Unlock that Map!

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Students will be able to add visual displays to descriptions as desired to provide details.

Big Idea

Making a map key for the classroom helps students understand how a map key helps the map reader know where things are.


10 minutes

Gather students on the rug using a preferred classroom management technique. I like to use my “Stop, look, listen.” The students stop what they are doing, look at me and listen for the direction. I usually preface the direction with, “When I say go…” This reminds the students to listen to the whole direction before moving to follow the directive.

In this case I would say, “When I say go I would like you to clear your space, push in your chair and go take a spot on your dot. Walking feet go.” By saying walking feet I am reminding the students to use walking feet in the classroom to ensure safe movement between areas.

When all of the students are seated on their dot in the rug area I hand out a variety of maps to every other student.

“Boys and girls you will notice that I have handed out some maps to some students. When I say “Go” I am going to give you all six minutes to look over the map that you have. If you do not have a map you are lucky because you can move around and look at any map you like.”

“While you are looking at the maps I want you to look for some specific things. You are looking for the compass rose, the scale and the map key or legend.”

“We heard about these map features in our book yesterday. Pay close attention to the map key and see what type of symbols it uses.”

“Okay your six minutes starts now…Go.”

While the students are looking at maps I walk around and facilitate discussions and make sure students are staying focused on the task at hand. The students are allowed to move around and observe the different types of maps and discuss with their peers the similarities and differences they observe.

Students looking at maps 1     Students looking at maps 2

After six minutes has gone by I use a classroom management technique to get the students to clean up and come back to their spots. In this case I would sue my whistle and the “Stop, look, listen,” technique and then give the direction, “When I say “Go” the people who I gave maps out to will fold up the maps and place them on the back table. If you did not have a map you will either help a friend fold up their map or come and take a spot on your dot. Walking feet, go.”

Once everyone is seated back on their spot I begin the focus lesson of the day.


Allowing the students to observe a variety of maps together gets the students discussing map features which will get them ready for the focus lesson.  


45 minutes

“Today’s book is called Keys and Symbols on Maps (Little World Geography), by Meg Greve. What type of book do you think this book will be?”

I select a student to respond who is following the classroom protocol of raising their hand.

“Nicely said Connor; this will be a nonfiction book.”

“Connor if this is a non-fiction book what should I expect to find while I read it?”

“Those were all answers. Connor said I could find a table of contents, an index, a glossary, pop out words, and maybe some labels. He also said this book will have facts. What do we know about facts?”

I select another student to respond.

“That is exactly right Rachel: a fact is something that can be proven.”

“Okay let’s go ahead and read our book.”


During reading I will review vocabulary words such as; compass rose, scale, etc.

We also discuss some of the symbols and whether we saw them on the maps we had explored during the introduction to this lesson.

“I see the book has a capital city represented by a star. Raise your hand if you saw this symbol on your map?”

By telling the students to raise their hand I take away the opportunity for them to all call out at once.

“Great. Hands down. Most maps represent a capital city with a star. When I use the word most does that mean all maps will use a star?”

This time I allow the students to all call out at once with the response of, “No!”

“That’s right, not all maps will use a star. Some maps may use a square or a dot of a different color. That is where the key comes in handy. The key will let me know which symbol is going to represent the capital city.”

“Let’s continue reading and see what other symbols we will find on a map.”

We discuss other symbols and how we use the key to discover what the symbol represents on the map.


After reading I ask the students, “Can anyone tell me one of the symbols they recall from the book?”

I use the fair sticks to select a student who is following the correct protocol of raising their hand.

“Good recall Bryan; I remember seeing a pyramid symbol for mountains on the physical features map.”

I continue using the fair sticks to select students until we cover most of the symbols we read about.

“You all did a great job recalling many of the symbols we saw in featured in this book. Today at one of the work stations you will be asked to make a map key for our classroom. Each of you will get a key like this one (I hold up one as an example).”

For this activity simply cut a key shape out of a large piece of construction paper. 

“Of course the first thing you will do is…?”

I allow the students’ to call out the response, “Write your name!”

“That is right; you need to write your name. Any work that does not have a name gets ripped and put in the recycling bin.”

“Next you will need to pretend you are a cartographer, that’s a map maker, and you need to create a key for your map. Map readers will use your map key to try to understand what the symbols on the map represent.”


“For example you can see on my map key I chose to represent the classroom rug with a rectangle with spots on it. Then I wrote the word rug next to it so the map reader would know what the symbol was representing; that way when the map reader looked at the map of our classroom they would know that when they saw a rectangle with spots on it they would find the classroom rug area.”

“You will need to create symbols for chairs, tables, the classroom sink, the computer table and any other thing that you think would be important for a visitor to our classroom to know. You will need to pick at least eight things to represent.”

“As usual I will be using a checklist to go over your work to make sure you have followed the directions. I will be looking to see if there is a name on the key? Are there at least eight symbols? Are they labeled? Is the students work neat and tidy?”

“Does anyone have any questions?”


Once I feel the group has a good grasp of the instructions I send the students over one table group at a time to maintain a safe and orderly classroom. It usually sounds like this;

“Table number one go have some map key making fun.

Table number two, you know what to do.

Table number three, hope you were listening to me, and

Table number four, you shouldn’t be here anymore.”


Allow the students 15 minutes to work on this activity. Set a visual timer and remind the students to look at the timer so they will use their time wisely.

Student working on her map key     Students working on their map keys



Labeling items involves many skills that the students will use later on in different subjects. Becoming a proficient labeler helps promote good work habits through skills such: using books to research information, writing letters while recording the labels, and increasing vocabulary skills as the students discuss label choices with their table partners.

Illustrating the labels allows readers to understand what the writer is trying to say and aids in comprehension. A picture clue can help a reader decode the written word.  


10 minutes

When the time is up I blow two short blasts on my whistle and use the “Stop, look, listen” technique mentioned above.

“When I say go, I would like you to clean up your space remembering to take care of our things, push in your chair, and use walking feet to go and take a spot on your dot.”

Students know to put completed work in the finished work bin. Any work that is not completed goes into the under construction bin and can be completed throughout the day whenever the student finds he/she has spare time or it will be completed during free choice center time.

 Student sample

Once all of the students are seated on their spots on the rug I tell them, “Your exit ticket for today is to tell me a feature I would find on a map. Because there are only a limited number of features there maybe some repeated answers today and that’s okay.”

I use the fair sticks to select the order in which the students will go.

Once the student has told me a feature that can be found on a map, they are free to go and use the hand sanitizer and go to get their snack.

If the student is unable to give me a response they can do one of two things. They can:

  1. Ask a friend for help.
  2. Wait until everyone is gone and we will come up with an answer together.


Using this easy formative assessment tool gives me an opportunity to see if a student can quickly recall one feature from the story or the activity. The students have all just worked on symbols and used map features so it should not be difficult for the students to respond to this request. However, if a student does have a hard time coming up with a response I will take note because I need to find out if the student had difficulty because he/she has trouble holding information or if the student was not paying attention to either the story or the activity. Knowing the answer to this question will determine how I handle the situation. 


For this activity I use the Map Symbol Checklist to go over the student’s work. The checklist serves two purposes. First, the checklist helps me stay focused on what I am looking for in the student’s work which shows me whether the student has met the objectives set for the assignment. If the student does not meet the objectives then I know I need to re-teach the lesson in a different way to the student during a small group session or one-on-one.

Secondly the checklist helps convey information to the student’s family about how well their child is doing in the classroom.

The student may also go over the checklist to see where they did well and see what areas they could improve on.

Once the checklist is complete I can attach it to the students work and place it in his/her collection portfolio.   

Classroom map key sample.      Classroom map key sample 2


At another station the students make a map symbol book. They must first trace the landform or manmade feature vocabulary word, color the picture and then create a symbol to represent the item on the map.  

Students working on map symbols books     Sample of a student symbol book page

Student explaining her symbol book

Discussing map symbol books.


Students are working on using non-standard measurement as they are given an activity where they start at the work station and use heel-toe steps to various items around the classroom. they have to note how many "steps" it takes to get them to the assigned location.

Students taking steps to measure distances around the classroom