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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.
photo (1)
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.
  5.  IMG_0218 (1)IMG_0217
  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?

21 thoughts on “Give Heart Maps a Rest! Try Writing Territory Maps

  1. I have done heart maps with my students in the past. Today we did the writing territories map and they loved it! Much better than past years’ lessons! Thank you!


  2. Kathleen- great post! I know my kiddos are a bit tired of the heart map. The territory map will be a nice change. I’ve always thought that we have writing territories. That is a truer representation of our writing lives. I’m imagining a great beyond of unexplored territories. What could that look like.


  3. Great post Kathleen! I too am a LIWP alumni — from summer of 94!!!

    I have two pieces of advice for readers who enjoyed this article:

    1) Do a Summer Institute with the Nstional Writing Project. Vital.

    2) Check out my website for more ideas to be a creative teacher:

    🙂 Daniel Weinstein


  4. I did heart maps last week to get my kids started. This week…writing territories. I stopped off at the library and got a copy of Goin’ Someplace Special. Thanks for these new ideas for jumpstarting writing workshop.
    I tried Thinglink last year and wasn’t crazy about it. I do love what you’ve done with it. Maybe I should try again. I’m wondering if they will embed into our kidblogs.


    1. Hi Margaret! Let me know how your students like the maps! It took me a while to get the hang of Thinglink. There was a teacher challenge this summer that I started but didn’t get very far! I learned the basics though and see that it could have a lot of exciting possibilities. If you try it with Kidblog, let me know! I also have a Kidblog account for my class and would be interested in seeing if that is a possibility. It was easy to embed a Thinglink into my class weebly site and I eventually figured out how to embed it here in WordPress. Thanks for your comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kathleen, I think we always have to revisit our best practices to dust them off and be sure they’re not stale–especially to us, and then, of course to our students! Setting within story is really that extra character we have to think about…it’s so important! I’ve loved reading ALL THE PLACES TO LOVE by Patricia McLachlan to get to the heart of story with my kids. Sometimes, we’ve even taken our writing territories and tried to sculpt one of our loved places in PM’s format. And even though I know that’s not entirely authentic writing–it does give them the chance to identify all the great things Patricia McLachlan does and emulate it! For the reluctant writer in the beginning of the year, it gives them a little piece of crafted word art to be proud of and realize that they need not be reluctant–but learn to be more practiced in the craft. I have done the heart maps in the past, and I totally agree…they’re overdone at this point. But if you watch Nancie Atwell go through her own notebook with the kids, now that’s authenticity for sure!


    1. I completely agree Gael! I love what you wrote about the reluctant writer feeling he/she need not be reluctant! All the Places to Love is such a beautiful book.


  6. I was fortunate to be in your workshop this summer and actually create a territory map, shown above. I am proposing a workshop for teachers in which I plan to try the use of territory maps to identify sources of joy and tension in workplaces. So the idea lives on! One suggestion…I think it might be motivating for the kids to see a territorial map or two before you begin the process of showing them how to use the graphic organizers, etc. I know that it was the creativity of the image that motivated me when you first presented the idea. Thanks for sharing your process with us!


    1. Barbara, I love the workshop idea! Thanks so much for letting me use your name and image in this post. I agree that showing kids territory maps will help them really understand. On the first day, I don’t want to confuse them with territory lists and maps, which is why were are just sticking to the list initially. After they have some time to brainstorm a favorite place, I will show them My Map Book and then explain how their favorite place can become a map to hold all their listed territories. I can show them how I took my list and made it into my library map. It would be great if some more teachers make maps as models and share them! I could have more pictures to show the students. 🙂


    1. Michelle, I see it as a personalized “what can I write about?” list. For me, with my territory maps, the library is my “special place” and the items I put in the map are all topics I could write about. I could also write about the library too! Same thing for my map of the pencils, which is ideas for blog posts here at Two Writing Teachers. I think the map itself could be a source of ideas for writing but the parts you put in the map most certainly would inspire topics to write about. I hope that makes sense! 🙂


  7. Kathleen, I rememberhearing about territory maps from Carl Anderson. Thank you for sharing your ideas. As I begin with fifth graders (tomorrow!), I will be coming back to your post. I am always looking for ways to help kids do the work of real writers.


  8. I like this idea. I am looping to the next grade with a large number of my students from last year, so I am looking for some new things to try. Last year we made heart maps and Foot Maps (they wrote down places they had been to use for writing inspiration.) I like the way your idea gets them thinking about how there are certain things they will want to write about rather than just following what I am telling them.


    1. Hi Lisa! I’ve only tried the maps with teachers since I previously taught kindergarten but I’m excited to give it a go with third graders! Let me know how it goes if you try it with your students.


  9. Thank you! We started teaching a new writing curriculum last year and one of the lessons dealt with mining our writing territories. I was thoroughly confused and with little examples to show the students I think they missed the amazing point of doing this as well. This makes so much more sense, thank you for the lesson idea and the mentor text idea as well.


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