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Connected Experience: Memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake


In order to construct a class book of historical narratives, students will be introduced to oral history, and then interview adults to learn how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake affected citizens of the Bay Area.


In order to construct a class book of historical narratives, students will:

  1. be introduced to oral history as a way of gathering information about a specific person, time, place, or event.
  2. interview adults before and during their visit to the Academy’s Earthquake exhibit.
  3. learn how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake affected citizens of the Bay Area.
  4. compare and contrast events as told from several perspectives.


  • map of the San Andreas Fault system (one per student group)
  • clipboards and pencils (one set per student group)
  • Oral History Interview Tips (one per student group)
  • Oral History Interview Record (several sheets per student group)
  • art supplies (optional, but encouraged)
  • paper or cardstock for creating a class books of narratives


  • earthquake: a sudden rapid shaking of the ground caused by a rapid release of energy
  • fault:  a break or fracture in a rock mass across which movement has occurred
  • focus (hypocenter): the point of origin of an earthquake
  • epicenter: the point on Earth’s surface that is vertically above the focus of an earthquake
  • San Andreas Fault: a transform fault that runs roughly 810 miles (1300 km) through most of California
  • oral history: the memories or recollections of living people about events or social conditions which they experienced in their earlier lives, which is taped and preserved as historical evidence



Before the Visit


  1. Consider informing parents through a take-home letter that you are planning to do an oral history project and hope to involve them in their students’ work.
  2. Select at least two first-person narratives of the 1906 earthquake. Many great stories are available at http://www.sfmuseum.org/1906/ew.html


  1. Inform the class that they will be learning about large-scale earthquakes that occurred in California’s history through the memories of older generations. Explain that personal histories are primary sources of information and that they are useful for gathering information about the past.
  2. As a sample, read two of your favorite first-person narratives from the 1906 earthquake. Encourage students to close their eyes and listen closely to those details that help historians understand the event, and those that help individuals remember the event so personally. (For older students, consider assigning this as pre-lesson homework or silent reading in class.) 


  1. Compare and contrast the first-person narratives. Why do personal accounts differ from each other? (people experienced different parts of the event, remembered details that affected them most, or were influenced by hearing the stories of another person) Are people able to better remember details from recent events, or those from the deep past?
  2. If the work of an historian is to gather information from many places, including primary sources, to create an official written account, how do they decide what is fact, and what is fiction? (by looking for consistency between accounts, by taking into account the age of the speaker at the time, by looking for personal bias)
  3. Locate the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake on a map.
  4. Briefly explain what occurred during this earthquake (see Teacher Background).
  5. Poll the class to learn how many of the students’ families lived in the greater Bay Area in 1989. Has anyone heard stories about the quake from friends and family?
  6. Divide the students into small working groups. Pass out one copy of the Interview Tips to each group, and one copy of the Interview Record to each student.
  7. Have students brainstorm in their groups to develop a list of questions they would like to ask adults (e.g., parents, grandparents, family friends, school faculty, community members, docents at the Academy) about their experience in the 1989 earthquake.
  8. Distribute several blank copies of the Interview Record to each student.


Assign the following for homework:

  1. Each student should interview at least one adult who experienced the quake of ’89, completing the Oral History Interview Record, being sure to summarize the main themes and stories discussed.
  2. Students can copy their selected questions onto each blank Interview Record in preparation for their field trip.

At the Academy


  1. Prepare clipboards with the students’ Interview Records and a pencil. It will be easiest to assign students to work in groups to ensure that everyone can find at least one adult to interview.


  1. Tell students to be on the lookout for Earthquake buttons on Academy staff.  The buttons serve as beacons for potential interview subjects. The goal is to interview at least one person.
    • Docents wearing orange lab coats are found on Level 1 and in the basement Aquarium.
    • Staff in the Level 3 Naturalist Center (open 11am-4pm) may also be available to speak with your students about their memories.
  2. Instruct small chaperone-led groups to explore the Earthquake exhibit. Be sure to visit the Shake House to experience what the shaking at the magnitudes of both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes feels like!

Back in the Classroom


  1. As a class, compare and contrast all collected narratives. Record key findings on the board.
  2. Look through the summarized findings to determine what, if any thing, might be considered fact, and what might be opinion, feeling, or fiction.
  3. Discuss how personal oral histories such as these might contribute to the historical record. What events might the students in the class witness today, that are worthy of an interview in the future?
  4. Have each student write a narrative based on information from one of the interview records (illustrations are optional, but encouraged).
    • Remind students to produce as accurate an account as possible based on the information that they can best verify to be true, thinking about speaker consistency, bias, or ability to remember details.
    • Details that did not come up during the interview should not be added.


Consider presenting the stories to other classrooms or posting them in the school hallway before compiling the narratives into a class book!



California Content Standards

Grade Three

History-Social Sciences 

  • 3.3.3 Trace why their community was established, how individuals and families contributed to its founding and development, and how the community has changed over time, drawing on maps, photographs, oral histories, letters, newspapers, and other primary sources. 

English Language Arts: Writing 

  • 2.1 Write narratives.
  • 2.2 Write descriptions that use concrete sensory details to present and support unified impressions of people, places, things, or experiences.

English Language Arts: Listening and Speaking

  • 1.2   Connect and relate prior experiences, insights, and ideas to those of a speaker.
  • 1.11 Distinguish between the speaker’s opinions and verifiable facts. 

Grade Four 

English Language Arts: Writing 

  • 2.1 Write narratives. 

English Language Arts: Listening and Speaking 

  • 1.1 Ask thoughtful questions and respond to relevant questions with appropriate elaboration in oral settings.
  • 1.2 Summarize major ideas and supporting evidence presented in spoken messages and formal presentations. 

Grade Five

English Language Arts: Writing 

  • 2.1 Write narratives. 

English Language Arts: Listening and Speaking 

  • 1.1 Ask questions that seek information not already discussed. 

Grade Six

English Language Arts: Writing 

  • 2.1 Write narratives. 

Grade Seven

English Language Arts: Listening and Speaking 

  • 1.1 Ask probing questions to elicit information, including evidence to support the speaker’s claims and conclusions. 

Grade Eight

English Language Arts: Writing 

  • 2.1 Write biographies, autobiographies, short stories. 



San Andreas Fault System: There are many active faults in California that are capable of creating earthquakes. One is our local San Andreas Fault, which is part of the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The San Andreas Fault system includes a number of roughly parallel active faults, including the Hayward and Calaveras, parts of which are creeping slowly and constantly. The San Andreas system was the source of damaging earthquakes in the Bay Area in 1838, 1865, 1906, 1957, and 1989. Today, an earthquake on either the Hayward or the Calaveras Faults could have a major impact on the Bay Area, since more than a million people live on or near them.

1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake: On October 17, 1989, an earthquake occurred at 5:04 pm, with its focus beneath Loma Prieta Peak, about 9 miles (14 km) northeast of Santa Cruz and 60 miles (96 km) south of San Francisco. It had a 6.9 magnitude and lasted for about 15 seconds. The San Andreas Fault was the source of this earthquake. There was up to 7 feet (2 meters) of relative motion between the North American and Pacific crustal plates, at an initial depth of 11 miles (18 km), for a distance of about 22 miles (35 km) along the fault. There was no surface rupture. Most of the damage occurred in areas underlain by soft and saturated earth materials.

Residents of the Bay Area are bound to have both collective and individual memories of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Sixty-three people lost their lives as a result of this event, and over 13,000 people were injured. The SF Giants were in the World Series that year – in fact, the earthquake occurred as the Giants and Oakland A’s were warming up to play the third game of the series Because of the sports coverage, this was the first major earthquake in the US to be shown on national television.

Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: It struck on Wednesday, April 18th at 5:12 am, with the offshore epicenter about 3 km (2 mi) southwest of the city ruptured 477 km (296 mi) along the San Andreas Fault. Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles and inland to central Nevada. It is estimated at a magnitude of 7.9, but values up to 8.25 have been proposed. The quake and resulting fire were one of the worst natural disasters in California. The death toll is estimated at over 3,000 people. About 200,000 people were homeless, and thousands camped at city parks in tents supplied by the Army.


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