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Lesson Plans

This Is America

The story of our national parks is a long and complicated one, full of competing demands between utterly American impulses – between preservation and exploitation, the sacred and the profitable; between the immediate desires of one generation and its obligation and promise to the next. THIS IS AMERICA is a complete 45-minute film that tells the story of the national park idea through the prism of our nation's diverse population, weaving together stories of extraordinary people from a wide variety of backgrounds who devoted their lives to the national park ideal – to preserve and protect these special places for everyone, for all time – and helped it broaden and evolve over the course of 150 years.

In this lesson, students will examine the challenges these individuals faced, their contributions and the personal qualities they each possessed. Then they will consider issues and problems at a national park near them and develop an action plan to address those or other community needs.

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This Is America

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 "talking freely around the 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 that environment should be protected. Their exchange of those views eventually led to the expansion of Yosemite National Park under the federal government.

In this lesson, students will use online tools – as well as information contained in this episode – to research the backgrounds, experiences, and points of view of both men. They will then share that information in a re-creation of one of the pair's "campfire conversations."

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A Campfire Conversation

Expanding the Mission: Historical Parks

In this lesson, students explore how, in the 1930s, the national parks' mission expanded to include preserving sites of historical, as well as natural, importance. They evaluate why – or whether – history is as important to defining Americans as geography.

Students will locate and categorize the 42 national historical parks, and identify the different types of events, activities, and people that they commemorate. They will decide whether adding historic sites to the national parks was a good idea, identify a potential historic site in their own community, and present a persuasive argument about why that site should become a national historic park.

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Expanding the Mission - Historical Parks

People Behind the Parks

One of the most fundamental aspects of America is the role of ordinary Americans exhibiting extraordinary effort in the practice of democracy. This lesson provides students with examples of Americans working in concert to preserve land of exceptional natural beauty and wonder into national parks. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is replete with many examples of people from all walks of life who have made major contributions to the parks' development. This lesson features a handful of those individuals whose exceptional efforts contribute to the growth and development of the National Park system.

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People Behind the Parks, Clip 1

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Mapping the National Parks

All of us have a "mental map" of what constitutes a park, depending largely on our past experiences and where we live. Students in urban areas may "see" an expanse of green lawn between buildings. Those in more rural areas might describe a park as acres of untouched forest. But a survey of America's national parks reveals many types of environments, from volcanoes and glaciers to sand dunes and marshlands.

Students will use online tools – such as the National Park Service Web site and Google Earth 5.0 – to locate, "tour," and share information about America's national parks.

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Mapping the Parks

All Aboard! See America First

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the United States was experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity. The Industrial Revolution was in full stride and the building of railroads across the country was giving Americans access to some of the more remote and uniquely scenic parts of the country. An unlikely alliance developed between the railroad companies and a new generation of young wealthy patricians who saw an opportunity to use their fortunes to advance the public good. Men like George Bird Grinnell, Theodore Roosevelt, and Stephen Mather made up an American aristocracy that practiced populist politics and saw themselves as guardians of the public trust that was becoming the National Parks.

In this activity, students will work in creative teams to develop a promotional program for a railroad company taking tourists to the National Parks.

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All Aboard! See America First

Images of the Parks

It was paintings and photography that first brought the grandeur of the regions yet to become national parks to the public in the latter half of the 19th century. Both played a crucial role in the creation of parks and in the nation's perception of them and their value. Accompanied by vivid and expressive articles of jaw dropping beauty in popular publications, the images of almost unbelievable phenomena brought the secrets of the West to the American people.

This lesson explores several of the themes in the series THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA by comparing the works of artists and photographers who documented and interpreted the spectacular scenery of the Parks during the 19th and 20th centuries. At the end of their viewing and research, students will analyze how artists and photographers contributed to chronicling the imagery of the national parks and brought awareness to Americans of the importance of the region or the park. Students will construct a public exhibit of art and photography of the National Parks and invite fellow classmates, school faculty, and the public to view.

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Looking for a Windshield Experience

Before World War I, the National Parks Service was a haphazard collection of scenic places best accessible by train. After the war, the U.S. auto industry expanded and built cars affordable for the growing middle class. Stephen Mather, the parks first director, wanted the parks to be one cohesive system reachable by all Americans. He understood that in order for the parks to survive and thrive, they would need to increase park attendance. Mather embarked on a program to encourage visitation by making the parks more accessible for the automobile. The numbers grew and by 1928, park visitation exceeded three million people. Mather claimed by giving access to so many people the parks were contributing to the democratization of the country. But not all were enthusiastic with the way the parks were being promoted. Several individuals worried that the parks scenic beauty and pristine environment would be damaged by the automobile.

In this lesson, students explore Stephen Mather's policy of encouraging automobile use to and through the park system. They will examine the costs and benefits of this policy, along with a contemporary issue concerning the use of off-road vehicles in the National Parks. The students will then role-play interested advocacy groups to develop a sound policy for regulating their use.

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Looking for a Windshield Experience, Clip 1

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Personal Stories of the National Parks

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries millions of Americans and people from all over the world visited the National Parks. Their reasons and experiences differed almost as much as the number of people who went. To record their experiences for others to enjoy, nearly all relied on the camera and the written word. Most took black & white snapshots with a Kodak or other camera. Some recorded their experiences with film movie cameras. Pictures were mounted in photo books with captions hand written below or along the margins. Many people wrote diary entries or stories to further describe their experiences.

In this activity, students will review the stories of Edward and Margaret Gehrke on their travels to the national parks. They will examine Margaret's diary entries as a primary source document, looking for clues into what the couple valued most about their experiences. They will then assess how effective the diary entries, as presented in the film, are as good storytelling. Finally, students will plan their own storytelling project and produce it for publication.

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Tourism and Preservation

A tension lies at the heart of the national parks idea. On the one hand, the parks exist to preserve nature, protecting it from development or destruction by humans. On the other hand, the parks also exist to be available to everyone. Opening National Parks to all Americans is part of the democratic ideal of equality – in this case equal access to natural beauty. This lesson focuses on that tension: how to preserve nature and at the same time make the parks available to all Americans who want to visit them. Grounding their work in historical examples, students participate in a deliberation activity to solve the problem of overcrowding at the national parks.

In this lesson students will delve into the tension between preserving the natural environment and making the natural environment (in the form of the national parks) available to all Americans.

A proud tourist points at her National Parks windshield stickers, 1922; David Brower in Glen Canyon, 1966; Dayton Duncan's son, Will, standing at edge of canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park, 1998

Share Your Story

Have you visited a national park recently? Did an experience in a national park leave a lasting impression? Share your unique park story with us.

View with fog in valley and peaks lighted by sunset, winter; Yosemite National Park

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National Park Service rangers

Visit America's Best Idea

You own 391 national parks. Come for a visit and take away the experience of a lifetime. Help the National Park Service make America's Best Idea even better!

Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

National Park Foundation The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation The Pew Charitable TrustsGM

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

Florentine Films and WETA

 

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