How Will You Get There? Quirky Q&A with Google Maps

What is a place you would love to visit?

It may be a place you’ve been and can’t wait to get back to. It may be a place you’ve never been before.

The fact that we all have such places makes this one of my favorite classroom conversation starters. I ask almost every group I work with, and I’ve discovered lots of directions the conversation can take. But in a beginning Spanish course I taught this summer, I tried something new: actually mapping out a student’s desired trip with Google Maps and asking questions based on everything from the terrain to different travel methods. This proved effective and, at times, hilarious.

Aidan, age 13, had written on a note card that he wanted to visit Los Angeles. So I projected Google’s route from White River Junction, VT (where we were for Express Fluency) to L.A. The standard result is for a road trip:

Google Maps result for driving from White River Junction, VT, to Los Angeles, CA

Besides providing a concrete and interesting visual, this allowed me to ask things like…

Is driving to L.A. from here a good idea?

Who has ever taken a road trip 44 hours or longer? Who would consider it?

What faraway places would be worth driving to?

Oh, for this class I had my browser’s language set to Spanish, which made for further target-language input on the screen.

Comparing travel methods + follow-up questions galore

The previous day, we had learned that Carolyn wanted to visit Portugal and that she wanted to get there by flying, not by swimming or running. This gave me the idea of clicking through the various means of transport that Google lists and discussing whether that method would be interesting or worthwhile, and what that might depend on, such as the scenery, the weather, and how much time one had. Here are the results for public transportation:

Google Maps result for taking public transportation from White River Junction, VT, to Los Angeles, CA

That’s a lot of buses and trains on which to be uncomfy! Aidan definitely did not want to take the public to L.A.

Here are the maps for walking and cycling. Note the elevation chart at the bottom left, which invites further discussion, along with questions about who likes to cycle, where they tend to ride, how often, with whom . . . . You could also explore what other considerations (like lodging, luggage, and gear) each method calls for.

Google Maps result for walking from White River Junction, VT, to Los Angeles, CA

Google Maps result for cycling from White River Junction, VT, to Los Angeles, CARemember, we are still trying to get Aidan to Los Angeles—but he didn’t go for any of the methods shown so far. Finally, I clicked on the plane, which of course yielded the shortest travel time, and Aidan declared that’s how he wanted to get to L.A. Here the fact that Google knows way too much helped us take the conversation even further. Note the the estimated price in the time box:

Google Maps result for flying from White River Junction, VT, to Los Angeles, CA

Now, we need to be really careful when talking about prices in our classes, because money can be a painful subject and some students can afford things that others can’t. But we can ask things like whether the price is surprising, whether it might be cheaper to travel at a different time or by a different method, and how students think the price to L.A. compares to the cost of traveling to other places students want to visit.

What Next?

As with just about any other guided oral interaction, you can follow up with Write & Discuss and any of the reading options W&D can lead to.

Depending on your time and goals, you might take Google up on its suggestion to “Explore Los Angeles”—perhaps with a different use of Google Maps, like this one from La Maestra Loca.

And remember, you can do a quick Google Maps route + travel time exploration as a buildup or follow-up to any lesson about any location that is culturally significant in your course.

Have fun with this simple, no-prep way of generating input and interaction!

To become a Master Questioner equipped with even more ways to form and use questions to sustain compelling interactions, check out my mini-course Asking Just-Right Questions!

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  1. “Yes, it is too far to drive” = when Google Maps turns into the “Google Earth”-style globe in the Maps browser interface because you have to zoom out so far! 😛

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