Building Background: Nature's Fury

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SWBAT access prior knowledge regarding extreme weather events.

Big Idea

How have YOU experienced nature's fury?


At the beginning of a new unit, I always start with a concrete experience that will engage ALL learners.  I have a very diverse set of students with varying levels of language.  I start with a concrete experience that is related to key concepts in the unit to explicitly expose scholars to content and access other scholars' prior knowledge.  Check out this Video reflection for a more comprehensive explanation.  

In this unit, we begin with making a small tornado in a soda jug.  This is fun, engaging and will provide my ELL scholars with the additional support they need with vocabulary words (i.e. weather, tornado, etc.).  

Cue Set

5 minutes

Scholars have 2 minutes to list how they have experienced nature's fury.  I support by thinking aloud, "Hm, I've seen the fury or intense or harshness of nature when we have big thunderstorms in the summer.  Also, I remember in 2010 that we had three blizzards in a row!  And last year, I remember we had Superstorm Sandy formerly Hurricane Sandy and had off from school for two days."

Thinking aloud will help scholars to know what types of answers I expect and will help them define what nature's fury means.  

After 2 minutes, scholars Rally Robin with a friend sitting next to them.  Scholars rally robin by one scholar sharing nature's fury, then the next scholar sharing nature's fury.  Scholars go back and forth until all ideas are shared.  

Finally, we have a Rally Robin showdown where two scholars stand up in front of the class (selected from my cup) and share their thoughts.  

Teaching Strategy

15 minutes

Scholars have an empty 2 liter soda bottle, glitter and soap at their tables.  They also have bags of sand, dirt, a pan, stones and paper.  I tell them that they have a total of 10 minutes to create a natural disaster with their materials.  I tell them that they have 5 minutes to plan and then 5 minutes to execute.  Then, each table has 1 minute to share their natural disaster.  I remind them that they can use water (we have a sink in the classroom). 

I make this activity open-ended to give scholars a bit more to think about.  Instead of giving them a step-by-step how-to, they can be creative and discover how to make it on their own.  Check out the Avalanche and Volcano two of the groups made.  

*If needed or if you want to modify for younger learners, use the step-by-step procedure below to make a tornado: 


  1. Fill the plastic bottle with water until it reaches around three quarters full.
  2. Add a few drops of dish washing liquid.
  3. Sprinkle in a few pinches of glitter (this will make your tornado easier to see).
  4. Put the cap on tightly.
  5. Turn the bottle upside down and hold it by the neck. Quickly spin the bottle in a circular motion for a few seconds, stop and look inside to see if you can see a natural disaster forming in the water. You might need to try it a few times before you get it working properly.


Guided Practice

25 minutes

I place 4 posters around the room with the following questions: 

*What type of natural disaster did your group create? Include an illustration & label the natural disaster. 

*Describe what you observed as you watched the natural disaster. 

*How would a natural disaster like this one impact Easton if it were to happen here? 

*How have you been influenced by a natural disaster in your life? 

Scholars rotate in their post-it note groups to each poster and have 3 minutes to jot down ideas at each poster.  Here are some scholars recording answers during the rotations.  At the end of the rotation, all scholars have 20 seconds to go back to their seats. I do a rotation and poster walk to get scholars out of their seats and to move them around a bit.  This enhances engagement and provides opportunities to interact with different scholars.  We then have a whole group discussion based on what we created, observed and how our lives have been influenced by natural disasters.  

As we discuss whole-group, I chart & define important vocabulary words.  This chart will go on our "Winning Word Wall" for reference throughout the unit.   We add to this list as we encounter new and important words.  This helps all scholars to remember what new words mean and to access future text with those words.  

Independent Practice

45 minutes

Since today is all about building background knowledge, scholars read books on their independent level about extreme weather. There is no checklist assignment today, they purely read to gain information and background in extreme weather.  

I begin the Socratic Seminar with one class.  This class has many scholars who are above grade level (all but 5) and they are ready to be more self-directed.  We first watch a video on Socratic Seminar so that they know what we are getting ready to do. Then, we set norms and practice routines and procedures associated with the seminar.  

Here is the video: 

My ELL co-teacher teaches a mini-lesson to the 5 scholars who are below grade level on narrator's perspective that will help them to master tomorrow's objective during the whole group lesson.  We will not do rotations as usual with my second class since I am beginning the Socratic Seminar.  

With my first class, we will do rotations as usual with a focus on narrator's perspective and building background knowledge.  

During this time scholars rotate through 2 stations.  

I start the time by reviewing our checklist items for the week and explicitly state what should be completed by the end of the day.  This holds scholars accountable to their work thereby making  them more productive.  Then, the ELL teacher and I share the materials that our groups will need to be successful (i.e. a pencil and your book baggies).  Then, I give scholars 20 seconds to get to the place in the room where they will be for the first rotation.  The first scholars who are there with all materials they need receive additions on their paychecks or positive PAWS.

During the rotations for this lesson, my small group objective today is to build background knowledge with informational text that is on each group's highest instructional level.  Scholars read a portion of the same book (different for each group depending on reading level, but the same text is read in each group).  Then we discuss information learned.  

After the first rotation, I do a rhythmic clap to get everyone's attention.  Scholars place hands on head and eyes on me so I know they are listening.  Then they point to where they go next.  I give them 20 seconds to get there.  Again, scholars who are at the next station in under 20 seconds with everything they need receive a positive PAW or a paycheck addition.  We practice rotations at the beginning of the year so scholars know if they are back at my table, they walk on the right side of the room, if they are with the ELL teacher, they walk on the left side of the room and if they are at their desks, they walk in the middle of the room.  This way we avoid any collisions.    

At the end of our rotation time I give scholars 20 seconds to get back to their desks and take out materials needed for the closing part of our lesson.  Timing transitions helps to make us more productive and communicates the importance of our learning time.