GeoInspirations: Michelle LeBlanc – GeoEducation from the Library to the Community

October 3, 2018
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Michelle LeBlanc, director of education at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

In my travels promoting geography and geospatial technology over the years, I have visited a number of amazing libraries with map collections. I have also worked with a number of geo- and GIS-champions in academic and public libraries. Not only is Michelle LeBlanc one of the leaders in this area, but she also works in one of the coolest libraries in the world. As the mission of librarians is information, geo-information is a natural fit, and in the case of the Boston Public Library, even more so, as it has long had an excellent map collection and educational program. I have visited there several times; its exhibits change frequently, and I highly recommend it. I also admire Michelle’s tireless work championing GIS in education for teachers and secondary students in the Boston region. Therefore, it is my pleasure to bring her to the attention of the readers of Directions Magazine. 

I asked Michelle to describe her pathway into her current position and to describe what she does. She replied, “I have been the director of education at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library since 2013. My background is in public history and museum education. I’ve worked for 20 years teaching and supporting K-12 students and teachers in a variety of settings, from a 1700s historic meetinghouse to a middle school classroom and currently at a library. Maps have always been something I’ve used in teaching history and social studies but I have become deeply committed to them as transformative learning tools. Walking through our Map Center gallery every day, I often hear a gasp as someone walks in and says, ‘Oh, I love maps!’”

What convinced Michelle to enter the field? “Ironically, history was not my favorite subject in school,” she said. “When I look back, what I always loved most was being in the field learning and in the locations where events took place. I have very vivid memories of visiting Civil War sites growing up in Arkansas. I also had some amazing high school science classes where we went on the road and explored caves and streams and searched for geological anomalies. I think I was always struck by the importance of place-based learning and how much more I learned by being in a location and looking for the answers rather than learning in a classroom setting. I always loved museums, since they combined amazing objects and passionate people who loved to bring people together to learn.”

What has most inspired Michelle during her career?  “I’m inspired every day by the teachers and other educators we work with at the Map Center,” Michelle said. “There are so many amazing educational organizations in Boston from museums to other nonprofits, the National Park Service and on and on. While there are so many constraints on teachers’ time and a lack of funding in public schools, there are so many great organizations that work hard to help support the schools and get kids out into the city, into nature, civically engaged and on and on. Working in a public library has also been inspiring. The nature of libraries and the services they provide has changed so much, in the last 20 years especially. This building is a bustling meeting place for people from all across the city. Our founder, Norman B. Leventhal, was adamant that the Map Center be in the public library so that Boston students could have a place they could come and learn about their city and world with maps.”

What project or initiative is Michelle the proudest of being a part? “In the summer of 2017, the Map Center organized and ran two weeks of teacher workshops funded by the Landmarks of American History program from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The workshop was titled, ‘Mapping a New World: Places of Conflict and Colonization in 17th Century New England.’ Teachers from across the country and throughout New England came for a week to Boston, and we explored early maps of the region through the lens of the early English settlers and the native peoples who were here. The program was very place-based and we traveled to Connecticut to visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, around Boston to various historic sites, met and worked with Native scholars and educators, and even traveled out to some of Boston’s harbor islands to explore important Native American landscapes. The use of historic maps, modern maps, and narratives written in the 1600s made the week very rich and powerful, as we discussed the ways maps often only tell the point of view of the more powerful group. Native scholars shared with us the original place names for current New England towns and we talked about how the maps show us the eventual disappearance of these native place names.”

I asked Michelle what she believes is the most important thing on which the education/library science/geospatial community needs to work, and she replied, “I’m excited to be an advocate for using GIS with K-12 students. I want to see more integration of schools and their communities. This past year we connected the GIS professionals at Boston city hall with high school seniors and showed them how they think about the city spatially. Young people need real opportunities to contribute to their communities. We need to value their perspective and factor them into our conversations about what makes a good city. I’m excited as I think about helping students work with data and how to map a topic or question they are passionate about. Project-based learning like this is happening in many places but not nearly often enough.”

I asked Michelle, “What is your advice to a new professional in these fields?” She replied, “I bridge a lot of fields, so I’m not exactly sure which one! I get asked a lot how I got into this job. Did I always love maps? I had several paths, from working in museums, to getting my teaching degree, to managing a federal grant program to provide professional development for teachers in American history. The Map Center has education for all as its core mission. So, I came in as an experienced educator and have learned on the job as I go about geography education, GIS, how to think about maps, etc. I always tell young professionals who want to work in the ‘informal education’ field, as it is often termed, that they should spend as much time as they can in school classrooms. Museums and libraries offer different experiences for students that are hugely important to their education. But they must work in concert with the classroom teachers and make sure they are supporting them and providing curriculum that will be built upon and continued after you are gone. Also, you can’t be an expert at everything! I encourage new professionals to learn from everyone around them, ask lots of questions and find inspiring mentors who will help you along the way.”

Michelle works in a map library, so I could not resist asking her to name one of her favorite maps. “I really love this 1581 German map and use it a lot with students,” she told me. “It encapsulates a lot of what we talk about with maps: perspective, focus, bias, purpose, etc. I love how America is tacked on in the left-hand corner.”

To find out more about Michelle, she suggested the link below:

 http://www.choices.edu/scholar/michelle-leblanc/

 “This is a series of videos we did for the Choices Program at Brown University. You can hear a lot about how we talk about maps with students and get some ideas for analyzing maps.”

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