Connect, Explore, and Engage: John Muir's Boyhood Neighborhood

Unit Title:

Connect, Explore, and Engage: John Muir's Boyhood Neighborhood


John Muir is known as the father of our National Parks. His boyhood was spent in Marquette County, Wisconsin where he found inspiration in the wilderness around him. In this Unit, students will learn about John Muir’s boyhood neighborhood and actively work to preserve it, connect with Muir’s many accomplishments, understand different environmental philosophies, and saunter in nature while observing and reflecting on the world around them. Students will Connect, Explore, and Engage through intentional time in nature, reflective writing, reading inspirational passages by Muir, and using technology to document changes over time.

Grade Level:

Grade 7-12

Lesson author(s):

Tiffany Lodholz,

Instructional Materials Needed (if applicable):

Devices: Computers or Mobile Phones with Internet Access

Websites/Apps: Siftr, Marquette County John Muir Nature and History Route

Materials: Field Notebooks and Writing Utensils

Anchor Text: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth  by John Muir

Other texts by John Muir can be used for extension activities.

Wisconsin Standards for English Language Arts Addressed (ELA Full Document or Literacy in All Subject Areas Full Document):

Production and Distribution of Writing


Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

WI. ELA- Literacy Rl.9-10.10 Learning Domain: Reading for Informational Text

Standard: By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 9–10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

WI. ELA- Literacy Rl.11-12.16 Learning Domain: Reading for Informational Text

Standard: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 11–CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 11–CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Standards Addressed (Full Document or searchable spreadsheet):

Connect- Curiosity and Wonder
Examine how curiosity and wonder help formulate questions to pursue knowledge about everyday experiences.
Reflect and share how one’s perspectives influence personal curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge, and respect for others and the environment.

Explore- Cultural Systems
Examine how historical and contemporary factors shape a sustainability issue.
Analyze historical and contemporary strategies to solving sustainability issues to develop alternative approaches for addressing parallel issues in the future.

Engage- Inquiry and Investigation
Identify instances when citizen action and public opinion have influenced change, and evaluate the effect of citizen action on environmental quality and sustainability for the common good.
Engage- Design and Implementation
Plan, execute, and evaluate a project that would bring awareness to a sustainability issue and contribute to creating a sustainable environment.   

Evidence of Need:

Informal observation of student awareness about John Muir’s childhood in Wisconsin and his connection to our National Parks. Formal discussions of the impact of conservation heroes and the importance of land preservation. Informal observations of student field journals.

Evidence of Success:

Students will be able to provide examples of how John Muir’s early experiences in Wisconsin shaped his land preservation legacy.  Students will use SIFTR to document their experiences preserving and/or otherwise connecting to John Muir’s boyhood neighborhood in Marquette County, Wisconsin.

Inquiry Experience 1  Preserving John Muir’s Boyhood Neighborhood- SIFTR

Setting and Estimated Time:  John Muir’s Boyhood Neighborhood in Marquette County. Including: John Muir County Park, Muir Preserve, Muir Waterfowl Production Area, Observatory Hill, Wee White Kirk, Knights/Mulhern Lake, Fountain Lake Farm (privately owned- no current projects) and Hickory Hill Farm (privately owned- no current projects).
Full-day experience.

Learning Target:

I can actively work to preserve the landscapes of John Muir’s boyhood and can monitor changes over time. 

Formative Assessment:

Each student or team of students will upload at least one picture of the work they are doing to preserve John Muir’s boyhood Neighborhood to SIFTR  They will reflect on the experience in their field journal. 

The teacher(s) will collect the students' field journals/writing notebooks for review and formative feedback.


0. Prior to the date of the lesson, the teacher(s) should become familiar with the book The Story of My Boyhood and Youth by John Muir. They should also explore the boyhood neighborhood of John Muir via the John Muir Nature and History and Route mobile app Teacher(s) should connect with the property manager to find out what the needs are for service projects (invasive planting, seed spreading, etc.) and to make the necessary arrangements. Contact to find the appropriate entity.

1)  Gather supplies needed for the service project (gloves, loppers, hand saws, safety glasses, garbage bags, native seeds, water bottles, appropriate work clothes for the weather,  etc.). Have students bring a mobile device so that they can document their work on SIFTR and learn from the John Muir Nature and History Route app direct link at the site. Students will also need their field journal and writing utensil so that they can reflect on the impact of their work at the end of the day.  

2) Travel to the location you will be working at in Muir’s boyhood neighborhood.

3) Gather the group in a circle. Introduce students to John Muir as the Father of the National Parks and the founder of the Sierra Club. Define preservation. Ask students if they were aware that the very first piece of land Muir tried to Preserve was in Marquette County, Wisconsin. Share quote by Muir:

Muir tried 3 times to buy and preserve Fountain (Ennis) Lake remarking “ I want to keep it untrampled for the sake of the flowers and ferns…even if I should never see it again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed into my mind I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents, and perhaps after I am dead."

4) Talk about Muir’s boyhood in Wisconsin.  Share that his family immigrated here from Scotland when he was 11 (1849) and settled on a kettle lake (Fountain lake, now known as Ennis Lake) in Buffalo Township in Marquette County, Wisconsin. Highlight that Muir worked long, difficult hours on his family farm and that he had a strict, religious upbringing. His escape was exploring the prairies, oak savannas, wetlands, and hills around him and observing the plants, birds, and other wildlife. His early experiences exploring the wilderness of Wisconsin left a profound impact on him. 

5) Have students read a few passages from the Story of My Boyhood and Youth out loud.
Possible sections of interest:

Quote 1:  From the chapter A New World: “Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!..."

Quote 2:  From the chapter A New World “When we first saw Fountain Lake Meadow, on a sultry evening sprinkled with millions of lightning-bugs…”

Quote 3: From the chapter Life on a Wisconsin Farm “Our beautiful lake, named Fountain Lake by father, but Muir’s Lake by the neighbors…”

Quote 4: Share the story in the chapter Knowledge and Inventions about getting up at 1:00 am to whittle inventions in the basement while the rest of the family slept.  He was encouraged to take his inventions to the World’s fair in Madison where his mechanical genius received a lot of attention.  

He then decided to attend UW-Madison taking courses in subjects that interested him such as botany and geology before leaving traditional school for the “University of the Wilderness”.  

This set him on the path that would lead him to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California where he would become an author and advocate for the preservation of wild places. This culminated in a camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt that led to Yosemite National Park being permanently protected and the eventual establishment of the National Park Service.

6) Begin service project at the Muir site. The property manager for the site or lead teacher must discuss how to safely use the tools before proceeding.  Before everyone heads off to work celebrate the fact that the students are helping John Muir achieve his dream of preserving the landscapes of his boyhood!

7) Have the students use SIFTR to document and reflect on the impact of their work.  If this is a return visit use SIFTR to examine how the site has changed since their previous visit.

8) At the end of the work time, have the students check to make sure the site is cleaned up and the tools are put away.

9) Give the students 20 minutes to journal about their experience volunteering at one of the John Muir Neighborhood sites, reflecting on how they contributed to John Muir’s vision of preservation.  

10) Gather students again into a large circle. Have each student share something of value from the day.

11) As a closing, reiterate the importance of the work that the students were doing for their community. Celebrate their contributions to John Muir’s preservation legacy.

12) Collect student notebooks for formative feedback.

Inquiry Experience 2 “Talking freely around the campfire”  -Environmental Philosophy with John Muir, President Roosevelt, and Others 

Setting and Estimated Time:  Classroom or outside area that allows campfires such as a School Forest./ 2+ hours

Learning Target:

I can understand different environmental philosophies and reflect on which philosophy resonates with me the most.

Formative Assessment:

The teachers(s) will assess the quality of research by checking in with each student as they are gathering information to make sure they understand the philosophy of the person they selected. They will also listen to the information provided during the discussion period and interject when necessary.

The teacher(s) will collect the students' field journals/writing notebooks for review and formative feedback.


0) Before the day of the lesson determine if there is a location (like a school forest) that you could have an actual campfire.  If not, create a inside campfire using electric candles. Familiarize yourself with the famous camping trip between John Muir and President Roosevelt.  Also familiarize yourself with the famous battle between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park.

1) Define the different environmental philosophies: Preservation, Land Ethic, Conservation, Wise-use Utilitarian, Ecofeminism, Ecoactivisim, Science, Radical Environmentalism, or other.

2) Have the student select a famous conservationist or preservationist to research.  
Examples include: John Muir (preservationist), Gifford Pinchot (forester- wise use) Aldo Leopold (land ethic conservationist) Wangari Maathai (ecofeminist), Julie “Butterfly” Hill (ecoactivist), Theodore Roosevelt (politician, hunter, and conservationist), Gaylord Nelson (politician and conservationist) Rachel Carson (author and scientist), Edward Abbey (author and radical environmentalist), Chico Mendes (ecoactivist), Jane Goodall (conservationist)

3) The student should be able to explain what the person’s environmental philosophy is and select 2 quotes from the person that is related to their philosophy to share with the group.  Students should decide to what level they agree or disagree with the person’s environmental philosophy and be able to give a reason why.

4) Gather the students in a circle around the “campfire”.  Tell them that this is a space to have a safe and respectful conversation about similarities and differences of different philosophies.  Students should use an object (stuffed animal, rock, or something similar) as a “talking piece” and only the person who is holding it is allowed to speak.

5) Talk to the students about how John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt went on a 3 day camping trip to Yosemite National Park where the two men shared their views on wilderness freely around the campfire. This conversation led to the preservation of Yosemite National Park and eventually led to the creation of the National Park Service. Use this as an example that even if you disagree on certain points, it is possible to work together to create change that can have a positive impact on the world.

6) Students will share the quotes they found and the other students will try to guess what their environmental philosophy is based on what they shared:  Presevationism, Land Ethisism, Conservationism, Wise Use Utilitarianism, Ecofeminisim, Ecoactivisim, Science, Radical Environmentalism, or other (not an environmentalist).

7) Students will then share who the person they researched was and a little about their environmental philosophy.

8) Sitting around the “campfire” students will discuss whether they agree or disagree with the environmental philosophy of the person they researched. They will discuss which of the people they connected with the most.   

Other Discussion questions:

Think about a piece of land or a place that you feel connected to:
What would you do if someone decided to clear it/tear it down?  What if was being taken to provide food or water for the community?  Is middle ground possible?

7) Students should reflect on the experience in their field journals.

8) As a closing, thank the students for the conversation and reiterate all that Muir and Roosevelt accomplished from listening to and learning from each other and all that was lost when John Muir and Gifford Pinchot were unable to do this (the battle over Hetch Hetchy).

9) Extension Activity: Have students determine how they can take action on an environmental issue that is important to them.

9) Collect student notebooks for formative feedback.

Inquiry Experience 3: SAUNTER like John Muir

Setting and Estimated Time:  Outdoor Space (preferably with a trail) / 2 hours

Learning Target:

I can find something in nature that I find beautiful or interesting and uncover details about it that I did not notice at first glance.

Formative Assessment:

Each student will write a sentence in the style of John Muir reflecting on all the details they see in a deep observation of something in nature.

The teacher(s) will collect the students' journals for review and formative feedback.


0) Prior to the date of the first lesson, the teacher(s) should select a trail or natural area that students can safely explore.  Make sure students are dressed appropriately for the weather and have water bottles, field journals, and writing utensils. As an extension activity students can make their own sauntering sticks.

1)  Gather in a circle and share John Muir quote about sauntering:

“I don't like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not 'hike!' Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It's a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.”

2) Share the acrostic poem SAUNTER  and have students copy it into their field journals.

S (Silence)
A (Aware)
U (Unearth)
N (Notice)
T (Think)
E (Evoke)
R (Reflect)

3) Go to the natural area you have selected. Have the students use the poem to complete a mindful saunter:

S (Silence) ---- walk silently and mindfully.

A  (Aware)  ---- as you walk, pay attention to your surroundings.

U (Unearth) ----unearth discoveries  Find an object of focus.

N (Notice)    Add a detailed scientific drawing of your object of focus in your field journal.

T (Think)   Write in your field journal what  is your object is(or what do you think it is)?  Answer the question: How does it fit in the ecosystem?
E  (Evoke) Write in your field journal: What does your object remind you of (See Muir example below)?  Write a sentence like Muir.

From The Story of My Boyhood and Youth by John Muir (A New World): “When we first saw Fountain Lake Meadow, on a sultry evening, sprinkled with millions of lightning-bugs throbbing with light, the effect was so strange and beautiful that it seemed far too marvelous to be real. Looking from our shanty on the hill, I thought that the whole wonderful fairy show must be in my eyes; for only in fighting, when my eyes were struck, had I ever seen anything in the least like it... Once I saw a splendid display of glow-worm light in the foothills of the Himalayas, north of Calcutta, but glorious as it appeared in pure starry radiance, it was far less impressive than the extravagant abounding, quivering, dancing fire on our Wisconsin meadow.”

R (Reflect)    (As individuals:  in your journal. In a group: Sit in a circle. Pass a rock. Everyone shares.  Go around several times.

4) Extension Activity:  Write an acrostic poem about something in nature.

5) Collect field journals and Muir sentences for formative feedback.

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