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March 22, 2011 Working Together and Using Technology to Understand What Is Happening in Japan By Danielle Mahoney
Grades 3–5

    Devastating videos, images, and stories are coming out of Japan. Educators are looking for just the right way to teach students about the earthquake and tsunami as well as the growing concerns about the nuclear reactors. We know that covering current events through activities that incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing can increase literacy skills in the classroom. But how do we use online resources to tackle difficult topics with sensitivity and heart?

    This week I'll share my experiences working with a 3rd grade class to study the events in Japan. Check out images from my flipchart, click on links to online resources, and download activity sheets that will have your students collaborating in groups and using technology to understand the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on the people in Japan.


    Model Working Together

    Access Prior Knowledge and Start the Conversation 

    Before you get into the lesson, find out what's going on inside your students' minds. News about Japan is all over the place: on television, the Internet, in newspapers, and in conversations between adults. What have your students heard? How much of that information is accurate? What questions do they have? Are they frightened or nervous? You certainly won't have all of the answers, but it is important to get these conversations started.

    Model What We Know

    Gather all of your students into your meeting area to find out what they already know. This will allow you to figure out where you need to start the conversation. We used a Promethean Board to record our thinking. A piece of chart paper can work as well.

    Set Clear Expectations and Ground Rules

    As with any lesson, set clear expectations before you begin. Will students be working in groups or independently? What will they be responsible for? What is the teaching point or learning objective of the lesson?

    I wanted students to discuss the impact of the earthquake and tsunami on Japan. Since we decided to work on three major activities, I told the students that they would be divided into three sections:

    • One group would look at photographs of Japan. 
    • A second group would look at a site featuring before and after satellite photographs from different locations in Japan. 
    • The last group would read articles written about the events taking place in Japan.  

    All groups would be responsible for jotting down their reactions in some way and be accountable for having a discussion about how these events have affected the lives of the people in Japan. Clear expectations set the tone for your lesson and give students a clear understanding of how the lesson will be structured and what they are expected to do. This process is essential for student success.

    Our rules were quite simple, but covered a lot of ground:

    Model Set Expectations

    Ask your students what guidelines or rules they think they'll need to work well in their group. Know ahead of time what you want these ground rules to be and allow kids to take part in setting them in stone with you. Record their responses while limiting them to three or four rules. Be sure to phrase them in a positive way. (Try to keep DO NOTs out of this!)

    Model Each Activity

    If you want your students to succeed with any activity, you have to teach them what they need to do by modeling it. Then, allow them to practice with you before sending them off to independent or group work.

    Take a peek at how my modeling went for each of the activities:

    Group 1: Looking Closely at Photographs

    Scholastic News Online has put together a great slide show of photographs. 


    Use these images to teach students more about the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on the people of Japan while asking them to make observations and inferences as they work in collaborative groups. 

    Model Looking at Photographs
    Model how you want your students to take a minute to look at the photograph and describe what they see. Think aloud with them and jot down your thinking. You can start off with straight observations and progress to inference work.

    Download a copy of my slide show research sheet to use with the images. The sheet is set up for a group of three researchers. There is space for each student to write down two observations. They should take turns recording their thinking on the sheet. As with all of the activities, model how you want students to discuss the ways in which the earthquake and tsunami have changed the lives of the people in Japan. 

    Group 2: Japan Before and After

    I heard about two amazing resources that feature interactive satellite photos of Japan before and after the tsunami and knew I needed to incorporate them into my lesson plans. The New York Times and ABC News Web pages allow you to explore the impact of the earthquake and tsunami by sliding a tool across the incredible images.


    Note: I had some trouble accessing the New York Times site in the classroom due to our school's Web filters, and wound up using the ABC site instead. Explore both sites ahead of time to see which one will work best for you. Then, figure out the areas in Japan you want your students to focus on for their activity.

    Setting Up the Interactive Exploration

    If your students have looked at Google Maps in past lessons, this activity will be easy for them. However, you might want to use Google Maps to pull up an image of an area familiar to them. This will help them understand that the lines, squares, and rectangles represent things like roads, buildings, parks, cars, and homes.

    I pulled up a map of our school to start. The students recognized our street, the playground, and the green bursts of color that represent each tree in our neighborhood. 

    Then, I shared a satellite photo of Sendai Airport in Japan and asked Emely to come up and demonstrate how to use the slider to reveal the damage done to the airport by the tsunami.


    Ask students what they notice, and record their reactions on a sample of the compare and contrast activity sheet. With your support, they'll know exactly what to do when it comes to working with their group.

    Model Before and After

    Group 3: Read an Article

    I love using Scholastic News to teach current events. They are experts in reporting difficult topics in ways children can understand.

    I decided to model the third activity with the first few paragraphs of "Japan Searches for Survivors," an article written on March 15th from Disaster in the Pacific, a collection of resources on Japan. 

    Model Read Article

    Together we used context clues and prior knowledge to figure out tricky vocabulary words. Then, we practiced reading a section and jotting down our reactions.

    I suggested that they might want to categorize their thinking, much as they do in Reading Workshop. We thought about how we may have questions as we read, or come across information that gives us a strong feeling. In addition, we may read things that surprise us and encourage us to make text to world connections.

    For the group activity, I broke up the article "Devastation in Japan" into smaller sections so that three groups could share the content. You can download and print my PDF version of "Devastation in Japan" as well as the discussion sheet to use with your students. Keep in mind that new articles have been written since my work with these students. Be sure to take a look at the updated collection, too.

    It's Time for Group Work!

    Once you've gotten your rules in place and your expectations laid out, send your students off to work. How will this actually look in a classroom setting? Scroll through these photographs to find out.


    Photo: Students gather in clusters to work on their activities.

    Of course, you want to move around from group to group to offer support and provide feedback.


    Photo: Here I am checking in with a group of students who are about to write down their reactions to an article.

    Students in Group 1: Looking Closely at Photographs



    Examples of Work:



    Students in Group 2: Japan Before and After


    Examples of Work:


     Students in Group 3: Read an Article



    Examples of Work:





    Assess Students by Letting Them Share What They've Learned!

    Now that the groups have finished their discussions and jotted down their ideas, it's time to assess their work. Was everyone focused and on task? Did they make meaningful observations and have group discussions? Students need some time to share their findings with others. This can be done a few different ways. You could have all groups gather in the meeting area and take turns talking about what they've learned. But how about giving students an opportunity to share their discussions on camera?

    • Have one student be the director and cameraman. 
    • Show students how to hold the camera steady with two hands. 
    • The cameraman should count backwards: "3, 2, 1 . . . " and cue the speaker. 
    • The speaker should speak loudly and clearly. 
    • This will take a bit of time and practice, but once they get started, they will become pros!

    My wonderful Flip Video died on me at the start of the lesson, but no worries! Mrs. Bayer and I took out our iPhones and started to record. (With technology, having a back-up is a must!)

    Photo: Mrs. Bayer sits with a group in the hallway helping direct the video talks.

    Photo: Other groups worked on recordings inside the classroom with my support.


    Here's a small collection of video clips we recorded:





    Note: I used my iPhone 4 to shoot this video and the iMovie app right on my phone to quickly edit it. Check out the tutorial to see how easy it is to use. It is truly amazing!


    Once you've had each group share their findings, load the videos onto your computer and gather around to watch. Students in one group will start making connections to students in other groups. The discussions that come out of this work are pretty powerful.

    News about Japan continues to change every day. Tell your students to be on the lookout for new information and answers to some of their original questions. The learning doesn't stop here.

    Special thanks to Mrs. Bayer and her students for being so mature and working so well together on such a difficult topic. I am very proud of their work. I hope they inspire you to tackle current events in your classroom with collaborative group work and technology.

    Our thoughts are with you, Japan.♥ 



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