Our Family Tree Reader Activities

Two Stillwater, MN, teachers, Karen Mason and Ellen Eigner, created many activities to accompany this book.
Pick and choose from among the many options


OUR FAMILY TREE is a family album. It’s a book that traces the ancestry of the human family all the way back to single-celled life on earth and illustrates how life changes over time as the environment changes. The following curriculum unit is designed to help teachers introduce OUR FAMILY TREE to students. Most activities are suitable for elementary students, but can also be adapted for older children.

Lesson 1: The Way Back Time Machine
Lesson 2: Imaginary Prehistoric Critters
Lesson 3: Book Prep/Read Aloud
Lesson 4: Personal Timeline and Earth Timeline
Lesson 5: “Timeline Survivor” Board Game
Lesson 6: Adapting to the Future
Lesson 7: A Family Album
Lesson 8: Review, Choral Reading and Final Presentation

Illustration by Lauren Stringer

Illustration by Lauren Stringer

Lesson 1: The Way Back Time Machine

Activity – Teacher will lead students through a visual imagery activity, imagining time travel into the deep past.
Goal – To have students imagine prehistory and the dawn of humans, to check for prior knowledge.
Objective – Students tell what they imagined in the visual imagery activity and will relate what they already know about the history of life and the earth.
Materials Needed – notebooks, pencils, chart paper, markers, “spacey” music
1.    Find a quiet place.  In order for visual imagery to be effective, students need to concentrate intensely.  Soft music is sometimes helpful.

2.    Coach students on the need for intense concentration, asking them to choose a place to sit where they will not be tempted to talk or be distracted by others.  Absolutely no talking allowed.  Students should close their eyes, put their heads down or concentrate on a spot on the floor or wall.  Before you begin, have the students just sit quietly and get calm for
a minute or two.  They should have a notebook and pen with them, closed but handy.  Start your spacey music.

3.    Narrate as follows or make it up as you go along.  Speak slowly with pauses between sentences: Today you are going on a journey — a journey through space and time. Imagine your time travel vehicle.  What does it look like?  Is it a vehicle, like a car or bicycle?  Or is it simply a portal, a door or a hole in the landscape?  Think about this for a minute, what does time travel look like for you? (Pause) Now, imagine yourself time traveling.
Imagine yourself traveling further back in time.

a)Go back in time to when your parents are your age.  What do your parents look like?  What are your surroundings like?  Who else is with you?  What do they look like?  How are they dressed? (Pause) Enter your time travel machine.  Go back, go back, go way back.

b)Go back to the time of your ancestors (grandparents, great-grandparents…).  What do they look like?  Where are they?  What is this place like?  Picture animal and plant life.  What is it like?  What do you imagine?  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What can you feel? Set your time machine again. Go back, go way back.

c)Go back 2000 years or more, to ancient times. Where are you?  What does this place look like?  What kind of things do you see around you?  Do you see any other people?  What are they like?  How are they dressed?  What are they doing? Do you see any animals?  What are they like?  What are they doing?  Are they different from the animals of today?  Do you see any trees or plants?  What are they like?  Are they like the plants you know today? Now turn your time machine to prehistoric times.  Go back, go back, go back.

d)Go back to the time of the first humans on earth.  Who are they?  What do they look like?  How are they different from the people of today?  As you watch them, what are they doing?  Do they communicate?  How?  Where do they live?  What are their surroundings like?  Do you see any animals?  What are they?  What are they like?  What about plant life?  What is it like? Are there mountains, volcanoes, deserts, oceans? Whiz through time in your time machine, going further and further back.

e)Go back to a time before humans. Watch the animals and plants as you pass them.  What do you see?  Where are they?  Where did they come from?  What kinds of things happen on the earth as you time travel? Do the mountains wear down? Do the oceans change? (Pause, stay silent for a minute or two).

4.    Have the students quickly take out their notebooks and write down everything they can remember.  This can be in narrative form or just a series of lists.  Let your students write until they seem to be out of ideas.  If you have done this with your students before, they will write for a longer period and will remember more.  Guided imagery takes some practice.
With the practice comes concentration and imagination.

5.    When the students have finished writing, have them divide into small groups and share what they have imagined.  Circulate and listen to their conversations.  You may want to take some notes about things you hear to refer to later.

6.    When discussions begin to wane, call the class back together and ask them to share what they have discussed.  List, or have the children come up and list, the images they saw in their imaginations.

7.    Send the students back to their groups to categorize the items on the list into the five time periods on large sheets of paper.   Have each group share their rough lists.  Allow other groups to make comments and ask questions.

8.    Save these lists for future reference.

Lesson 2: Imaginary Prehistoryic Critters

Activity – Students imagine what prehistoric animals looked like and illustrate them from the inside and outside.

Goal – Let the students imagine and illustrate their own version of these animals before they see OUR FAMILY TREE, the book.
Objective – Students will rely on prior knowledge and imagination to create an illustration of a prehistoric animal.
Materials Needed – Drawing paper, drawing medium.


1.    With students gathered in a large group, list the prehistoric animals mentioned as a result of the last 2 steps of the guided imagery activity in Lesson 1.

2.    Share examples of Inuit and Aboriginal art, if available.  Note how the art often includes the inside view of the animals.  Discuss why these cultures considered this important.

3.    Have each student choose an animal to illustrate from the inside and the outside.  Discuss considerations for drawing this picture: How can you show the inside and the outside of the animal on one piece of paper? (students will probably suggest drawing a line in the middle of the paper)
Which way should this line go? (depending on the kind of animal, it may be better to do it widthwise or on a diagonal)
How big should the animal be drawn in order to show good detail? What might some of the details be?  (fur, scales, etc.) How can you draw an animal from the inside?  What kind of details may be on the inside of the animal?
What kind of medium would work best for this drawing? (You could have the students choose what medium they would use, or decide on one.  Colored pencils are great for detail.  Crayons are good for shading and color.)
What should be in the background of your picture? What are the plants, the setting — mountainous, desert, lake or river?

4.    Send students to their tables to create their illustrations.

5.    Display illustrations.

Extension Activities:
Inside/Outside T-shirts–Have students use their inside/outside pictures to create t-shirts.  Inside drawings could be on one side and outside version on the other, or some other arrangement.
Creatures in the Sand –(This activity is inspired by the sand art drawings in the book, OUR FAMILY TREE. Students can do this activity before or after they’ve read the book and seen its illustrations.)
Create sand castings with natural objects.  All you need is a source of ordinary sandbox sand, some plaster of Paris (this can be purchased at most craft stores) and some found objects like small and interesting rocks, pebbles and shells.  Put the sand in a flat container, like a rectangular cake pan, and spread it out.  Draw an impression of a creature in the sand with your finger.  The impression should be no more than one inch in depth.  Press stones and shells into the impression so that the sides you want showing are facing down into the sand.  Use small sticks or plastic cutlery to make lines and patterns in the sand.  Make the plaster following the directions on the bucket or box.  Pour the plaster into the impression and wait for the plaster to dry.
When dry, pull your critter out of the sand and brush it off.   If you want your critter to hang on a wall, you may want to put a loop of wire into the casting before it is dry.

Lesson 3: Book Prep/Read Aloud

Goal – To focus student’s attention on the nine stages of our ancestry
discussed in OUR FAMILY TREE, as well as the richness of the language and illustrations.
Objectives –  The students will learn new vocabulary, listen for stages of evolution and be able to retell them.  The students will notice information that is new to them.  The students will appreciate the richness of language and illustration in OUR FAMILY TREE.
Activity –  Vocabulary prep, read aloud and discussion

1.  Recall the first two lessons and the images students have in their minds of prehistory.  Show the students the cover of OUR FAMILY TREE and explain that the author and illustrator did extensive research on the history of the earth and the history of life.

2.    Write the following words on a blackboard or chart paper:
genetic code
Discuss meanings (more words may be added, depending on age of students).

3.    Read aloud slowly, without stopping to discuss.  Pause to show illustrations.

4.    Discussion:
What did you notice about this book?
What was this book about?
How does the author know these events happened?
What things did you hear that you already knew?  (relate to previous lesson)
What new things did you learn from this book?
What did you notice about the way the book is written?
What did you notice about the illustrations? (relate to previous lesson)

5.    Tell the students you are going to read the book aloud a second time.
Explain the word “stage,” a period of time when changes take place. The book features nine stages of ancient ancestors interspersed with stages of environmental changes.  Ask them to stop you when they think they hear an ancestor stage or an environmental stage.  Read aloud, stopping to record stages on blackboard or chart paper.

6.    Call attention to the timeline at the end of the book.  Note how the nine ancestor stages each have dates attached.  Note the span of time between stages.  Note the other things that were happening on the earth, using the pictures around the timeline. Note that the timeline is not drawn to scale. Why not?

7.    Ask the students how they could find out more about different periods of time to make this timeline more detailed.
Extension Activities:
Inside/Outside T-shirts — Have students create inside/outside pictures of our “ancestors” based on the illustrations in OUR FAMILY TREE to create t-shirts. If students created T-shirts before they read the book, how are these “post” T-shirts different?
Inside/Outside Poetry — The language in OUR FAMILY TREE is loaded with outside/inside images.  “On the outside, we had scales to protect us…On the inside, we had spiny backbones…”  Have the children note the outside/inside references in two columns on the blackboard together.
Discuss these ideas and add to the list other examples from nature.  What are trees and plants like on the inside and outside?  What about mushrooms, earthworms, humans?  The children may make the realization that when we talk about the “inside” of humans vs. the outside, we often mean thoughts and feelings –human emotion.
The children can then pick something to write about and list all the outside/inside ideas they have.  These ideas could be used to write poetry or riddles, as follows:
On the outside frisky and furry
On the inside skeleton and spine
On the outside long-tailed and four-pawed
On the inside, brains and nerves
On the outside, hurrying and hoarding
On the inside, worried that winter will come too soon
(a squirrel)

This may lead to a discussion of whether or not animals and plants have emotions, which in turn could lead to further research (you’ll never convince kids that animals do not think and feel!).
A variation of the inside/outside poetry:
When the author of OUR FAMILY TREE writes “on the outside,” she points out the ways in which we differ from our “ancestors.” When she writes “on the inside,” she points out the ways in which we’re similar. Students can find other similarities and differences with our ancestors and write about them, or they can compare themselves to someone today, a parent, for example.

Lesson 4: Personal Timeline and Earth Timeline

Activity – Students will create two timelines: one illustrating their personal history and another one illustrating the history of life and the earth.
Goal – To use and expand on the timeline featured in OUR FAMILY TREE to create a sense of the enormous amount of time over which the earth and life on earth have changed.
Objective – Students will work individually and as a class to create timelines
Materials – The book, OUR FAMILY TREE, and internet resources, string or
yarn, tape, calculators, paper, drawing materials

Process —

1.    Timeline concepts can be difficult for students to grasp. Creating a personal timeline of events in their own lives helps them to comprehend what timelines represent.

2.    Students brainstorm for important events in their own lives such as learning to walk, getting their first tooth, learning to ride a bike, starting school… With help from home, they can create a personal timeline of their life.

3.    Relate personal timelines to the history of life and the earth. Refer to the timeline in OUR FAMILY TREE. Note the huge difference in the amount of time involved (several years vs. several billion years).

4.    As a class, create a “to scale” earth timeline, adding additional geological and biological events to the OUR FAMILY TREE timeline.  Other events that fit with your own geographic location could also be added.
Suggestions for additional biological events:
(MY = millions of years ago)
Algae-1,500 MY
Multicellular animals-700 MY
Reptiles-310 MY
Dinosaurs-240 MY
Birds-200 MY
Flowering plants-140 MY
Dinosaurs extinct-65 MY
Suggestions for additional geological events:
(MY = millions of years ago)
Formation of Earth – 4600 MY
Oldest rocks yet discovered – 3950 MY
Significant oxygen in atmosphere – 1500 MY
Start of formation of Appalachian Mts. – 450 MY
Abundant coal-forming swamps – 320 MY
Formation of Rocky Mts. – 60 MY
Hawaii (big island) eruptions start – 0.7 MY
End of most recent Ice Age-10,000 yrs. ago
Mt. Vesuvius erupts in Pompeii 0 MY (79 A.D.)
Darwin visits the Galapagos Islands – 0 MY ago (1835)
Eruption of Mount St. Helens – 0 MY (May 1980)
Loma Prieta earthquake, California (“world series” quake) – 0 MY (1989)

5.    Decide on a scale and where to put your timeline. The age of the earth is 4600 million years.
If 1 inch = 1 million years, 383 feet would equal 4600 million years.
If 0.5 inch = 1 million years, 191.5 feet would equal 4600 million
If 0.1 inch = 1 million years, 38.3 feet would equal 4600 million years.

6.    Assign events to illustrate, beginning with the events in OUR FAMILY

7.    Students conduct research to illustrate their assigned events and calculate the corresponding place on the timeline (or younger children can be told the distance).  For example, if using a scale of 0.1 inch = 1 million years, calculate 0.1 inch X 520 MY= 52 inches for worm-like vertebrates (they evolved 520 million years ago). Place their picture 52 inches from the end of the timeline representing the present.

8.    This should create a visual representation that is very crowded toward the end representing the present, showing how much life has changed in a relatively short amount of geologic time.

Lesson 5: Timeline Survivor Board Game

Activity — Students create a board game using information from their classroom  life/earth timeline made in the previous lesson

Goal — To have students apply knowledge of life/earth history
Objective — Students will create a board game including hazard and survival cards that are based on knowledge gained while creating their classroom timeline.
Materials needed — Timeline created by the class, large sheets of paper or poster board, markers or other coloring media.
Process —
1. With the whole class, discuss what the elements of a good game are. For example, it needs clear directions, a theme, an objective, it should be attractive and fun.

2. Explain that groups of four will work together to create a timeline board game that uses events from the classroom earth and life history timeline and then create hazard and survival cards that that will hinder or help win the game.  The game may begin with the formation of the earth and end with the future.  The objective should be to earn as many survival points as possible.  The player with the most survival points entering the future is
the winner.

3. Brainstorm ideas for hazards and survival points with the class.  Game designers can determine whether these will be on cards to draw or permanently placed on the game board timeline.
Possible hazards along the way:
volcano erupts
asteroid hits
comet hits
climate heats up
climate cools off
sea level rises
sea level falls
continents collide and mountains form
continents split up and sea invades

Possible ways to earn survival points:
a “species” piece lands on itself, a safe spot
climate stays the same
asteroid misses the earth
sea level stays the same
comet lands far away
lava flow goes the other way
ice age is short
continents are stable

4. Student groups should transfer a condensed, winding, abridged version of the earth timeline to a large sheet of paper or poster board. It could start with the formation of the earth and end, perhaps, with the future. It can list some of the basic events in earth and life history, including the basic stages of our ancestry as listed in OUR FAMILY TREE.

5. Groups should design playing pieces. The pieces could be icons of our ancestors: single cell; worm; fish; amphibian; reptile; mammal; primate; hominid; human. Students could make them out of clay or cardboard.

6. Other decisions include how to move around the board: dice, a spinner?

7. When games are complete, PLAY!

Lesson 6: Adapting to the Future

Activity — Students will create imaginary or realistic environments and creatures and analyze their creature”s adaptations necessary for survival in a new environment.
Goal — Students will demonstrate an understanding of necessary adaptations for survival in changing environments
Objective — Students will make a “before and after” presentation illustrating their creatures in each of two environments.
Materials needed — Will depend on presentation format: poster, diorama, Hyperstudio, Power Point…

Process —
1.    Form groups of four students

2.    Each group chooses or is assigned an environment (desert, rain forest, grassland, swamp, deep sea, beach, Mars, Jupiter, the moon…). The environment could also be fictional such as a Star Wars planet. Ask the class for suggestions. The time period is the present.

3.    Each group makes an information card on the environment that includes information about topography, climate, plant life.

4.    Each group invents a creature population or chooses a real animal population that has
adapted to life in that environment. Each group makes an information card on the animal, its diet and special needs. Remind the students that they can choose the human animal, for an interesting challenge.

5.    Groups exchange environment cards, but keep their original creature/animal cards. The changed environment represents the future.

6.    Groups decide how the animal population (Remember: populations, not individuals, evolve) will have to change in the future to adapt to the changed environment. Remind them that some of those changes will be “inside” as well as “outside,” as they have seen in OUR FAMILY TREE. Students might employ “technological fixes” if they’ve chosen humans as their animal.

7.    Each group comes up with “the present” and “the future” illustrations and produces a presentation on their creature which may be in variety of  forms such as a diorama, a poster or a power point presentation.
Resource for class discussions on our changing planet:
Klesius, Michael. “The State of the Planet.” National Geographic September 2002  (with map insert: “A World Transformed”)
Changes would also be interesting drawn in a series of cartoons or a flipbook.
Still Living?
1.    What animals are still living today that are relatively unchanged from prehistoric times? A living fossil.

2.    Brainstorm a list of possibilities with the class.
Coelacanths (a prehistoric fish, pronounced SEE luh canth);
Crocodiles; Horseshoe crabs; Cockroaches

3.    What would a day in the life of one of these animals be like?

4.     Conduct research to expand the list and discuss why these species survived when so many species, including dinosaurs, did not.

5.    Write ‘survivor’ stories for a chosen ‘living fossil’

Land Snails and Adaptation Experiments
Land snails are available from many science supply companies and can be used in a hands-on experiment to illustrate adaptations.
1.    Set up an aquarium following the habitat instructions that accompany the snails. They need a moist environment with moss or leaf litter.

2.    At all times keeping humane treatment of the snail in mind, change the environment (make it dry or without plants) for a short period of time. How does the snail react? What adaptations would have to occur inside and out for the snail to survive if the environment were permanently changed?

Lesson 7: A Family Album

Activity – Personal genetic data collection used with OUR FAMILY TREE to create an album of present day and ancient ancestors.
Goal – To understand genetic data inherited from past and present relatives.
Objective – Through collection of personal data, students will gain an understanding of traits they inherited from immediate ancestors. After reading OUR FAMILY TREE, they will be able to extend this understanding to include traits and features they inherited from their ancient ancestors as well.
Materials needed – Pencil, Paper, markers, crayons or other media. Relatives to interview, adopted children that have no contact with birth parents could research an adoptive parent”s traits.
Process –
1.    Ask students if they have picture albums at home that show their immediate family and other relatives.  What are some of the reasons people keep albums or other family records? (to remember events? people? places?)
What other records are sometimes kept by families? (family tree? journals?)

2.    Tell students they are going to collect personal data involving characteristics that may be inherited and try to discover from whom they may have inherited these characteristics.
a.    Some inherited trait possibilities:
tongue roller/non tongue roller
ear wiggler/non-ear wiggler
dimples/no dimples
widows peak/no widows peak
ear lobe attached/ear lobe not attached
hands clasped with right thumb on top/hands clasped with left thumb on top
color of hair
color of eyes
b.    Create a table to collect data including the probable relative from whom the trait was inherited ( red hair–Grandma Smith)

3.    After data collection, students create a family album that identifies probable ancestor(s) for these inherited traits and features. For example, a student can say she inherited brown eyes from her most immediate ancestor, a parent. After consulting the notes at the end of OUR FAMILY TREE, students will learn what they’ve inherited from each stage of our ancestry. For example, they all inherited DNA from the earliest single-celled life on earth and they all inherited backbones from the earliest fish. Students
might want to illustrate these facts with humor, ala Gary Larson (The Far Side):
Great-great-great-etc.-Grandma Single Cell, I inherited DNA from her.
Great-great-etc.-Grandpa Worm, I inherited muscle (nerve, skin) cells from him. etc.
Questions to ponder:
Who did Grandpa Tom inherit his red hair and blue eyes from? How far back can you trace the trait? What else did we inherit from ancient ancestors (teeth, for example)?
Create a class graph illustrating the number of tongue rollers, etc. in the class, possibly extend the comparison to the entire school and calculate percentages of the student population have each of the traits.
Art: Charm Bracelet–Use clay to create charms for a family tree bracelet.

Lesson 8: Review, Choral Reading and Final Presentation

Activity –  Putting book events in order, large group discussion and
preparing a presentation
Goal –  To check for student understanding of concepts presented in OUR
FAMILY TREE and discuss issues that are more global
Objective –  The students will put book events in order and reflect on the
larger global and environmental issues implied in OUR FAMILY TREE.
Materials Needed –  Book text cut into pieces, tape, pencils

1.    Divide students into groups of 3-4.

2.    Give each group of students a cut-up, mixed up version of OUR FAMILY TREE.

3.    Ask groups to think back on when the book was read aloud and their timeline activities.  Instruct them to read the book sections together and put them in the correct sequential order.

4.    Allow as much time as is needed.  Groups who finish before others could begin generating ideas for future pages of the book.  If a few more pages were added, what would they say?

5.    Using OUR FAMILY TREE, ask the students to read aloud the portion of text that matches with the art.  Go through the entire book in this manner.

6.    Reflections (written or discussed):
How did you do putting the book in order?
What was hard?  What was easy?
What do you think is the most interesting part of the book?
What do you think is the most important thing you have learned from this book?
What does the book imply about our relationships to all creatures?
What does this mean for all human beings?
What does this mean for our environment?
If a few more pages were added to this book, what would they be about?
7.    Final presentation: With the students, plan a presentation for parents (urge children to invite their own, living “ancestors”) or other classrooms that could include a choral-read aloud of OUR FAMILY TREE, a display of the imaginary prehistoric critters, personal and earth timelines, “present and future” displays, the family albums, the timeline board game and any other work, such as T-shirts and charm bracelets.
Decide which parts individuals or small groups will read and which parts will be read altogether.  Discuss cadence and expression.  Practice until students can read smoothly.  Large illustrations of book concepts could also be developed.

OUR FAMILY TREE: The Next Generation
Have groups discuss and plan the next few future pages of the book.  They could write and illustrate these pages in the style of the author and illustrator.
“When I Began” Stories
Since OUR FAMILY TREE traces the ancestry of humans from single celled organisms, it makes sense to trace the development of a single human being from a single cell.  After a thorough discussion of the format of the narrative and a study of human development (perhaps after doing the Developmental Timeline above), children could write their own stories about how they developed from a single cell.  “When I began, I did not look like a
person.  I didn’t have arms, legs, or eyes.  I was just a tiny round cell in my mother’s womb.”  This would be an excellent activity to use with human growth and development units often taught as a part of Health class.

“Becoming” Poems
OUR FAMILY TREE takes us from “tiny round cells” to our existing families in nine steps.  Although this process took millions of years, we can watch changes in people, animals and plant life in shorter time spans. Discuss the difference in these time spans. Discuss the life span of a human compared to a dog compared to a 100-year-old tree.  Students could act out these changes in a series of pantomimes (from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly).  The
process of becoming could also be written in the form of a diamante poem.
The format is as follows:
Adjective, adjective
Verb, verb, verb
4-5 Word phrase or sentence
Verb, verb, verb
Adjective, adjective
Alternate word for original noun

The “becoming a butterfly” poem may go as follows:

Fuzzy and green
Creeping, crawling, looking
For the perfect place to rest
Spinning, waiting, awakening
Bright and beautiful