine, or an area you wish to discover more closely can work well, too.

Week Two: After visiting your site, begin to sketch both a textual narrative and a hand-jotted map. Think about the interactions between human and non-human living beings and begin to see this place as habitat. Consider the idea of layering transparencies over your maps; that is, which aspects of this area would you like to emphasize, study, consider more closely.

Week Three:Begin or continue your bibliography of place. What resources will you use to convey this place in the mash-up? Are there interviews with local individuals that need to be completed? Are there books/articles you will borrow through interlibrary loan? Be sure you have checked in with your instructor and or librarian, so that you can begin the next step: writing, mapping, mashing.
Week Four:During week two, you began to draft some notes/paragraphs/sketches and started mapping your site. Now take time to type your notes into the computer (if you have not yet done so) and watch for themes, layers, connections. Visit your site again, and take notes, then be sure to access the locale via Google Earth and consider which "pushpins" are already present. In your final composition, you will be placing these pushpins into the mash up file, so be sure to consider which layers you'll keep in place (for your KMZ file) and which you will embellish with your work. Finally, are there some that are distractions? If so, is it useful to "pull up that transparency" (that is, make those details fade away)? If so, are you negating some of the important factors in your essential exploration?

Week Five:"Cooking with gas!" Begin to finesse not only your individual writing pieces and your hand made maps but begin to embed the bubbles that will appear when viewers click on your pushpins. We are fairly close to mid-quarter here, so be certain you have kept up with the visits to your site.

Weeks Six and Seven: Continue to focus on the layers within your map(s) and mashups, as well as working on your pop-up bubbles. If you decide to include an mp3 file, for example, be sure that the recording is clear and complete. Review your work and revise. If you have questions about the KMZ file creations, ask your instructor or review the tutorial.

Week Eight: Balance between these two prerogatives: writing/observing and mapping/mashing up.

Week Nine:Peer-review sessions are set for this week. Now is your chance to share your work with the other students in your group. Be sure that your groups have three to four participants each and use the rubric to discuss how each mashup can be revised or embellished (or edited) to improve its quality and accessibility.
Week Ten: Revise. Revise. Revise.

Week Eleven: Return to your site, so that the virtual doesn't take over completely. Then the class will begin to share the KMZ files with the entire group.

Week Twelve:Continue to share your work. Instructors will ask for the mashups to be handed in for a grade.
Some Additional Notes
When you submit your proposal of place, consider these questions:
What is the geology?

What relationships do humans have to this place?
–what language(s) are spoken in and around
–what attire is worn here
–what changes have technology and/or industry had on the place/human relationships

How do these factor in?
–language, idioms, accents
–geography, geology, art and sculpture
–literature of the book, of the streets (music, rap, poetry, slang)

What music/arts/literature have emerged or been enhanced by this place?

What is the history or prehistory of this place?

What businesses (if any) are viable in this place?
–if such businesses exist, what impacts do they have on the environment/ecology of place, if any?

WEEK by WEEK Notes for Teachers:

Week One:Introduce your students to a variety of readings, including Leslie Marmon Silko's "Landscape and the Pueblo Imagination," Philip Richards' "Leaving the Folk," Barbara Kingsolver's "The Memory of Place," Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimbles's "The Geography of Childhood," Wallace Stegner's "The Question Mark in the Circle," and/or any of Gary Snyder's essays from A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds or his Practice of the Wild. These pieces may help them identify questions and concepts they will consider when exploring and researching their site. These will be good starting places.
Week Two: This is the week where students will be looking closely at the site they have chosen. It will be useful to direct them to field guides and possibly maps (if available) of the area, including topographical, if possible. When they begin to sketch their first maps, encourage them to think about layers of influence and interaction but to keep their sketches simple and clear. Show them the map drawn by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, created in 1861 which showed the profound losses to Napolean's army during the march on Moscow. Also, during class time, use Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones to emphasize the value of pre-writing. Goldberg's section called "freewriting" is particularly useful, as are the exercises that begin with prompts.

Week Three:As students continue their research, introduce mashups through first viewing Google lit trips ( Then distinguish between a lit trip-one based on a narrative that already exists-and the unique mashups they are creating. Remind the students that their work is original and exciting.
Note:At about this stage, students will submit a two page discussion of the research to date. For some students, the place will have been chosen as a result of personal history or a narrative that has already begun. For others, the place and the observations will be new this quarter/semester.
Week Four: During this week, students will begin to type notes into the computer and will be watching for themes, layers, connections. If necessary, help students find their place on Google Earth (many will have done so already). When they do so, they will be looking for layers, looking to see which "pushpins" are present. Now is a good time to remind students of old-school maps and classic transparencies. View some maps in the classroom, possibly read Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "The Map" and consider Minard's map once again, now that they are more aware of the tools of the class.

Week Five: This is a week where the momentum can slow. Spend time encouraging your students and viewing whichever portions of their mashup needs attention: technology? writing? research? citation formats? Check with students to be sure they have visited their sites at least twice by now.

Weeks Six and Seven:You can review the tutorials on the "Title 3" site, if needed. ( for tutorials on creating wikis, using GIS across the curriculum, and viewing Google Earth lit trips). Be as supportive as possible with the questions that arise. Now is a good time to return to question of interaction, tradition, change, culture, and sustainability. Remind students of the resources they can access.

Week Eight: Encourage your students to balance between these two prerogatives: writing/observing and mapping/mashing up. Remind them that peer-reviews are scheduled for next week. Have students sign-up for times and groups/peer-review.
Week Nine: Peer-review sessions-these are tremendously valuable for students both to receive encouragement/critique and to be reminded of the diversity of approaches available with this technology. This diversity provides for excellent teaching and learning opportunities in sustainability studies. Be sure to use the rubrics, and the links that are suggested in the assessment section of this Teaching and Learning plan, to be sure your students maximize their perspectives and understanding. Groups will meet with no less than three individuals, in order to discuss how each mashup might be revised, embellished and/or edited to improve its quality and accessibility.

Week Ten: Be available to students so they can revise with your assistance.

Week Eleven:Encourage students to return to their physical site, so that the virtual doesn't take over completely. Set up a schedule so students can share their mashups/KMZ files with the entire group.

Week Twelve:Grade the students' work and praise their ability to connect to vital concepts while having a great deal of fun!

Attachment A- Lead In Assignments- Extended Notes for Teachers (Microsoft Word 35kB Nov3 11)
Attachment B- Rubric for Mashups/KMZ Files UBRIC (Microsoft Word 25kB Nov3 11)
Examples of Published Work (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov3 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

NOTE: Ideally, a link will be provided between this course and an environmental science course or an art, art history, anthropology, or other course, so that students can share their writings with others whose studies focus on place. This can be done face to face, or, if the classes do not meet concurrently, online. This is another component within which students can see the benefits of online technologies for learning.

NOTE: This assignment was designed as a "writing across the curriculum" activity, in which students will use skills honed in various disciplines. It would be a perfect fit in a linked English Composition-GIS mapping course. The assignment lends itself very aptly to a variety of social science, humanities, and interdisciplinary courses. The KMZ file could certainly be created as a smaller assignment in a natural science class.


The final presentation will require written responses to classmates' work:
  • Each student will create a list of five "big ideas" of sustainability they have observed in their fellow students' mashups. (Please use this link for examples:
  • The non-linearity of the mashups can emphasize the idea that small impacts can have large influence; students will consider this question.
  • Each student will observe the layers of the mashups/maps and consider the ideas of interdependence, biodiversity, and carrying capacity.
  • Each student will discuss and report spatial and temporal scales and how understanding of these has been enhanced by this mashup.
  • Each student will discuss and report how/whether this mashup has inspired a positive vision of the future.
  • Each student will consider Ron Scollon's and Gary Snyder's ideas about "cradle to cradle" practices (and the Axe Handle metaphor) in light of the mashup being considered. (see "lead in assignment ideas"-attached as a separate document in this (T&L Plan).
For peer-review assessments, use the Rubric in Attachment "B".

Additional Assessment Tool (thanks to Washington Center reference)

Since this assignment is based on relationships/interactions, it is useful to view this site early in the quarter and return to it during the last week of the quarter, so students can identify key words/components to complement what they already know about taking an ecological approach.

These assessment objectives will encourage the following
sustainability skills:
  • Ability to work collaboratively in groups as an essential communications skill
  • Ability to use and apply systems thinking
  • Ability to cope with complexity by examining complex problems, and by hearing other perspectives
  • Skills of observation and empiricism-observing outside your usual way, observing deliberately
  • Critical thinking-examining what you know and how you know it
  • Ability to recognize and evaluate an injustice: moral decision making
  • Ability to reflect on knowledge, values, and commitment through a variety of media, including artistic expression.
(from "Sustainability Learning Outcomes"

References and Resources

The WA Center's Curriculum for the Bioregion website is perhaps the most useful reference of all: (On this site, you can access a wealth of resources, both printed and electronic, through linking to the "Curriculum for the Bioregions Initiative" and other sites.)

Also, local websites, such as Chamber of Commerce sites and ecologically-based sites are terrific for use with creating mashups. National parks, state parks and recreation areas often have useful websites, as do businesses and sometimes neighborhood organizations.

Useful texts for teaching GIS across the curriculum:

Harmon, Katherine, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination

Monmonier, Mark, Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)
–. How to Lie with Maps (2nd Edition)

Sinton, Diana Stuart, Understanding Place: GIS and Mapping Across the Curriculum

Turchi, Peter, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer

Required Texts:

Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones

Silko, Leslie Marmon, Landscape and the Pueblo Imagination

Recommended Texts:

Duncan, David James, The River Why

Hallowell, Christopher and Walter Levy, Listening to Earth (excellent anthology for use in composition courses)

Heinrich, Berndt, Ravens in Winter

Kingsolver, Barbara, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Richards, Philip, "Leaving the Folk"

Snyder, Gary, all works, especially A Place in Space and The Practice of the Wild

Silko, Leslie Marmon, Storyteller

Required Websites: (for tutorials on creating wikis, using GIS across the curriculum, and viewing Google Earth lit trips) (for viewing maps, downloading the mapping technology, and creating kmz files-mashups)

Useful websites for ecological perspectives on the Olympic Peninsula and in the northwest: Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe for information on the Elwha dams and ecology

Books that pertain to the Olympic Peninsula as a Bioregion:

Aliesan, Jody, Doing Least Harm and Grief Sweat

Carver, Raymond, All of Us: the Complete Poems

Dalton, Russell, ed. Island of Rivers: An Anthology of Writings to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Olympic National Park

Derry, Alice,Clearwater and Stages of Twilight

Dietrich, William, The Final Forest

Doig, Ivan (all works)

Gallagher, Tess, Lover of Horses, At the Owl Woman Saloon (fiction) and Dear Ghosts, Amplitude, and all other collections of poetry

Gorsline, Jeremiah, Working the Woods, Working the Sea(an anthology of writings)

Mathews, Daniel, A Cascades-Olympic Natural History

McNulty, Tim, A Natural History of Olympic National Park(non-fiction) and In Blue Mountain Dusk and Pawtracks (poetry)

Warren, Charlotte, On Ghandi's Lap
Wray, Jacilee, ed. Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are