Give Heart Maps a Rest! Try Writing Territory Maps

“Imagine you are a stick of gum on someone’s shoe.  Write about a day in your life.”

When I was a student, this was a typical writing assignment.  We were given “creative” prompts and assigned what to write. Truth be told, I liked it, because 1) I enjoyed writing stories and 2) I didn’t know any differently about how writers come up with topics in the real world.  Thankfully, we now know better about how to help writers choose personally meaningful topics.  At the start of the year, many teachers turn to the heart map to help students mine their lives for topics that are important to them.  The heart map is a wonderful tool, but when it is done year after year, teachers worry that students might lose their enthusiasm for this technique.  One alternative is writing territory maps.

Writing territories, a phrase coined by Nancie Atwell, describe the areas in your life that you want to write about.  It can include people, places, events, passions, hobbies, worries, dreams, milestones, and other subjects that are close to your heart.  They can be a list in your notebook or they can take on a more visual display.  Many summers ago, at the Long Island Writing Project (LIWP) Summer Institute, I learned about writing territory maps.  The idea is to think of a place or a concept that has special meaning for you and make that place into a map. Your writing territories become part of the map.  I still remember one teacher made her writing territory map an amusement park, including a ride called “The Marriage Free-Fall.”  Other maps teachers created included cruise ships, gardens, a baseball diamond and a stage. This summer, I co-facilitated the LIWP Summer Institute and the participants once again created writing territory maps.

This was my original writing territory map which I showed as a model.

This was my original writing territory map which I showed as a model.


Teacher Sally Lemmon made her map an undersea scene with key people in her life represented by different sea life, for specific purposes.

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Recently retired ESL teacher Barbara Suter believed traveling and journeys were an important theme in her life, so her territory map was an actual map of the United States and Europe, with a map key that depicts the different times in her life when she made those travels.

This year, I want to try writing territory maps with my third graders.  Here is how I envision it going:

  1. I will show students my writer’s notebook and explain how there are some topics that I write about often, usually my children and being a teacher.  I will explain that writers often write what is closest to their hearts and these topics can be thought of as their writing territories.  Showing them a graphic organizer I developed for writing territories, I will model how I filled mine out and then give them an opportunity to write their own writing territories.
  2. Later in the day, I plan to read Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack, to the students.  Before reading the book, I would ask students to take a few minutes to free write about a special place in their lives.  Students could predict what the “someplace special” is in the book as they think about their own favorite place.
  3. The next day, I would share the book My Map Book by Sara Fanelli, where she shows maps of nontypical things, like a map of her dog, a map of her tummy, and a map of her heart.  At this point, I would show students how I can take my favorite place and my writing territories and combine them into a map!
  4. I would share with my students how the library is my all-time favorite place.  I plan to model how I incorporated my writing territories into a map of the library.
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  6. After modeling my writing territory map, I would invite students to talk with their writing partners, sharing their territory list and their free write about their special place.  Students could discuss how they plan on combining their lists into a map of their special place.
  7. Students will get a sheet of white paper and use art materials to create their own writing territory map.  When students are finished, the territory maps could be shared and celebrated.  Perhaps they could be hung in the classroom and a photograph of the map can be placed in the student’s notebook.  An option could certainly be to staple the map right into the writer’s notebook.

After reading Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by Franki Sibberson and William Bass II, I am on the lookout for ways to purposefully integrate technology. To bring writing territory maps into the digital age, Thinglink can be used to make the territory maps interactive. I created a writing territory map specific to finding topics to write about for this blog, Two Writing Teachers.  Many of the topics I came up with have been explored on this site already and it is helpful to see what has been written before.  Here is my interactive map for ideas for this blog:

If students have a digital version of their territory maps with links to sites that will help them get started with their writing, I think this could be a useful upgrade to the paper map. What other visual representations  do you use to help students select ideas for personally meaningful writing?