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Making geography a Blast

Making geography a Blast

When it became available in 2001, the Google Earth app became a big hit – letting users zoom in from outer space to where they live.

But Debra Hervitz, a retired reading specialist and elementary teacher in the Harrisburg School District, Dauphin County, had already been there and done that with her students.

Hervitz, a member of Capital Area PSEA-Retired, started using a similar concept in 1998 to teach young students about their local geography. Now, she has put the teaching method into a children’s book, “Where I Live, A first geography book for young children in the State of Pennsylvania,’’ that uses the Google Earth template. The state Capitol and The State Museum of Pennsylvania are among the places where it is on sale.

Back in the ‘90s, Hervitz said she was struck by how little her young students knew about their local community. And it wasn’t just her students.

“I ran literacy nights, and I found that many families and their children did not know about their city. I’d ask them what state they were from and they’d say, ‘Harrisburg.’’’ Hervitz said. “I came up with this program to incorporate geography into reading and writing, and I thought someday I would incorporate the concept into a book.’’

 No ordinary picture book

The heavily illustrated book works like this: Children blast off into outer space and are surrounded by the sun and the planets, which they learn. They find out which planet they live on, and how Earth is made up of oceans and land. Next, they discover Earth has continents, and continents have countries. Their country, the United States, has individual states, those states have counties, and those counties have cities and towns, and …

The book then provides more specific information about Pennsylvania, such as the state tree, flower, and other state designations, and popular foods in various parts of the state, such as cheesesteaks and whoopie pies.

That is followed by pages recapping what they learned, including terminology and vocabulary, and some geography games they can play.

“It is heavy on illustration, but it also has real meaty text. It is not an ordinary picture book,’’ Hervitz said. “People have remarked how well the pictures and the words go together. My training as a reading specialist really helped in that regard.’’

Students ‘blast off’ into geography bee

The 11 contestants, fellow students, family, and visitors are mimicking a NASA launch countdown on a recent day – “10, 9, 8 …’’ – to start the “Blast Off Into A Great Geography Bee’’ at the Harrisburg School District’s Scott Elementary School.

The bee is the culmination of the school’s second-grade classrooms’ study of Hervitz’s book. Certain students then earn the right to participate in the bee, which is judged by a panel of school officials and representatives of civic and literacy groups.

It takes about an hour for a winner and two runners-up to emerge after answering several rounds of questions, which are based on their launch into outer space and their return voyage to Earth: Can you name the planet we live on? What are the oceans? How many continents are on planet Earth? Which continent is south of Europe? What state do you live in? What county do you live in? Name a state north of Pennsylvania.

Among the prizes handed out to the winners and runners-up are a globe and a wall map of the United States.

“Sometimes you don’t even see globes or maps in classrooms anymore,’’ Hervitz said. “Sure, students today can look things up on the internet, but I think having that visual right there around them is important. That is why the book is heavily illustrated.’’


First in a series

In addition to the Capitol building, state museum, and educational retail and book outlets in the Harrisburg area, the book can be purchased through Learning Source’s online catalog at and by contacting Hervitz at

Hervitz recently received highly favorable reactions at a statewide kindergarten conference, and she is branching out throughout Pennsylvania to do book signings and discuss the book.

She intends for the book to be the first in a series. Next up are Maryland and New Jersey.

“I have grandchildren in those states. They loved the book,’’ Hervitz said. “They asked for their own states.’’