Standard Lesson

Huge Mistakes that Led to Catastrophe: Learning about Human-made Disasters throughout History

5 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Nine 50-minute sessions
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After reading Sally Walker's nonfiction book Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1918 or other nonfiction books that illustrates a human-made disaster, students examine how other great mistakes in history affected mankind and caused change in the world. For example, they can discover that massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics lead to increased security at all subsequent games. They can learn that the sinking of the Titanic led to safety policy changes so that all ships needed enough lifeboats to carry all passengers in case of an emergency. While listening to each other's presentations created using technology, students take notes to compare and contrast their disasters using the Compare and Contrast Chart printout. Then students pair up to create Venn diagrams to illustrate their notes.

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From Theory to Practice

Labbo and Place state students are motivated to learn when they are provided with opportunities “to gain knowledge not typically encountered in textbooks. The fit is also good when students have occasions for gaining new literacy skills and strategies.” In this lesson students take an in-depth look at various human-made disasters that are not usually discussed in detail in textbooks. They can also see a relationship between acquiring research skills typically taught in language arts classes to increasing their understanding about how human-made disasters have affected the world. In her article Nolan relates that technology offers a platform for building essential proficiencies. Technology provides opportunities for students to apply their reading skills, evaluate information from various sources, combine that information, and then communicate their findings to others. Students are given the opportunity to use technology twice in this lesson as they will present using a tech tool and then use the Venn Diagram Mobile App or Venn Diagram Student Interactive to illustrate their comparison and contrast skills.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Computers with Internet capabilities and possible printing for the Venn Diagram Student Interactive
  • Tablets if using the Venn Diagram Mobile App and connector to link one tablet to LCD projector
  • Microsoft PowerPoint software on the computers if students will not be using an online tech tool
  • Classroom with LCD projector and whiteboard/interactive whiteboard
  • Books about human-made disasters
  • Stopwatches for timing



This free tool requires students to have an e-mail address to create an account. It creates an online zooming presentation with slides. A tutorial is available at the Web site to learn how to create a Prezi.

This resource is a helpful guide for using Prezi in the classroom.

For students who have a Gmail account or classrooms that are part of a Google Apps for Education school, this tool will create a presentation similar to Microsoft PowerPoint with the ability to share online.

This free timeline tool also requires an e-mail. Students will be able to create an illustrated timeline of their human-made disaster.

Students can use this Web site to create a Works Cited slide for their presentation.

This is another choice for creating a Works Cited slide.

This resource offers a sample Prezi presentation on the Bubonic Plague.

This resource offers a sample Prezi presentation on the the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.


  1. Before these sessions, students have learned notetaking skills. They can be taught notetaking skills through the mini-lesson Research Building Blocks: Notes, Quotes, and Fact Fragments as well as know the importance of citing sources through the standard lesson Research Building Blocks: “Cite Those Sources.” Furthermore, if this is the students’ first project citing sources, then using Exploring, Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing prior to this project would be beneficial.
  2. Also, students have learned to evaluate Web sites before this lesson. They can be taught this skill by using the lesson Inquiry on the Internet: Evaluating Web Pages for a Class Collection or the mini-lesson Research Building Blocks: Examining Electronic Sources.
  3. Prior to this lesson students have read one nonfiction book that illustrates a human-made disaster. The Suggested Nonfiction Books to Read printout provides ideas of engaging nonfiction books on this topic.
  4. Before this lesson, work with your school librarian so that print materials on individual human-made disasters as well as books on human-made disasters in general will be available to the students. These general books are listed on the Print Materials about Human-made Disasters and are needed for session one as well. Reserve one period in your school library to check out books on the individual human-made disasters. Also, consult with your school librarian about the possibility of online databases available to your students.
  5. Reserve computer for sessions two through eight and for session eleven.
  6. Decide if students will use Microsoft PowerPoint or one of the online tools to create their presentations. If students will use one of the online tech tools, have these bookmarked on the computers. If that is not feasible, you can sign up for a wiki at Wikispaces or create a class Web site at Google Sites to create a class page for the links and later use this site to showcase the students’ projects to your community. If students will use Microsoft PowerPoint, check that the software is installed on all the computers.
  7. Create a model presentation for the chosen nonfiction book using whatever tool students will use to create their own presentations. Additionally, two sample presentations using Prezi are listed in the Web sites.
  8. Make one copy for each student of the List of Human-made Disasters, human-made disaster Notetaking Sheet, Compare and Contrast Chart, and Human-made Disaster Rubric. For session one, students in groups of three will also use the human-made disaster Notetaking Sheet, so make extra copies of this printout.
  9. Familiarize yourself with the presentation tool students will use as well as the Venn Diagram Student Interactive or Venn Diagram Mobile App. If using the Venn Diagram Mobile App, install the app on the tablets that students will use.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • create presentations to communicate their research with their classmates.
  • understand the importance of acknowledging sources for information as well as digital images.
  • create a correctly formatted bibliography.
  • analyze the details of various human-made disasters through comparing and contrasting the events.

Session One: Introducing the Project (classroom)

  1. Divide the students into groups of three. Give each group one copy of the human-made disaster Notetaking Sheet and instruct them to complete the sheet for the nonfiction book the class has just finished reading. Then together go through the answers. Project the form on the whiteboard and complete it using the students’ answers. Save the completed form for use in session seven.
  2. Explain to the class that now they will be researching a human-made disaster on their own and then sharing their findings with the class. Ask the class about the differences between a human-made disaster and a natural disaster. Be sure to cover the following points in the human-made disaster definition:
    • Human-made is caused by humans.
    • It may involve a deliberate action, such as murdering a President or planning a terrorist attack.
    • It may be caused from error in judgment, such as building a wall to separate a city.
    • It may be a result of neglect, such as an engineering mistake.
  3. Hand out the List of Human-made Disasters. Allow students time to look at the general books on disasters from the Print Materials about Human-made Disasters. Then instruct students to choose which human-made disaster they would like to research. Explain to students they will also compare and contrast their disasters, and therefore, each student will research a different disaster.
  4. Hand out to each student the human-made disaster Notetaking Sheet and explain to the students as they learn about their disaster, that they will complete this printout.

Session Two-Four: Researching (library and computers)

  1. Have students check out books about their individual human-made disasters. Have the general human-made disaster books available to all students during the next four sessions. Before students begin taking notes, remind them to cite their books. You might want to have students cite their first book together. Briefly cover the components needed for citations and where to find them in print material:
    • Title
    • Author
    • Place of publication
    • Publisher
    • Date
  2. Allow students to search online for more information. Remind them to evaluate Web sites before taking notes. Ask students to check for the following on a Web page:
    • Who wrote the Web page?
    • What makes that person/organization an authority?
    • What was the purpose of writing the page? Look at the domain for a hint.
    • Where did the author get his information?
    • Why should you use this site for this particular project?
  3. Also, remind students how to cite Web pages by covering where to find the following items:
    • Web page title
    • Web site title
    • Date
    • Author
    • URL
  4. Monitor the students as they research, noting time on task and checking for any inaccuracies on their notetaking sheets. Check that students are citing their sources and help those who are having trouble with this task. Help those students who are having trouble finding information.
  5. Encourage students to continue to research outside of the class time, and remind them that their notes are to be completed at the start of session five.

Session Five-Six: Creating the Presentation (computers)

  1. Check that all students have completed the human-made disaster Note-taking Sheet. Allow extra time for students to complete it if necessary.
  2. Hand out the Human-made Disaster Rubric. Project the sample presentation you created for the event the students read about before this lesson or use one of the sample presentations listed under Web sites. Together use the Human-made Disaster Rubric to grade the presentation.
  3. Next model the steps the students will use to create their individual projects.
  4. Allow students time to work on their presentations. While students work, check on their accuracy of information. Question students about which pictures they have selected and why these pictures represent their disaster. Offer feedback on their layout and choices as they work.
  5. Also, remind students that their presentations need to include a slide for the bibliography. Suggest to students that they can use EasyBib or BibMe for creating this.
  6. During session six, encourage students to practice giving their presentations to partners. Tell students to use the Presentation Checklist to evaluate each other’s presentations. Have stop watches available for students to time their presentations, since this is a category on the rubric. Allow time for students to correct any errors they discover in their presentations.
  7. Encourage students to practice their presentations outside of the classroom.

Session Seven-Eight: Sharing (classroom)

  1. If students have not practiced the skill of comparing and contrasting much, work through the interactive Compare and Contrast Guide before the next activity.
  2. Give each student a copy of the Compare and Contrast Chart. Project the Notetaking Sheet students completed together in session one. Tell students to look at these notes in order to compare and contrast this disaster to the disasters they researched.
  3. Allow time for the students to complete the chart. Circulate around the classroom, probing students who are having difficulties finding likenesses and differences.
  4. After all students have completed their chart, have them pair-share with a partner. Then ask for a student to volunteer his/her notes to create a Venn diagram. Model for the students how to create a Venn diagram using either Venn Diagram Mobile App or Venn Diagram Student Interactive. If using the app, connect one tablet to the LCD projector; if using the student interactive, project this through the computer with the LCD projector.
  5. Explain to the students that as each classmate gives his/her presentation, they are to take notes that compare and/or contrast the disaster being discussed to theirs. Explain that after all presentations are done, students, in pairs, will create Venn diagrams that compare and contrast their two disasters.
  6. Have each student share his/her presentation while others take notes using the Compare and Contrast Chart format. Explain to students they will use these notes in session nine.

Session Nine: Synthesizing (computers)

  1. This session takes place after all students have presented.
  2. Ask students to take out their notes that they took while listening to each other’s presentations. Ask students to select partners to compare and contrast disasters.
  3. Before allowing students to work, model for students again how to use the Venn Diagram Mobile App or Venn Diagram Student Interactive.
  4. Allow students time to create their Venn diagrams. Circulate throughout the classroom, assisting students who have trouble with the software. Students can print the finished diagrams to display in the classroom or students can e-mail you their finished diagrams and then share these with the class using the LCD projector.
  5. After all have finished, ask students to complete one or more of the reflective statements in the assessment section.


  • Establish a class wiki or Web page to post links to the students’ presentations. Publish your classroom wiki or Web page to the community, so the audience for your students is larger.
  • If computers are not available, students can make posters with poster board and present these to the class. Students can complete the Venn Diagram, 2 Circles printout as well as write a bibliography.
  • Ask students to imagine themselves as survivors or witnesses to their disasters. Invite them to write an “I Remember” poem that has ten lines with each line beginning with the words “I remember” to summarize their disasters.
  • Using their Compare and Contrast Chart, have students write with their partners a short expository paper explaining the likenesses and differences. Instruct students on how to cite their sources in the written work.
  • Using their Venn Diagrams, have pairs take on the roles of survivors or witnesses to write poems for two voices that compare their experiences. Use the Two Voice Drafting Sheet for students to plan their poems.
  • Have students try fiction books about these events such as Margaret Petersen Haddix’s Uprising (which describes the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) or Joan Hiatt Harlow’s Firestorm! (which tells the story of the Great Chicago Fire).

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Review each student’s completed Notetaking Sheet.
  • During the class periods, observe and note the students’ time on task as this is one of the categories on the rubric.
  • Using the Human-made Disaster Rubric, evaluate each student’s presentation.
  • As students present, question them about their choices of graphics and pictures for their disasters. Allow classmates to pose questions to each presenter.
  • After all have completed their Venn diagrams, ask students to reflect on the learning experience by having them complete one or more of the following prompts. Explain that their answers can include information they learned from each other’s presentations.
Because of this project, I learned ____________ about disasters.
Because of this project, I learned ____________ about technology.
The most important ideas I learned from this project was____________.
I want to know more about _____________.

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