My best lesson - Turn to a bake-off to teach the Earth's crust

6th December 2013 at 00:00

I really enjoy teaching the topic of volcanoes and looking at the effects of eruptions, although bringing home to my class the enormity of the natural forces unleashed is quite a challenge when we're sitting in a tranquil London classroom.

We begin by identifying types of "natural disaster" and defining their common characteristics. When showing the students YouTube clips of events on the continental plate boundaries, I draw attention to the heavy metal music often used to accompany such footage. As well as suggesting their own soundtracks for such scenes, I get the students to describe the music. Many of the words they volunteer - "chaotic", "destructive" and so on - enrich their vocabularies ahead of written work on the topic.

Next, I get the class to tackle fairly standard reinforcing tasks such as drawing and labelling a diagram of the Earth's strata, or completing a jigsaw, fitting the plate boundaries together to show where earthquakes and volcanoes occur.

The basics consolidated, it is time to contemplate the movie version of an eruption, as represented in Dante's Peak. With some judiciously chosen clips, it is possible to convey the work of volcanologists and the equipment they rely on - and, thanks to the film's CGI, the awesome powers unleashed by an eruption. It is all very Hollywood, of course: good people survive; the sceptics and cynics are roasted or crushed. And there are more than a few absurd moments, such as a car outrunning a pyroclastic surge and driving through lava flows. But the students enjoy it and addressing the inaccuracies helps to teach some quite subtle points.

This year, in the spirit of the BBC's The Great British Bake Off, we cheekily suggested an optional homework task, inviting students to create an "Earth cake", layered to reflect the geological structures of the planet. About 20 students took up the challenge with spectacular results, especially from the group that produced accompanying cupcakes depicting natural disasters, including a scene out of Dante's Peak of a woman disappearing down a fissure. Fantastic - and delicious.

Simon Glendinning teaches geography at Sydenham School in south-east London.

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