How to Teach Students About Natural Disasters: MCIC Made a Guide!

MCICCurrent events provide a great opportunity for teaching and learning about the grade 12 Global Issues Areas of Inquiry. These events provide teachers the ability to discuss and reflect on issues as they unfold, and students the ability to connect classroom learning with real-life events, while acquiring a greater understanding of the tremendous implications of such events and the human responses to them. Natural disasters and the responses to them are typically multidimensional and often incorporate a number of issues relating to the Global Issues Areas of Inquiry (e.g. media, environment, poverty, wealth and power, health, gender politics…). While illustrating a number of issues, disasters are also accompanied by tragedy, suffering and a variety of complex and highly sensitive issues which can be difficult to bring up in the classroom. For example, a teacher may want to be cognizant of the religious or political beliefs of students and their families. Educators may want to consider whether it is possible that someone in the classroom has experienced abuse or the recent death of close family or friends. Could they have experienced similar hardships as immigrants or refugees? All of these factors, and various others, can make students uncomfortable, create tension in the classroom or at home, and in the worse cases lead to psychological trauma.

With all of this in mind, how can we use disaster occurrences in the best way possible, to promote learning, while maintaining respect and sensitivity in the classroom?

This guide provides a breakdown of how to teach students about natural disasters, including topics of focus, key questions for class discussion and optional activities and lesson plans available on other websites. Teachers can select the content they deem most appropriate with the time they have, though ideally discussion would occur regularly to maximize learning from the evolving nature of disaster occurrence and response.

What is a Disaster?

The word “disaster” can be used to describe a number of different events from hosting a party that no one attends (“What a disaster!”) to large scale natural hazard events. The concept of a “disaster” is dependent on people’s point of view and experience. Natural disasters come in many shapes and forms but can be divided into two main groups; geological disasters and weather-related disasters. Encyclopaedias list 13 different types of disaster, but the following are among the most common: floods, droughts, tropical storms (variously called hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons) and earthquakes.

Fact: About 91 percent of disasters worldwide are classified as ‘silent’. You don’t hear about them because they don’t make headlines in most parts of the world. For example, in 2010, the Haiti earthquake received nine times more media coverage than dengue fever over the same period. The Haiti earthquake affected 2.3 million people. Dengue affects 390 million people annually.

Key Questions
  • What are some examples of large scale disasters?
  • Does it matter who it happens to?
  • Does it matter who knows about it?
  • Does it matter what causes it?
  • Does it matter who is talking about it?
  • Why are the impacts of large scale disasters different between different countries (e.g. the earthquake in Nepal verses the earthquake in New Zealand)?
Activities/Lesson Plans:

Exploring the Current Disaster

When disaster strikes it usually affects poorest people the most. Understanding the social, economic and environmental conditions and challenges in the country, can help explain the impact of the disaster.

Key Concepts/Questions:

a) Understanding the Cause of the Disaster

  • How do these phenomena occur? Why did it occur in that region?
  • Could this happen in Canada? Why/why not? Has any disaster similar to this happened in Canada?
  • How is this disaster measured?
  • Is this type of disaster predictable?
  • How are people generally affected by this disaster?

b) Discovering the Impacts of Disasters

  • Who was/is affected by the disaster?
  • Has the disaster affected all people in that area equally? What are the reasons for any differences?
  • How does inequality shape the impact of a disaster?
  • What are the short-term or long-term impacts of the disaster?
  • How are you impacted by this disaster? What about your family? Your country?
  • How would you feel if you were a victim of the disaster? What would be your main concerns? How would you feel if you were the government of the country where that disaster occurred?
What Makes some Disasters Worse than Others?

Some disasters are much more difficult than others to predict and guard against, although the monitoring of movements in the earth’s crust and observing the development of weather systems has greatly improved in recent years. Disasters can happen almost everywhere, but their scale and impact can vary greatly. There is a close relationship between the wealth and resources of a country and its people, and the human impact of a disaster. Countries and people that are richer are usually better prepared to cope with a disaster when it strikes.

The impact of a disaster is influenced by:

  • the vulnerability of the people living in the disaster area
  • the resilience of the people who are affected by a disaster
  • the extent of poverty in a country, as poorer people are usually affected more by a disaster than richer people
  • the preparedness of governments, other organizations and ordinary people for a disaster and the resources they have to cope
Key Questions:
  • How did these factors (vulnerability, resilience, poverty, preparedness and resources) influence the impact of the current disaster in the area? What form did they take?
  • How might have the impact of the disaster been different if various aspects of people’s living conditions were improved?

Fact: In 1986, 56,000 people were evacuated from the towns of Lucca and Modena in Italy. Shops and businesses closed for two days. No earthquake happened, and local people were angry about the loss of business, and the inconvenience of the evacuation. The mayor was forced to resign. What are the risks and challenges of disaster prediction and preparedness?

Responding to Disasters

There are four levels of response following a disaster:

  1. Humanitarian response/relief: meet people’s basic needs (shelter, healthcare, latrines, food and water, etc.) just after a disaster
  2. Rebuilding and development: rebuild following a disaster (infrastructure, employment, agriculture, etc.)
  3. Building resilience: support people to protect themselves against disasters
  4. Campaigning: persuade governments to do more to support poor people at risk from disasters
Key Questions:
  • Who is responsible for responding to this disaster? What are they doing to respond? Is it helpful? How could it be improved?
  • Are you responsible to help? How does being a “global citizen” relate to this?
  • How do we stay engaged with these issues without feeling overwhelmed? (Explore various sources of reporting on the issue to learn different perspectives, talk about the issue with others, and find a way to Take Action!)
  • What contribution, both positive and negative, do outside governments, organizations, and individuals make to this disaster?
  • What are the short term needs of the victims of disaster? How and why do these needs change over time? What are the longer term needs?
  • What is relief verses rehabilitation?
  • Imagine yourself in place of the local people, aid organizations or the government. What kind of support would you want? What kind wouldn’t you want? How would this address the impacts of the disaster? Activity: Break up students into groups which represent some of the major stakeholders in disaster response. Ask them to present on their needs and priorities.
  • What are some ways disasters like these can be prevented/reduced/minimized?
  • What kind of response would reduce vulnerability? Increase resilience (E.g. a grain storage facility to be used in times of drought)? Improve preparedness?
Activities/Lesson Plans:

Getting Involved: How to Take Action

There are many ways to show your support for people affected by a disaster. It is important to remember that not all forms of support may be helpful. For example, following the earthquake in Haiti, people were sending boxes of supplies to the country, labelled “To the People of Haiti”, without consideration of who would receive and distribute these goods and whether or not these were necessarily needed. Other important needs of affected communities, such as providing education to various groups of people or developing adequate healthcare responders, require financial assistance. It may be best to fundraise for an organization that is working in the country, where responders can work with local people to assess the most critical needs.

Key Questions:
  • What are some potentially negative side-effects or challenges that could result from different forms of “trying to help” (volunteering, sending clothes and supplies, etc.)?
  • How do you ensure that your form of support will have a positive impact? (E.g. are you working with local people or organizations familiar with the area? Have they expressed a need for this form of help? What measures can you take to ensure accountability? Will anyone be responsible for monitoring or evaluating the outcomes of the project?)
  • How do you know what form of support is the best? (For more information check out:
Activities/Lesson Plans:

Connecting this Disaster to Areas of Inquiry
  • How did media portray this disaster? What factors made this disaster ‘news worthy’ verses other ‘silent disasters’? Did the media perpetuate the disaster? What may have impacted the reporting of this disaster (e.g. political affiliations, freedom of speech, etc.)? Include discussion of varying points of view, sensationalism and unverified quotations. Refer to:
  • Does this disaster relate directly to consumerism (e.g. the collapse of sweat shops in Bangladesh)? Is it indirectly related? E.g. do the causes of the disaster relate to natural resources (e.g. oil)? Does the disaster affect the market or trade of key resources and goods (e.g. tourism, agriculture, trade embargos, etc.)? Could consumer behaviour change the occurrence or impact of this disaster?
  • What environmental factors contributed to this disaster? What environmental factors were affected by this disaster? Is there any way to control environmental impacts or effects? How are environmental factors related to social or economic issues in the country?
  • How was this disaster influenced by poverty, wealth and power? Who did the disaster impact most/least? How does inequality affect the impact of disasters? Who has the power to provide disaster response and disaster prevention?
  • Who are the Indigenous groups in the region of the disaster? What is the history of relations with the Indigenous People and other groups in the country? Were they affected differently than other groups? Why might they be more affected or less able to recover from this disaster than others? How did they respond to the disaster?
  • How did peace and conflict influence the impacts of this disaster? Why are countries in conflict more likely to be worse affected by disasters? Did historic conflict in the region influence this country’s ability for preparedness or effective response? What sort of conflict did this disaster create? Why do disasters tend to create conflicts?
  • How has past or present oppression and/or genocide influenced this disaster? Who are the oppressed groups in the region? Were they affected differently than others? Why? What forms of oppression are evident in disaster response? Did this disaster create oppression? How does aid sometimes create oppression? How can disaster response address issues of oppression?
  • How are health and biotechnology related to this disaster? What are some of the health concerns following this disaster and how are they being addressed? Are problems related to health being prevented, treated for cure, or cared for (to provide comfort)? Is this country able to adequately respond to health care needs? How do health care needs change over time as a result of the disaster? How do other conditions in the country influence people’s health and the efficiency and effectiveness of recovery from the disaster?
  • Are gender politics an issue in this region? Have they influenced the disaster response? How are men and women affected differently in disasters? What different needs might they have in disaster response?
  • How does this disaster relate to social justice and human rights? Why are some countries affected much worse than others with similar disasters? How do human rights relate to disaster response? Must they be compromised in times of emergency? If people in this country had better living conditions and fulfillment of all human rights, would they have been affected differently? What is the responsibility of outside people, organizations and governments in supporting those affected by disasters? Do some countries or groups of people deserve more support than others? Are all forms of support helpful?

– Each disaster is unique. It is useful to compare the causes, effects and responses of different disasters, but equally important to remind students that the contributing factors and their consequences (including the pain and suffering felt by those impacted) is unique to each disaster.

– Be sensitive to your students. Remember that certain topics of discussion and images may be difficult and upsetting for them.

– What is right is often subjective. Rather than telling students what you believe should be done, try to provoke critical thinking through asking them important questions and encouraging debate.

This resource was largely sourced from Oxfam UK “Dealing with Disasters”. Please visit their website for further explanation and ideas:

Other Resources for Teaching about Disasters:
Lesson Plans/Activities:



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