Ask any class of 11 or 12-year-olds what they think geography is about and they will almost certainly give you a definition that involves some mention of place.
Often, pupils engage with places that are exotic and hard to reach, whether they're rainforests, volcanoes or cities in economically less developed countries. Here is a lesson, however, that heightens their sense of place by encouraging them to discover and interact with 16 square kilometres of their own country.
In just one or two lessons, plus some follow-up time at home, your class can produce a mosaic of virtual fieldwork locations with each member of the class contributing a unique "patch" for which they have a sense of ownership.
In the process, they can hone their map skills, improve their presentation skills, refine their internet research skills and address copyright issues, all while having fun in the process.
You will need access to a number of internet-linked computers, some A3 paper, pencils, pens and rulers, coloured pencils, scissors and glue. I also created an instruction booklet for pupils that can be taken from http:tinyurl.com7xr78v.
The lesson begins by using the Ordnance Survey Get-a-Map service to select an area of the UK. I always encourage my pupils to choose a location with which they are not already familiar, and by using the zoom and navigate facility they zoom into the map until they have a map of 4x4 grid squares (16 square kilometres) at a scale of 1:50,000.
Often, while pupils are selecting their "patches", I take the chance of revisiting map scales with them. Once they have chosen their own area (and from experience it is virtually impossible for two pupils to select the same one), they have to print out and glue their patch centrally on to an A3 sheet. This is usually a good time to check up on their compass skills and four-figure references, as these will be required later in the lesson.
At this point I explain to the class that their task is to find out and to present information about their patch in the space remaining around their maps. I suggest that they might draw a map to show where in the UK their patch is located. I ask them to compile a key that explains the OS symbols used in their patch, use the internet to find out some interesting information about their patch and write a short description of what it looks like from the air.
Google Maps provides clear zoomable aerial views, if you're unable to access Google Earth. However, the best illustrations come from photographs that provide a visual link between maps and the real world.
This is when their patch really comes to life. A good resource for this is the Geograph website (see panel below). This web-based project aims to assemble geographically representative photographs for every square kilometre in the UK.
At the time of writing, more than 70 per cent of all the grid squares are represented, and unless your pupils have chosen a particularly remote area, their search on Geograph (using grid references) will be rewarded with a choice of images that are all free to use under a Creative Commons licence, which allows pupils to make use of materials as long as they attribute them to the right source.
This provides me with the chance to explain the fundamentals of digital copyright to pupils and the correct procedure to follow when copying the images that will illustrate their patch.
When pupils have completed their patches, they form a unique wall display, representing the wide range of "places" in this land of ours.
This year, when I next do the exercise, I plan to arrange for pupils to have contiguous maps so that their areas combine to create a veritable patchwork quilt of place.
Val Vannet is deputy head and geography teacher at the High School of Dundee.
Ordnance Survey Get-a-Map service
Google Maps and Google Earth
Creative Commons licence