The Tree of Life

Teachers' Guide

Introduction

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin is a picture book biography of one of the greatest scientists, observers, and thinkers of all time. Peter Sís takes readers on an incredible voyage of discovery as they explore the life and times of Charles Darwin. This beautifully illustrated biography examines the life of Darwin from three distinct perspectives. Sís explores the public, the personal, and the secret (or inner) life of this nineteenth-century naturalist. Scientists and explorers in elementary and middle grades will be able to examine Darwin from his youth as the son of a wealthy English physician, to his adventures aboard the H.M.S. Beagle as it traversed the globe on a five-year voyage, to his years of experimentation, reflection, and writing. Through this biography, students will make connections to the worlds of science, social studies, language arts, and art. The activities included in this guide can be integrated into many disciplines and many areas of exploration. Teachers can use The Tree of Life as a springboard into a discussion about the nature of science. The sometimes controversial nature of Darwin's theory on how life on Earth has changed over time can be a difficult lesson to teach. The struggles that Darwin himself had with this complicated topic are examined by Peter Sís and can be the focus of rich lessons about how scientific discoveries change the way we look at the world and the way we look at ourselves.

Science Activities

"Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact -– that mystery of mysteries -– the first appearance of new beings on this earth." With this famous Darwin description of the Galápagos Islands, Peter Sís focuses the attention of readers/explorers on the most familiar part of the Beagle's voyage. Sís describes these enchanted lands as "geologically young volcanic islands, home to many species still in the process of changing, modified from ancestors but sharing many features." Students may wonder how new islands can be populated with new organisms. Darwin wondered the same thing. After his return from the great voyage, Darwin looked at this problem at length. He wrote to scientists all over the world for help. He considered the possibility of animals flying or swimming to these isolated islands, which lie approximately six hundred miles to the west of South America. How did the plants get there? Could the seeds float in the ocean water for months and still be able to germinate? Could seeds have been brought to the islands by migrating birds? These were some of Darwin's questions.

This is a problem that can be studied by curious students. Have the students design experiments that test the viability of seeds that have been soaked in salt water. (Ocean water is 3.5 percent salt, so dissolve 3.5 ounces of salt in 96.5 ounces of water to simulate ocean water.) They can have various kinds of seeds and can soak them for differing lengths of time. Do seeds that are soaked for one week survive and germinate? How about two weeks? A month?

Darwin also wondered about the possibility of seeds getting stuck on the muddy feet of wading birds. He captured birds at his country estate, Down House, and had their feet washed. He later found seeds growing in the mud that was washed from the birds' feet. Have the students simulate this interesting study. They can create their own birds' feet from pipe cleaners or toothpicks. Mix some potting soil with birdseed and wet it down. Do the fake bird feet pick up seeds? Have the students wash the mud from the bird feet and see if plants grow from it over the next few days. (Note: Be sure to use birdseed that has not been sterilized to prevent sprouting.)

National Science Education Standards:

Earth and Space Science:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • Properties of earth materials
  • Changes in earth and sky
  • Structure of the earth system

Life Science:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • The characteristics of organisms
  • Life cycles of organisms
  • Organisms and environments
  • Structure and function in living systems
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms
  • Populations and ecosystems

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • Characteristics and changes in populations
  • Changes in environments
  • Populations, resources, and environments

History and Nature of Science:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • Science as a human endeavor
  • History of science
  • Nature of science

During the years after his voyage, Darwin continued with his own science explorations. Peter Sís's illustrations and text show the magnificent variety of interests Darwin had. At Down House, Darwin's home outside London, Darwin continued his studies in many different areas of biology and geology, including earthworms, barnacles, coral atoll formation, and various types of plants. To help students discover what kinds of activities Darwin explored, have them examine Sís's drawings of Darwin's home and his study at Down House. Ask the students to construct a list of all the different things that Darwin collected and studied that Sís has included in his illustrations. What different animals and plants can they find? What scientific instruments are shown? What specimens did Darwin have in his study?

National Science Education Standards:
Science as Inquiry:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Understanding about scientific inquiry

History and Nature of Science:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • Science as a human endeavor
  • History of science
  • Nature of science

Social Studies Activities

"H.M.S. Beagle · 242 Tons · 90 feet · 74 People. Mission: To chart the southern coast of South America, and to make chronological reckonings around the globe to determine the longitude."

"The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures." --Charles Darwin

In his book The Tree of Life, Peter Sís portrays Darwin as a naturalist and a world traveler. He helps his readers follow Darwin on his five-year voyage of discovery around the world on the Beagle by including pages of journal entries depicting Darwin's travels and explorations. Each entry is illustrated in Sís's special style. You can have your students travel along with Darwin by using these journal entries. Get a large world map in your classroom and reproduce a black line copy of a world map for each student in your class. You can obtain copies of a world map by going to the following Web site and downloading the pdf file: http://www.pbs.org. Use the following latitudes and longitudes and the dates listed to trace Darwin's voyage around the world on the Beagle. Of course, these are only a few of the stops made by Darwin and highlighted by Sís. Have students mark each site with a dot, a location name, and a date.

Latitude & Longitude Date Location
50°23´ N, 4°6´ W Dec. 27, 1831 Devonport, England
14° N, 23° W Jan. 1832 Cape Verde Islands
12°59´ S, 38°31´ W Feb. 1832 Bahia (Salvador), Brazil
23° S, 43° W April 1832 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
34° S, 59° W Aug. 1832 Buenos Aires, Argentina
38°53´ S, 62°05´ W Aug. 1832 Punta Alta, Argentina
55° S, 73° W Dec. 1832 Tierra del Fuego
47°22´ S, 65°49´ W Dec. 1833 Port Desire (Puerto
Deseado), Patagonia
51°42´ S, 57°51´ W Dec. 1833 Falkland Islands
33°02´ S, 71°38´ W July 1834 Valparaiso, Chile
1° S, 89°33´ W Sept. 1835 Chatham Island (San Salvador), Galápagos
0°22´ S, 90°39´ W Oct. 1835 James Island (Santiago), Galápagos
17° S, 149° W Nov. 1835 Matavai Bay, Tahiti
35°18´ S, 174°07´ E Dec. 1835 Bay of Islands, New Zealand
33° S, 151° E Jan. 1836 Port Jackson, Australia
12° S, 96° E Spring 1836 Keeling (Cocos) Islands
20° S, 57° E April 1836 Mauritius
50° N, 5° W Oct. 2, 1836 Falmouth, England

National Council for the Social Studies Standards:
Geography:

  • Students have an understanding of the characteristics and purposes of geographic representations, such as maps, globes, and satellite-produced images.
  • They can be helped to understand how places, and people's perceptions of places, change over time.

Students can use the many journal entries that appear in The Tree of Life to add to the Beagle's route around the globe. This extension will require research about latitude and longitude and can be accomplished by using a detailed classroom world map, a classroom globe, or search tools on the Web. Once the route of the Beagle is traced on a world map, students can read the journal entries in the book to find out what Darwin saw, what he experienced, and what influence these observations had on his later science writings. Advanced classes can try to match the observations Darwin made with the components of Darwin's theory of evolution, natural selection, and with his famous book On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

National Council for the Social Studies Standards:
Geography:

  • Students have an understanding of the characteristics and purposes of geographic representations, such as maps, globes, and satellite-produced images.
  • They can be helped to understand how places, and people's perceptions of places, change over time.

History:

  • Learners have an understanding of their place in time and location. The knowledge base of historical content drawn from United States and world history provides the basis from which learners develop historical understanding and competence in ways of historical thinking.

Language Arts Activities

"August 24, 1831 -- The Offer: 'I have been asked . . . to recommend a naturalist as companion to Capt FitzRoy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America'" (Professor Henslow). So begins one of the most significant events in the life of Darwin. Sís continues the story of young Darwin with the offer to join the expedition that came to be known as the Voyage of the Beagle. As Sís explains, it was not all that easy for Darwin to go on this important voyage of exploration. Dr. Robert Darwin, Charles's father, was not in favor of his son's entering into this "wild scheme." The episode of how Darwin was invited to go and was discouraged from going by his father can be the focal point for an interesting language arts activity. Teachers can use this dilemma to show the importance of communicating and letter writing to their students. Students can be introduced to the lost art of writing letters by first reading the offer to Darwin. This can be followed up by exploring Sís's pages that introduce Darwin's letters to his father and to Professor Henslow. Let your students discover just what his father objected to about Darwin's joining the Beagle. Have them discuss what they think about the dilemma. Finally, have each student write a letter to Darwin's father that answers all of the objections. Have the students make the case for Darwin. Can they convince his father to allow Darwin to join the voyage and possibly make an important leap in his future career? Suggest that they research each of the objections by studying Sís's pages about the beginning of the voyage of the Beagle. Finally, have the students share their letters with one another in small group discussions or whole class sharing.

National Council of Teachers of English Standards:

  • Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

While on the five-year voyage of the Beagle, Darwin was a naturalist, a geologist, a collector of specimens, an observer, and a recorder. It was his ability to record his findings in journal entries that allowed Darwin to reflect back on his journey throughout his life as a scientist. Sís captures Darwin's incredible record in both words and pictures. Although Darwin did not fancy himself an artist, he was still able to "paint a picture" of his journey with words. Sís does both. With his remarkable talents for illustrating and for capturing the words of Darwin, Sís pulls the reader into the journals that were kept by this young explorer as he made his way around the globe observing and recording. The art of journaling is an important skill for young students to practice. The Tree of Life is an ideal springboard to lessons on journaling and reflection writing. Have your students go on their own voyage of discovery. Discuss what journaling is and how to make observations. Explain how Darwin started each entry with the location and the date of the observation. You can purchase student journals or make them by stapling sheets of paper together with a plain cover sheet. You can go on a field trip and ask students to keep a journal of what they saw, or have them keep a daily journal of one week in their life. At the conclusion of the journal exercise, have the students reflect back on their entries just as Darwin did in his later writings. They can discuss their journals in small groups or even write a reflection paper on the journeys they took. As Sís concludes the portion of The Tree of Life that highlights Darwin's journal entries, he quotes Darwin's analysis of his years on the Beagle: "the voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career . . . I owe the voyage the first real training or education of my mind." What kinds of reflections will your students make about their own journeys?

National Council of Teachers of English Standards:

  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Art Activity

Sís is first and foremost an artist. His illustrations highlight the life of Darwin from childhood, through his career as a scientist, to his later years as an author and family man. The illustrations that Sís uses to tell the story of Darwin's voyage on the Beagle are a wonderful example of how nature journaling differs from journaling for personal reflection. Students can be encouraged to produce both kinds of journals after reading The Tree of Life. In art instruction, the teacher can easily highlight nature drawing and field sketching. Use the illustrations that Sís has made in Darwin's journal entries to explain how to do field sketches. Have the students create a field notebook. They can combine written journal entries with field sketches as Sís does in this book. Have the students make a nature journal of their own backyard or go on a school field trip to a local park or zoo, using their observations to create an illustrated field notebook of their experience. An alternative to this would be to have the students create a nature journal using photographs of their discoveries. Of course, as in the journals in The Tree of Life, students will need to caption their illustrations with observations and reflections. This activity lends itself to the integration of art with language arts, science, and even geography.

The National Standards for Arts Education:

  • Students use different media, techniques, and processes to communicate ideas, experiences, and stories
  • Students know the differences among visual characteristics and purposes of art in order to convey ideas
  • Students describe how different expressive features and organizational principles cause different responses
  • Students use visual structures and functions of art to communicate ideas
  • Students select and use subject matter, symbols, and ideas to communicate meaning
  • Students understand there are various purposes for creating works of visual art
  • Students identify connections between the visual arts and other disciplines in the curriculum

Evolution as a Controversial Topic

The teaching of evolution is sometimes considered a controversial topic in some schools or communities. Sís brings the controversy to the surface by dividing the life of Darwin into three lives – his public life, his private life, and his secret life. It is this secret, or inner, life that focuses on the development of a theory of evolution and the adaptation of species. How can teachers learn about the controversy, and what resources are available to help them teach about Darwin and about evolution? The Internet has a great number of very helpful evolution resources for teachers. One of the most comprehensive collections of evolution resources is sponsored by WGBH public television. The PBS series Evolution has a companion Web site at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/. Teachers can use the information at this site to gain an incredible wealth of understanding about evolution the process and evolution the controversy. The seventh program in the series was about the controversy of evolution and the possible difficulties teachers might face when introducing this topic. On the site, in addition to links to major scientific society statements regarding evolution (National Science Teachers Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and National Association of Biology Teachers), there is a whole library of information about the possible controversy of teaching evolution. Included in this portion of the Web site are on-line videos for teachers and for students about teaching evolution in the classroom.

Teachers who wish to investigate the controversy of evolution with upper-level students can have them investigate the history of the controversy itself. Have students examine information about the Scopes "Monkey Trial." This is the famous court case in which a teacher was tried in court for teaching evolution in his classroom. Information about this trial can be found at the following Web address: http://www.law.umkc.edu. Have the students search the site. Point your students to the editorial cartoons that were published during the trial (http://www.law.umkc.edu and http://www.law.umkc.edu). As a final activity, have your students create their own editorial cartoons about the trial or about the controversy itself.

National Science Education Standards:
History and Nature of Science:
All students should develop an understanding of

  • Science as a human endeavor

National Council for the Social Studies Standards:
Government:

  • The goal of education in civics and government is informed, responsible participation in political life by competent citizens committed to the fundamental values and principles of American constitutional democracy.

National Council of Teachers of English Standards:

  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

The National Standards for Arts Education:

  • Students use different media, techniques, and processes to communicate ideas, experiences, and stories

The standards following each activity are all national education standards from each of the major professional educational organizations listed. Individual state standards may vary, but are generally taken from the national standards documents.

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