Severe Weather - Tornados- Dorothy Was Right!

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Students will create a model to better understand and observe the structure of a tornado.

Big Idea

What makes extreme weather so dangerous?


5 minutes

I ring my chime to get the class’s attention.  I announce that we were about to begin the third Science lesson in our unit about severe weather.  I ask them to return to the carpet squares and ‘Show Five’.

Once seated, I ask for a volunteer to help demonstrate a main concept of a tornado, the rotation.  To make things fair and avoid any conflict, I choose a Daily Helper.  I ask them to stand in front of me.  In the last lesson, we learned about…”  “Thunder and lightning”  “Where does thunder originate, where does it begin?”  “In the rain?”  “It begins in a raincloud.  Sometimes, strong winds cause the rainclouds start to rotate, like this….”  I begin to turn the Helper in a clockwise direction.  “Who wants to practice rotating?” “Me!”  The students get up and begin to turn around.  Movements like this give students an added element of muscle memory, making them better able to connect to the concept.. along with just being a fun thing to do!  I give them 2-3 minutes to explore this action before I get their attention with the ring of our chime and ask them to sit back down. 

Whole Group Instruction

15 minutes

I begin the instruction, “We talked in our weather unit about air pressure, how it causes weather to move.  Thunderstorms are powerful pieces of nature and often have strong winds inside of it.  When this wind movement is very strong, it can move in different directions.  Sometimes, these winds move at different speeds and levels.”  As I give this instruction, I demonstrate this with my hands.  My nature is to ‘talk with my hands’ anyway.  With material like this, it adds an engaging visual element.  “As a thunderstorm gets caught in this powerful stream of air pushing in different directions, it starts to turn around to create a funnel cloud.  We don’t actually see the air moving around.  We can, though, see the water inside the air, which means we can see the funnel cloud.  If it touches the ground, though, it becomes a tornado.  We’re going to explore this more.”  As I introduce these two vocabulary words, I show them two pictures that I downloaded form the internet.  Visuals are always a smart addition to lessons because they help give a picture to a complicated idea.

“We see how storms can be little or…”  “Big”  “Right.  Big storms often make big tornados.  Meteorologists measure tornados by intensity.  This measures the ‘bigness’ of the tornado.  So tell me the word for that…”  “Intensity”.  Part of a meteorologist’s job is to measure and communicate- that means tell people- the intensity so people can stay safe.  Based on what we learned about lightning and electricity, what would you guess is a safe place to be around a tornado?”  “Inside?”  “In a house?”  “Shelter!”  “Yes, shelter is always a good idea.  Since the winds of a tornado are so strong, you have to be prepared to find a shelter with walls and support that are just as strong.  If things fall around you or fly away, your shelter needs to stay in one place.”

“There is a certain part of our country called the Midwest”, I have a globe where I point it out, "You see more tornadoes here.  It’s called ‘Tornado Alley'.  The reason why this part of the country gets more tornados is because of the unique movement of air.  We learned about this when we studied fronts, when warm air from the south meets cold air from the north.  The difference in the Midwest is that in certain times of the year, the air is very warm and humid.  The cold air forces itself under the warm air, which causes it to rise.  Normally, this creates thunderclouds.  In certain areas like this, strong wind movement cause these thunderclouds to become funnel clouds, which become...”  “Tornados!”  "When it rotates around and touches on the ground, it does become a tornado.  We are going to take some time to put some of the things we’ve learned together to create a model of a tornado.”

Individual Instruction

10 minutes


• Small jar (baby food jars work great!), one per student

• Water

• Heavy grained material, e.g. glitter or sand

After the whole class instruction was finished, I tell them “It’s time for us to make a model like the ones meteorologists use to help explain how a tornado works.”  I give them minute to think about this before I move to the next step.  “Before we start the model, we need to review the elements of a tornado.  What do we know about?  What’s in a tornado?”  “Strong air”  “Yes, strong air movement is important.  Otherwise, it would just be a storm.  What else?”  “Rain”  “Rain is important too. Otherwise, it would just be really windy.  Anything else?”  “Thunder clouds?”  “Thunderclouds give a tornado the perfect place to grow, to develop.  The humidity and wind speed work together to create a powerful force, one you can see.  Debris floats inside to show how wind rotates around to create that..what do we call it?  It starts with fuuuun..“  “Funnel cloud!".  I do some quick instruction and vocabulary review so the students have context to better understand the upcoming model and demonstration.  With this brief description, I pass out baby food jars and a container of glitter to each table and begin the instruction piece for the models

First, add some water to the jar to represent- pretend- the rain. 

• Next, put in some glitter (or sand) to show the debris.   

Last, make sure to write your name on the lid of the jar so you know that it’s yours. 

I walk through the class with a pitcher of water to add the ‘rain’ element to their tornado models.  “When we are all finished making the jars, we’ll practice the next part together.”   My goal is to- as often as possible- have the students create a model they can use to help demonstrate and explain the material they have learned.  A hands-on opportunity is a meaningful step that helps communicate and access valuable material.  

I ask the students to tighten the lids on the jars, clean up the tables, and bring the models back to their carpet squares.  “I want everyone to hold the jars in their hands like this.  Leave your arm in one place and rotate your wrist around like this, like you’re using it to draw a big circle.”  I demonstrate this idea, increasing the speed.  “Rotate it around faster.  Then..stop.  Look at the water.  You should see a tornado inside.  Who sees one in their jar?”  “I did!”  “Not me”  “That’s OK if you don’t see one yet.  We learned that weather factors could quickly change, so tornados may not always happen right away.”  I give them a few minutes to practice this concept before I ring the chime to wrap up the lesson.


Wrap Up

5 minutes

We sat back on our carpet squares and I helped them review their tornado elements.  “If we were going to explain a tornado to someone, what would we say?”  “It starts in a thunderstorm.”  “Wind blows stuff in a circle.”  “Stay inside!”  I always aim to have students leave the lesson with the ability to explain the concept to another person.  This teaching piece will encourage their long-term retention.  Ultimately, when they can do that, it’s a success