Coyote Moon: Using the Thesis Machine to Practice Drafting Thesis Statements from Informational Text

Lesson can be found on the Lesson Plans page here


The lesson linked above is designed for middle/high school English classes (grades 6-12).  Specifically, it is designed for use with my 9th grade honors English class.  This interdisciplinary lesson will help students learn more about a hybridized species in their own backyard, and provides the opportunity to learn more about a species that is still evolving.   The lesson plan uses Maria Gianferrari’s picture book Coyote Moon, a short video, and an article from The New York Times to help teaches guide students through the thesis drafting process using the thesis machine.  If you are not familiar with the thesis machine (developed by Sheridan Baker in his college composition book, The Practical Stylist), it is a fantastic step-by-step process to help students compose more complex thesis statements before writing an essay or paper.  

Why coyotes?  Because they are fascinating and controversial: perfect for engaging students! The eastern coyote (canis latrans) is defined by USDA Wildlife Services as the coyote species that resides east of the Mississippi River and east of Canada’s Hudson Bay, areas that coyotes did not inhabit prior to European settlement (Mastro, Gese, Young, & Shivik, 2012).  Once extirpated from many parts of the United States by European settlers who viewed them as a dangerous threat, coyotes have expanded their geographical range exponentially over the past century (Kays, Curtis, & Kirchman,  2010). Unlike many other species, the eastern coyote has responded to human pressure by expanding both its range and population size (Prugh, Ripple, Laliberte, Brashares, Stoner, Epps, & Bean, 2009). The eastern coyote is now found in many states east of the Mississippi. In fact, they are one of the region’s top predators; they took the place of extirpated apex predators like wolves and mountain lions (Kays, Gompper, & Ray, 2008). New Jersey is home to a thriving coyote population today. Coyotes were first spotted in New Jersey in 1939 and over the past seventy-five years the species has moved into all twenty-one counties and over 400 municipalities, per the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (McBride, 2006).  Due to this, residents of the northeast are faced with dealing with a species previous generations had no experience with (Gompper, 2002).

The eastern coyote is a fascinating species because scientists believe it is a hybrid species, the result of breeding between different species resulting in a new species. Speciation, or the creation of a new species from two original taxa, is a benefit of hybridization (Todesco et al., 2016).  Hybrid speciation is a relatively rare occurrence because barriers, including fitness and genetics, tend to block the creation of successful new species (Todesco et al., 2016). Recent genetic tests by vonHoldt, et al. show that eastern coyotes are a mix of three species: coyote, wolf and dog (2011). While some may view this hybridization as a negative, in the case of the eastern coyote hybridization most likely enhances the adaptive potential of both species, allowing eastern coyotes to more effectively exploit available resources (Kyle et al., 2006). This evolution, which has been occurring for at least a century, is being closely watched by biologists. The eastern coyote’s expanded habitat distribution includes adaptations that allow the species to thrive in the fragmented urban and exurban ecosystems of the northeast. Western coyotes are associated with deserts and grasslands but the hybridized eastern coyote can be found in eastern forests, suburban neighborhoods, and urban parks (Weckel, Bogan, Burke, Nagy, Siemer, Green, & Mitchell, 2015). 

Coyote Moon: Using the Thesis Machine to Practice Drafting Thesis Statements from Informational Text (Grades 6-12)





Gompper, M. (2002). Top carnivores in the suburbs? Ecological and conservation issues raised by colonization of north-eastern North America by coyotes. Bioscience, 52(2), Retrieved from

Kays, R., Curtis, A., & Kirchman, J. (2010). Rapid adaptive evolution of northeastern coyotes via hybridization with wolves. Biology Letters, 6(1), 89–93.

Kays, R., Gompper, M., & Ray, J. (2008). Landscape ecology of eastern coyotes based on large-scale estimates of abundance. Ecological Applications, 18(4), 1014-1027. Retrieved from

Kyle, C., Johnson A., Patterson B., Wilson P., Shami K., Grewal S., & White, B. (2006). Genetic nature of eastern wolves: past, present, and future. Conservation Genetics. (7). Retrieved from

Mastro, L., Gere, E., Young, J., Shivik, J.  (2011). Coyote (Canis latrans), 100+ Years in the East: A literature review. Addendum to the Proceedings of the 14th Wildlife Damage Management Conference. Retrieved from

Prugh, L., Ripple, W., Laliberte, A., Brashares, J., Stoner, C., Epps, C., & Bean, W.. (2009). The Rise of the Mesopredator [electronic resource]. Bioscience, 59(9), 779-791.

Todesco, M., Pascual, M., Owens, G., Ostevik, K., Moyers, B., Hübner, S., & Rieseberg, L. (2016). Hybridization and extinction. Evolutionary Applications, 9(7), 892-908. doi:10.1111/eva.12367

vonHoldt, B. M., Pollinger, J. P., Earl, D. A., Knowles, J. C., Boyko, A. R., Parker, H., & … Wayne, R. K. (2011). A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids. Genome Research, 21(8), 1294-1305. doi:10.1101/gr.116301.110

Weckel, M., Bogan, D., Burke, R. Nagy, C., Siemer, W., Green, T., & Mitchell, N. (2015) Coyotes go “bridge and tunnel”: A narrow opportunity to study the socio-ecological impacts of coyote range expansion on Long Island, NY pre- and post-Arrival. Cities and the Environment (CATE), 8(1)., Retrieved from


Nature Writing and a Sense of Place- A Lesson Plan

Lesson plan can be found here.

According to researchers, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This has resulted in a loss of feeling connected to the natural world (Miller, 2005). Teenagers are no exception.  Take a look at the teenagers you know;  it’s likely that technology dominates their lives.  Cell phones are great but they also mean an endless loop of alerts from Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr, texts, and alarms. My own students spend very little time outside but admit to spending most of their time using technology. Can we harness this obsession with technology in a way that helps students connect with nature?

Research from the National Kids’ Survey suggests that by combining nature activities with technology teachers can help teens become interested in nature and more knowledgeable about local biodiversity (Larson, Green, & Cordell, 2011). In my experience, and that of many researchers, few teenagers can name species found in their own ecosystem (Adams, et al., 1987). They know a lot about elephants, lions, apes, and dolphins thanks to research projects in the primary grades but they can rarely recognize a catbird, fisher, bobcat, or piping plover.

As teachers, we can help students develop a connection with nature and local biodiversity by designing lessons that provide opportunities for students to interact with the natural world (Miller, 2005). Lesson plans that get students outside and engaged with their local environment can help to develop a more environmentally aware public (McKinney, 2002). Positive experiences with nature are the primary factor in developing environmental concern in students (Wilson, 1997).

In the lesson linked above students investigate a species of flora/fauna found in their schoolyard and coupled with the classroom activities in biology they become more knowledgeable about local biodiversity.

In English class, this lesson occurs as part of a year-long unit of study. Students are encouraged to use nature to become better readers and writers while studying local biodiversity. Jose Caamaño points out that teachers are in a unique position to be allies of biodiversity and environmental change but that the burden can not fall to just science teachers (Caamaño, 2011).  Yucel and Ozkan (2015) found that students obtain the most environmental information from activities in the curriculum that allow them to be engaged in nature, specifically those that allow them to find a special place in their local area.

The first step in conservation is education and teachers have a responsibility to help students recognize and value the biodiversity that surrounds them. Menzel & Bogeholz (2010) find that helping students develop an appreciation for biodiversity is difficult but in their work they learned that teaching students to identify native plants in the school yard contributed to an appreciation for biodiversity (2010).  As Ramadoss & Poyya Moli (2011) and Wilson (2002) point out, the world is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis (or sixth extinction). Teachers of all subjects are being asked to adopt a conservation-minded approach to education with a focus on helping students connect to their local environment in order to appreciate the biodiversity in their immediate area (Ramadoss & Poyya Moli, 2011).  If students learn to recognize the abundance of species in their own environment perhaps they will value it more.  When biodiversity activities are practical and meaningful they have the potential to shape students’ attitudes towards biodiversity (Ramadoss & Poyya Moli, 2011). Collado, Corraliza, Staats, & Ruiz (2015) find in their cross-sectional study that “frequency of contact with nature” enhances adolescents’ pro-environmental behavior.

English teachers can use field studies, such as this one, as a means to get students outside and feeling connected to nature.  By investigating species found nearby students will become more knowledgeable about local biodiversity and can serve as advocates for the environment.  Prior to going outside, students will immerse themselves in nature writing such as David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen.  In this unit, students read Dr. Haskell’s book during the summer and reread selected portions before each field study.  The text is used as a mentor in both English and biology class.  During the first field experience students adopted a square meter of space as their mandala, an adaptation of Dr. Haskell’s inspiration for his book (Haskell, 2012). Students then write about their experiences and share their knowledge with their peers.  In this lesson students will write poetry and/or prose about the eco-art they create.  That writing will be shared with the wider school community via a bulletin board. Through these assignments, students learn about the biodiversity in the school yard and share that knowledge with others through writing.




Works Cited:

Adams, C., Thomas, J., Lin, P., and Weiser, B. (1987). Urban high school students’ knowledge of wildlife. In Adams L. & Leedy D. (Eds.), Integrating man and nature in the metropolitan environment (Pages. 83-86). Columbia, Maryland: National Institute for Urban Wildlife.

Caamaño, J. (2011). A vision of conservation from school. Conservation Biology, 25 (6), 1091-1093.

Collado, S., Corraliza, J. A., Staats, H., & Ruiz, M. (2015). Effect of frequency and mode of contact with nature on children’s self-reported ecological behaviors. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 4165-73. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.001

Haskell, D. G. (2012). The forest unseen: a year’s watch in nature. New York: Viking.

Larson, L. R., Green, G. T., & Cordell, H. K. (2011). Children’s Time Outdoors: Results and Implications of the National Kids Survey. Journal Of Park & Recreation Administration, 29(2), 1-20.

McKinney, M. L. (2002). Urbanization, Biodiversity, and Conservation: The impacts of urbanization on native species are poorly studied, but educating a highly urbanized human population about these impacts can greatly improve species conservation in all ecosystems. BioScience, 52(10), 883-890.

Menzel, S., & Bogeholz, S. (2010). Values, Beliefs and Norms that Foster Chilean and German Pupils’ Commitment to Protect Biodiversity. International Journal Of Environmental And Science Education, 5(1), 31-49.

Miller, J. (2005). Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20(8), 430-434.

Ramadoss, A., & Poyya Moli, G. (2011). Biodiversity Conservation through Environmental Education for Sustainable Development–A Case Study from Puducherry, India.International Electronic Journal Of Environmental Education, 1(2), 97-111.

Wilson, R. (1997). A sense of place. Early Childhood Education Journal,24(3), 191-194.

Yucel, E. O., & Ozkan, M. (2015). Development and implementation of an instructional design for effective teaching of ecosystem, biodiversity, and environmental issues. Kuram Ve Uygulamada Eğitim Bilimleri, 15(4), 1051-1068.