Visual Rhetoric and Student Learning

It would seem obvious in this digital age that utilizing the vast array of computer generated mapping, Google Earth, and satellite imagery in the teaching of geography would be a relatively simple task.  Despite the proliferation of these digital formats, it’s not as easy as one might imagine.  However, when used properly, digital imagery and historical photography can be a potent learning tool.  Kids really do like to figure out the puzzles.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 3.57.39 PM
NASA Earth Observatory photo of the Nile River delta at night.

For the past few days we have been working on basic concepts of geography: movement, interaction, physical and human features, and how geography can help define the local culture.  More broadly, we have also been looking at landforms to discuss how they influence culture and civilization.

Take this picture of the Nile Delta at night.  Not only does it demonstrate the  populations living alongside the river, it also illustrates how the physical features of an area can influence populations, movement, and the development of cities, towns, and civilizations. An interesting article on urbanization can be found here.

From this single image, a week’s worth of geographic concepts can be considered. Introducing this photograph made me realize, again, how much background information is required for students to begin making the connections between geography and disparate themes of social studies including migration, resource utilization, and the adaptation of populations to various environments.  Still, the possibilities for introducing, and hooking kids into geography through these incredible images are intriguing.

In addition to utilizing digital and satellite imagery to enhance geography instruction, analyzing historic photos can help students understand change over time.  A particularly good local website is the University of Vermont’s Landscape Change.  Users can search photographs listed by location, town, or county.

Here is a photograph that students exScreen Shot 2014-09-17 at 6.04.03 PMamined to try and determine how Montpelier has changed. Note the Green Mount Cemetery, Winooski and Dog Rivers, and the open expanse of territory to the west, southwest of Montpelier High School.  We had a very interesting conversation about the location, changes, and physical features of the landscape in the photograph.


Crew, Expedition 25. “Nile River Delta at Night : Image of the Day.” Nile River Delta at Night : Image of the Day. International Space Station Program, 28 Oct. 2010. Web. 17 Sept. 2014. <;.

Mann, Elizabeth S. Aerial Image of Interchange. 2004. UVM Landscape Change, Burlington. Landscape Change Program. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. < php?ls=06751&sequence=000&set_seq=74&imageSet=1410882131-54185a535283a&AddRel=0


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