Cultural Landscape Study
AP Human Geography provides many opportunities for authentic learning using applied concepts. The challenge is to take advantage of the site and situation of the community in which you teach.
Thanks to the internet, you can take students on virtual field trips without having to worry about whether they have their passports. While exploring the course’s cultural unit, students learn about the cultural landscape from many different perspectives. In a given lesson, students can view mosques in Somalia, gothic cathedrals in France, yurts (gers) in Mongolia, or Hindus purifying themselves in the Ganges River. It is much easier today than in the past to bring the world to students. Yet if a global perspective is our only emphasis in this unit, students fail to see the intricate patterns of life within their own communities.
I use a cultural landscape field study to examine local community patterns. Once students learn about the cultural landscape in communities around the world, I unleash them on communities closer to home. Students conduct their own studies, looking for evidence of material culture with the same tools they have brought to bear on their studies of other world communities.
Key Concepts and Ideas
What are some of the key concepts and ideas that students have learned about in their own communities through this project? The following sampler includes types of cultural material explored by students, as well as sample discoveries made by students while completing the assignment:
Religious architecture: ornate Catholic churches versus those of Protestant denominations, Orthodox “onion” domes, other denominations' buildings
One student chose a town with only one Catholic church but 12 Protestant churches. The student reflected on the lack of ornateness of the Catholic church and concluded that it might be due to a cultural dominance of Protestant faiths in the area.
Religious holidays: Christmas symbols on storefronts, "Happy Hanukkah" signs
Students sometimes counted the numbers of stores with or without signs. They also looked at how the local governments portrayed religion during December. Was this period Christian-focused, or did it include other faiths?
Other religious symbols: street signs and place names, specialty stores, Christian bookstores, delis with signs advertising kosher meat, churches away from downtown
The placement of religious symbols can have larger meanings about the role of religion in a secular, capitalist society. Students sometimes remarked on the cross being used as a symbol for a particular suburb.
Housing types: mansions near lake or waterfront property, becoming scarce farther away from scenic points; condominiums near downtown areas and by train stations; tract housing; materials that reflect wealth (for example, brick versus wood or aluminum/vinyl siding)
The spatial properties of real estate have been reflected in many students' responses. Many students commented on the price of land and how it changes given its location (cheaper near expressways, etc.)
Shopping centers: types of stores that reflect globalization, wealth, etc.; types of cars in parking lots; demographics of shoppers; signage on the storefronts; sidewalk materials (brick versus concrete)
One student reflected on the movie theater in one suburb and the number of independent films that it showed. Examining this type of programming in conjunction with census data, she concluded that residents were well-educated, affluent, and were looking to distinguish themselves from the average Hollywood movie audience.
Names and Populations
Place names (toponymy): street signs, town names, names of residents, languages on storefronts
Students used place names and other signs to understand the background of a particular area. One student researching the suburb of Lake Zurich found that although the landscape in the business district reflected a Swiss town, only a few people of Swiss heritage lived in the town. After talking with village officials, she found that the town was named as a marketing ploy to attract business to the suburb.
Cemeteries: last names on tombstones
After studying the last names found in local cemeteries, students made conclusions about the national origin of the European settlers in their areas. One student reflected on the number of German names in a cemetery in Schaumburg. Another student presented the last names of "Swift" and "Armour" in a Lake Forest cemetery as evidence of the historic wealth in the community.
Language: languages other than English that are present in the landscape, flags of other countries
One student observed both Mexican and U.S. flags in the front of one resident's house. Another found a Polish community center.
Ensuring student safety and responsibility on this trip is important, and parents must give their approval for this project, but the extra effort is well worth it. Students return excited about their discoveries.
A study of local communities presents one more opportunity for AP teachers to open students' eyes to the world around them. The links on this page to Student Assignment: Cultural Landscape Field Study includes the directions for the project as carried out in suburban Illinois.
Stevenson High School