Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Where in the World Am I Headed?

Michael Ryan


This lesson introduces the horizon, cardinal points and intermediate directions using magnetic compasses. Once mastered, students move to all eight compass point directions when prompted.


The student knows the four cardinal directions (for example, north, south, east, west).

The student knows map legends, coordinates, key symbols, and cardinal and intermediate directions to read simple maps.


-Magnetic compasses from science supply house or camping store (enough for one compass per group of two students)
-Large black magic marker
-Letter-size white paper, four sheets
-Poster board in any color slightly larger than above paper, four sheets
-Masking tape, 2-inch diameter rolled in a circle to attach poster boards to be taped on the wall
-Student paper and pencils
-Group copies of a teacher-generated map showing path from the classroom to the cafeteria
-Hurricane plotting maps, one per student


1. Secure sufficient magnetic compasses in quantity before the lesson.
2. Using a large diameter black magic marker, place on each of the four pieces of paper the following capital letters: N, E, S, and W.
3. Glue each N, E, S and W page onto a slightly larger poster board to stiffen it.
4. Tear off 4, one-foot lengths of 2” masking tape. Roll the tape into a circle, tacky side out, and place each roll on the back of each poster board so that they will be ready to stick to the classroom wall.
5. Create a map showing path from the classroom to the cafeteria. Make copies of this map for each group. (See Extensions, #1)
6. Obtain hurricane plotting maps (available free from TV stations and many convenience stores) for each student in the classroom. (See Extensions, #2)


Note: This lesson addresses cardinal points and intermediate directions. Other specifics (map legends, coordinates, and key symbols) will be addressed in an extension activity.

1. Start the activity by asking students to point where they think the direction north is. Accept all answers and do not be surprised if several students point straight over their heads. Ask those students who pointed “up” why they chose that particular direction. Expect a reply such as: “When reading maps, north is up.”

2. Pose another question to the class. “If your family is going by car to visit a person who lives up north, are you going to fly up into the air?” Point to “up” when asking that question. (Response should be “No, a car does not fly up.”) Then ask the students if the question you first asked, “Where is north?” was a fair question. Why or why not? Accept all answers. (Anticipate among the responses an answer stating that the original question was unfair since they have no way of determining where the direction north is.)

3. Give a magnetic compass to each pair of students. Assign each group the challenge to find out the answers to the following questions that you ask, one at a time. Formatively, when students do each activity, observe the groups to note confusion, realization or comprehension of what has been tested.

a. Tell the class that you have given them a magnetic compass. Write the word “compass” on the front board. Explain that they will use this compass to help find their directions.
b. Divide up the class into groups of two so that each group has a compass, student paper and pencils.
c. Does the compass needle generally point in one direction in the room if you are not near any desk, chair, or the wall? Allow the students to walk quietly around the room in their groups to do this test for about one minute. (Answer: Yes, a magnetic compass needle should just point in one direction.)
d. Does the compass needle change direction if you rotate the compass outside case slowly? Have the student groups slowly turn the compass case to see what happens. (Answer: No, turning the compass case should not change the direction the needle is pointing.)
e. Does the compass needle continue to point in the same direction if you slowly turn around while holding the compass? (Answer: yes, the compass needle should continue to point in the same direction even if the person turns around.)
f. Write on the board and underline the word “magnet.” Tell the students that the compass needle is called a magnet. A magnet, if it is allowed to spin, will have one end that will usually point in one direction.
g. Tell the class that the point of a compass needle will usually point to the direction north. Ask the class to point in that direction. Take the card you previously created with the large “N” on it and with masking tape put in on the wall where the students are pointing.
h. Ask the students to turn the compass case so that the “N” on the dial face lines up with the pointed end of the compass needle.
i. Ask the students to look at the other directions on the dial. Ask them what they think the letter “S” stands for? (Response: “South.”)
j. Ask the class to point to the direction south. Mount the card with the “S” on it on the wall where they are pointing.
k. Repeat this procedure for the remaining two directions, east and west, by taping those cards in the direction where the students are pointing.

4. Challenge the students to make the compass needle point in a different direction by bringing the compass close to different things in the room. Initially explain that if they find an object that causes the needle to point in a different direction, have the students make a note of the name of those objects that had an effect. Allow the students to walk around the room in groups of two with compass, paper and pencil for 5 minutes to do this task. At the conclusion of the walk-around, ask the students from one group to tell what object caused the compass needle to move. Start a list on the board of these objects. Check with other groups to see if they agree with the list on the board. Ask the students to look over the list and explain what they have in common. (Is it squishy? Is it hard? Is it shiny?) Tell them that the shape does not matter. (Answer: The list should include those objects that are made out of iron or steel.)

5. End the first day of activity with a discussion that each of the four cards is called a cardinal point direction. Explain also that all four directions lie on a big circle that is called the horizon. Tell the class that the actual horizon happens when a ship is out in the middle of the ocean where there is no land to be seen. The horizon is a big circle in all directions where the sky meets the water. Teacher should draw a big circle on the board. Ask the students to pretend that they are a bird flying overhead looking down on the ship. The circle represents the horizon. Label the circle cardinal points N, E, S, and W.

6. For the next several days, when you ask a student to go to a particular spot in the room, tell the student (for example) “Johnny go to the board on the east side of the room” to answer a question.

7. When the students are comfortable with these directions, start to introduce the intermediate directions like NE, SW, etc. Example: “Jane, please empty the pencil sharpener in the trash can in the northwest corner of the room.”


Formative Assessment of Lesson
The teacher observes a) responses by students to questions asked, b) the groups, noting confusion, realization and/or comprehension of what has been tested, and c) student kinetic responses to prompts for moving toward all eight different directions.

Extension Activity #1 – Teacher evaluation of marked directions on maps.

Extension Activity #2 - Teacher formative assessment of student oral responses to series of posed questions to introduce, reinforce, and master concepts of latitude, longitude, map legends, and key symbols.


1. Give each student a map showing the classroom and route the student has to take to go to the cafeteria. Challenge the class to follow the route with compass in hand. Have them mark on the map the letter of the compass direction for each step of the trip as they walk. (Hopefully, their map will show twists and turns from the room to the cafeteria.)

2. Hand out a free hurricane plotting map to each student in the class. Question the students as to what they think the horizontal and vertical coordinates mean. Stress to the class that the vertical axis represents latitude measured in numbers called degrees. Mention also that the horizontal axis represents longitude in degrees. Allow the students to practice comprehension of this coordinate system by mentioning a certain latitude number and longitude number and having students respond to which state or city is located at the intersection of the numbers you have called out. Continue student practice by calling out a city or state and ask what the latitude and longitude of this position is. Repeat this several times until the students feel comfortable using this system. If the map contains a legend, have the students specifically look at it and tell you what items are included in this box. Ask the students to find out and report on any key symbols that might be on the map. (Mention items to look for such as: city names, state outlines, compass rose, latitude and longitude, and dashed line markings to illustrate major divisions.)
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