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Role Models #2: Wangari Maathai

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students learn about Wangari Maathai, an environmental scientist, activist, and Nobel Prize Laureate.  Wangari Maathai began the Green Belt Movement that has, over time, led to the reforestation of large parts of Africa, especially her native Kenya.  Be inspired by Wangari Maathai and then plant your own trees, either inside or outside, depending on the season and your school’s own resources.

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



To understand the life and work of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  To plant a tree or trees in honor of Dr. Wangari’s work.  Finally, as a class, to generate a list of questions about Wangari Maathai that could be used to guide further research.  (AASL 1.1.3, “Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding.”)

Suggested Time:

35-45 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each child will listen to one biography of Wangari Maathai’s life and work.  Then, children will either create an indoor tree in Dr. Maathai’s honor or will help plant a tree in the community.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Remind children that in this Unit of Inquiry they are learning about role models.  Ask what they have learned about role models so far.  What is a role model?   Who can be a role model?  What kinds of things does a role model do?  (Answers might include:  Work hard, persist, use creativity, innovate, take calculated risks, challenge conventions, take action, etc.)

Explain that today you would like to introduce the children to a woman who did something remarkable for the earth.  She was born in Kenya, an African country, but she also studied and worked in North America and in Europe before returning to Africa and becoming a great scientific and political leader.  Listen carefully and decide whether you believe she is a role model.

2. Main:

Teach one of the picture book biographies about Wangari Maathai.  Jeanette Winter’s book is relatively short.  That works well because the text and pictures will generate a lot of questions and discussion.

When the children have a question about Wangari or her work, have them write it down on a slip of paper to create a “Wonder Wall.”  They can then use the texts and, through personal inquiry, find answers to their questions.

Once you have covered as many of the texts and generated as many questions as you can, show the children this short video clip.  In it, Wangari Maathai describes herself as a “child of the soil.”

Wangari Maathai Video – Planting Trees is Planting Hope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNkDhNRKYic

Next, have the kids take some action.  In my lessons, I have students do a Skype interview with a tree farmer.  However, the tree farmer was a personal contact.  I’ve just checked “Skype in the Classroom” and at the time of this lesson plan, there were no tree farmers registered.  If you can find a tree farmer, it would be excellent if he or she could come and participate with this lesson.

Another possible action is to “grow” an indoor tree.  We grow a tree in our library or in one of the elementary corridors every year, and the children love it!  A bit of paper, creativity, and a few well-placed staples go a long way towards beautifying your indoor spaces.  (See attached photo.)

The best idea, of course, is to coordinate with the school gardener, a local nursery, or a local environmental group to have children plant real trees.  This would require another lesson and some more advanced planning, but it is the most natural extension to today’s lesson.  In Dubai, there is no chance to plant trees because the climate is too extreme.  However, other locations should have better opportunities.

3. Conclusion:

Ask the children to revisit the lesson’s main question: Is Wangari Maathai a role model?  Why or why not?  Ask them to explain their thinking and tie to ideas that the homeroom teacher is using in the classroom.

Send the prepared picture of Wangari Maathai to the classroom with the children as a reminder of what they have learned today.

  1. Video of Wangari Maathai talking about the Green Belt Movement, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNkDhNRKYic
  2. National Forest Service’s website for children, found here: https://www.discovertheforest.org/
  3. Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A Nivola.
  4. Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter.
  5. Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
  6. Environmental Activist Wangari Maathai by Jennifer Swanson.
  7. Photograph of Wangari Maathai, mounted on backing paper, to send to class with the children after the lesson.

For Building the Indoor Tree:  (See attached photo.)

  1. Twisted brown paper, or twisted newspaper, painted brown, and sculpted into a tree.
  2. Leaves made of paper. Make a few for the children to use as a template.  Photocopy the template, then the children can cut out and decorate the leaves.
  3. Tape, staples, or twine for securing the crafted tree in place.

For Planting Trees Outdoors:  Coordinate locally with a nursery, school gardener, or environmental organization.


This is a lesson that can change children’s lives.  I’ve used Wangari Maathai’s story in the Role Model Unit of Inquiry, but of course you can also use it in any lesson on the environment, habitats and ecosystems, and living vs nonliving things.  One year, we taught the concept of the Green Man and had children make Green Men masks.  There really are an endless number of ways to adapt the material, so be sure to weave the story of Wangari Maathai into one of your Units of Inquiry.

Recommended books for this lesson: 
  1. Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A Nivola.
  2. Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter.
  3. Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
  4. Environmental Activist Wangari Maathai by Jennifer Swanson.
Key Terms:

Wangari Maathai, Tree planters (persons), Kenya, Green Belt Movement, Ecology, Environment, Women politicians, Women conservationists, Biography


Paper Tree