Written by CGA Geospatial Technology Coordinator Ming-Hsiang Tsou
What are the key skills required for a team leader? An effective leader needs to provide a 360 degree perspective and to have capabilities to solve problems by using multiple tools with limited resources. With hands-on skills and technological expertise, a team leader should be able to communicate with his/her team members effectively and to accomplish challenging tasks with collaboration from multiple people in different fields together. All these leadership skills and trainings are the key components in Geography and GIS education. As a teacher of Geography and GIS, I would like to ask every Geography teacher and GIS educator to re-think the goals of Geography and GIS education. To equip students with leadership skills and deep-thinking capability, we should transform Geography education toward the development of team leadership for our community.
Understanding local to global challenges, learning geospatial technology and tools, using geo-enabled devices effectively (such as smart phones and navigation systems) are exemplars of important geography education content that can build the fundamental skills of team leadership for students. These examples were highlighted by Dr. Joseph Kerski during his colloquium speech on September 12th, 2014 at San Diego State University.
In our GIS education community, Dr. Joseph Kerski is a perfect example of a true team leader who is also an outstanding geographer. With a full house at SDSU’s Colloquium on Friday afternoon, Dr. Kerski delivered an insightful and inspiring presentation focused on learning geospatial tools and thinking critically and spatially about our world.
It is a great honor for California Geography Alliance and the Department of Geography to host Dr. Joseph Kerski’s colloquium. Dr. Kerski received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 2000. He is the Geographer and Education Manager at ESRI and an adjunct Professor at University of Denver. With an impressive publication record (five books and over 40 journal articles, papers, and book chapters), Dr. Kerski is probably the most well-known GIS education “guru” in the world.
To demonstrate the definition of “guru”, I would like to share the SDSU story map made by Dr. Kerski when he just arrived to SDSU in the morning before his talk (Figure 1). Here is the actual link: http://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapTour/?appid=61035b310fcd425dbf9d722da62c80de. He created this wonderful Story Map by using his mobile phone only and revealed these beautiful scenes around the campus visually and spatially. Very cool and effective!
Joseph is my life-long friend (over 18 years) and one of the most admirable scholars in the GIS community. He and I spent 4 years together in the University of Colorado at Boulder during our Ph.D. programs.
In order to share his great presentation to the members of California Geography Alliance, we have posted a few sections of his colloquium videos in our YouTube Channel. You can access them from here: http://calgeography.sdsu.edu/featured-talks/.
Let’s train our next generation of geographers to become the team leaders in the 21st Century!
Article by Kitty Currier, graduate student at UC-Santa Barbara [currier (at) geog.ucsb.edu]
(Editor’s note: The CGA thanks Ms. Currier for providing this excellent article and making the related resources available to our members. We welcome submissions from any CGA member or geography educator who would like to share a lesson plan or learning activity.)
Leather craft, archery, and sheep showmanship were activities I pursued as a youth member of the All-American 4-H Club of Fort Collins, Colorado. Rooted in an agrarian past, the youth development organization 4-H has since expanded its focus to include the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—in its mission to foster leadership, citizenship and life skills in children. “Maps and Apps” was the national 4-H science theme of 2013, recognizing that geospatial technology and reasoning skills are essential to many of today’s careers and approaches to solving problems.
To align with the “Maps and Apps” theme, members of UC Santa Barbara Geography’s Outreach Committee and the Center for Spatial Studies developed and delivered the workshop Building a UCSB Scavenger Hunt. Following the 4-H “learn by doing” approach, the workshop was designed to teach participants how to read and navigate with a map, use a GPS receiver to collect geospatial data, and visualize their data using Google Earth. Approximately thirteen 4-H members ages 9–16 participated in the workshop, which was held on three consecutive Saturdays on the UCSB campus.
Each day had a different focus, beginning with basic map reading and culminating in the final project—a scavenger hunt, designed and created by the participants, themselves. On Day 1, participants followed self-guided tours adapted from UCSB’s Interactive Campus Map (http://map.geog.ucsb.edu/). Day 2 was devoted to data collection, where participants selected and navigated to different locations on campus; recorded their latitude–longitude coordinates using a GPS receiver; devised trivia questions; and shot descriptive photographs. Participants synthesized their data on Day 3, when they were tasked to design their own scavenger hunt in pairs. Each pair developed their own design that included a map created in Google Earth, trivia questions, and photos, all assembled on two letter-sized pages.
Post-workshop feedback from the participants was positive. The highlight of each day was the activity session (i.e., map navigation, collecting data, and producing paper scavenger hunts), but from a teacher’s perspective, the discussion, presentations and individual writing time helped participants realize that they were learning skills in addition to having fun. An important component of the workshop was the paper scavenger hunt that each participant brought home on Day 3, which they could share with their families and friends as a product of their own making.
One challenge that we anticipated was the range in age (9–16) of the participants. We designed the workshop to require no prior knowledge of the material, but inevitably participants arrived with different levels of competence. The age range turned out not to be a problem, however. As members of the same 4-H club, the participants all knew each other, and the older participants were used to mentoring the younger ones. If this workshop were to be delivered to a group of participants who were not as comfortable working together, however, such a difference in ages might pose a greater challenge.
Following are guidelines, templates, and our “lessons learned” for anyone wishing to adapt and offer a similar activity. More complete information about each day’s activities, along with a comprehensive materials list, can be found in the included example files, noted in red.
Personnel & Structure Four graduate students developed and led the workshop, which was attended by 6–13 participants each day. On days 1 and 2 an additional one or two adults assisted with the outside activity. Each day was allotted three hours and consisted of (a) an introduction to the day’s topic, given by the leaders; (b) a hands-on activity, where the participants practiced a skill; and (c) reflection and writing about the day’s activities. The structure was partly dictated by the 4-H program’s emphasis on presentation and record-keeping skills.
Budget Our total budget was approximately $150, the majority of which was used to purchase four secondhand digital cameras and storage media. We borrowed GPS receivers for the activity at no cost from the Department of Geography.
Lessons learned > Use existing campus maps & tours as resources when possible (e.g., for Day 1 map-reading activity).
> Be ready with an activity for the start of each day to occupy participants who come early; inevitably, some participants will arrive late.
> Have on hand participants’ parent/guardian contact information and relevant medical history/needs.
> Be prepared for fluctuation in attendance, and ensure that your plan is flexible enough to accommodate participants who miss a day.
Figure 1. Day 1, ready to go! (Photo credit: Erin Wetherley)
The NCGE is a leader in providing professional development opportunities for teachers at all grade levels, and this may be one of the most attractive trips they’ve ever offered! You can click on the image below to get more information about the trip, but first you should know that CGA wants to help support teachers to take advantage of this exciting opportunity (and to bring exciting learning experiences for students all over the state). CGA can provide a scholarship of $250 to any teacher working at a school in CA who is selected for the trip, so send an email to cga (at) geography.sdsu.edu if you plan to apply. We will also cover the cost of attending the 2016 NCGE conference for any teacher who is selected for the trip and chooses to work with the CGA to meet the expectation to produce and disseminate classroom materials addressing the National Geography Standards. The teacher(s), working with the CGA leadership team, would give a presentation at the conference based on the learning materials they developed after the GeoCamp.
Good news: This week is Geography Awareness Week! Why do we need Geography Awareness Week? Because in order to become well-informed global citizens, American students need geography education. As the world becomes more interconnected through globalization, geography education can help us make sense of rapid global change. This is essential, particularly in light of political and military interventions abroad. For instance, when Russia moved into the Crimea in March 2014, a survey revealed that only 1 out of 6 Americans could locate Ukraine on a map. The further Americans believed Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they supported US military intervention (Washington Post, 2014). This is a problem.
Geography as a discipline has changed substantially over the last several decades. We do a lot more than maps! In our department at San Diego State University, our research spans the social and physical sciences. We study everything from vegetation, climate, hydrology, and soils to urbanization, migration, sustainability, and globalization. Many also specialize in Geographic Information Science (GIS) to develop applied solutions for real world problems.
For this year’s Geography Awareness Week, the theme is ‘The Future of Food’. By exploring the geographies of food, we gain a better sense of how the food we eat is part of a global commodity chain linking people, places and environments around the world.
The California Geographic Alliance, along with National Geographic, invite students, teachers, and community members to participate in GeoWeek 2014. GeoWeek is an opportunity to learn more about geography, while drawing attention to the need for policies to improve American students’ access to geography education. Get started by going to GeographyAwarenessWeek.org, where you can discover ways to participate in GeoWeek and find ideas and free resources to organize your own GeoWeek celebration.
Celebrate GeoWeek and spread the word about the importance of geography education!
Back by popular demand, the World of 7 Billion student video contest can help you bring technology and creativity into your high school geography classes. The contest challenges your students to create a short (60 seconds or less) video illustrating the connection between world population growth and one of three global challenges dealing with either the sixth extinction, available farmland, or global education. Students can win up to $1,000 and their teachers will receive free curriculum resources. The contest deadline is February 19, 2015. Full contest guidelines, resources for research, past winners, and more can be found at www.worldof7billion.org/student-video-contest.
At the CGA, our goal is to help build geo-literate citizens who care about the planet’s people, places and environments, and who feel empowered to strive for a more sustainable and equitable world. Teachers, informal educators, parents, students, policy-makers, and the media are all partners in helping us achieve this goal, and the Alliance website is a vehicle for educating, activating, coordinating, and supporting those partners. With this understanding, our team at SDSU, with input from CGA members, has completely revamped the site and is continuing to build out its utility. While the site is changing weekly and should present more value to all audiences as we continue our work, I am going to take this opportunity to give you a quick overview of what you can find there and how you can help us build a better online resource. From the welcome page on, we want the site to support our collective mission.
Teachers (and by extension their students) are our primary audience, and that is reflected in the content we have put online. Under the RESOURCES tab on our main menu, you will find three categories:
CALIFORNIA ATLAS: Our excellent print atlas, California: A Changing State, is available on the site as individual pdf files. You can print pages as needed for student work or project the maps for instruction. The atlas is aligned with fourth grade curriculum and has accompanying lessons for that grade, but it can be a valuable resource at many different grade levels and across a variety of subjects. In addition to the individual maps, the atlas contains great info about how to understand and use maps. If you dig deep into this section (or link directly from the menu on the left margin of the site), you will find “Atlas 2.0” – our working title for a suite of exciting new interactive resources. We have created several web maps and StoryMaps based on the topics covered in the print atlas but incorporating greatly expanded information in a format that allows teachers and students to explore important aspects of California’s history and environment through integrated maps, texts, and images. These are early prototypes, and we will continue to develop them with the help of some talented graduate students at SDSU and the input of teachers. Tell us what you think, suggest additions, or get online with Esri at http://storymaps.arcgis.com/en/ to see many more examples and experiment with making your own StoryMaps. Then share your work.
CONTRIBUTED LESSONS: This is a list of geography lessons, sorted by grade level, that have been created by CGA Teacher Consultants and other teachers who have attended past workshops. We would like to be able to make this list more valuable by adding new model lesson plans and including some info with each lesson plan about what teachers find useful about each lesson plan (kind of user reviews, as we have all become accustomed to online). So send us your best lesson plans, tell us what you think about the ones that are online now, and help us build a better resource.
ONLINE EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES AND MULTIMEDIA CONTENT: One of our concepts for creating a valuable one-stop shopping experience for geo-educators of all types is to be a curator to help people access the best of literally thousands of amazing resources that already exist online. Again, we are very open to reviews and recommendations, but you will find links to sites with lesson plans and online tools, and you will also find links to a lot of short videos that could be used to introduce students to a topic or stimulate critical discussion. For example, The Economist magazine puts out very informative “videographics” on topics such as global migration flows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcoOENLfpUI), and series of videos created by independent filmmakers such as one entitled Gas Rush explores the boom in natural gas and fracking from a variety of perspectives and features interviews with real people working in or affected by the industry (http://www.gasrushstories.com/grs/Stories.html).
There is also some useful information for educators under the ABOUT tab on the main menu, including:
ABOUT THE CGA: This gives a brief history of the organization. We should all be proud of being the first alliance in the country and one of the places where the movement was first imagined and nurtured.
GEO-LITERACY AND GEOGRAPHY EDUCATION: This page includes texts and links to videos explaining exactly what geography is and why it is vitally important. Geo-literacy is a term that is used within the geography education community to underscore the central importance of geographic knowledge and spatial thinking. We see it as a core competence for the students of today and the citizens of the future. On this page you will also find links to the California content standards and curriculum framework for history and social studies, common core state standards (Did you know there are free iPhone/iPad and Android apps with the Common Core standards?), and the Next Generation Science Standards. Those are the crucial policies for teachers, but the CGA is also looking beyond what is in place to think of what geography education could and should look like, and you can get some ideas about that from following links to A Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education or Geography for Life.
GEOGRAPHY MAJORS AND CAREERS: When the SDSU leadership team decided to take on hosting the CGA, we set a goal to increase the number of incoming college students who declare geography as a major. Unfortunately, this is a rare occurrence, and we think it would be good for our economy, our communities, and our students’ futures if more chose to study geography and prepare themselves for careers as geographers or in many other professions where geographic knowledge and skills are valued. Toward that end, we have included information about why a student might choose geography as a major and where in the US a student could pursue an education in geography. We also link to the site of the Association of American Geographers that includes profiles of professional geographers. And while you are on the site, check out one of our latest blog posts that confirms that geographers’ sensibilities and skills are prized in the workplace and jobs for people with the technical ability to work with geographic information are well-paid and more numerous than job-seekers with the required training. This message needs to get out to our high school students. Geography is relevant, interesting, integrative, and a pathway to a great career.
Thanks for reading! I hope you will visit calgeography.sdsu.edu again and again because it is a valuable resource. And please contribute your own content or suggestions to make it the best possible reflection of the important work we are all doing in geography education.
If ever there was any question that geography is foremost among professions, the last shred of doubt has been dispelled by reports on employment trends over the past decade. The U. S. Department of Labor, The Guardian newspaper, MSN.com, Money Magazine, and PayScale.com stated our case better than we geographers have. Let’s start with the most recent and work backward in time. MSN.com in its Money section on May 5, 2014 covered “America’s most and least common jobs.” Geography was among the least common, and I’ll talk about that aspect later, but there was good news too: “Still, some of these uncommon jobs do have growth potential and include relatively high salaries.” The data cited by MSN.com came from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): “The average geographer earned more than $75,000 annually as of 2013.” What’s more, “The BLS forecasts that these jobs will grow by 29 percent…between 2012 and 2022.”
On April 22, 2012, Debra Auerbach of CareerBuilder.com wrote about “10 jobs with above average salaries.” Then at $74,170, geographers were second highest, and all jobs on the list were projected to grow more than 29 percent over the subsequent decade. Auerbach explained, “Geographers study the earth and its land, features and inhabitants. They also examine political and cultural structures as they relate to geography. This is a good occupation for lovers of travel, as geographers often travel to conduct fieldwork.”
In 2010, The Guardian published a poll showing that geography graduates had the very lowest unemployment rate of all disciplines in the United Kingdom (source). Among the previous year’s graduates, 7.4 % of geographers were unemployed in January 2010, compared to 16.3 % of information technology (IT) graduates. “What makes…geography grads the most employable?” Alison White asked, and the answer came from Nick Keeley, director of the Careers Service at Newcastle University: “Studying geography arms graduates with a mix of skills employers want to see: Geography students generally do well in terms of their relatively low unemployment rates. You could attribute this to the fact that the degree helps develop a whole range of employability skills, including numeracy, teamwork through regular field trips, analytical skills in the lab, and a certain technical savviness through using various specialist computing applications. Also, the subject area in itself cultivates a world view and a certain cultural sensitivity. These all potentially help a geographer to stand out in the labor market.”
For many years the U.S. Department of Labor has recognized geospatial technology as one of the three top growth industries today, alongside nanotechnology and biotechnology. “Over 500,000 professionals in fields ranging from environmental engineering to retail trade analysis are asked to use GIS in their jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics show that surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists (a subset of GIS occupations) are experiencing faster than average employment growth – anticipating growth at 19 percent between 2008 and 2018” (source).
Money Magazine and PayScale.com placed “geographic information system analyst” in its list of the “Top 100 Best Jobs in America” in 2010. The 2011 list of the “Best Jobs in Fast-Growth Fields” included various careers that utilize GIS.
Why, you may ask, with all these striking figures high salaries, rapid growth, low unemployment, aren’t students beating down the doors to get into our classes? Why are geography departments not booming in every university in the country? Why, in fact, are geography departments closing at a disturbing rate? Why do parents routinely ask, when their sons and daughters announce they want to study geography, “How on earth will you make a living?” Most puzzling of all, why are departments changing their names to attract students concerned about employment? The answer is pure, unadulterated ignorance among the U. S. public. Geography is one of the least common professions because few employers know to call geographers “geographers.” Few know to advertise for a geographer when that’s what they need to hire. Our students, however, find high salary jobs, seldom called “geography,” because we give them skills and attitudes that warrant high pay.
Clearly, we geographers aren’t making our case as convincingly as we could and should. We aren’t informing students of the disciplines true potential of employment. We aren’t informing employers that there are plenty more good prospects like the ones they have already hired, if only they will support our programs and seek our graduates.
The American Geographical Society will continue to fight to get this message out: Geography is the key, not only to understanding, but also to success.
How OLP students, in partnership with the California Geographic Alliance, became global citizens
By Laura Rodriguez and Katie Turner
As 10th grade English teachers at the all girls high school, the Academy of Our Lady of Peace (OLP) in San Diego, this year’s World Literature class was an exciting new venture in education for us. Our core curriculum-aligned, backward design gave us an opportunity to think about the overall course, including what texts we could use and what skills we needed our students to develop. More central and critical questions then arose: what learning acquisition do we really want our students to achieve from literature around the world? What do we want our students to know about themselves and their own abilities? With these guiding and essential questions, we were able to design a very unique set of learning opportunities in project-based learning, edu-tech applications, and, most profoundly, the cross-curricular integration of geo-literacy. In earlier newsletters, the CGA has already described aspects of our collaboration in more detail. In this issue, we will speak more directly to our curriculum design.
We designed our World Literature curriculum around the idea of ‘the hero’ and ‘the journey.’ Our fall semester was dedicated to the antihero (Fahrenheit 451), the tragic hero (Oedipus Rex), the romantic hero (Arthurian quest narratives and the epic medium), and the hero as pilgrim (Dante’s Inferno). While it established credibility in a traditional approach to world literature, it incidentally laid groundwork for the second semester: the female hero and her journey in global literature.
During our spring semester, our students read and viewed texts and films about the rise of the modern woman in society (A Doll’s House, Norway), the struggles of gender traditions and expectations in a 20th Century setting (Nervous Conditions, Zimbabwe), and the role of strict political and fundamentalist religion on these expectations (Persepolis, Iran and Water, India). In doing so, we prepared them for what they would learn, in a project-based context, emphasizing geo-literacy.
Using Social Media
One of the most innovative ways in which our students expanded their study of the female hero in literature was through the integration of Pinterest as a learning tool. Students chose symbolic and metaphorical images to pin on their boards, simultaneously utilizing text to foster innovative approaches to interpretation, composition, and critical thinking. The two ongoing Pinterest assignments included the creation of a superhero board and a country board.
For their Pinterest country board, each student was given one country to follow for the entire semester. We assigned most students to the 50 poorest countries in the world (cross-referenced by the countries with the most egregious disparities in female literacy rates), with the objective of motivating their deeper understanding of a real place with real people. What they discovered was that heroes exist almost everywhere we look! For example, a student assigned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo became interested in the DRC’s history. She independently researched Leopold’s rule, the consequences of Lumumba’s death, and the ripple effect created by Mobutu’s dictatorship. She then began to use the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristof to learn about the humanitarian efforts made in the DRC today. She, just one of 120 sophomores, independently developed an intrinsically motivated inquiry about the past wrongs and the present efforts to bring education, human rights, and peace to that region.
Another example of self-motivated discovery came from a student who lives in Mexico and travels to OLP across the international border every day. She was assigned a country in Central Asia about which she knew nothing. She was initially apprehensive because she bears daily witness to poverty and a lack of services in her own city of Tijuana – why study a faraway place when the problem confronts you everyday? Through her own determination and curiosity, she developed a relationship with a distant culture, language, and set of beliefs only to better understandthe complexity of issues in her own hometown. Teenagers often feel helpless when confronted by global problems, but this geo-literacy project gave them a sense of independent choice that ultimately led to activism in San Diego and Northern Baja; a deeper understanding of Kyrgyzstan offered the tools she needs to understand her community and culture.
For their superhero board on Pinterest, each student developed an alter ego who is not limited to this place or time. Throughout the semester the development of personal superheroes allowed for very flexible and expandable learning modalities. For example, one week we engaged in a discussion about gender-based wage disparity that peaked their interest in the number of women currently holding leadership positions around the world; inspired by the conversation in class, the girls went home, researched current statistics, and added findings to their country boards based on the types of justice issues they care about most. The culmination of this superhero “alter ego” became a collaborative music video project in which students combined the traits of their own superheroes into a 21st Century woman.
Beyond the Classroom
We were awarded a very unique opportunity this year when the California Geographic Alliance chose OLP as a model for geo-literacy in the English classroom. In sending our 10th grade Pilots on an historical, political, geographic, and personal journey through the study of language and literature, our students learned so much about how their lives are integrally connected to the lives of girls around the world. Beyond this, our students were presented with an opportunity to experience a college-level conference, watch a CGA-sponsored screening of Girl Rising, andlisten to and engage with three exciting guest speakers. Along with this symposium, the CGA sponsored an essay contest among the World Literature students, the results of which were published in last month’s newsletter.
This was an amazing and collaborative experience for us as teachers, and we ultimately we attained the goals we built into the 10th grade curriculum; we observed our students become creative, independent, critical thinkers and writers, while analyzing texts that challenge them with real world situations and issues. By expanding our curriculum to include a focus on specific geographical issues, students were able to complement literary texts with real world knowledge on important social and political issues. In doing so, our students have been truly inspired to strive for change. Or in the words of essay winner, Mariana Fernandez, they are inspired to “create commotion,” or small ripples of change as they work to make the world a better place.
Suzie Boss, journalist and project-based learning advocate, published an article on Edutopia yesterday (7/28/14) underscoring the value of the free access to ARC-GIS Online to K-12 educators. I recommend taking the time to read it, but here is a snippet: “Being able to analyze data and present information visually are important skills, whether you are investigating global issues or trying to solve problems in your backyard. Adding GIS to the project-based learning toolkit opens all kinds of opportunities for rich inquiry.”
What was exciting to me about this article is that it was shared with me by an educational technology specialist immediately following a meeting I had with her regarding a mapping project for third graders. The CGA is working with the San Diego History Center and the School in the (Balboa) Park program to develop a week-long map skills module during which students will learn to read and interpret maps and also will get experience producing their own maps using digital technology.
As a follow up to last month’s newsletter, we’re very pleased to share the award-winning student essay written by Mariana Fernandez, a sophomore in the World Literature program at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in San Diego. The prompt for Mariana’s essay was: How does our study of girls around the world help us better understand the true meaning of the word hero? Next month, teachers Katie Turner and Laura Rodriguez will share their World Literature curriculum and describe how they incorporated geo-literacy into their classrooms. Congratulations again to Mariana Fernandez for her inspiring essay!
Change the World Literature
by Mariana Fernandez
On the first day of sophomore year, I walked into my World Literature classroom with the mindset of a girl who just wanted an A in the class in order to have a solid application for college. I came in and mentally prepared myself for the mindless note taking and quizzes about plot and character that I would probably have to endure. I sat down and looked up at the front of the room as I slumped in my seat. Right there, in the middle of the whiteboard, were the words “change the world literature”. Back then, I had no clue that those words were true and that I would walk out of the classroom with a completely different perspective about the world. I did not realize that this would be one of the classes I can say changed my life. This year, I am leaving World Literature as a girl who will do all she can to change the world.
Throughout the year, I was taught to understand different characters, from around the world that came to life for me as a result of each author’s harmonious placement of words on paper. I was also given an opportunity to use that knowledge and understanding of heroic characters to develop my own idea of a hero, who I named Anna. To summarize, I was given the opportunity to actually use the things I learned in class in order to form the girl who will walk out of my high school in two years, ready to change the world.
If I had to choose a few characters who, through literature, changed my perspective about the world, they would include Guy Montag, created by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, Liesel Meminger, given life by Marcus Zusak in The Book Thief, and Marji, formed from personal memory by Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood. Montag lives in an American dystopian society that is opposed to any sort of intellect; Liesel is a girl living in Nazi Germany, a time when certain books were banned and questioning the Nazi’s methods was dangerous; Marji lives in Iran, during the time of the Islamic Revolution. Similar to Montag and Liesel, Marji’s curiosity and will to learn is suppressed by seemingly irrepressible forces. When placed apart these are just ordinary heroes who can only teach a girl like me so much. In other words, I can discover as much by just focussing on one of these heroes as I would if I tried to learn about World War II using only my country’s perspective. However, when I place them together, I am able to gain a real understanding of what it actually means to be a hero. I understood this definition of heroism when I took a step back and looked at the big picture: three characters who come from completely different parts of the world become heroes against all social, political, and cultural odds. These characters have different cultures, which makes them approach their challenges differently, but the fact that three different paths lead to the same destination, shows that a certain language or the color of one’s skin isn’t what makes someone a hero. A person becomes a hero because of the courage she has to take a step onto the rocky path that leads to change.
One of the biggest struggles shared by each hero is finding her voice amongst a society that is constantly trying to quiet her. They have trouble accepting that no one is going to speak up and say that what their society is doing is wrong. However, in the end all of these ordinary people somehow find the courage they need to act out against injustices. In The Book Thief, Liesel has “twenty seconds of insane courage” as Benjamin Mee said in We Bought a Zoo, directed by Cameron Crowe. She literally crosses her own threshold and grabs a book from the fiery flames of a famous Nazi book burning, in order to learn to read. In Persepolis, Marji also musters up this same courage when she raises her hand in class to contradict the unfair teacher, and fundamentalist practices as a whole. She stands out among the other students who simply agree with the status quo, like mindless drones who fear thinking a single independent thought (Satrapi 144). In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag does not have super strength, or any other superpower like Superman. Instead, he is an average person who chooses to become an outlaw instead of living in a place where education is banned. I admire the courage he must have in order to do what is right, even when he knows that the consequences will be horrible.
All of these characters change the common definition of the word hero. They are not magical beings with preposterous powers; none of their actions result in a huge revolution; but, in my opinion, what makes them heroes is the fact that they have that insane courage to question what they are led to believe and to take leaps of faith. This new idea about what it means to be a hero inspired the creation of Anna, my own hero, who I developed throughout the semester as a class Pinterest project on geo-literacy.
Anna is the result of every character, every conflict, every idea (even every homework assignment!) I encountered during World Literature. She is the person who I hope I will become in the future. Anna is a girl who is not afraid to speak out against injustices that occur in her society. Injustices such as bullying occur all around her. Of course, stopping the bullies would mean that Anna may not be “popular” or well-liked. However she does not fear the persecution that will follow her attempts to be true to herself and true to her beliefs. The fact that she doesn’t care about the consequences of choosing what is just over what is wrong is what makes her a superhero and motivates me to become a hero in my own society. In a letter written to high schoolers just like me, e.e. cummings once said, “to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, day and night, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” My superhero alter ego may not have saved a million lives yet, but she is a hero because she has the courage to be herself.
After learning about Marji in Iran, Montag from a dystopian future in the United States, and Liesel in Nazi Germany, it is now my turn to adapt their courage and bring Anna to life. I used to think that changing the world meant creating a huge revolution that completely erases the current structure, much like the systems that try to stop people like Marji, Montag, and Liesel from growing. I now know that all I need to do to change the world is create a tiny ripple that will change at least one life. This tiny change causes people to question the rules and realize when there is something wrong. Basically, in order to be a hero, I must find the courage to create commotion. This commotion will probably result in people being perplexed that I dared to question the “norm”, because after commotion, people try to fix things and go back to “normal” life. My commotion will help them realize there are things that need fixing for the better. The heroes I met, not only from Germany or Iran, but from Nepal, India, Peru, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan as well, cause a commotion in me which inspires me to create waves. I have decided to create commotion, and though I may not be the one who changes the whole world, I will be a part of those who inspire this change.