Featured Activity: Teaching about Natural Disasters

Ed of week green

Melissa Sullivan, this week’s Educator of the Week, inspires her 5th graders to care about natural disasters through the lens of science, social studies, and math. Read about how she connects her Earth Science lessons to real-world situations.

Activity: Teaching about Natural Disasters
Grade Level: 5
Time Commitment: Two weeks

When I teach, I like to augment my lessons with a local, regional, and global perspective. As part of our Earth Science unit, during one school day we investigated rapid changes in the earth’s surface caused by natural disasters. We incorporated the scientific method, and I guided my students to observe these catastrophes through stream tables. We built our own stream table and simulated the effects of a hurricane and a flash flood.

Melissa engages her students across subject areas when teaching about natural disasters. Photograph by Ana Cervantes

Melissa engages her students across subject areas when teaching about natural disasters. Photograph by Ana Cervantes

Throughout the two week unit, I linked the lesson to social studies and math by discussing the social and economic impacts and decisions humans make to lessen the impact of natural disasters. We connected this lesson to a real-world situation by watching news clips of Hurricane Katrina and looked at that area from a bird’s eye view using Google Earth. We then discussed how the levee in New Orleans was not tall or strong enough to withstand Hurricane Katrina.

One of my students…remarked during this lesson, “I love fifth grade!” when he was able to start making connections to the world outside of the classroom.

We also touched upon how surrounding regions were impacted through refugees and strained resources. The discussion, along with a bit of scaffolding, incorporated the economic impact of the disaster and how disasters like Katrina are common throughout the world. This included ideas of cost versus function with engineering (i.e. how tall/strong to make a levee) and city planning in order to offer solutions to prevent such catastrophes in the future.

Melissa's students built their own stream table to understand the impact of natural disasters. Photograph by Melissa Sullivan

Melissa’s students built their own stream table to understand the impact of natural disasters. Photograph by Melissa Sullivan

How did this activity impact your students?

My students were eager to learn how to help when disasters occur. They enjoyed learning about the importance of planning and the consequences of poor planning.

One of my students who had walked into my classroom with a bit of apathy at the beginning of the year remarked during this lesson, “I love fifth grade!” when he was able to start making connections to the world outside of the classroom.

How does teaching with a geo-education mindset impact your students?

One of my teaching goals is to connect science and social concepts to promote geo-literacy. I strive to empower my students to become decision-makers by the knowledge acquired through lessons. For example, I take science concepts such as how humans change the environment and link it to Ten on Tuesday, a concept that if each citizen picks up ten pieces of trash on Tuesday, cities can reduce the amount of litter. My students are so excited about helping the environment that they voluntarily spend part of their recess time on Tuesdays picking up trash.

What is one simple activity to get students to think about their world?

After giving a lesson on a topic, a teacher can write on the whiteboard three columns of words: local, regional, and global, and lead a discussion on these that relate to the lesson. The repetition of these words over time will encourage students to relate future concepts on all three levels.

Do you have a favorite book that inspires your teaching?

My favorite teaching book is Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith, an inspiring teacher who taught in a low-income area of Los Angeles. His students, despite being first generation immigrants, scored in the top 1% of standardized tests and went on to attend Ivy League Universities. He links learning to the “real world” through movies, art, music, and baseball.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you in your life or in your teaching?

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female President of Liberia

Melissa Sullivan is a 5th grade bilingual teacher (English/Spanish) at Seabourn Elementary in Mesquite, Texas. She is passionate about getting her students to think locally and globally and care about the planet. This year her class participated in the Global Monster Project.


green nominateDo you know a great educator who teaches about our world? 
Nominate  a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!
The Educator of the Week series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

TEACHER TOOLKIT

Activity: In Your Watershed (Grades 6-8)
Activity: Extreme Natural Disasters (Grades 4-5)
Activity: Mapping Extreme Natural Disasters (Grades 4-5)
Activity: Preparing for Extreme Natural Events (Grades 3-5)
Activity: Why Communities Move (Grades 3-5)
This Day in Geographic History: Hurricane Katrina Makes Landfall in Louisiana

3 responses to “Featured Activity: Teaching about Natural Disasters

  1. There are places prone to earthquakes. Several earth structures have formed areas that produce more earthquakes which are medium to large earthquakes. The impact can be lethal. The most dangerous areas are located at plate boundary.

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  2. Pingback: Joaquin Wreaks Havoc | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  3. Our teaching resources for natural disasters include printables, activities, and references on hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Teach your students the science behind these geological and meteorological events with the diverse resources below

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