Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Getting Our Bearings in Space and Time

Yarmouth, Maine’s Delorme Company closed up shop just last month, but I miss it already. When their mapping software first came out back in the nineties, it helped my students get their bearings in the wider world. A hundred fourteen-year-olds walked in and out of my Fryeburg, Maine classroom every year and my job was to make sure they were grounded in space and time by June. There were US Geological Survey maps of the towns in our school district, maps of Maine, of North America, and of the world all over the walls. Many couldn’t point to where they lived on any of them when we started. With Delorme software, however, we could pull up a map of their individual neighborhood on a computer screen showing streets and water bodies like lakes, ponds, swamps, and streams. We could zoom in or out to any magnification they chose. Each printed out a map on an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper, then used colored pencils to draw in their house and whatever else was important to them.
All their maps had north on top. They could figure out which side of the road their house was on after determining east and west according to where they remembered seeing the sun rise and set. A boy drew a trail through woods behind his house where he rode his four-wheeler and an old pine with his tree fort. A girl drew in her mother’s flower garden then her best friend’s house around the corner. To expand their world view, each student could then zoom out to a wider perspective that brought in more roads and features — onto which they would draw a post office, a store, a school, or whatever else was significant in their lives.
At this point they could superimpose their neighborhood maps onto USGS maps of their towns and see more details of fields, swamps, mountains, as well as other neighborhoods and villages they’d visited. They could trace the route their bus took to and from school. From there, they could find their region on a state map, a national map and a world map, all of which were oriented with north on the top. My classroom maps would be less confusing once they knew their place on them. The globe was the truest representation of the planet on which we live but it was small. I was glad to read that the huge globe called “Eartha” in the Delorme building would be preserved by the new company and remain open to the public.
Delorme's Eartha

Digital imaging technology became affordable at the time and I used it to fix my students in time. They scanned pictures of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents — as far back as they could go, then positioned them on top of a horizontal timeline. Below would go images of important national and international events during their lives like World War II, the Great Depression, World War I, etc. These historical milestones became more immediate and personal when they realized their grandparents were affected and involved. Lives of people they knew and loved were changed, sometimes determining where students themselves were to be born.
My aim was to help them all see how, where, and when they fit into the world — how their place fit into a patchwork of other places, how their families fit with other families in an ever-widening circle of awareness. For some, it worked exactly as intended. For most, it expanded their zone of familiarity somewhat. There were a few each year, however, who seemed determined to limit their circle of awareness and resisted my efforts to widen it.
When discussing current events in class, I’d always pick up my pointer to indicate where on the Maine map, the US map, or the world map the events were taking place. Maps help us organize knowledge, providing a visual framework upon which to arrange new facts and ideas. Their generational timeline provided a temporal framework.
We’re all familiar with GPS technology in our vehicles, but that shows us a limited grid of lines representing roads as we move along them. It’s useful, but it doesn’t provide a wider view of where we are in the larger scheme of things. Something is lost. It’s like wearing a digital watch that tells us the precise time down to the second, but lacks the perspective of older watches showing a 12-hour clock face.
Later in the year I’d assign a project to interview an elderly person, preferably a family member. I’d give them twenty questions and they’d make up at least ten of their own. Often they’d realize how wars can significantly affect even people who don’t fight in them. Many elderly women they questioned spent years in South Portland, Maine shipyards building Liberty Ships for the war effort. Others described dealing with shortages of meat, sugar, and gasoline, or blackout drills to make it harder for enemy bombers to see their targets at night.
South Portland Maine shipyards are all gone now

The New England Shipbuilding Company of South Portland, Maine is gone now, and DeLorme Map Company of Yarmouth, Maine has closed up shop. As William Faulkner said once, however: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

1 comment:

DeLorme said...

Hi Tom, we are so flattered to hear of your connection to our maps and mapping software. We share the same passion for using visual context and bearing to better understand the world around us.

We want to you know that while the physical Map Store has closed, we are still selling our products online at, and are still very much in business.

Best Regards,
Team DeLorme