Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
Oh, California

Understanding Primary Sources:
Photographs of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Objective: Students study photographs taken after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to help them write news reports about the event.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
4-5 hours over 3-4 days

Building Background:
Ask students what they know about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Discuss their answers, leading the class to understand that the quake itself only lasted minutes, but set off destructive fires that lasted for three days. Ask students to describe what they imagine the city looked like after the earthquake and fire. Discuss their answers, and when they have expressed as much as they can, tell them they will study photographs taken after the disaster.

What To Do:

1. Send students to the library to find photographs of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. One possible source is The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned: A Photographic Record of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire by William Bronson. If you have Internet access, students can explore these sites for information:

2. Have each student choose one photograph to study. Distribute the Examining a Photograph worksheet to each student and instruct them to fill it out as they study the photograph they chose.

3. Have students write a newspaper report based on the photograph they chose, as though they are reporters living in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake. Students should use the details in their photographs to report on the damage from the earthquake. Tell them to use the information from their worksheet to help supply details.

4. When finished, have students set their newspaper reports aside. Have students research descriptions of the earthquake and fire by those who lived through them, or actual newspaper accounts of the disaster. One possible source is: If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake by Ellen Levine. You can also suggest that students read the eyewitness accounts at the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Great Earthquake Internet site.

5. When students have finished their research, have them take out their newspaper reports. Give them time to make changes or add details based on their research. Then have students compile their reports into a special newspaper edition focusing on the disaster.

Ask students to share the changes they made in their stories after learning more about the earthquake and fire. What details or facts did they add or change? Why? Discuss.


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