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With a little help from their friends

  • Jun 30, 2012
  • 365 words
  • 2 minutes
Jacob Burnley, from Nanaimo, B.C., placed second in this year’s Great Canadian Geography Challenge Expand Image

To paraphrase an old saying, behind every great geography superstar is a great teacher or parent. That is certainly the case with two of this year’s Great Canadian Geography Challenge participants, Jacob Burnley and Gregory Joanas.

Jacob, a grade-9 student from Nanaimo, B.C., has been fascinated with world geography and map-making since childhood. This year, his hobby evolved into a prizewinning skill that earned him second place overall in the Geo Challenge. But he has had a little help along the way.

“Jacob has an unbelievably geographic mind,” says his father, Chris Burnley. “But in Nanaimo, there is no geography class until grade 12, just basic social studies, and some of the kids are way beyond the school curriculum early on.”

Recognizing the lack of opportunities for geographically literate students such as his son, Burnley teamed with École Hammond Bay School principal Francine John to form the school’s geography club in 2008. It’s been a success ever since, seeing 10 to 15 students give up their recess time to absorb as much geographic information as possible.

At Quluaq School in Clyde River, Nunavut, students such as Gregory Joanas have little exposure to global geography, but they also face an even bigger barrier — language. Teacher Jennifer McGee got Gregory and other students involved in the Geo Challenge to give them a chance to learn more about the world. But for some, the language barrier proved too much of a challenge, and they lost interest early on. Others, however, excelled immediately, including Gregory. “Gregory has a naturally inquisitive mind,” says McGee, “and an unrivalled appetite for knowledge.”

To help Gregory and the remaining students prepare, McGee gathered questions from previous Geo Challenge competitions. Her aim was to familiarize the students with some cultural and language differences that often require further explanation before the question can be fully understood. The tactic helped, and Gregory was eventually named the territorial winner.

“He has brought a lot of pride to the school and the community,” says McGee. “I think this has given him the confidence to compete in the future.”

To see whether you can match Jacob and Gregory’s geographic knowledge, visit


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