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On the Map with Cynthia Bettio

Meet Cynthia Bettio, a Governor General History award winner and teacher who has used ArcGIS StoryMaps for a grade 10 history research project that engaged her students in learning about their city’s past.

Let’s explore Cynthia’s ArcGIS journey. Cynthia is an exceptional educator who began her career teaching English and History. She is currently the Department Head of Canadian and World Studies, English, Guidance, and Arts at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic High School in Stouffville, Ontario.

Under the mentorship of John Warecki, her former Department Head at her previous school, Cynthia embraced the opportunity from him to teach Advanced Placement Geography in 2016. In that pivotal year, Cynthia attended an Ontario History and Social Science Teachers Association (OHASSTA) conference, where she was introduced to ArcGIS StoryMaps. The powerful examples demonstrated at the conference excited her, and she quickly incorporated both ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS StoryMaps into her teaching toolkit. To this day, she continues to use these innovative tools to enrich her students’ understanding of geography and history.

2 women smiling at a ceremony for teaching excellence.

Cynthia pictured here with Her Excellency Mary Simon after receiving the Governor General Award for Teaching Excellence, November 2022.

We had the pleasure of meeting Cynthia at a recent workshop and are excited to share her innovative history project with you. Here’s what she shared with us about her approach and experiences.

Tell us about the history project that your students did last year about the City of Richmond Hill. 

The project I developed in 2023 for a Grade 10 Advanced Placement Canadian History class focuses on the City of Richmond Hill.  This mandatory grade 10 history course is called "Canadian History: 1914 to the Present.” 

I had been speaking with a colleague of mine, Mike German, about the approach that we were going to take in all the grade 10 history courses. He suggested we try a microscopic approach and then create a context for the macroscopic events that typically define history education in Ontario.  He sent me a podcast about an unknown story in Québec City as an example.  I listened to it, and the wheels started turning.

Given that the school is in Richmond Hill, I thought, what if we were to focus on the micro history of the local area?  Richmond Hill has a rich history, and they also have an incredible Local History Room at the Richmond Hill Public Library at Yonge St. and Major MacKenzie.  I reached out to the local history librarian, Peter Wilson, and explained the idea that I had. He invited me and our teacher librarian, Valerio Sorgini, to visit.  We were introduced to a wealth of primary documents, data, and online resources.

A woman holding up a big map and smiling.

Cynthia is pictured here with the map she used for the project at the City of Richmond Hill Public Library Local History Room. From an early age, Cynthia was surrounded by her father's collection of National Geographic magazines and maps. She dreamed of visiting distant lands and developed a keen passion for geography. However, her primary love has always been history, which continues to captivate her the most.

The project took shape and was based on students being placed in home groups which were each assigned a Plan # from a map of the original settlement of Richmond Hill from 1930.  Each student then selected a lot# from the plan they were a part of.  They were tasked with chronicling how their lot has changed from 1914 to 2023. The students did this by employing the Historical Thinking Concept of Continuity and Change developed by Peter Seixas, and Tom Morton, and were supported by Dr. Lindsay Gibson, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Education.

They were expected to delve deep into all sources connected to their property.  Through developing key questions and using research skills that were supported by Peter Wilson and Valerio Sorgini, students were successfully able to identify key events, as well as triangulate their micro-research with what was happening in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the world at large.  By the end of the project, students had a comprehensive collection of extremely specific research about how the City of Richmond Hill has changed over 109 years, as well as a profound understanding of what was happening in Ontario and Canada during this time. Unbeknownst to them, they had hit on every single overall expectation from the curriculum without even realizing it.  

A screenshot of the student story map collection.

Cynthia is proud of all the hard work each student did on the project. Explore some of the student story maps that were created for the City of Richmond Hill History Project.

The project was supported by Mayor David West and the Richmond Hill Historical Association, where students presented their findings to their association in June 2023.  Their research will be housed on the library website as a testament to the rich local history and the depth of the work that these grade 10 students were engaged in. 

I believe the use of ArcGIS StoryMaps was what allowed the project to be so successful. I had considered other software, but this was the right choice. Through the layering of maps, images, media, key questions, and data, students created professional-looking story maps with little support. The students’ curiosity and determination led to outstanding results. 

What are the benefits of using ArcGIS for student learning?

Using ArcGIS as a tool for learning allows students to engage, in a meaningful way, with professional platforms in a manner that is not intimidating or overwhelming. Story maps are user-friendly and customizable. Students can ensure all their data and tasks are included in an organized manner.  The professional application of story maps makes students feel like they are creating something that will be well received and allows them to build on their global competencies, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration.  I love having them revisit their maps to make changes to improve their final product throughout the semester. By the end of the semester, their products are always more polished than at first, allowing for meaningful feedback and effective assessment and evaluation practices in the classroom. 

What are you currently working on?

At present, we are utilizing story maps in a grade 9 geography project with the Town of Stouffville, a place that is growing at an exponential rate.  As a result, the town has several challenges to consider, especially given that they are surrounded by the Greenbelt. Additionally, the Mayor of Stouffville and the Director of Planning Services, along with the Planning Department have been very supportive of our students engaging in a planning project with the town.

Students are also working with a not-for-profit called Urban Minds to design three different areas that are marked for development near the school.  They are using story maps to house their work and are engaging in mapping tasks to understand better the limitations and opportunities that come with designing their areas.  

Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing your work with us. You are inspiring and we look forward to hearing more about your geography project. Please keep us posted.

Feel free to contact and follow Cynthia @MsCBettio. Happy Mapping!

About the Author

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Specialist in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. She has over 15 years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela focuses on producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum-specific resources, and conducting and creating custom workshops for educators. She manages the GIS Ambassador Program and is the Technical Chair for the annual Skills Ontario GIS competition. Angela also writes monthly posts for the Esri Canada Education and Research blog, highlighting K-12 educators and partners, new ArcGIS resources and GIS-related events.

Profile Photo of Angela Alexander