Five Steps for Teaching the Geo-Inquiry Process in an ELA Classroom

This post was written by English Language Arts educator Dr. Aspen Mock.


“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth.” –Rachel Carson

Which of the following disciplines is inherently geographic? Science? Social Studies?  Geography? World Cultures? Fine Arts? English Language Arts (ELA)?

The correct answer is: all the above. Every academic discipline connects with the landscape and spatial realities of where we are, how we interact with the world we inhabit, and ultimately tell the stories of our shared existence. The Geo-Inquiry Process, National Geographic Education’s hallmark approach to exploring our world, applies to curricula and lesson-planning in any scholastic discipline.

When viewed through an ELA lens, the Geo-Inquiry Process follows the same creative process and iterations as writing. Writers are storytellers and explorers. Literature reflects and shapes the culture and time in which it is oriented. An exploration of who we are, literature is connected to the setting of our reality: the natural world. 

For a Geo-Inquiry project, my students took part in qualitative research, wrote and produced digital storytelling videos about a local natural disaster, the 1977 Johnstown Flood. The Johnstown Flood Museum Digital Exhibit currently displays our digital stories from 2019. With that project in mind, here is an ELA perspective on how to apply this subject matter to the Geo-Inquiry process: 

An artifact from the 1977 Johnstown Flood. Photos courtesy of Aspen Mock.

Phase I: Ask

  • The Art of Questioning. Developing a Geo-Inquiry question encourages students to engage in higher-level thinking with types of questions that require synthesis, analysis, evaluation, and strategy. Questioning is the foundation of research and developing a question is enhanced with Tubrics and flowcharts. For our digital storytelling project, students wrote interview questions to ask survivors of the flood. For a digital alternative, interviews can easily be conducted and recorded (with the participant’s express permission) on Skype or Zoom.
  • Scales & Perspectives. Various perspectives offer students choice; they can align project-based learning with their own interests. Thematic approaches help students to determine a flow to uncover and collect data of lived human experiences in interaction with geographic space and environment. Students can then orient those stories around a particular scale and/or perspective, as they did in their digital storytelling projects. Many of them pre-selected a perspective, but these sometimes changed or gained more depth throughout the research and interview process.
  • Mentor Texts. Select texts with themes about the story related to your topic. Nonfiction texts could be articles, essays, documentaries, or media literacy related to the topic or issue, such as the biography of a National Geographic Explorer. Fiction is also a stalwart medium for inspiration. For example, to create our digital stories, we studied James Cameron’s Explorer approach to Titanic, which shows how Cameron used factual data obtained from his explorations to create the historical context of the film. Poetry is a particularly empowering theme-based approach if the poet has elucidated themes similar to those of the Geo-Inquiry project.

Phase II: Collect

  • Data Collection. Data collection can take many different forms, but perhaps the most relevant form of ELA-based data collection is qualitative data collected through observations, journalistic one-to-one interviews, and focus groups, all of which can also be conducted digitally. Qualitative data collection affords the collection of original data, which is key for students to draw their own novel conclusions on an issue or topic. In 2020 we added the platform ArcGIS to our digital storytelling projects. Students used ArcGIS Survey123 to develop surveys for multiple survivor interviews, and reviewed the feedback within ArcGIS.
  • Evaluate online sources. Students should seek valid, reliable, and credible sources that support their question, including images, maps, articles and artifacts to illuminate the context and facts of their topics. We partnered with the Johnstown Area Heritage Association Flood Museum, and the students had access to their on-site and digital archives for research.

Phase III: Visualize

  • Maps. Data gained and visualized through a map helps students identify an audience and purpose for the projects. When using the ArcGIS map-making program, learner-explorers see the global, regional, and local effects based on the data they have collected. Inspired and mentored by National Geographic Explorer Anna Antoniou and her ethnographic walk of Cyprus, we used the maps to outline an ethnographic walk based on our collected data.
  • Meaning-Making. Visualizing not only hones the power and use of images in storytelling, it helps develop empathy by allowing students to see the real effects their issue has on various populations and species in various parts of the globe, illuminating our interconnectedness.

Phase IV: Create

Students can create both fiction and non-fiction pieces to develop their Geo-Inquiry stories relevant to the skills learned in an ELA course. For our digital storytelling project last year, the culmination of our project was to share our stories created in Adobe Spark in a digital exhibition. Prior to school closures this past March 2020, we incorporated the use of ArcGIS to create maps of our data, outlined an ethnographic walk, and were in the midst of making our digital stories in ArcGIS StoryMaps. Various ways students can collaboratively convey storytelling include:

  • Essays
  • Digital Stories
  • Letters
  • Presentations
  • Poetry
  • Stage plays
  • Short Stories
Dr. Mock teaches students how to use educational technology to create their digital stories. Photo courtesy of Aspen Mock.

Phase V: Act

The final step in the Geo-Inquiry Process is to share Geo-Inquiry stories. Ways to share include:

  • Partner with a local museum to display an exhibition of student work. Digital exhibitions, which are embraced by museums all over the world, would be an alternative to live in-person exhibits.
  • Stage plays/films and invite an audience. Instead of staging a play live, you can create podcast play performances on Zoom or Skype.
  • Participate in an ethnographic walk and share student-written poetic pieces with interviewees. Instead of an in-person walk, perhaps think of an interactive map with pre-recorded selections hyperlinked to the map.
  • Write and send letters to government officials.
  • Deliver a presentation to a local board or group through virtual means.  

National Geographic Education’s Geo-Inquiry Process used with a literary lens empowers students to inquire about the interplay between the human and natural worlds, to make intergenerational connections with family and community members, and preserve triumphant and compelling stories of the human journey whilst fulfilling the standards of an English Language Arts course. And more broadly, the Geo-Inquiry Process helps students explore interconnectedness of the human and the natural world across every academic discipline, allowing them to make connections and change their communities as they begin to look at the world differently.