5 Tips for Interpreting Maps for History Class

A funny mapWhen I say history, most people think of long, stuffy, dull lectures by historians, or maybe long, stuffy, dull reading sessions with a book that has a lot of ‘useful’ information (such as this tidbit from my history book: “To what extent could the home government refashion the empire and reassert its power while limiting the authority of colonial legislatures and their elected representatives?” Yes, you need to breathe at least three times if you read that sentence out loud or you risk suffocating).

I’m not here to just say things and tell you what most people think, though (you can use Facebook for that; try the question: “What do u guys think bout when i say litteerature?).  However, there is an important aspect of history that I think most people tend to forget. No, I’m not talking about the aliens that built the great pyramids; I’m talking about: maps.

Yes, maps, a vital part of every history textbook. Vital because without maps, every page is filled completely with text, meaning you have to read twice as much.  I mean, nobody ever stops to look at the maps, aside to check and see if they can see their own house on them, or at least their neighborhood.

Maps in your textbook, though, are unimportant; you can check them out or you can ignore them, and nothing about history will change. It’s not as if, by not looking at the map of Columbus’ route, he won’t get to the new world.  That stuff only happens “real-life” TV shows.

You can get a good idea of just how valuable maps really are to your education by reversing the letters.  You get the word “spam.” So, maps are about as educational as SPAM is nutritional.  Or, maps are as educational as spam e-mails are welcome. Or even that maps are as educational as spam emails advertising SPAM are ironic.

But let’s say you’re in class, and your teacher asks you to interpret a map.  Maybe it’s even during at test. What are you supposed to do?

1) Locate Water

Most maps have either lakes or oceans on them. If the map is black and white, then you should figure out what is water and what is land.  A good rule of thumb is: look for Italy, shaped like a boot. Anything attached to Italy is land. If Italy is not on the map, then you’ve at least got a 50-50 chance of getting it right.

2) Look for a Compass

All well-made maps have a directional indicator known as a “compass rose.” You can find it by sniffing your map and looking in the direction the flower smell is coming from.  Then, make sure the letter “N,” which stands for Never (as in Never Eat Soggy Waffles), is on the top.

3) Look for a Key

The map key is also very important.  It usually tells you what certain symbols mean on the map.  On grainy, black and white maps, this is utterly useless, but the text might help you begin to understand what the map is about. If it says something like “marks spot of major battles,” then you know the map illustrates one of the 3,826 wars that have occurred in history.

4) Interpret Lines

Often, a map will have arrows or lines drawn on it.  This either means that the school copier is acting up again, or that these lines have ‘historical significance.’ If you can’t get any clues from the key, assume that these arrows are sort of like Google Maps; they give you directions from one place to another, with alternate routes.  The dates on the lines are probably just estimated time of route, so if it is something like 1863-1865, know that, in 1863, it would take two years to walk the route of the line.

5) Do Origami

If you have tried all of these things and still can’t make sense of your map, you should fold it into a complex origami creation.  Not only is this more visually pleasing, this also might help you.  In folding your map, certain connections of folded edges will come together.  In creating these modifications, you might create a recognizable Italy.  Then, you could re-try to interpret your map.

I am confident that if you do these things, your map-test grades will dramatically change.  Not necessarily for the better.  But in the end, it’s who has the most fun, and let’s face it: getting an ‘F’ is certainly not fun (although you can’t have ‘Fun’ without an ‘F’).

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