When he was not riding his motorcycle across the country, geographer J.B. Jackson was writing deep, poetic geographies of his excursions. One of his quotes that I like to write on the board before my speaking engagements is, “This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves.” In this column, I turn the mirror on myself and reflect on my journey as a geography educator. I also pay tribute to the people and places that were instrumental to my formation as a young scholar and advocate of geography education.
At the present moment, I am a doctoral student of geography at Save Kansas State University (K-State). I serve as the office manager and three-year member of the Kansas Geographic Alliance (KGA). I conduct pre-service and in-service education workshops across the state. For the last two years, I have organized activities for Geography Awareness Week (GAW) in Kansas. My Master’s research focused on how Kansas third graders develop a community-based sense of place. At the PhD level, I research place perception and how people interpret the human-environment relationship. This year, I helped establish a research coordination network (RCN) devoted to research on how K-12 students learn about places and regions. Before the KGA, I volunteered for the Missouri Geographic Alliance (MGA) during undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU).
My education as a geographer began as a child living in North Kansas City, MO (NKC). This little township, less than five square miles, was once a major industrial hub of the metro area, located on the floodplains just north of the Missouri River—directly across from downtown KC, MO. NKC was where I was first propelled into existence and forced to make sense of the world. I played soccer and baseball at Macken Park, which was rumored to have previously been a landfill. I was delighted by the taste of raspberry croissants at Le Monde Bakery on Armor Rd., where I regularly exchanged pleasantries with the bakers—two immigrants from Vietnam and one American-born poetess who also sung Celtic folk songs. I remember exploring the industrial area of NKC. This district had it all—railroad tracks to balance atop or bike over, peculiar smells emitted from the factories and whatever cargo was being transported on the trains, and a network of alleyways that subdivided the factories, abandoned warehouses, and distribution centers. NKC wasn’t San Francisco or the Grand Tetons, but to me it was terra incognita, worthy of exploration.
The course of my life shifted to geography education when I took a mapping sciences class at MU from Dr. Shannon White. Dr. White was settling into her new position as Alliance Coordinator (AC) for the Missouri Geographic Alliance (MGA). She sensed my enthusiasm for the subject and recruited me to volunteer for the MGA. The next life-changing event happened in 2013, when I received an unexpected phone call from Dr. White. The first thing she asked was something like, “Can you be ready in the next 24 hours for a one-week leadership institute in Alabama?” I do not remember pausing to think before the word “absolutely” came out of my mouth. The Geoliteracy Leadership Institute at the University of Northern Alabama marked the official point in which I identified myself as a geography educator. There, I connected with folks from around the country who, like me, could not understand why geography was largely absent in U.S. education and wanted to do something about it.
Around the same time, Dr. Matthew Gerike, GIS Manager for the City of Columbia, introduced me to new possibilities in the study of geography. Our conversations, rich in geographic thought and philosophy, shaped my early outlook and appreciation for the discipline. Upon hearing about my interests in graduate school, Dr. Gerike connected me to his PhD advisor, Dr. John Harrington, Jr., AC for the KGA and Professor of Geography at K-State. After graduating from MU, I hopped the border to Kansas to study under the guidance of Dr. Harrington. Since then, he has challenged me to not only master the subject of geography, but also to apply what I learn to serve the community in a positive way.
I would also like to express my gratitude to the scholars, K-12 educators, and topophiles (“lovers of place”) I’ve met along the journey. In no particular order, they affectionately include, but are not limited to: Lisa Tabor Millsaps, Lisa Harrington, Deborah Hann, Matthew Allen, Bradley Burenheide, Michael Solem, Mary Curtis, Sarah Bednarz, Richard Boehm, Joanna Zadrozny, Niem Huynh, Lisa Keys-Matthews, Bill Strong, Tama Nunnelley, Alex Dzurick, Joseph Kerski, Mary Beck, Debra Bolton, Lindsey Marschka, Kayla Flamm, Jon Roddy, David Rutherford, Kurt Butefish, Mary Jane Jackson, Carley Lovorn, Brenda Barr, Kim Hulse, Sarah Coppersmith, Michael Scholz, Judy Ware, Barbara Boone, Bert Nokes, and Rhonda Lefferd, among numerous others. My accomplishments and future directions are products of the wonderful individuals in my life.
Geography education has given me a sense of purpose and belonging. With one Master’s degree down and a PhD to go, I plan to channel my inner J.B. Jackson—further expanding geography education’s reach across the “Great American Desert.” Along the way, I hope to uncover and rediscover the special places and diverse peoples of the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas, the High Plains of the West, the metropolitan islands of Wichita and Kansas City, and outside the state lines. As a member of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), I intend to continue conducting meaningful research and outreach in geography education in Kansas and elsewhere.
In honor of Geography Awareness Week, The Kansas Geographic Alliance (KGA) has created a website dedicated to the geographies of parks. The site contains lesson plans, digital maps, and current events related to parks. The KGA has included information on a variety of parks, ranging from national parks, theme parks, solar parks, botanical gardens, marine park preserves, to even trailer parks! Follow the link and discover what is available: www.kansasgeoalliance.wix.com/gaw2016.
Thomas Barclay Larsen