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Using & Teaching Educational Technology

Storybook Settings by Satellite: Google Earth for Language Arts & Reading Class
By Mechelle M. De Craene
Created on Fri, 19 Jan 2007, 00:07

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Mechelle De Craene describes how Google Earth can help you make your lessons come alive, in this chapter from the forthcoming second edition of Coming of Age: An Introduction to the New Worldwide Web.

While reading a story with my students I am often surprised how little geography my middle school students know. Stories travel from place to place and when students don't know the geography of a story it hinders the meaning. Therefore, explaining the setting of a story is very important to reading context and ultimately reading comprehension. Before Google Earth I'd pull out the handy dandy globe or pull down the maps rolled up over my board and we'd map out our stories together. Now I just click and fly.

Google Earth lets my students and me explore various settings in a fun, engaging way like no two-dimensional map or plastic globe can. With that, here are the basics when using Google Earth in language arts and reading classes:

Getting Google Earth Started at School:

First take the virtual product tour at the following address: This site is an introductory site that shows how to fly to an address, zoom, tilt, and rotate, driving maps, emailing images, layers of mapping, 3D buildings and terrain, and measuring distances. Along the way you can click on the right and it will take you to the top 10 places from the Grand Canyon to the wonderfully magic sinking city of Venice, Italy. After you've jetted for a while, click on the upper right-hand corner of the page where it says "Get Google Earth Free Version". Note: the images are not in real time, but within a 3 year time frame with city satellite images being updated more readily than rural areas.

On this page it has the PC, Mac, and Linux configurations. There are several versions, but for schools free is best. However, please note that school desktop computers older than 4 years old may not be able to run it and notebook computers older than 2 years old may not be able to run it.

Next, before you hit the download button click and check on the 'send me "The Sightseer" - Google Earth's Monthly Highlights, Tips, and Update News.' Next click download and go sightseeing. Note: some school computers may say "access denied" when you try and install it. Then, you have to try and track down the tech person at your school to either give you the administrative code, or install it on your behalf. In the case where your school district won't allow teachers to install it at all on school computers, you may have to bring in your own laptop if you have one. If you've got a projector at school then you can project Google Earth so that the whole class can see the images.

Lesson Plan

Take your students on a virtual tour of your students' book. First, like any field trip start with your school. Type in your school's address and watch your studentsí eyes light up as they see their school via satellite. Now you are ready to go around the world with each of the characters in the books your students are reading. Additionally, you can see where the settings of various authorsí plays are located. For example, Google Earth already has 89 placemarks showing almost all the places quoted in Shakespearean plays.

With my class, I had my middle school students travel to each storybook setting. Moreover, I asked them to find things at each setting as described by each author: similar to a scavenger hunt. Next, I asked them to compare and contrast (eg Venn Diagram) the satellite images with that of the storybook setting. Comparing and contrasting historical fiction is especially interesting.

3D Sketching the Storybook Setting

You can extend the lesson by having students sketch up the Google Earth images to make them similar to the story settings to make 3D settings. Here is the Sketch-up link: Students will click from window to window as they model their storybook setting.

Google Earth Snapshots & Storytelling

Moreover, you can further extend your students' projects by taking Google Earth Snapshots. These can be imported into a PowerPoint presentation or into digital stories. I used to have my students do PowerPoint book reports. However, I must admit I've become a little bored with PowerPoint as a medium and much prefer digital storytelling in the classroom. On the other hand, not all students may know how to use PowerPoint. Therefore, having your students do a PowerPoint book report can help students learn the medium, which will be an important skill to have, especially prior to high school. Furthermore, you can turn your travels of storybook settings into a digital storytelling book report. This is a really fun activity.

Snag It and Camtasia are tools that can help you screen capture edit and share images. I really like Camtasia because you can easily record your screen movements, which is great for presentations. They offer a free 30 day trial at If you like it try and write up a grant application and buy it for your school. It's a great asset for any school. Next, once you've video captured the images you can import them into iPhoto and iMovie if you have a Mac at school. You can even have your students use GarageBand to add sound effects and music to their story travels.

Google Earth Community

For additional resources on Google Earth check out the Google Earth Community at Overall, the Google Earth Community contains loads of information. One caveat is that the community is not well organized for busy students and teachers. They do, of course, have Google search which may help you narrow your search if you type in the correct keyword. However, it would be wonderfully helpful if they categorized various post by subject areas such as science, mathematics, language arts and reading etc. (hint hint, Google folks ; )).

Overall, Google Earth can help your students to learn geography and add new perspectives to storybook settings. Who would have thought that satellites can help stories come alive?

(c) 2007 Mechelle M. De Craene

Mechelle De Craene loves being a special education teacher in Florida. She is also a MirandaNet Scholar researching child development and ICT (i.e.Cybernetic Developmental Theory) with the MirandaNet Academy. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters Degree in Special Education with a Gifted Education endorsement.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.