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The burning of San Francisco

[Detail] The burning of San Francisco

Lesson Procedure

In this lesson, explore the ways natural disasters have affected American lives. Examine records people made of their experiences. Try to find out how people felt who lived through each event. How did they recover? What changed because of their experience? What lessons did they learn? When you finish, put yourself into the shoes of an eyewitness to one of American history's most remarkable events and tell the story of the disaster in your own words.

Activity One: Introduction (one class period)

These activities introduce students to the concept of primary source documents as ways of recording an historical event.

  1. On the board or overhead, brainstorm ways in which nature affects people's lives.
  2. Play a song about a natural disaster.
  3. While listening to the song, students write five words or phrases from the song that interest them on a note card. On the back of the card, they should write their reactions to those words or phrases.
  4. Discuss the following questions:
    • Why would the songwriter compose this song?
    • What event may have sparked the idea for this song?
    • What words or phrases help you to understand the songwriter's perspective of the event?
    • How does listening to this song change your understanding of the people's emotions who experienced the event?
  5. Next, show students a photo related to the event. Repeat the 5 word reflection activity and group discussion.
  6. Finally, present a newspaper story with a personal account of the event. Repeat the 5 word reflection activity and group discussion.
  7. Pass out an encyclopedia or history book description of the disaster.
  8. Using a Venn diagram, have students compare and contrast the kinds of information about the event each medium provided.
  9. Reflection Journal: have students explain how these sources differ from encyclopedia accounts of the event.

Activity Two: Modeling Analysis Sheet Use (two class periods)

  1. Discuss students' Reflection Journal entries from previous lesson. Clarify how primary sources differ from secondary sources. Note that informational articles often do not contain people's feelings about the experience.
  2. Explain the lesson's goal of learning critical thinking strategies to examine primary sources.
  3. Together, complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool to examine a photo of the disaster. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  4. Next, examine an account from a witness to the event. Students analyze the oral history, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Oral Histories to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. (Note that oral histories are written in the narrator's own words and may reveal biases and prejudices which may seem inappropriate. They may also contain spelling errors or non-standard English.)
  5. Using a handout of the song lyrics, have students study the song, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  6. Compile and record information about the event using different colored markers for each source.

Activity Three: Guided Reading (two weeks)

  1. Help students select a book based on a natural disaster.
  2. Help students to establish a schedule to complete the reading of the book. Possible questions to focus student responses might include:
    • What were your feelings after reading the first chapter of the book? What gave you this impression?
    • What details did the author use to show the setting of the story and give you a sense of what the characters were like?
    • What were the main problems the characters faced in the story? How did they attempt to solve them?
    • What surprised or confused you in the book?
    • What was the passage that seemed most real to you?
    • What did the characters or their families, communities, or governments do to help people recover from the event?
    • What effects did the event have on the characters' lives and on their communities?
    • What lessons did you learn from the way people handled the event?
    • What questions would you like answered about the event?
    • What changes would you have made in the story?

Activity Four: Coaching Independent Research (four or five class periods)

  1. Using the reference materials available, have students compile information about the event from their novel. Possible questions to guide the research include:
    • Who was involved in the event?
    • When and where did the natural disaster take place?
    • What were things like before the event took place?
    • What seemed to have caused the event?
    • What happened during the event?
    • What were the effects of the event?
    • How did the people react to the event?
    • How did people recover from the disaster?
    • What changes were made or lessons were learned as a result of the event?
  2. Direct students to the the appropriate natural disaster from the Gallery of Artifacts.
  3. As students analyze the primary sources, have them record their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus the group work, and select additional questions to focus and prompt a whole class discussion of their analysis.
  4. Provide time for students to search additional Internet resources about the event and summarize their research.

Activity Five: Preparing the Wax Museum Presentation (four class periods)

  1. Review the elements of the wax museum presentations: Prepare a historical fiction account for your book based on the following outline. Your oral report is in a "wax museum" format and should be 3-5 minutes in length. Dress up like a person who witnessed the event in the book and describe the event as that person would.

    I. Introduction
    A. Use an interesting attention getter to introduce the subject of your presentation.
    B. Include the date and place of the event and explain why this event was important in American history.
    II. Body
    A. Tell the facts about when, where, why and how the event occurred.
    B. Use your photographs to explain more details about what happened before, during, and after the event.
    C. Describe how this event affected the people who experienced it. Use your artifacts to demonstrate your points.
    D. Explain how things changed as a result of this event.
    E. Tell how you felt as a witness to the event.
    F. Explain how the people recovered from this event. Present the lessons you learned from the people who experienced this event.
    III. Conclusion
    A. Wrap up the personal account.
    B. Include whether or not you think the event could ever happen again.
  2. Allow time for preparation and presentation.
  3. Rehearse oral presentations with partners.
  4. Optional: Send out invitations to parents, other classes, and community members.


Students may extend their experience by examining a recent natural disaster, locating and analyzing primary source documents related to it, and noting similarities and differences to those of earlier times. Students may also examine how the events are presented in children's books.