Notches, Panhandles and Jogs

  • Oct 31, 2014


“Borders are stories, and the stories are great.” 
from How the States Got Their Shapes

As a little kid growing-up in New York City, I had one of those colorful wooden puzzle maps that depicted the unique characteristics of all 50 United States. Beyond fostering a fledgling desire to visit those wonderful places where buffalo roamed, or mighty locomotives thundered past desert cactus, it challenged me to recognize states by their shapes. Texas, California and Florida were easy. Once I ventured inland, though, things grew complicated.

It would be years before I’d learn that borders actually existed in the world outside my puzzle, and decades before I’d come to fully understand the various and sundry ways these lines have snaked and shifted before settling into what we now recognize as home.

In fact, it wasn’t until I watched History Channel’s How the States Got Their Shapes that I learned Las Vegas was once in Arizona!

Based on a book by playwright and screenwriter Mark Stein, this engaging and fact-filled documentary series explores how war, politics, commerce, social revolution and even natural disasters literally shaped our nation. Hosted by National Public Radio’s Brian Unger (pictured, above), the program is an ideal complement to history, geography, and social studies curricula.

It’s not a wooden puzzle, but it’ll have to do.

History Channel’s accompanying classroom guide includes pre-viewing activities, curriculum links, discussion questions and extended activities, along with a vocabulary section and lists of recommended books and web sites. These resources are available to educators free of charge.

The program may be recorded for use in the classroom, and may also be viewed online.

Upcoming airings of How the States Got Their Shapes include:

“Mouthing Off”
The diversity of America’s state borders is matched only by the diversity of our regional accents. This episode explores the history and social impact of sounding different across the United States.
Nov. 24 at 6am/5c on History Channel Classroom (ch. 269).

“Forces of Nature”
A look at how massive geological events helped shape the land that would become America. Did you know that an asteroid created the border for three states?
Dec. 29 at 6am/5c on History Channel Classroom (ch. 269).

For more educational fun, challenge students to test their knowledge with History Channel’s interactive “Place the State” game.

And to receive more information about great educational programming like this, be sure to bookmark this site and follow DIRECTV Goes to School on Twitter.

 —Stephen Vincent D’Emidio