Notes from the classroom: Exploring literary spaces via Google Earth

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 4:34 PM



As I head to the Googleplex this week to speak with this year’s group of tech-savvy educators at the Google Teacher Academy, I wanted to share a bit about how I’ve found Google Earth useful for teaching literature.

Much of the world's greatest literature incorporates a literal journey as a metaphor representing universal experiences we share with the characters as we travel through our own life’s journeys. The Odyssey, Candide, and The Grapes of Wrath immediately come to my mind.

Focusing on the real settings within these stories can often engage students in new ways that significantly enhance their empathy for the fictional characters and their various trials. Literature students have often been asked to mentally chart the characters' progress, but Google Earth can make this significantly more realistic and personal for them.

Compare these representations of Flagstaff, Arizona, a key location in John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. With the imagery and 3D capabilities afforded by Google Earth, teachers and students no longer have to abstractly conceptualize the setting of a story. Instead, they now can experience a story's setting almost realistically, as if seeing it through the eyes of the characters. Students can achieve a special understanding of what it was like for the Joad family to gaze upon Flagstaff during their westward journey.


Both through my website and the enthusiastic messages I receive from teachers around the world, I’ve learned how clearly Google Earth helps students engage in the predicaments of the characters and develop empathy for their trials and tribulations; imagine being able to view the desolate terrain of the New Mexico desert in which the Joads’ car breaks down. One of the best parts about this virtual journey is that students literally get excited when they “see” the connections between the literature they're reading and their own lives and the world as they know it.