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The Great San Francisco Earthquake
Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Deep fissures in the cobblestone street near the waterfront The film The Great San Francisco Earthquake and this companion Web site offer insights into topics in American history including eyewitness accounts, California's settlement and growth, the Chinese American experience, racism and hostility in California toward Asian immigrants, government responses to natural disasters, urban rebuilding and the politics of reconstruction, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, civics, geography and society. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


History | Civics | Geography | Society

  1. Eyewitness to disaster.
    Read eyewitness accounts of the earthquake and its aftermath from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco and the Exploratorium. Now view each of this site's photos of the earthquake and select one photograph that you find especially interesting.

    Imagine that you are a newspaper reporter sent to cover the earthquake. Write a 500-word story describing what you have seen, and include an explanation of the photo you have chosen, which will appear next to your story. Feel free to invent names and experiences for the people shown in your photo, using information from the eyewitness accounts you have read. Compare your story with your classmates'.

  2. Comparisons with Katrina.
    Take the online quiz on the San Francisco earthquake. Then create a similar ten-question quiz on Hurricane Katrina. (Try not to make your questions too hard or too easy.) After the teacher reviews all of the Katrina quizzes and creates a new quiz containing the ten best questions, have each student take the new Katrina quiz. Tally your results, and give yourself two extra points if the teacher chose any of your questions for the final quiz. Who won?

    Based on this activity, what similarities do you see between the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina? What differences are there? List five of each on the board.


History | Civics | Geography | Society

  1. Government's role when disaster strikes.
    While private citizens played a large role in rebuilding San Francisco, so too did the government. Learn more about the challenges and accomplishments of the rebuilding process by reading a letter from a powerful railroad representative to San Francisco's mayor dictating the city's rebuilding policies, a look at San Francisco one year after the disaster, and other documents from the period dealing with relief and recovery.

    Next, find out about what the federal government has done in response to Hurricane Katrina by reading this document from the Department of Homeland Security. (You might also want to read the Executive Summary of this report from Congress on the shortcomings in the initial response to Katrina (in PDF format).)

    Now, on the basis of what you have read, what do you think is government's proper role when a disaster strikes? For example, should government:

    • provide food, shelter, medical care, and other necessities to everyone affected by the disaster (and if so, for how long)?
    • transport people to other areas of the country if their former homes have been destroyed and they want to build a new life elsewhere, and pay the cost of getting them settled there?
    • pay for part or all of the reconstruction of private homes and businesses destroyed by the disaster?
    • rebuild all of the public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) destroyed by the disaster?
    • do whatever is necessary to ensure that the communities destroyed by the disaster are fully rebuilt?

    Present your opinions in the form of a two-column chart that lists the things you think government should do in one column, and the things you think government does not need to do in the other column.

  2. Excluding the Chinese.
    As the film notes, San Francisco's thousands of Chinese American residents faced widespread prejudice. This prejudice continued after San Francisco's destruction, as you can see by reading some examples of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian publications, a newspaper article on efforts to move Chinatown out of the center of San Francisco permanently, and a letter referring to the city's policy of barring Chinese from helping rebuild San Francisco.

    Working in small groups, explore a topic related to prejudice against Chinese immigrants, such as:

    • What role did the building of the transcontinental railroad play in encouraging both Chinese immigration and anti-Chinese prejudice?
    • What arguments for and against discriminating against the Chinese were made by people like Denis Kearney and Mark Twain?
    • Why did Congress pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and how did it affect U.S. policy toward Chinese immigration?
    • How was the immigration center at Angel Island used to enforce laws against Chinese immigration, and how did it differ from its counterpart on the East Coast, Ellis Island?
    • How and why did the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 bring dramatic -- and dramatically different -- changes in the legal treatment of Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans?

    Present your findings to the class in the form of an oral report. In your report, be sure to include primary sources such as writings or illustrations from the period.


History | Civics | Geography | Society

  1. Earthquakes around the world.
    Read about the San Francisco earthquake at a Web page set up by the U.S. Geological Service. Now, find out how San Francisco ranks among the world's largest earthquakes as listed on this USGS table. Using the information in the table, create a world map showing the location of the world's largest earthquakes by assigning a different earthquake from the table to each student and having him or her mark its location on the map.

    Review the map as a class. Which areas are especially at risk of large earthquakes? Which areas appear to be safe from them?

  2. How did the earthquake happen?
    Imagine that it is shortly after the San Francisco earthquake, and your class is a group of scientists who have been asked to explain to schoolchildren in the area why and how the earthquake happened. First, use this interactive feature from the Guardian Unlimited to learn about the science behind earthquakes. Then, using what you have learned, create a series of simple graphics to explain the relevant points from the feature for children; each graphic should include a few sentences of text to explain what the graphic shows. When you are done, assemble the graphics and try out your presentation on your younger brothers or sisters (or other family members or friends).


History | Civics | Geography | Society

  1. Disasters on the movie screen.
    Natural disasters like the San Francisco earthquake kill many people and ruin the lives of many others. So why have millions of people watched films about fictional natural disasters as a form of entertainment?

    With a partner, watch a video of a disaster movie. (The many possibilities include "Armageddon," "The Core," "The Day After Tomorrow," "The Poseidon Adventure," "Titanic," "The Towering Inferno," and "Twister.") As you watch, consider these questions: (a) What is the disaster shown in the movie? (b) What caused the disaster: was it entirely "natural," or did humans have some role? (c) How do the people in the movie react to the disaster: are they brave or cowardly, compassionate or selfish, wise or foolish? (d) How does the disaster end, and is the ending happy, sad, or something different? (e) Did you enjoy the movie? Why or why not?

    Write up your answers to these questions on a single sheet of paper (don't forget to put the movie title at the top) and distribute copies to the rest of the class. Compare the groups' findings and see if you can find any patterns in the movies you watched. Finally, consider what these results might tell you about why so many people enjoy disaster movies.

  2. The coming "big one"?
    Scientists fear that northern California may experience another major earthquake in the future. Given the enormous increase in the area's population over the past century, such a disaster could prove even more terrible than the 1906 earthquake and fire. To find out more about this danger and what can be done to prepare for it, read this fact sheet from the U.S. Geological Survey and this magazine article prepared by USGS. (You also may wish to read a more technical document from USGS.)

    Would this information make you less likely to consider making San Francisco your home? Divide the class into groups of two students each. Imagine that one member of each group is already living and working in San Francisco, and the other person (a spouse, sibling, or close friend of the first person) is trying to decide whether to move there as well. Conduct a "conversation" by email in which you discuss the risks of another earthquake as discussed in the readings above, as well as San Francisco's rich history and many attractions.

    Have the groups print their email exchanges and read them for the class.

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The Great San Francisco Earthquake American Experience

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