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What About the Wilderness? Exploring Natural Landscapes (lesson plan)


Students will examine Thomas Cole’s painting, Romantic Landscape, and discover his passion for unspoiled wilderness. After exploring quotes from conservationists Thomas Cole, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt, students will write, revise, and perform dialogues between these conservationists and people who prefer to develop the land for farming, factories, and homes.

Created by A+ Schools of NC

Grade Levels
4th Grade
NC Standards Correlations
English Language Arts
SL.5.1, SL.4.3, SL.3.4
4.L.1, 4.L.1.1, 4.L.1.2, 4.L.1.3
Social Studies
4.G.1.2, 4.G.1.3
Theatre Arts
4.C.1.1, 4.C.1.2, 4.C.1.3
4.C.2.1, 4.C.2.2
Visual Arts
4.CX.1.4, 4.CX.2.2

Artwork Related to this Lesson

Student Learning Objectives

  1. Develop skills in reading visual art through Visual Thinking Strategies.
  2. Explore the concepts of environmentalism, conservation, and land development through persuasive writing and theatre arts.
  3. Develop persuasive writing and drama skills.
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1. In discussion facilitated by the teacher*, students examine Cole’s Romantic Landscape using Visual Thinking Strategies

    • What’s going on in this picture? 
    • What do you see that makes you say that? 
    • What more can you find?

2. As a group, find evidence for Cole’s passion for unspoiled wilderness in the painting.

*As student skills in visual literacy deepen, future discussions can be guided by students.

Persuasive Scriptwriting

3. Divide students into pairs and give each pair a quote on wilderness and/or conservation from Thomas Cole, John Muir, or Teddy Roosevelt. Ask each pair to discuss the quote, adapting Visual Thinking Strategies to the process by having them answer: 

    • What’s going on in this quote? 
    • What do you see/hear that makes you say that? 
    • What more can you find?
    • Ask students to paraphrase their quote in their pairs, “translating” it to the language we use today.

4. Ask each pair to work together to write a dialogue in which Cole, Muir, or Roosevelt is having a conversation on the best use of a piece of land with a farmer, industrialist, or builder/developer. 

    • In each pair, students may choose to alternate writing the lines for their characters on the same piece of paper, or write the whole dialogue collaboratively.
    • Each dialogue must have a setting, distinctive characters, and a beginning, middle, and end.
    • Each character must present strong arguments with reasons for why it’s important to use the land in this way, and why the other person’s plan for land use is less ideal.  
    • Questions students might consider include:
        • Why is it better for people to preserve wilderness or develop it?
        • What effects do farms, factories, and new houses have on animals and plants living in an environment?
        • Is it possible for these two characters to come to a compromise?

Rehearsal and Peer Editing

5. Invite pairs to rehearse, creating their characters through postures, gaits, mannerisms, and distinctive speaking voices. Then have each pair connect with another pair to view each other’s scenes and give feedback on how to strengthen the scene, so characters are well-developed and each character’s argument is strong and valid.

6. Pairs revise their scenes.

Performance and Review

7. Each pair performs for the class.

8. For each scene, the audience revisits Visual Thinking Strategies and adapts them to the scene, exploring the questions:

    • What was going on in this scene? 
    • What did you see that makes you say that? 
    • What more did you notice? 


Written by A+ Fellow Mimi Herman


Teachers or peers can use the following checklist to assess student scenes:

  • Was it possible to figure out the setting for this scene?
  • Did the scene have a beginning, middle, and end?
  • Did each actor create a believable character through posture, gait, mannerisms, and voice?
  • Did each person in the scene present a clear and convincing argument?

Lesson Resources


Environmentalism: advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment

Conservation: a careful preservation and protection of something, especially: planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect

(Definition from Merriam-Webster)

Land Development: altering the landscape in any number of ways such as: Changing landforms from a natural or semi-natural state for a purpose such as agriculture or housing”

(Definition from Wikipedia)


Quotes to use in lesson

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

  • “For those whose days are all consumed in the low pursuits of avarice, or the gaudy frivolities of fashion, unobservant of nature’s loveliness, are unconscious of the harmony of creation.”
  • “It would seem unnecessary to those who can see and feel, for me to expatiate on the loveliness of verdant fields, the sublimity of lofty mountains, or the varied magnificence of the sky; but that the number of those who seek enjoyment in such sources is comparatively small.” 
  • “From the indifference with which the multitude regard the beauties of nature, it might be inferred that she had been unnecessarily lavish in adorning this world for beings who take no pleasure in its adornment. Who in grovelling pursuits forget their glorious heritage.”
  • “In this age, when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us, and thus preserve the germs of a future and a purer system.”
  • “Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away–the ravages of the axe are daily increasing–the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.” 

American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836),


John Muir (1838-1914)

  • “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.”

Our National Parks (1901) chapter 10.

  • “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” 

– Letter to wife Louie, July 1888, Life and Letters of John Muir (1924), chapter 15.

  • “Pollution, defilement, squalor are words that never would have been created had man lived conformably to Nature.” 

John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), pg. 222.

  • “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

  • “Government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains, as it is around every private orchard, and the trees in public parks. To say nothing of their value as fountains of timber, they are worth infinitely more than all the gardens and parks of towns.” 

John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938) page 350-351.


Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

  • “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
  • “It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.” 
  • “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
  • “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”


Lesson Extensions

  • Visual Thinking Strategies can be used with any work of art to invite students to make thoughtful observations and connect to it.
  • The script writing and acting activities can be used to explore any area (history, literature, science, etc.) in which people have conflicting opinions.


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