The Great Chicago Fire/ Wadena Area Tornado Lesson Plan (a history and literature lesson) 

The Great Chicago Fire/ Wadena Area Tornado Lesson Plan (a history and literature lesson)  

by Rita Askew, New York Mills, Elementary School.  

TAH Grant 2009-2010.

Subject/Grade level: U.S. History 1870’s-Chicago fire of 1871/Reconstruction//5th grade

Minnesota Graduation Standards: Strand-U.S. History/ Sub-strands  F and G –   Reconstruction  1850’s-1870’s, Re-shaping the Nation and the Emergence of Modern America , Students will identify and understand the reasons for the increase in immigration, growth of cities, new inventions, and political challenges to American government arising from the industrial revolution, and analyze their impact. Students will analyze how the rise of big business, the growth of industry, and the change from a rural economy to an  urban economy changed life in America. They will recognize the growth of ethnic stereo-typing ,  political  attitudes towards immigrants and how it affected the stories  about and the reasons for the Great Chicago fire.

 Time frame: 2 weeks

Overview:  I will be reading the non-fiction book The Great Fire by Jim Murphy. It is a Newbery Honor Book. It is a story about the thirty-one hours of terror, when over 100,000 people were forced to flee the consuming flames in the city of Chicago on Sunday night, October 8, 1871. Many survivors wrote about their experiences in books, newspaper and magazine articles, or letters to friends and relatives. The book lets you meet a number of survivors including, Catherine  and Patrick O’Leary, in whose barn the fire started;  James  Hildreth, an ex-alderman who decided the best way to save Chicago was by blowing  up parts of it; Julia Lemos , a widow who single- handedly  saved her five small children and her elderly parents. Finally, you will be able to follow four characters; Joseph E. Chamberlain, a twenty year old reporter for the Chicago Evening Post; Horace White, the editor and chief of the Chicago Tribune; Alexander Frear, who was visiting relatives at the time of the fire ; and Claire Innes, a twelve year old whose family had only recently moved to the city. Through the eyes of these people you will see the fire from many points of view, and feel a wide range of emotions as the hot breath of the fire draws nearer and nearer. This book will introduce the students to the Great Chicago fire.  It will be their background information as they examine primary sources dealing with this famous fire. They will also begin to understand the attitudes towards the Irish and other poorer immigrants and how socio-economic class plays a roll in the interpretation of this historical event in 1871. Through-out the lessons we will discuss the Wadena area tornado and other disasters and how they affect history and our lives.


1. YOU MUST PURCHASE THIS BOOK! THIS IS A MUST FOR THIS LESSON! The book, The Great Fire by Jim Murphy.  Order by visiting:

2. - a site that has quizzes regarding each chapter of Jim Murphy’s book

3. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – Book of postcards from the Chicago History Museum.  Order by visiting:

4. Did The Cow Do It?, A New Look at the cause of the Great Chicago Fire by Richard E. Bates.  Online resource:

5. Cartoons from the Great Chicago Fire from the following excellent sources, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory ( , an online exhibition produced by the Chicago Historical Society and Academic Technologies of Northwestern University, marking the 125th anniversary of one of the most famous events in American History as well as being the most formative event in the history of Chicago.

6. I have collected several newspapers, photographs, conversations etc. about the Wadena Area tornado plus my own first-hand recollections of the event which I will use in my lessons plans. I also researched other historical fires.

7. The students will need basic supplies like paper, note-books, colored pencils, crayons etc.

8. KWL chart -

9. Photo Analysis Worksheet -

10.  Photo Analysis Worksheet -

11.  Cartoon Analysis Worksheet -

Purpose/Objectives: Students will learn about a famous historical event which shaped the future of one of America’s most important cities, Chicago, which represented the modernization and industrialization of America and the Midwest. They will learn how history is written and how it comes about in various forms. They will learn about attitudes towards the Irish in Chicago, as well as other working class immigrant groups. They will learn something about the technology of fire- fighting equipment in 1871.They will experience the use of primary sources in studying an event in history.

Activities: Day 1, 2 -We will start our study by talking about the tornado in Wadena this summer on June 17, 2010. I will have them write on a piece of paper all the things they know about what happened and what they have seen or heard about it. We will discuss our findings in small groups and then in a large group. We will then talk about primary sources versus rumor or hearsay. We will then brainstorm how we can help Wadena. We will write letters to the fifth graders in Wadena and wish them good-luck with the school year. They can bring in any articles or items from the tornado. Homework will be reporting back to the class about a discussion they will have with their parents tonight about Wadena and their versions about what happened, what they heard, and their versions of stories they heard.  

Day 3 – Tell students that history has been littered with catastrophes that have destroyed towns.  Tell students that they will begin studying the Great Chicago Fire from a long time ago and compare and contrast it to the 2010 Wadena Tornado. Have students locate Chicago on a globe/map. 

Then have them make a folder on the Chicago Fire. It will contain pages for a book journal to be used during the reading of the book The Great Fire.  Have them create a character sheet which will be updated after each chapter.  The chart will have a place for the name, what they did, positive and negative points about their personality, and +or- influences they had during the fire.

 We will start our journals with a KWL chart (attached to lesson). I will read chapter one “A City Ready To Burn” pages 13-25. Follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 1 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.

Day 4 -We will start the lesson by looking at copies of pages 24-25 of the book, which is a map of Chicago that shows where the fire was on Saturday night (not the Great Fire – but a fire that took place prior to the Great Fire). The map shows only a small part of the actual city of Chicago, this area was the chief business and cultural center, and housed nearly one- third of its citizens. The fire-fighters were busy the night before with this fire.

Give students a copy of this map for their journal (page 24 and 25).  They will use it to detail the spread of the Great Fire.

The students will make a prediction in their journal for Chapter 2 “Everything Went Wrong!” Prior to reading Chapter 2, the students will list the things they think went wrong (they will keep this in their journals).  We will discuss it in small/large group later in class.  Read Chapter 2.

Have students start coloring in the spread of the fire in red colored pencil.  Show them map on page 41.

Follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 2 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.

Day 5 –We will start class by looking at the pictures on page 27 thru 39 (they may pick one). The students will pick a picture to analyze, using the poster or photo analysis sheet (see attached sheets). Discuss at the conclusion of the day.

Day 6- I will read Chapter #3”The Dogs of Hell Were Upon the Housetops”. Prior to reading Chapter 3, the students will make a prediction for the chapter and talk in small groups about what the title means. I will read the chapter, and the students will look at the pictures and discuss

We will look at pages 56-57 and discuss people and places close to the fire. We will color the spreading fire area purple.

Follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 3 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.

Day 7- The students will make a prediction for Chapter #4 “A Surging Ocean of Flame”. We will take turns reading it out-loud using dramatic voices and inflections. We will discuss the word hysteria.  We will keep up on our journals/character sheets. The students will look at the picture on page 66 and decide how this picture relates to hysteria and rumor and misinterpretation of facts/gossip.

The students will fill in their maps on the fire spreading in yellow colored pencil from page 78-79.

Follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 4 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.

Day 8- The students will work in groups and write down what they would have done if they had been living in Chicago in1871 during the great fire. They will share these ideas with the class. I will introduce Chapter # 5 “Chicago Is in Flames” by asking them to remember where Claire was at the end of the last chapter, trapped in an alley. I will have them write what they would do in a short paragraph. I will then read the chapter and we will see what happens.

The students will fill in their maps on the fire spreading in pink colored pencil from page 98-99.

The students will get a copy of page 86, with all the headlines. They will pick one and make their own poster for tomorrow.

If time permits, follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 5 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.

Day 9- In chapter #6 the fire was dwindling and it is called “The Ghost of Chicago”. I will show them before and after pictures from the Chicago Historical Society ( They have excellent sources and I will also use postcard pictures from our trip to Chicago. The students will each describe the picture they received and get up and tell some information about it. I will then read the chapter to them.

They will fill in their character charts. They will look at the map on pages 122-123 and make sure they have everything colored in correctly.

If time permits, follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 6 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.



Day 10- The students will discuss as a class what they think caused the fire to start and keep spreading. I will read Chapter #7 “Myth and Reality” We will discuss the pages and pictures together.

Home work will be a one page essay on what they learned from this event in history and this book.

If time permits, follow-up that day with a small quiz/worksheet on chapter 7 which can be found at: .  Use the printable version.

Assessment/Individual differences

1.  The students can chose a project from the following options; Make a poster representing something they learned from the fire/ like some of the old time posters we looked at from this time in history

2. They can make a fire poster for Fire Prevention Month using the historical Chicago fire as their theme

3. They can pick a person from the book and write a letter to a relative telling about their experience

4. They can do an oral presentation/speech about the fire

5. They can act out a scene from the fire

6. They can write a journal entry covering the fire before and after

7. They can make a timeline of the events in the book, they can research some of the people or subjects related to Chicago and the fire in 1871,or they can come up with their own project approved by me

8. They can find a disaster from history and writing a paragraph about it. I will give them some ideas. The San Francisco Earthquake, Katrina, floods in recent years etc.



Questions? Contact Project Director Audrey Shafer-Erickson

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