June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Inquiry and Integration Across the Curriculum | Natural Selection and Adaptation

Steve Jenkins’s book Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) raises two intriguing questions about the millions of plants and animals living on Earth:

  • Why have so many forms of life developed?
  • Why have some died out while others survived?

These questions are also central to the Next Generation Science Standards’ middle school curriculum for the life sciences. In the section entitled Natural Selection and Adaptations, the standards raise strikingly similar questions:

  • How does genetic variation among organisms in a species affect survival and reproduction?
  • How does the environment influence genetic traits in populations over multiple generations?

In this month’s column, we discuss how a collection of quality nonfiction literature can be used to investigate these questions about the development of life on our planet.


Inquiry and Integration

Topic/Essential Question: How has life on Earth developed?

Grade Span: Grades 6-8

Disciplinary Core Ideas: Next Generation Science Standards

  • LS4.A:  Evidence of common ancestry and diversity
  • LS4.B:  Natural selection
  • LS4.C: Adaptation

Performance Standards:

Next Generation Science Standards

  • MS-LS4-2: Apply scientific ideas to construct an explanation for the anatomical similarities and differences among modern organisms and between modern and fossil organisms to infer evolutionary relationships.
  • MS-LS4-4: Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.

Common Core State Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on topics, texts, and issues building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Berger, L., & Aronson, M. (2012). Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and
Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins.
Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Chin, J. (2012). Island: A Story of the Galápagos. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
Jenkins, S. (2002). Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Pringle, L. (2011). Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution.
   Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Sidman, J. (2010). Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. Ill. By B. Prange.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Thimmesh, C. (2009). Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Thimmesh, C. (2013). Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really
Looked Like?
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Teaching Ideas:

  • Reading for Information and writing explanations. In Life on Earth author Steve Jenkins raises the following questions:
    • Why have so many forms of life developed? Where did they come from?
    • Why have some died out while others survived?

Have students read the book, taking notes to answer these questions. Then, after discussing their notes, have students write answers to these questions, making use of some or all of these words and phrases: natural selection, variation and mutation, new species, extinction.

  • Read Island by Jason Chin, which focuses on the birth, childhood, adulthood, and old age of one of the Galápagos Islands. Students can retell the events that shaped the island, using the many detailed illustrations. In fact, this book can be thought of as the life story of the island since it begins with its birth and ends with its disappearance, sinking below the waves. Discuss how the information provided supports Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Be sure to examine the final sections of the book, “Charles Darwin and the Galápagos” and “The Galápagos Islands.”
  • Shaping Information to Give a Sense of Change Over Time. Compare and contrast how both Life on Earth and Island give readers a sense of how life developed on our planet over the course of billions of years.
  • First, study the two-page spread at the end of Life on Earth, which shows the Earth’s four-and-a-half billion year history as one 24-hour day. Have students discuss the information presented, and then raise questions that can be answered by this time line. They can create illustrated question-and-answer books based on the information provided.
  • Second, study the organization of Island, discussing how arranging the book in chronological sections (“Birth,” “Childhood,” “Adulthood,” and “Old Age”) helps readers understand the changes that occurred over millennia. Students could transform this information into a time line similar to the one in Life on Earth.
  • After studying both ways of presenting change over time, emphasize the role of both of these authors in shaping scientific information. How do the authors’ decisions support our understanding of how life has developed on our planet?
  • Evolution, Adaptation, Variation, Natural Selection. Billions of Years, Amazing Changes and Life on Earth both use information about finches—and even the same illustrations—to show how finches’ beaks evolved in response to their changing environment. Have students reference the illustrations to explain, orally or in writing, how Darwin’s theory of evolution helps explain the variety of finches found on the Galápagos Islands.

Survivors. As Joyce Sidman, author of Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors tells us, “When you consider that 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, you realize that the ones who made it—and are thriving—are indeed remarkable.” Her book contains poetry, artwork by Beckie Prange, and a factual paragraph about thriving plants and animals. Use this combination of paragraph-length text, illustration, and verse to add to this collection of surviving species. Create a poster or two-page spread about crocodiles and alligators, coelacanths, or the gingko biloba plant. Research plants and animals that became extinct. Write and illustrate about the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Tasmanian tiger, and other creatures. Or, write about some animals that are endangered, such as the rhino. See The New York Times articles about that animal and others not faring well.

  • Evidence of Evolution Since Darwin. Laurence Pringle’s book Billions of Years, Amazing Changes contains a great deal of information about the theory evolution after Darwin. The author explains that most of what we know about evolution was discovered in the 150 years following Darwin’s work. The second half of Pringle’s book deals with this more recent work. Have students make a chart describing and illustrating what we now know.


New Information about Evolution

                  Type of Information                                     What is Now Known

Telling time  (When animals lived)  
Recent fossil finds  
Missing links  
Moving continents  
Evolution right now  


The second website also contains lesson plans and teaching materials.

  • Scientists at Work Solving Mysteries about Life on Earth. Scientists are still hard at work learning about the origins and development of life on earth. Students can read about this research and share their knowledge with the class. First, divide students into three groups to read one of the following titles: Lucy Long Ago, The Skull in the Rock, Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled. Students should read with a focus on the following questions:
    • Perplexing Problem:  What is the ongoing research described and the questions scientists are hoping to answer?
    • Gathering Clues:  What evidence have they gathered to date? How?
    • Red Herrings”:  Have the scientists had any false starts? Did they toss out any assumptions they went into the study with?
    • Answers/Solutions: What did they learn?
    • Remaining Questions: What else do they hope to learn?

Each group should prepare a presentation for the class sharing their findings. Lucy Long Ago describes how Donald Johanson and a team of scientists found the remains of a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of a homonid (upright walking primate mammal) they named Lucy and gathered evidence to answer the following questions: Was the primate a child or an adult? Male or female? A known species or a new one? Ancient or modern?

In The Skull in the Rock author Marc Aronson joins scientist Lee Berger in South Africa to find out how the recent discovery of a nearly two-million-year-old fossil is changing our understanding of evolution. Quite amazingly, Matthew Berger, Lee Berger’s son finds a fossil of a bone from species previously unknown to scientists. This find, part of an almost complete skeleton, becomes “the first clue to what is becoming an entirely new way of understanding human evolution.”

Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled answers the question: How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like? This is largely the work of paleontologists, geologists, paleobotanists, and paleoartists who seek to answer questions such as: What kind of dinosaur is it? How old are the fossils? What did the animal eat? How did it live? The author emphasizes the importance of both imagination and scientific evidence. Quotes from scientists currently working on this puzzle provide new and exciting information and insight into how they work to create “probable” images.

As students learn about the development of life on Earth, they will encounter a topic with a rich past and an equally rich present. Darwin’s theory of evolution is considered to be one of the greatest examples of scientific thinking of all time. At the same time, students will learn that an investigative study that began years ago is ongoing. Because of new finds and new technology, scientists are still making exciting discoveries about how life on Earth developed.

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