Philly Rising: 'Geography lady' teaches kids about the world

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Alycia Larson is known to hundreds of kids across Philadelphia as the “geography lady.” 

She’s like a modern-day Ms. Frizzle, but instead of a magic school bus, she carries around a “magic” suitcase that she uses to teach children about the world. She gets around on her “geography mobile,” which also holds her maps, prop toys and books.

“When I first started, I had a basket on the front, a big crate on the back, and then my backpack and stuff on the handlebars. It was a sight,” she admitted. “I thought because I had so much stuff that cars would give me more space, but actually, they would get closer because they wanted to see, ‘What does she have on that bike?’ ”  

It sounds silly, but Larson has a somewhat serious job. She travels across the city to various Free Library branches, YMCAs, and afterschool programs to teach children about different places, people and cultures around the globe.

“It’s really important for us to know that the world is a big place. But at the end of the day, we’re all kind of the same because people just want to be safe and be loved and have respect,” she said.

Larson teaches kids about geography — a lesson they may not get enough of in school — but through the simplistic lens of other children. 

“We read stories that the kids would read in those places: ‘This is what their schools look like. This is the kind of food they eat.’ We look at playgrounds, swimming pools.”

“I was pretty lonely when I was in Chile and I remember thinking, ‘When I come back to the U.S., I don’t want anyone new to this country to feel the way that I felt,’ ” she recalled.

As soon as she returned to Philadelphia, Larson got to work. She started teaching ESL (English as a second language) to adults through local nonprofits. She also taught them GED, reading and citizenship classes.

However, she said some people were unable to attend classes due to child care constraints. Instead, she started making home visits and teaching them there. She would introduce them to practical conversations — “how to argue with the gas company; this is what to do when you order food and it comes wrong,” Larson said as examples. 

In all of those lessons, she found herself coming back to geography. 

“I always ended up pulling out a map or talking about people from different places, or music from different places, and it all led to this.”

In the summer of 2018, Larson began her new travel adventure.  

“I used to joke about — ‘Oh someday I’m going to get a map and a bunch of maps and a globe and just be the geography lady’ — and people started saying, ‘Just be the geography lady.’ ”

One of the most important parts of her job, she said, is teaching kids a respect for other cultures.

“When we smell things or when we taste things, we’re not allowed to say that things are weird or disgusting,” she said of her classrooms. “We talk about how they’re different. It’s really cool to hear the kids over time say, ‘That's not for me,’ or, ‘I don't care for it,’ instead of ‘ugh, yuck’ — the kind of things that can really hurt people’s feelings.”

As Philly's only full-time “geography lady,” Larson said she’s found a niche in exposing Philly kids to the world — no passport required. 

“I really love my job,” she said. “Some of the kids here at the Y, they'll come up at the end and they'll say, ‘Thank you for teaching us about the world.’ ”