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Plotting Fiction In the Classroom With Interactive Maps

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The nation's capital is well known for its political history, but what of its literary history? DC By the Book, a new project from the District of Columbia Public Library, aims to guide curious readers to more information about the wealth of literature associated with the city. It joins a popular tradition of mapping works of literature to their real-life settings, useful models for teachers expanding the scope of literature instruction in classrooms and e-learning environments.

Launched last week, DC By the Book is an interactive online map with layers of geospatial and bibliographic data linking locations and literary themes to book information in the DCPL catalog. Teachers in the Washington area—and anywhere else Washington-focused books appear on reading lists—can point their students to a form for adding their own favorite books. If actively updated, DC By the Book could be a valuable resource—and model—for history and English-language arts classes, libraries, and literary-minded tourists nationwide.

A number of similar projects, focusing on particular cities and the writing associated with them, have gone online over the past decade and offer rich and ambitious models for literature-mapping activities in the classroom.

  • Infinite Atlas locates and describes places mentioned or visited in Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The site uses Google Maps as a platform for its interactive map and also published brief daily-update essays on each place between July and September 2012.

  • The New York Times produced "A Literary Map of Manhattan" in 2005. The map offers 99 quotations about New York City, from a Washington Irving line on the "Haerlem River" (north) to an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem on the Staten Island Ferry (south).

  • San Francisco literature has drawn its share of cartographic tributes, from the San Francisco Literary Map booklet published by literacy nonprofit 826 Valencia to "The Literary City," a widely circulated hand-drawn map of the city filled in with geographically relevant quotations. "The Literary City" was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

  • Literary associations are major components of the tourism industry in several European cities. Not only is Bloomsday a massively popular event in Dublin, but Edinburgh, Reykjavik, and Norwich, UK, joined Dublin as UNESCO Cities of Literature in 2004, 2011, and 2012, respectively. Interactive online literary maps have been published for each of the honored cities (see hyperlinked names, above).

Not only can literary maps enrich urban exploration, but plotting the places in books can add an extra layer of understanding to the reader experience. Producing creative or critical work in response to books, poems, and articles offers both reward and challenge. Teachers may bring literary maps and mapping into the classroom, blended classroom, or e-learning environment by having students explore and add to existing maps, or create their own from scratch. In-class mapping exercises seem particularly suited to the flipped classroom model.

Collaborative opportunities abound in this type of project. Students may work in groups to discuss an approach to mapping. Will they chart major settings or places where significant plot events occur? Will they map by theme, plotting every appearance of a secondary character or environmental motif? Teachers can certainly encourage students to find multiple ways into books.

Overlaying maps by multiple students or student groups may reveal common ways of reading, but the differences between maps can also provide fertile ground for discussion. Several mappers might select different text passages or images to associate with the same place. Viewing the maps all together may reveal that disparate themes follow similar geographic patterns, leading to a discussion of how the themes are connected. Using online literary maps and digital mapping tools as ways to process texts and narratives can develop students' critical and technological abilities while demonstrating how many ways there are to read.

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