Geographic Perspectives with Educator Sandra Turner

This post was written by Dr. Vicki Phillips.


As students are challenged with 21st-century issues, geography is a skill, insight, and vision that allows learners to better understand the interconnected world. Given the complex social, environmental, and political challenges today’s learners will inherit, we must leverage the power of geography to teach them to measure the impact of our actions. 

That’s why I’m thrilled to continue our conversation series in which I’m asking various educators, thought leaders, and other experts in the field for their take on geography, exploring its many layers, complexities, and applications. Through leaning into the importance and full understanding of geography, we aim to inspire both educators and students to better illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. 

This week’s conversation partner is Sandra Turner, a National Geographic Certified Educator. Sandra is an informal educator who teaches environmental literacy, aquatic culture, and social responsibility to young people, mostly in after school settings, in Columbia, MD. Here’s what geography means — in all its iterations — to Sandra:

A photo of educator Sandra Turner. Photo courtesy Sandra Turner

Vicki Phillips (VP): What does geography mean to you?

Sandra Turner (ST): My life and teaching practice have been made richer by the study of people, places, and the natural world. To me, geography means intellectual expanse and awakening. Our planet is an inexhaustible exploration to behold. It can begin right where we are! I became a National Geographic Certified Educator to share my adventures with my students and teach them what I call “the art of geo.

VP: Geography helps build bridges and create connections. How do you see this play out in your work?

ST: Teaching global climate change is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as an educator. It hasn’t always been easy. Midway into my first year of teaching elementary students, I was asked, “What does global warming have to do with me?” It occurred to me that my students were not connecting to the learning objectives because they didn’t know enough about the natural world and how it works. 

So as a preamble to teaching about the science of climate change, I now begin lessons with an introduction to the concept of the earth as an ecosystem with myriad species dependent upon its resources to sustain all life. Students learn spatial skills as they illustrate models of the carbon and water cycle and create detailed maps of their neighborhood. To increase their geographic knowledge, students read carefully selected books to learn how others experience their environments. Our discussions included the use of interactive maps and Google Earth to deepen their discovery.

I am amazed to see the transformation of my student’s learning by simply incorporating the use of geographical thinking and tools into activities. It was the catalyst to creating the bridge to connect students to understanding climate change in a meaningful way and across multiple scales. I look forward to broadening my curriculum planning by completing the Connecting the Geo-Inquiry Process to Your Teaching Practice course this fall.

Editor’s note: Sandra learned to teach global climate change in the National Geographic Education Teaching Global Climate Change in Your Classroom course. Click here to learn more and register for the next session of the class!

“I am amazed to see the transformation of my student’s learning by simply incorporating the use of geographical thinking and tools into activities. It was the catalyst to creating the bridge to connect students to understanding climate change in a meaningful way and across multiple scales.”

VP: How is geography relevant to 21st-century thinking and what might we do differently with geography in mind?

ST: As an informal educator who works primarily with elementary students in afterschool settings, I enjoy having the flexibility to design interdisciplinary lessons for students to develop a wide range of new skill sets without the pressure of achieving perfect grades and test scores. Students are able to take risks, try new ideas, and expand their creativity while working on project-based assignments that will send them around the world to brainstorm solutions to real-time problems.  

This year I have the opportunity to partner with Karla Lee, National Geographic Certified Educator Mentor Leader, and National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Tara Roberts to help students plan their first global virtual conservation dive and expedition. It’s STEAM-focused; students will apply geographic perspectives to their scientific writing and communication. Along with emerging technologies like virtual reality and ArcGIS Story Maps, students will create a final multimedia project to share what they learned about climate change from the context of the changing ocean and human migration. 

VP: Where/how do you see geography playing out in the news/world today? 

ST: Although alarmed by the increased coverage of environmental degradation taking place around the world due to the effects of climate change, I do believe that the media has done a fair job to help raise awareness on its regional and global impacts.

However, the commentaries and debates remind us of how insular we are as a nation. This also points to how little we know about people and places in other parts of the world. This presents a tremendous opportunity for educators to frame discussions that will help students take ownership of their geographic knowledge by learning to analyze information, formulate and ask their own questions, and communicate to demonstrate their understanding. 

VP: How can we connect geographic thinking to solving the world’s most pressing problems?  

ST: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou 

I believe instinctively we all have a desire to be a part of what makes life on earth more sustainable for our own well-being. It’s only human. The pressing problems we face can be overwhelming, leaving us perplexed as to how and where to begin.  

Kudos to our National Geographic Explorers and Storytellers for their brave work and the mastery of connecting geographic thinking to our unprecedented place and time. Their brave pursuits give voice to stories that inspire our intentions and ambiguous beginnings. Their images open our vision to what we have been unable to see or have refused to give attention to because of our discomforts. They invoke in us the moral courage to say, yes to new possibilities to achieving a sustainable planet. I think every educator should be a storyteller … for every storyteller is an educator

Editor’s note: In partnership with Adobe, National Geographic Education is offering a new, free Storytelling for Impact course. Learn more and register here

VP: What geography fact fascinates you the most and why?

ST: Island formation: The Caribbean, with its 30 nations and more than 7,000 islands, is home to a diverse culture of people, indigenous knowledge, and one of the world’s richest biodiversity.

I have seen much of this paradise during my travels across islands as I research how people arrived at these places. With each sojourn, I gain a deeper appreciation for the sacredness of the natural world as I capture the images of vibrant rainforests, mountains, flora, landscapes, and its intoxicating blue water. I have devoted my conservation efforts and life’s work to this region and its people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. 

A photo of an island landscape from Sandra’s travels. Photo courtesy Sandra Turner.

Read other Geographic Perspectives conversations here. Looking for more stories, ideas, and lesson plans about teaching geography? Click here! And share your definitions of geography on social media — use #ThatsGeography and tag @NatGeoEducation to join the conversation.