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November 24, 2013

Heightened Sense of Place: Educators’ efforts helped put geography back on map in schools

Geography transcends dots on a map.

Teachers traveling abroad alongside Terre Haute geographer Dorothy Drummond have experienced the real-life cultures, atmosphere and people existing within those dots. An educator herself, Drummond has organized affordable geography tours of foreign lands for Wabash Valley schoolteachers for many years. The journeys involved more than sight-seeing.

If the group met a farmer on a country road, Drummond might strike up a conversation with him.

“The next thing you know, we’d be up at his house and his wife would be cooking us dinner,” said Gloria Wilson, who taught first- and third-graders at Farrington Grove Elementary School for 25 years, before retiring four years ago.

The travels inspired vivid geography lessons by the teachers for their students back home. “The kids were so much more interested in what I was [teaching] because I had been through these places,” said Joyce Thompson, a teacher at White River Valley High School in Greene County until she retired in 2012.

The value of geography led to the creation of National Geography Awareness Week, signed into law by President Reagan in 1988. Its 2013 observance begins today. That era of heightened interest also spawned the Geography Educators Network of Indiana (or GENI), which was formed in 1983 by college instructors around the state.

Drummond was among the founders of GENI, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to increase geographic literacy among Hoosiers and help teachers in grades K-12 incorporate geography into other classroom subjects, such as English, math and science.

At 84, Drummond remains passionate about geography and actively promotes its importance.

“If you don’t have a sense of where you are, you are nowhere,” she said.

As an adjunct faculty member, Drummond taught geography at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College from 1967 to 1998, and at Indiana State University in the 1990s. She’s written and co-written four world cultures textbooks, and in 2004 released the well-received book, “Holy Land, Whose Land? Modern Dilemma, Ancient Roots.” Nearly 1,000 Hoosier teachers attended summer geography workshops at SMWC, a program fueled by grants written by Drummond. She’s lectured on cruise ships and addressed the Indiana Legislature. The National Council of Geographic Educators gave her its lifetime achievement award in 2010, citing her efforts to “further geographic education in Indiana and around the world through her organized travel opportunities, writing and philanthropic work.”

Most of all, Drummond enjoys sharing the world with others. She’s visited 84 countries — including a recent trek to Burma — and as her geography tours attest, she likes bringing fellow teachers along.

“She really opened my eyes to the world of travel and the benefits, and made me want to pass it along to my students,” said Thompson, who’s now visited 23 nations herself.

The tours grew out of a period of geography renaissance in America. Reagan signed the Awareness Week law after a 1987 survey by the National Geographic Society revealed the average adult could identify fewer than 6 of 10 U.S. states; fewer than 3 in 10 could use a map to determine directions; and just 57 percent could locate England on a map of Europe. “We can do better,” Reagan wrote in his Awareness Week proclamation. “A free society has no greater enemy than ignorance, and there is no greater waste than the underuse of a child’s God-given ability to learn and explore. Fortunately, our nation has begun to give new attention in the past decade to the need for educational reform and educational focus.”

Giving it a ‘limelight’

Geography faded as a distinct discipline in schools from the 1930s through the ’70s, Drummond said, and the effects of its absence could be seen in students. “They had no sense of place, and people were aware that geography wasn’t being taught,” she recalled, “and that was the impetus for the creation of GENI.”

Educators formed GENI as a “grassroots organization,” said Kathy Kozenski, its current president, based on the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis. The goal was to promote a geography-centered curriculum in K-12 schools by incorporating it into other classroom subjects. That effort by GENI, labeled Project Geo, helped lead teachers to in-service training and materials, and the summer workshops at The Woods.

“It put geography in the limelight,” said Annette Engle, who retired as Farrington Grove Elementary School principal in 2010.

With that concept, teachers “are using a geographic lens to view the world through an English classroom opportunity,” Kozenski said.

The study of geography, Kozenski added, involves more than locating the Rocky Mountains on a globe. “It’s why the Rockies are there,” she said, “and it’s, ‘How does that affect land use?’”

Those lessons need not end with high school. One of GENI’s strategic goals is the “support of life-long learning that enables Indiana to demonstrate that 80 percent of its population is geographically literate.”

Mike Kukral emphasizes its virtues to engineering students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where he serves as a professor of geography.

“It’s critical for anybody who wants to be an active participant in the global society,” he said. Engineering graduates often work with, or in, foreign countries. “I find some students are very interested [in geography], because they realize engineering careers can take them all over the world,” Kukral said. His own fascination with the subject began in his boyhood years, when he studied stamps and coins from far-away lands and wrote letters to American soldiers serving in Vietnam. He studied globes and maps “to know where they were, and what they were doing there.”

Turning to globes, maps

The popularity of globes and maps boomed during World War II, Kukral said. In those days before cellphones, Facebook and email, those geographic tools helped loved ones to visualize their soldier’s location, “especially when they were going to be gone without hearing from them very often,” he explained.

Drummond was one of those concerned, curious people, studying the places of the world during the war years as a high school teen. “I remember following all the battles,” she said. “I had maps all over the room, and a globe. It was important to me.”

She grew up in California, graduated from Valparaiso University in northern Indiana, earned a master’s in geography at Northwestern University, and then moved from New York City to Terre Haute, where her husband was an ISU geography professor and she taught at The Woods and ISU. Drummond and her husband spent 1959 in Burma as Fulbright Scholars. She returned there this year. “There’s a lot of places I’d like to go back to,” Drummond said. “There’s something to be said for going back to places, to sort of re-do what you did.”

Her enthusiasm for geography influences others, including Kozenski.

“She’s one of my role models. She’s a mentor to a lot of females in the United States. She was on the cutting edge of geography education,” Kozenski said. “The fact that she has traveled so much solidified her awareness of what’s going on in the world. We can all benefit from her travels.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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