Yesterday in study hall, a student insisted that New Zealand was part of Australia. Someone else insisted it was part of Oceania. They went back and forth for a while, until I finally insisted that they look at the atlas.
Someone said they should go onto Google Earth, but no. I wouldn’t let them use the computer. Instead, we opened up a somewhat-dated National Geographic Atlas, and flipped to the section on Australia and Oceania. We also looked at the section dealing with plate tectonics.
And ultimately, we got a much better answer than Google Earth could have given us. First, we learned that while Australia is a continent, Oceania really is not — Oceania is simply a bunch of undersea mountain tops that happen to poke through the surface of the water. Second, we learned that New Zealand isn’t actually on the ‘same’ tectonic plate as Australia, and doesn’t even share a continental shelf. They might be “near” to each other, but New Zealand is the result of something else.
And that something else is volcanoes and earthquakes. The atlas showed clearly that New Zealand sits on the edges of the Australian plate and the Pacific Plate, where the two plates crash into one another and produce the uplift of New Zealand’s highlands and mountains (so ably shown off in the Lord of The Rings movie trilogy!).
We also learned that New Zealand is the southwestern edge of one of the three distinct cultural regions of Oceania: that of Polynesia, which is bounded by Rapa Nui/Easter Island in the southeast, and the Hawaiian Islands in the north. The other two regions were Melanesia and Micronesia. The folks at National Geographic, working within the limited space constraints of a book (even the large format of an atlas), did a great job of picking photos of Micronesians, Melanesians, and Polynesians that demonstrated cultural distinctions. And the photographs of the islands themselves — from the air, from the ground, from the water — also showed how these islands were geographically distinct.
It was all great material for a palace of memory exercise involving the globe. And it’s one of the things that the Internet — as wonderful as it is — does badly. To get all of that information, our kids would have had to visit a half-dozen websites, or I as their teacher would have had to KNOW and had bookmarked the perfect website to answer that question. Google makes it easier, and harder, both at the same time.
Do they have a perfect understanding of Oceania, Australia, and New Zealand? No. Will they be utterly aware of the differences and similarities between islands? No. Are they now aware of geological, geographical, and cultural differences in a part of the world that most Americans don’t know well? Yes, a little. And all of that, from a BOOK!
Sometimes, the best tool for answering an off-the-cuff question is having the right book on hand. That’s why the best study halls, and the best classrooms, are also miniature libraries. I have to do a better job of making my classroom into a jewel of a library for the subjects I teach, I think.