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John Muir: nature detectives

Learning type: Classroom activity

Subject area: Literacy, sciences

Experiences and outcomes: LIT 2-14a, SCN 2-01a

The aim of this lesson is, in the spirit of John Muir, for your pupils to share what they already know about woodlands with others in their class (i.e. this will test their own knowledge as well as other pupils') and it will also enable them to discover and share new findings too.

Before you begin, ask your class to look through the John Muir graphic novel and read the section The Mountains are Calling Me!, up to page 81.

As you read

Before you start reading The Mountains are Calling Me! pause and look at pages 74-75 (the opening spreads for this chapter) in more detail with pupils. John is surveying the 'vast valley of flowers' which stretched our before him 'like a full lake of rainbows'. Ask pupils what they think of the meadow. Does it look like what they would expect managed land to be?

After a discussion, explain that these large meadow areas were maintained by the practice of annual burnings by Native American groups such as the Ahwahneechee. However, John Muir saw this practice as inauthentic to the 'wilderness' (see Imagining Nature and Erasing Class and Race: Carleton Watkins, John Muir, and the Construction of Wilderness by Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo Source in Environmental History, 2001, for more information).

As pupils read on, look at page 77 in detail. This is a good page to look at to discuss what John Muir and others meant by 'wild' and 'wilderness'. Ask pupils to discuss in group what the terms 'wild' and 'wilderness' implies to them. Explain that the term 'wilderness' is problematic, as outlined in articles such as The Myth of A Wilderness Without Humans(this link will open in a new window) or Why the Myth of Wilderness Harms Nature and Humanity(this link will open in a new window) in the New Scientist.

As pupils have already learnt, this land was not empty nor 'wild' as it was managed and maintained by Native American people. As pupils read on, point out that John Muir worked as a shepherd, so even he knew it was being used for agriculture and was not completely 'wild', even if he chose to use the terms 'wild' and 'wilderness' when speaking about the land. If you haven't already, complete the Native American History activities(this link will open in a new window) to add more context to pupils learning. 

Outdoor activity

Begin by completing the handout from The Woodland Trust Leaf Hunt(this link will open in a new window). This activity should ideally be completed as a school trip to a wood located near your school. Print this activity sheet for your class to complete while in your local woodland.

Back in the classroom

Once your pupils have discovered as many leaves as possible, back in the classroom go through their answers to see how many new leaves they found. Your pupils will then need access to computers to complete the Woodland Trust's Autumn Leaf Identification Quiz(this link will open in a new window).

Print the Nature Detectives worksheet and make sure all your pupils note down their answers to complete the activity.

Once they have completed all the quiz activities they can create their own nature quiz using one of these themes:

When they have created their individual quiz they should try it out with each other.

Reflecting on learning

Had your pupils considered how much they already knew about nature, and that by sharing their knowledge with each other they can learn even more?

Learners can:

Useful resources

You can provide information about birds and fungi using these links:

You can also print and circulate the downloadable woodland animal facts sheet made by Scholastic.