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Introduction to the Curriculum Guide

Through the Eyes of John Muir

by Janice Kelley

John Muir is often remembered as an environmental activist, naturalist and prolific writer. His timeless quotes are written in books and posted to websites, displayed on banners that hang in national park visitor centers, and spoken in videos about Muir's life, national parks, wild lands and stories of the environment.

His enduring legacy of environmental stewardship remains strong nearly 100 years after his death.

Yet, this essence of Muir represents only a fraction of his life. He was a man of many talents, trades and interests. Muir was especially skilled at influencing the influencers - his relationship with President Theodore Roosevelt led to the preservation of millions of acres of forest and wild lands.

Muir lived his last 25 years with his family on a large fruit ranch in Martinez, California. He wrote many books and articles in the "Scribble Den." The ranch, now the
John Muir National Historic Site, is located about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco.

Leading by example, Muir's influence shaped the way people around the world experience the outdoors and wilderness areas of the United States.

His life at the Strentzel-Muir Ranch parallels the development of early California agriculture. It is through Muir's legacy that we can learn about immigrant labor, efficient
crop production, water conservation, product marketing and transportation.

John Muir and his wife Louise (Louie) were devoted to their family and raised two daughters at the ranch. Financial gains from the lease and sale of parts of this property supported Muir during the years he was an activist.

He was born in Scotland, coming to America as a young boy with his family. His history is a reflection of many immigrants who turned to farming the land to make their living.

Muir also witnessed the urbanization of Alhambra Valley in the early 1900s during the final years of his life. This urbanization was in part a result of how the Industrial Revolution transformed American landscapes and places of work.

This guide presents curriculum aligned to both Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards that can be applied both in and outside the classroom for students to learn how to see through the eyes of John Muir - as environmental stewards, scientists, historians and advocates. Standards apply to grades three and four. Most activities are applicable to or can be modified to meet the needs of other students.

One ideal outcome is seeing John Muir as an iconic figure representative of a single person who struggles and perseveres to make the world a better place for all.

The curriculum guide includes a series of nearly three-dozen hands-on and practical lessons supplemented by numerous books and resources for both teachers and students. The first section orients students to John Muir's life and accomplishments. Following sections engage students in place- based learning and investigation; to explore their individual and community history; and to learn how to take personal responsibility for their communities as stewards of the environment.

Each lesson is presented within the context of John Muir's own time and actions. Given Muir's breadth of knowledge, interests, expertise and accomplishments, curriculum lends itself to multi-disciplinary classroom instruction.


This guide presents numerous lessons covering a broad spectrum of topics: various aspects of John Muir's life, California agricultural and immigrant history, urbanization of farmland, nature-based investigations, storytelling, what makes a healthy forest and more. It is important to pose the question, Why is John Muir singularly important to study within the context of history, social studies, studies and science? What makes him the connecting point in this curriculum that few others can do?

As a leading authority in his day, Muir understood and applied the connections between people, wildlife, the earth and the ecosystems that support life (in the days before the word "ecosystem" was officially used). He was deeply connected to each of the subjects addressed in this guide. His role as a rancher, scientist, writer and activist, are only some of his many talents and professions. As one person, through tireless and steadfast effort, he contributed to significant and positive changes in the United States and around the world. His influence, ideology and legacy of environmental activism continues on through the lives of countless others today in the United States and abroad nearly 100 years after his death.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe" - John Muir

By learning about John Muir, students are likely to find themselves: as immigrants, gardeners, explorers or wanderers, as future inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, naturalists, writers and/or activists. Students can hold John Muir as a role model to guide their own actions. A selection of Muir's quotations are included in this guide, in addition to a link to the National Park Service website where teachers and students can read hundreds of other quotes.

John Muir as an environmental activist was regularly in the center of controversy over difficult choices regarding the environment. Debates continue today over water resources issues, the logging of forests, the destruction of native habitats and the degradation of air and water quality. The lessons in this guide give students the opportunity to launch into exploring, researching and discussing the types of issues. Students will undoubtedly find themselves immersed in addressing these challenges of today and those that will be of concern in the predictable future.
Through a study of Muir's life, students can see that each of them can make a difference in their world. What students learn (and all those who study John Muir) is even more important than identifying his many accomplishments. Students can begin to understand they have both the opportunity and the power to create the world they want to live in, to choose what is acceptable, and to take the actions for which they will be held accountable. Students can witness by studying the life of John Muir, and follow in his footsteps, that amazing things can happen to transform their communities and, in turn, the world into a better place for all.

On Developing an Environmental Ethic

Although the scope of this guide is far more than environmental education alone, a significant part of John Muir's life was as a champion for wild places. In respect for Muir's legacy, it is important to consider that a modern study of environmental awareness and issues has become increasingly more complex and multi-layered.
Environmental messages are deeply rooted and influenced by individual experience, geography and culture (Corbett, 2006, p 6). These three factors contribute to the formation of a student's environmental ethic - their behavior and actions in relationship to their environment. The practice of ethical behaviors is a common thread repeated throughout the study of John Muir, although the word ethics is not used specifically. As a consequence of the widely diverse cultural backgrounds of the stusdent population in California classrooms - in native languages, cultural values and beliefs - creating the foundation for developing a shared environmental ethic that includes behaviors to promote long-term sustainability for the good of all people may be a challenge if it runs contrary to deep-seated cultural beliefs of the family.

Coupled with the long held cultural beliefs, is the widely documented notion of a student's increasing disconnection from direct experience with the natural world. The unfortunate consequence of this disconnection is that the information students (and many adults) learn about the environment is not the result of direct experience. Information tends to be mediated by social institutions and social values (Corbett, 2006, p.6).

"Environmental education can help foster greater understanding and appreciation of the environment. Maybe even more important is providing students with basic knowledge and experiences, a core of information to build up and use throughout their lives as they make choices and decisions that affect the environment...Teach them how to think about environmental issues, and not what to think about them" (Brown, 1998, p.17).

Arrangement of the Guide

This guide is divided into three sections: 1) Orientation to John Muir, 2) Field Studies and 3) Classroom Projects. The content is arranged to be introduced in order, as students become more familiar with the life of John Muir and increasingly more aware of his or her own roles and responsibilities within the community where he/she lives.

The guide features many different lessons, and often multiple activities within each lesson, in all three sections. A summary of lessons is included at the beginning of each section.
These lessons can help students understand the life and work of John Muir with the intention that they will continue in his footsteps to make a positive difference in their respective communities and work to conserve wild places for the benefit of all.

Orientation to John Muir. Orients teachers and students to John Muir and the historic site. Materials include classroom activities and a suggested reading list for students describing John Muir's life. A list of YouTube videos and storyteller recordings of John Muir's adventures are also included in the student bibliography. Teachers will find a comprehensive list of print, web and organization resources to supplement opportunities for student learning.

Field studies. Presents a series of thematic lessons to be conducted at the site that create relevant connections for the students to John Muir's actions and beliefs, and standard practices of his era. The natural and cultural resources of the Historic Site, farm, park or other outdoor setting become the platform for learning.

Classroom Projects. Describes suggested activities and supplementary materials on historical, scientific and environmental topics for student research and discussion after field study experiences. Includes opportunities to involve guest speakers, engage the community and participate in real community problem solving.

John Muir wrote and illustrated extensively of his travels and adventures in a series of journals. Classroom projects involve a significant amount of writing. To continue in the spirit of Muir's journal keeping, it is highly recommended that students keep all their work in one 3-ring binder with interior folder pockets and loose sheets of lined paper, if possible. Assembling all John Muir project work in this way will assist the student keep track of the projects in progress, a meaningful student reference
when completed, and ease the teacher's evaluation of student achievement and skill advancement as the student progresses through assignments.


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© Copyright 2015 by Janice Kelley. Permission to reprint for school purposes is granted to all public and private school teachers. All other rights reserved.
Through the Eyes of John Muir

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