Ken Burns Classroom

A Campfire Conversation


During a private, three-day camping trip in the Yosemite Valley in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and preservationist John Muir shared their views on wilderness use while sitting by a campfire. Both men shared a life-long appreciation for the wilderness and its natural  inhabitants. But each brought different views on how, why, and to what extent the environment should be protected. Their exchange of these views eventually led to the federal government’s expansion of Yosemite National Park.

In this lesson, students will use online tools–as well as information in this documentary episode–to research the backgrounds, experiences, and points of view of both men. Students will then share this information in a recreation of one of the pair’s “campfire conversations.”


The student will:

  • Identify and describe the concept of “point of view” in personal and collective senses;
  • Research and report on the backgrounds and experiences of President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir;
  • Work together to write statements describing how these backgrounds and experiences informed each man’s opinions on wilderness use;
  • Share this statements in a recreation of one of the pair’s conversations around the campfire, and;
  • Extend their understanding of “point of view” by communicating the viewpoints of other stakeholders in the debate.

Materials Needed

  • A large stuffed animal, such as a squirrel, rabbit, or bear.
  • Individual or group access to the Internet.


  1. Your students may already understand the concept of “point of view” from their studies of literature. Build on this to expand their understanding into a public-policy context. Without telling students why, place a large stuffed animal in the middle of the room. The animal should be one found in a naturally wooded place, such as a squirrel, raccoon, or bear. Allow students to circle the stuffed animal before choosing a spot to stand, sit, or lie down. Ask them to draw the animal.
  2. Post these drawings around the room and ask for student responses to the following questions:
    1. What different physical points of view do the drawings represent? (Students may have shown the animal from the front, back, in profile, from below, or above).
    2. What points of view are represented that students may have brought to the experience? (Students may have depicted the same animal as cute or fierce, moving or static).
    3. Do any of the drawings represent the animal’s point of view? What do they imagine it would be?

    Discuss the idea that each student brought a different perspective – or point of view – to the exercise. Guide them in understanding that individual points of view are  informed by their unique backgrounds, previous experiences, and the opinions of their peers. Tell students that their points of view may change throughout their lives as new experiences and influences are added. Prepare the class to watch a clip on a meeting between John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt by telling them that President Roosevelt and naturalist Muir brought their own distinct points of view to the issue of how America’s wilderness lands should be used.

  3. As a class, watch the clip “John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt,” which depicts Roosevelt and Muir’s unconventional meeting in California’s Yosemite Valley. In pairs, ask students to consider the following questions based on what they’ve seen:
    1. What personal and professional experiences did Roosevelt bring to the meeting?
    2. What personal and professional experiences did Muir bring to the meeting?
    3. What was the point of view expressed by each man?
    4. What did each man take away from the discussion?

    Ask student pairs to share and compare their answers.

  4. Divide the class into two large groups – one for Roosevelt and the other for Muir. Assign each group the task of finding out more about the earlier experiences and influences that resulted in the pair’s individual points of view. Each individual in the group will be responsible for gathering information. Some recommended resources:

    Tell each group they will use the Forming a Point of View graphic organizer to put their research into the following categories: Early Experiences, Political Experience, Wilderness Experience, and Constituents. Explain that constituents are the people to whom each man has a duty or obligation. Give each group a class period or more to gather information. Tell the groups that they will use that information to prepare a set of statements communicating each leader’s specific philosophies on land use and wilderness protection. Ask each group to choose a student to represent their side in a recreated campfire scene.

  5. Give students one class period to dramatize one of the campfire conversations between Roosevelt and Muir. One student from each group will represent the men to recreate what they imagine one of their conversations may have been. These students will use the list of statements from their graphic organizers to offer points of view on different issues during the conversation. All other students will take notes on the conversation in preparation for a post-campfire discussion. Students who worked in the Roosevelt group will take notes on Muir’s views; those who worked in the Muir group will take notes on the philosophy of Roosevelt.

    Tips for the Campfire Conversation

    • For the two students portraying Roosevelt and Muir, the specific goal is to articulate each man’s point of view on wilderness use. You might provide extra time for the two students to work together to craft their “conversation,” alternately using and explaining the statements that they’ve made from their groups’ research.
    • The conversation should last no longer than 15 minutes. That will give the two students time to communicate their points of view and for the rest of the class to note them for discussion.
    • For added fun, the two students may want to dress in wilderness gear.
  6. After the conversation is completed, allow all students to discuss the event. Ask for their responses to the following questions:
    1. What was Muir’s point of view on wilderness use? What was Roosevelt’s view?
    2. In what ways were their points of view similar? In what ways were they different?
    3. For each man, what was the value in hearing the other’s point of view?
    4. In what ways was the campfire setting an appropriate one for this conversation?
    5. What other things may have contributed to their mutual respect and understanding? (The men were alone, unaccompanied by other influences; they also acknowledged and accepted their differences.)
    6. If you were in attendance at that campfire, what would you have liked to say to either man?
    7. How did Muir and Roosevelt’s individual points of view ultimately shape policy?
  7. As a culminating activity, challenge each student to write a letter to either Roosevelt or Muir about the issue of Yosemite National Park expansion under federal control. The letter should be from the point of view of another citizen in the debate. Before they write their letters, allow students additional time to research these “stakeholders” so that they understand their individual points of view on the issue. Some suggestions follow below:
    1. Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service
    2. A sheep rancher in the Yosemite Valley
    3. A member of Roosevelt’s Cabinet, left behind at the park hotel
    4. A member of Congress from California, which controlled the existing park
    5. The head of a logging company in the state
    6. Yourself, as a future user of the national parks


Students should be assessed  on their individual contributions to the information in their  group’s graphic organizer and campfire presentation, their note-taking during the presentation, and their individual letters to other stakeholders on the issue of Yosemite expansion. Successful students will have understood the concept of “point of view” from a public -policy standpoint and used various forms of technology to communicate curriculum goals.

Related Academic Standards

This lesson meets the following curriculum standards set by the National Council for the Social Studies for grades 5-8:

  • Describe how people create places that reflect cultural values and ideals (Time, Continuity, and Change);\
  • Describe personal connections to place (Individual Development and Identity);
  • Identify and describe examples of tensions between belief systems and government policies and laws (Individuals, Groups, and Institutions);
  • Apply knowledge of how groups and institutions work to meet individual needs and promote the common good (Individuals, Groups, and Institutions);
  • Analyze and explain ideas and governmental mechanisms to meet needs and wants of citizens, regulate territory, manage conflict, and establish order and security (Power, Authority, and Governance);
  • Explain and illustrate how values and beliefs influence different economic decisions (Production, Distribution, and Consumption);
  • Identify and explain the roles of formal and informal political actors in influencing and shaping public policy and decision-making (Civic Ideals and Practices); and
  • Analyze the influence of diverse forms of public opinion on the development of public policy and decision-making (Civic Ideals and Practices).

This unit also meets the following Standards for the English Language Arts, set by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English:

  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language 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 apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions, media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
  • Students use a variety of technological and informational sources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.

About The Authors

Darlene B. Koenig

Darlene B. Koenig is a writer and editor specializing in the development of educational components for print, Web- based, and broadcast media. After a career as a news reporter and editor, she managed program development for USA Today’s in-school education program and also directed educational programs in support of the PBS literature series, “Wishbone.”

Handout: Forming a Point of View

Your point of view on an issue is shaped by many factors. It comes from your early experiences. It is formed partly by the people who influence you the most, such as your family. It can also change as you gather information from others who don’t think the same way.

President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir brought different points of view to their unusual trip through the Yosemite Valley. Each of them saw the wilderness in a unique way , for different purposes. After you watch the clip, “A Campfire Conversation,” work together in your groups to explore websites devoted to the experiences of Roosevelt and Muir. Use those sites, as well as the episode, to identify the following information. Together, turn that information into a series of statements that specifically communicates the man’s point of view on land use and wilderness protection.











Handout: Building a Classroom 'Campfire'

For generations, the campfire has been a place where people gathered to tell stories, exchange information, and pass along cultural histories. For President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir, nighttime campfires in the Yosemite Valley were places to share their unique visions for America’s wild lands.

For this unit on “A Campfire Conversation,” you can build your own classroom “campfire” to recreate those important events in the history of our national parks’ creation. Here’s how:

  • Gather several thick branches or small logs about 8 to 12 inches long. The logs should be no thicker than your arm. You will also need two large pieces of orange, yellow, or red tissue paper and a string of low-heat, miniature holiday lights. You can use electrical lights or those  operated with a small battery pack. Lights with flickering bulbs will best mimic the action of areal campfire.
  • Position the branches or small logs into a “teepee” shape. Where the branches cross, wrap them together with a few thick rubber bands. Leave enough room between the branches to insert the tissue paper.
  • Arrange the miniature holiday lights into a loose coil, and place the coil underneath the teepee.
  • Tear the tissue paper into thick strips and stuff it into the space formed by the teepee. Arrange it into “flames” toward the top of the fire.
  • Turn on the lights to test the campfire. Be sure that the lights do not heat the tissue paper.

For this activity, arrange students in a large circle around your campfire. They are now ready to recreate the campfire conversations that resulted in the expansion of Yosemite National Park under the federal government.