Image that include logos for Philadelphia Writing Project and Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium, which PhilWP is a member of. Logos are flanked by cropped photo of mural, lithograph of Octavius Catto, and publication of National Woman Suffrage Association. Sources for images listed at bottom of page.

Using Digital Mapping Tools to Connect Primary Sources with Communities and Opportunities for Writing

Resources Prepared for the 2021 National Council for History Education (NCHE) Virtual Conference

Digital mapping tools like GIS, Google Maps, Google Earth, and StoryMapJS allow educators and students to curate and connect sources with geographic locations. Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP) teachers have used digital mapping tools to support the inquiries, writing, and learning of both students and educators.


  • Erica Darken, Grade 4 Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Trey Smith, Grades 9-12 Technology Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Lisa (Yuk Kuen) Yau, 邱玉娟, Grade 4 Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

Conference Poster

Overview Video

A Neighborhood Virtual Tour Around Our School

Most people use Google Maps as a navigation tool to find their destination, but did you know Google Earth is arguably just as good of a tool for educational exploration?

Google Earth is a free and user-friendly computer program that teachers can use to teach world and local history as well as geography and basic math. With its 3D rendering technique, a virtual tour can made to feel like it is in person. Some possibilities for learning with Google Earth include:

  • Creating a slide presentation using titles, scale, distances, compass directions, and descriptions;

  • Inserting historical satellite images, maps, recent and archival photographs, and documents; and

  • Encouraging students to write, make connections, and ask questions that can drive further learning.

During remote learning, 4th grade students at Key School in Philadelphia were able to experience a virtual walking tour from their school to neighborhood murals, a community organization, a recreational center, a local church, the fire department, the local library, and a public park. Students immediately identified street signs and storefronts—and were excited to explore further places they often passed by.

Environmental Justice Exploration via Primary Sources and a Virtual Field Trip

Field trips and interactions with community partners are an integral part of the 4th grade experience as well as our service-learning project for Need In Deed.

In addition to the virtual walking tour of the community, we have a virtual field trip to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum via Google Earth. As part of the experience, students:

  • Notice and wonder about a bird’s-eye view of the Philadelphia area on Google Earth, then zoom in on the school and refuge;

  • Notice and wonder about historic and current-day images of refuge employees;

  • Prepare interview questions for our visitors from the refuge;

  • Receive visitors and ask them questions; and

  • Reflect on the answers as they prepare to gather more information and choose a service-learning project.

Using a Story Map for Teacher Professional Development

As a network of educators, the Philadelphia Writing Project encourages practitioners to “go public’ with their classroom practices and questions.

  • To support the spread of practices, questions, and Library of Congress resources across our network, we curated text sets and stories from classrooms in StoryMapJS.

  • The map addressed the idea that historical markers, murals, and monuments are texts that can be read and (re)written.

  • We then sponsored a virtual writing marathon during which participants explored the map independently and wrote about things they found and things they were thinking about. (Writing marathons are a tradition embraced by local sites of the National Writing Project.)

  • Teachers then re-convened to discuss what they wrote about and to reflect on the writing marathon process.

What this work has us thinking about...

  • Teachers who participated in the professional development were inspired to imagine (1) how and where their stories might fit on the map and (2) what other text sets they might contribute based on their knowledge of our city.

  • What are the design and learning possibilities for structuring teacher professional development in this way (e.g., with artifacts from practice, more choice in what teachers engage with, examples across grade bands, resources tied to and organized particular geographies, teachers writing as a central feature of the experience)?

Philadelphia Writing Project logo, with outline of downtown Philadelphia skyline
National Writing Project logo with squiggly "W"
University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education logo with shield
Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium Member logo