A Google Earth Community — History Illustrated — has begun putting up some interesting map overlays that merge history and the present in ways that present some interesting possibilities for teachers and students of the past. The largest number of postings in this forum are for very simple maps that just offer a placemark for an historical event. The more interesting samples incorporate a variety of historical content (text, images) in ways that make it possible to see what happened in a geographic context.
For example, there is a layer devoted to the so-called West Memphis Three. The case of the three (then) young men charged and convicted of the murder of three young boys in 1993 remains very controversial (note that the Wikipedia entry linked here is disputed). There are a number of websites devoted to the crime, those convicted for it, and the victims. Books have been written about the case. Films, both documentary and feature, have been produced. The New York Times alone wrote more than a dozen stories about the case or the films made about the case. In short, there is a wealth of historical evidence available for a student to work with. What he or she doesn’t have is a way to imagine the geography of the case. Until now.
The Google Earth layer, put up by a user who is part of the “Free the West Memphis Three” community, provides the link between (at least some of) the historical information and the geography. For example, here are two screen captures from the layer showing the geography of the crime (each can be clicked on for more information).
The Area of the Crime
Zoom in on details
In a similar vein, in the same Google Earth forum one can find a layer on the so-called “North Hollywood Shootout,” in which two heavily armed bank robbers kept police at bay for hours, resulting the death of the two robbers and the wounding of a dozen police officers. You can watch the event on YouTube and can read about it in numerous newspapers. But it is difficult to make sense of the geography of the event, especially if you are watching the chaotic television news coverage. The Google Earth layer provides that geographic orientation.
These two examples–both from the “true crime” genre of history–provide intriguing fodder for history teachers. After all, a standard lament among educators in general (not just historians) is that far too many of our students are functionally illiterate when it comes to geography.
So why not use Google Earth to teach them that all historical events have a geographic dimension? Instead of assigning yet another five-page essay, why not instead assign a layer with X number of embedded objects required? Then, instead of an essay drawn from primary sources, have them write an essay about what they learned from the process of making an argument with primary sources in geographic space? I’m betting you’ll get much better thinking from the students and that they will actually understand both the past and the geography of the past much, much better.