Making Thinking Structures Visible: Timelines, Maps, and Grids


Rachel Stone is our 6th grade Humanities teacher. Read on for her reflections on using the visual tools of maps, globes, and timelines in Humanities. 

One of my goals in middle school social studies is to give students a framework upon which to place future knowledge and weave it into understanding. In my mind, I think of this like a basket, with points of intersection between space and time. I want students to develop a basic understanding of both the timeline and of physical geography so that they can place new information (history, current events, politics, travel plans, etc.) in an internalized grid of timeline and location. Working with the visual tools of maps, globes and timelines is an important part of our work in humanities.

6th graders have the fun benefit of starting with the very beginning of time, the big bang! We start the year looking at various representations of the timeline of the whole universe. (A favorite short video uses the football field analogy to show the history of planet earthSpoiler alert: humans are just a blade of grass.) We try our own version: Students are each assigned a key turning point in the history of the universe and figure out a logical chronology along the edge of the field. We discuss where these events would really be spaced if we had a consistent scale, but don’t actually attempt this as it would take us far off campus!

Our classroom has a more human-centered timeline running the length of a wall. It takes us from the bronze age through the near future. When we learn about a civilization, a Pharaoh, or invention, we take the step to locate this event on our classroom timeline. For example, students just learned about the three periods of Egyptian history: often called the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. Even to me, getting to see them visually on our classroom timeline brings home the incredible duration of this civilization. (I can’t wait until we get to China!) A student today pointed out that while we had marked periods when the kingdom of Kush conquered and was conquered by Egypt, we had not marked the important defensive victory against Rome in 24 BCE. She added the post-it note herself, to my delight.

Maps have come up in an interesting way recently as well. The Nile, flowing north into the Mediterranean Sea, gives us a great opportunity to stretch our brains around the fact that the earth is globe-shaped rather than flat, two-dimensional rectangle. As easy as they are to put on a bulletin board or in a binder, sometimes maps actually obscure this. Because Egyptians thought of their life-giving water supply as flowing from the Upper Nile to the Lower Nile, Lower Egypt is actually above Upper Egypt on any typical North-up map. Struggling to wrap our heads around this, a student suggested that we flip the direction of our Nile River map to better match the Egyptian concept. I had an extra copy, so we put the second map upside-down (or South-up) next to the original. In the next class, a student pushed us further to represent our thinking visually. We held the long map of the Nile River between us, and gave it the slight downhill slope that would show how water actually flows into the Mediterranean. (Thinking that the Nile is not actually a waterfall flowing down our classroom walls.) And we put up this third map horizontally. Sixth graders are still quite concrete, but can grasp (and love to puzzle out) new levels of complexity.  I loved this moment because students were suggesting how to better use our classroom tools to externalize their thinking.

A third classroom tool we are currently using is more about visualizing a specific way of thinking and categorizing information. Our biggest bulletin board is a grid of ancient river-valley civilizations. Each row identifies an aspect of society or civilization, such as the system of government, religious system, arts and entertainment, or advances in technology. Each column is dedicated to one of the ancient civilizations we study. For example, the first column records our study of ancient Sumer, showcasing images of artifacts we’ve studied in depth, and new facts students found worth pondering. (Carefully paraphrased and with credible sources listed, of course.)

Last week, we looked at Egyptian artifacts (well, replicas) as archaeologists. When putting up images and new information, students had to think through what aspects of civilization each artifact connected to – usually seeing at least two or three options. I love any chance for students to experience that human methods of categorization can be as limiting as they are useful. A complex understanding is much more about the nuances of grey area than binary categories. For example, students wanting to put up an image of The Victory Tablet of Narmer had to make a physical decision of where to place it. The king’s victory is all about the system of government, but it’s also a piece of art showing advances in technology, and it serves as a type of record keeping of the story of Narmer’s conquest. I love that this structure shows the limits of this type of clear categorization while maintaining its usefulness. As with the timeline and the map of the Nile River, students engage actively with these classroom tools. We want our next generations to be empowered to use, critique, and improve methods of representation.