Role Playing: What Should We Do about Mountain Lions in Southern California?

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Students will be able to determine the opposing interests in a proposed wildlife corridor and argue one side of the issue in a mock community meeting.

Big Idea

Solutions to environmental problems require cooperation and compromise.


In this lesson, students will read articles about mountain lions in Southern California, take on a specific "role" and then participate in character in a mock debate representing a community meeting on the question of how best to address the problem of human encroachment on mountain lion habitat.

Students will take on one of the following roles:

  • Environmental activists, members of "Save LA Cougars"
  • Sheriff's Deputies
  • a congressional representative
  • a real estate developer
  • CalTrans employees (local transportation company)
  • Parents of schoolchildren where a mountain lion was seen
  • an environmentally conscious celebrity
  • a cattle rancher
  • wildlife biologists
  • a banker


Students will have their choice to reading one of several articles, some of which include:


Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will determine the central idea of a text, select relevant facts to develop an argument, make claims and counterclaims supported by evidence, and actively participate in a debate where students offer competing solutions to mitigate the negative impact of human activity on biodiversity

Warm Up: Assigning roles and Choosing an Article

10 minutes

To begin the lesson, I announce that student will be doing some role playing.  Since my high school is a performing arts school, the concept of playing a role comes pretty naturally to most of my junior and senior students that have enjoyed years of theater electives, but your students may be less familiar with role playing.  In short, role playing asks students to take on a role and participate in a situation according to their role, rather than their own personal attitudes or perceptions. 


I already have a table set up with all of the articles students will be able to choose from, so once I've explained that we'll be role playing, I walk to that table and read off all of the titles of the articles and ask students what they all seem to have in common.  The obvious answer is that all of the articles have something to do with mountain lions. 

I then explain that they will be assigned roles and be asked to participate in a debate representing a community meeting on the topic of what should be done to mitigate problems arising from the overlap in human and mountain lion habitats in southern California.  I explain that they will have the opportunity to read one or more of the articles to provide them with background information on some of the issues pertaining to mountain lions to better help their "character" to participate effectively in the debate.  (please note that the articles themselves can be found in the next section)


After this brief introduction, I take the Roles for the Mountain Lion Meeting worksheet (which I have cut into strips of paper dividing the separate roles before class) and randomly distribute the strips of paper to students, thereby assigning them the roles they will play.

Please note: although the roles are distributed randomly*, I try and make some roles (such as congressional representative and celebrity) more rare than others.  Still, I make sure there are at least two students with each role so that they can collaborate in the strategy meeting segment of the lesson.  In the case of the congressional representative, I let the students that received that role that they could decide who was the representative and who was their assistant.

(* I discuss in this reflection how it might be a good idea to make sure certain roles go to students more likely to more fully inhabit that particular role)


Once the roles have been distributed, I ask students to silently read their role and ask if everyone understands their character's wants, needs, and assets going into the town hall meeting.  I address any questions that arise and then distribute a copy of the Mountain Lions and People worksheet to each student.  I quickly explain that they will first read an article and answer some questions individually before having smaller meetings ahead of the larger debate at the mock community meeting.


I then let students know that they will be able to choose which article or articles to read, but that they should take their role into consideration when choosing an article (e.g., a cattle rancher would probably be interested in the article concerning mountain lion attacks on livestock, a Sheriff's Deputy would probably be interested in the article about traffic accidents involving mountain lions, etc.)

Once any relevant questions have been answered, I have students approach the table with the articles a few at a time and let them choose the articles they wish to read.

Silent Preparation: Students Read an Article

30 minutes

Once all students have selected an article to read, I ask that they read their article or articles silently and use the worksheet to define unfamiliar vocabulary from the article, answer questions of how the article relates to class, list some of the problems and proposed solutions from the article, and use all of that information to prepare for the debate.

During this time, I walk around the class and quietly offer help as needed, but this is mostly a quiet time where students focus on their own individual preparation to inhabit their particular role.

Small Group Discussion: Strategy meeting

20 minutes

Following the individual reading session, I have students get together with others with the same role
and have them answer questions on the worksheet that pertain to their potential allies and strategies for the upcoming debate at the mock town hall meeting.

During this time, I check in with each group to see if they understand their wants, needs, and assets.  To gauge their understanding, I ask how they might use their assets to meet their wants and needs and how their potential allies may help them do so.  This really calls for creativity and critical thinking on the part of students and can be really exciting as a teacher to watch them plan how they'll leverage their assets to get what they want in the debate.  As an example, the real estate developers talked about how they were going to cozy up to the politician and hopefully work out a quid pro quo where the politician would more or less agree to greenlight the real estate development with the assurance that significant campaign contributions would then come his way courtesy of the developers (it worked, by the way... the politician was gung ho for the development the whole time and even worked hard to sell it to the voters on the developer's behalf).

After about 15 minutes of their small group meetings, I announce that although the meeting has not officially begun, they have all arrived at the location of the town hall meeting and can now take some time to "mingle" with others before the meeting to do some initial strategizing with their allies so that some preliminary deals can be reached ahead of the actual meeting.


In retrospect, this "mingling" time may have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the actual debate as a lot of the interesting discussion, presentation of evidence, and compromise actually took place before the actual debate as can be seen in the video below,



Still, it's nice to see students so involved in the activity, regardless of which point of the lesson it occurred.


Debate: a Community Forum

30 minutes

Once the mingling before the meeting finishes, I call the meeting to order and explain that all present have the right to speak, and that others need only respect that right and conduct themselves civilly.  What follows is more or less a transcript of points brought up during the debate:

  • Real Estate Developers (first to speak):
    • We want to make a cougar free community where people are safe... we'll make a reserve separate from the community
    • it will be celebrity endorsed and be financially successful
  • Biologist:
    • Putting the mountain lions together stops inbreeding... that's important to preserving biodiversity in the species
    • But... they travel miles, they need a large area not just a small preserve, where will you get that land?
  • Ranchers:
    • We're willing to sell some of our land to developers if it leads to taking care of mountain lions and protecting their cattle
  • Banker:
    • How will that proposal help people in other communities?  This isn't just a local issue, it's a regional issue
  • Real Estate Developer:
    • To banker: we're not asking you to invest in the reserve, just give loans to the people to buy homes in our development and we'll figure out how to divert that revenue to the preserve
    • Luxury homes with celebrities will attract wealthy people to fund the preserve
    • That's less problems for Sheriff's Dept.
  • Sheriff's Dept.:
    • injuries can happen to people when they hit a big mountain lion... we agree with the reserve idea
  • Politician:
    • We spoke with the CalTrans people before the meeting, they're behind the reserve issue.
    • I'm not a biologist, but I can assure you they (mountain lions) won't die
  • Wildlife biologist:
    • Your idea sounds like Jurassic Park... it sounds good but it's not realistic, they might get hurt being transported to the reserve
  • Banker:
    • Will the animals adapt to this area?
  • Save LA Cougars:
    • this is artificial... why not protect their habitat as it is?
  • Developer:
    • "what's your solution?"
  • Politician:
    • "won't there be more genetic diversity if we bring these all together"
  • Real Estate Developer:
    • This is just a proposal, we will work with biologists and community groups to make it the best it can be
  • Save LA Cougars
    • How will we keep them in the reserve?
  • Developer:
    • they can be collared, like an ankle bracelet (laughter ensues and class is, sadly, almost over)


Following this debate, the politician announced that he decided to approve the development.  The rest of the class then got to vote whether or not to reelect the politician.  In a nearly unanimous vote (except for the Save LA Cougars people), he was reelected in a landslide.