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Exploring Natural Disasters through Primary Sources

The Science Teacher—November/December 2022 (Volume 90, Issue 2)

By Cheryl Lederle and Stacie Moats

After Hurricane Katrina, a devastating category five storm, made landfall along the Gulf Coast of the United States in late August 2005, photographer Carol M. Highsmith captured the image featured here ( of a barber shop located in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The photograph, showing damage to a building from a hurricane, along with other images related to different natural disasters, can serve as useful, culturally relevant teaching tools.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is a pedagogical framework first developed by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings. This framework has three pillars or tenets. All students must:

  • experience academic success,
  • develop cultural competence, and
  • examine and critique the status quo.

Primary sources can support the goals of this framework by allowing students to “draw connections between the past and the present, set the present in context, and practice critical analysis skills.” (Minnesota Historical Society, These authentic sources are foundational to authentic learning.

A study of primary sources representing natural disasters lends itself to culturally relevant practices. Even though different regions might experience different sorts of natural disasters, every place is subject to some sort of natural disaster, offering access points for students with various experiences.

Careful selection of the starting item is a key component of meeting tenet one: all students experience academic success. While primary sources are available in various formats, choosing an audio file or visual image removes possible barriers presented by text, ensuring that students of many ability levels can succeed.

Students might begin by analyzing a primary source such as the photograph featured here, representing one type of natural disaster, to build their critical thinking skills, including making observations, drawing inferences, and asking questions. Other sorts of natural disasters, such as tornadoes and earthquakes, also damage buildings. To draw on and develop students’ cultural competence (tenet two), students might next compare the damage from the hurricane to damage from natural disasters typical of their own region. If students do not have personal experience with a natural disaster, they might interview family members or neighbors to access and apply the expertise and cultural competence of their community.

To approach tenet three, students might conduct research to learn more about ways to mitigate damage from either the natural disaster represented by the item studied, or from the natural disaster that is typical of their region.

To learn more about Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and teaching with primary sources, explore the video resources available through Inquiry in the Upper Midwest, a project funded through the Library of Congress’ Teaching with Primary Sources program:

Related student explorations

  • Tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, floods, droughts
  • Earthquakes
  • Forest fires


hurricane damage New Orleans

The image featured here is from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress (  It is included in a Free-to-Use-and-Reuse set of items related to natural disasters ( that may serve as a starting point for a lesson incorporating culturally relevant pedagogy in a science classroom. The direct link to the item is Additional items in the set represent other sorts of natural disasters, including tornadoes, waterspouts, earthquakes, floods, and droughts, and more. Another set of items related to natural disasters, along with a background essay and teaching suggestions, was created specifically for teachers and is available: Even more items can be found by searching on using the name of a type of disaster.

Cheryl Lederle ( and Stacie Moats ( are both Educational Resources Specialists at the Library of Congress.

Climate Change Earth & Space Science Literacy Phenomena High School

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