Lesson Plan (Grades 4-12): What the Natural World of Trees Can Teach us About Positive Society
Created by a middle and high school teacher, Canada
This is a great supplementary activity to go along with the Critical Thinking and Evaluating Information section of KBI. Students critically examine society using a positive, natural lens that focuses on trees There are a variety of ways to study and think about trees - they are living, are part of our lives, but do they also have elements that make them closer to humans than we might initially think? Can trees have a society, a language..or even something like "pain"? Taking a closer look at things we overlook on a daily basis can reveal some interesting things about how and when we use our critical thinking skills.
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Spark your own learning with:
Book: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Article: Are Trees Sentient Beings by Richard Schiffman (Yale Environment 360)
Podcast: BBC Crowdscience Can Plants Talk
Study: US National Library of Shinrin-yoku’s Blood-pressure Lowering Effects
Video: Ted Talk Camille Defrenne and Suzanne Simard The Secret Language of Trees
As we work to create meaningful assignments and learning for our students in different grades and subjects, one goal all teachers share is to ensure we can help our students navigate these troubled times while developing critical thinking skills and a growth mindset. Trees as a topic offers us a perfect chance to explore much bigger ideas, misconceptions, and microcosms of our own society, and act as a reminder for us all of the importance of sustainability. We live in urban or rural spaces peppered with these towering organisms and have learned over the years to overlook them.
Not convinced trees are worth a second look? Here are a few facts to consider from the sources listed above:
- All terrestrial trees live because they have a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi: working with those who might seem different can help everyone thrive! NOTE - terrestrial here means trees that grow on, in or from land.
- Trees can sense (‘hear’) water, which is why their roots will always grow towards homes when planted in yards. They can hear the water in the pipes and would love to ‘tap’ into it.
- Trees know their health depends on having healthy neighbours, so if a nearby tree is sick or even chopped down they will send nutrients to help keep it alive, sometimes for centuries. Looking out for those in our communities who need extra support is an important lesson for us all!
- Trees seem to respond to injuries by releasing a specific chemical. Just because they may not show external signs of distress does not mean they are unaffected by injuries. It is an important reminder for us all that what we see is not always what is real; injuries can be hidden.
- Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing or walking in nature) has been recognized by the Japanese government since 1982 as a positive health practice to lower blood pressure, improve your immune system, and shorten healing time. Finding time each day, if it is possible in our location, to walk outside and mindfully experience nature is about more than exercise.
- Trees are complex organisms that have behaviours we would consider social.
- How trees live and work together can teach us about the importance of community and the social contract.
- Appreciating the deeper lives of trees encourages us to think more sustainably.
- What are some behaviours that show trees live in complex social systems?
- What can trees teach us about living in a community?
- How do trees help us and the Earth?
Here are a few ideas as to how to use this topic in your online or regular classes:
Science: Brainstorm what we think of as differences between trees and humans (e.g. life spans, talking, feeling, moving, intelligence…) and talk about each category together with your new understanding about trees. For older grades, watching the video about how plants defend themselves could help show how complex trees are. You can also watch this video to learn about how plants can talk to one another to look at a simpler narrative. For younger years, look at how trees help us eat. Examine the parts of a tree to see not only how each part helps the others but also how they can be helped by other trees.
Math: Make charts and graphs to represent the number of plants (80%) and humans (0.01%) on Earth. What other living things could make up the remainder (class brainstorm!)? Make a simple graph to compare the life spans of different trees (e.g. palms 50 years, red cedar 3500 years) and humans (82.3 years). Discuss as a class how we can tell a tree’s age when it cannot speak and tell us itself.
ELA: Imagine you are a 3400-year-old red cedar. You would have seen so many changes and different ways of living. Write a letter to the people of the world from the tree’s perspective, sharing what it has learned living with other trees and animals in a forest for thousands of years.
Middle Years & Senior Years
Science: To start on the topic, have students list 20 items made using plants/trees that they use on a daily basis (see if any move beyond wood and produce toilet paper and gas for the car). Watch the Ted Talk video and compare the messaging system of trees to the messaging system of humans. What are the similarities and differences? What assumptions have we made as human scientists about other organisms? How can we account for and try to minimize this bias? Explore the ideas of mutualism and symbiosis by listening to a podcast listed above or by having a class discussion about the secret lives of trees. What do they teach us about nature? What do they teach us about community? Looking at biology, chemistry, and physics, have students try to list examples of how trees use or exemplify each scientific branch (e.g. photosynthesis for chemistry).
Social Studies: Read the article Are Trees Sentient Beings and respond individually using a SIT technique. You may wish for the T to become Thought-provoking, i.e. it creates deeper questions for your students. Have your students read through the article and find 2-3 facts (statistics or data) stated by Wohlleben. Using the internet, have them research these points of information to see if reliable online sources, peer-reviewed studies, and governments recognize this data (can it be confirmed with sources and details?). Looking over the article, what are their biggest remaining takeaways and questions? Should this affect human behaviour with our forests?
ELA: An ode is a poem that focuses on one subject like a rose or even a pair of socks. Have your students go for a walk to find a tree they connect with (it was where they climbed as kids, it looks very tall, its bark is especially beautiful…) and write an ode (3-4 stanzas) to this tree. Have students take a picture of the tree and a close up of the leaves or bark to help inspire their writing and sensory details when they get home. If trees have a secret life, imagine all of the various organisms that lead lives with which we could identify. Have your students write a short story or a day-in-the-life journal entry, picking from the list of protagonists/themes (lessons from our tree friends), or give them free choice.
- A shy cephalopod
- The oldest rock in the world
- The smallest maggot of its business (litter)
- Kefir who suffers from claustrophobia
- Helping one another is important
- Being different should be celebrated
- It is important to learn from our past
- Don’t underestimate the underdog
All Ages Activity Spark: Tree Tag
Start a game of tree tag with your students.
Early Years: Have a student tagged as ‘it’; they need to send you a picture of themselves standing next to a tree they believe is beautiful or important.
Middle Years and Senior Years: Create a Google Slides presentation called Tree Tag and share it with your students. Start the game by taking a picture of you outside pointing at a tree, leaving a blank text box beside the image. Make a few extra blank slides to get the class going. The entire class needs to take a turn. This is how you play:
- The next student (whoever is fastest to post) can click on your slide and name the tree type (deciduous/coniferous) and species for a science class or figure out the common name (e.g. birch) and make a acrostic poem about the beauty of trees or an example of a simile/alliteration/personification in your text box for an ELA class.
- On the next slide they post their own picture, leaving a blank text box.
- No two tree species should be the same for at least 10 consecutive slides.