Maps in the Classroom

Do you remember geography classes in the days of yore? Each classroom had huge maps rolled up in sets of six or eight hanging from the hooks above the chalkboard. If a window shade blocked out the world, these shades were our window to the world. To reach a map, teachers had to perform the Olympic task of pulling down the set of maps while separating from the others exactly the right one. Students enjoyed the performance since we always wondered if the spring loaded maps would snap back before the teacher could coerce into place the one she wanted.

As a teacher, this event was not a favorite sport. How to manage these contraptions was not taught in teacher school, and first year social studies teachers were known to do without maps rather than fight the beast on the wall. Teachers in other curriculums such as language arts never even considered using maps; they’d seen what it took and weren’t interested. They had their own challenges.

Technology has transformed all that. No longer are maps on the wall. No longer does the change of a country’s name make a teacher’s maps obsolete. No longer must the teacher be limited to handing out to students black and white approximations of the world on which to write or color. Maps are now on the computer screen and available to every curriculum area.

Mapping software is easy to use and offers countless possibilities. The software lets students configure maps of exactly the area being studied. Students can measure distances, see terrains, determine latitude/longitude, check populations, and even compute the time and cost related to travel. Teachers in every area of study can now use maps to teach a variety of skills.


Microsoft MapPoint 2002 is an excellent choice for school mapping software. MapPoint is similar to Microsoft mapping software such as Streets and Trips which you may have used before to plan a personal trip. For an excellent survey of the software design with links to other mapping options, go to Even though the software is designed for businesses with features that will appeal to sales and marketing staff, it has tools that make it work just as well for teachers and librarians. In addition, Microsoft offers educational pricing for this software with a discount that is impressive. If you want to try out the package, there is a 60 trial version available for $9.95.

MapPoint comes in two versions: one for North America and the other for Europe. Both have extensive databases associated with them that provide information on populations and related demographics. Other maps such as for Japanand Australia are not yet available, but surely Microsoft won’t ignore that market for long.

While there are free online mapping sites, MapPoint has a number of advantages. Often map sites are filled with advertising to pay for the service; MapPoint is ad free. Another point is that because it is a CD driven rather than online (although updates to the data can be downloaded online), teachers and librarians have control over what the students are seeing. There’s also no perennial cry of despair “The Internet isn’t working.” No Web access is required at all which can be an advantage.

An unusual but extremely valuable resource is an online MapPoint magazine ( which is filled with a wealth of tips and ideas that you might not think about. Many of the articles are for the “hard core” user, but some of the information such as the technique used to develop a grid over Iraq ( might appeal to advanced users. Maps such as the one showing the incidence of SARS in the United States provide teachers with a visual means of discussing a current subject without having to develop their own resources. Other features at the site include data submitted by others such as the 1999 Spending on Leisure Goods / Services Per Household which could be converted to classroom activity.

Learning the Software

Learning to use the software is easy, but in addition there is an online tutorial at the Microsoft Education site ( The tutorial consists of both a Microsoft Word document as well as a Microsoft PowerPoint to go along with the print document. It makes for a quick way for adults to become familiar with the available tools and can be used as a teaching tool in the classroom or library.

There is a tutorial under the Help menu that comes with MapPoint. While these exercises are described in business terms (see below), they make it easy to pick up the skills that can be transferred to a classroom. Don’t let the comments about sales figures and customers drive you away.

MapPoint Tutorial Exercises

  • Exercise 1: Set up your data – Make your business information easy to work with in MapPoint.
    Exercise 2: View your current sales figures – Monitor your success in different locations.
    Exercise 3: Find out where your target customers are – Identify areas for potential growth.
    Exercise 4: Plan a business trip – Identify important clients and create a route for meeting with them.
    Exercise 5: Track your inventory – Analyze where your distribution channels need adjustments.
    Exercise 6: See how your business has performed over time -Identify business trends in different areas.
    Exercise 7: Map your sales territories – View your salespeople’s coverage areas.

For those teacher and librarians who like to learn from a book, a library purchase might be MapPoint 2002 for Dummies(With CD-ROM) by B.J. Holtgrewe and Jill T. Freeze (ISBN: 076451623X).


Opening MapPoint reveals a screen similar to the one in Figure 1. At the top is a standard menu bar and below that a toolbar with the essential buttons for MapPoint. Other than the standard ones such as open and save, these include the following:

  • Show/Hide Legend and Overview (appears left of map)
  • Create Territories Wizard
  • Show/Hide Nearby Locations- restaurants and places  (appears left of map)
  • Show/Hide Route Planner (appears left of map)
  • Show/Hide Directions (appears above map) – options set driving speeds and fuel costs
  • Data Mapping Wizard
  • Show/Hide Drawing Toolbar (appears at bottom of screen) – provides easy customization of any map with stickpins, highlighter which shows distances, and radius tool
  • Show/Hide Location and Scale (appears above map) – buttons zoom to selected size

A second toolbar provides you with arrows to move back and forth between map choices. In addition there is a Find a Location box, a moveable scale to zoom in/out, a selection cursor, a hand to move around with, and a drop down box for map styles. Styles consist of the following:

  • Road Map
  • Road and Data Map
  • Data Map
  • Terrain Map
  • Political Map

Under the Tools menu, you can choose to measure distances and check longitude and latitude (Location Sensor).

An important point to remember is that MapPoint can print out its maps and directions, but teachers may want to insert a map into a document as a graphic. By pressing the “print screen” key, a copy of the map is transferred to the clipboard. This image can then be pasted into a word processing document or into a graphics program and then saved.

Once these simple tools are mastered, you will find it easy to put this mapping software to use. Librarians/Media Specialists can be the means of bringing this tool to teachers just as in the past they brought atlases and gazetteers to the classroom.

Teacher Tools

The ways in which schools can use this resource are subject only to a teacher’s imagination

Language arts teachers can have students find locations mentioned in literature. They can figure the distance between two towns or see how close to the coast a character lives. With the zoom feature, even the tiniest details are visible. Students can write essays in which they quote facts and figures about populations or terrain rather than making guesses.

Math teachers can use the functions that allow the user to change the cost of fuel comparing the cost of a trip based upon different prices. Students can determine distances and speeds necessary to reach a location at a specific time. Teaching students who are used to measurements in miles rather than kilometers is always difficult. With the option in MapPoint to switch between the two types of measurement, students can “see” how the two compare.

Social studies teachers can have students check longitude and latitudes moving from one location to another. This action provides students with a tactile means of seeing how the numbers change based upon east/west and north/south directions. Concrete examples such as this make it easier for students to grasp an idea that is often hard to convey with words. One of the real benefits of mapping software is that students can take “trips” moving from one location to another. Seeing the names of towns pass by and highways change numbers makes places they have never visited seem more real. Using the data map wizard, teachers can show their classes how to compare census information from one decade to another and even demonstrate projected figures. The option to assign names to territories means that when students are assigned to study a particular parts of the country or a state, the child’s name can be displayed neatly in a printout.

Art teachers can use MapPoint to teach color theory. They can demonstrate how choices for maps and data colors are made based upon the color wheel.

Computer teachers will find it easier to teach databases when students realize that the data in MapPoint has been gathered into specific fields. They can also have students create their own database of information that is imported into MapPoint.

Regardless of the curriculum, classes can use MapPoint to draw conclusions based upon questions such as these:

  • Why are some restaurants listed in the nearby locations and others are not? Students can use the Internet to find out the criteria for inclusion by Microsoft.
  • Is the street information provided by MapPoint always the best ones (particularly in rural areas)? What should they learn from this?
  • In trip planning, why are longer routes sometimes shown instead of shorter ones? Students can compare driving instructions based upon their own experience.
  • Using the population figures, where is the greatest concentration of 14 year old boys (and who said we couldn’t interest girls in technology)? Why would there be more in that location?

Using mapping software is truly a life skill. No matter what class it is used in students will find it valuable in every phase of life whether they are finding directions to visit a friend in a strange city, choosing a location to live based upon demographics and shopping choices, or trying to find a hotel in a city they plan to travel through on vacation. These choices don’t even take into consideration the growing use of GPS systems in automobiles which can be integrated with MapPoint.

Bring mapping software such as MapPoint to your school and prove to your teachers that teaching with maps is no longer physically challenging. Show them that while it may no longer be an Olympic sport, computer mapping can be a valuable addition to your school’s curriculum.

Originally published in Library Media Connection, V22 N5 P52 Feb 2004

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