The Evil Swirling Darkness

The incredible story of a family and a storm chaser caught in a tornado

Lexile Level: 750L / Guided Reading: Q / DRA Level: 40

Download Story

Lower Level
On Level
Higher Level

Learning Objective

Students will read a nonfiction story about the deadly tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. The story will build knowledge and domain-specific vocabulary, and has a special emphasis on sequencing.

Featured Skill


Content-Area Connections

Social studies: geography
Science: weather, environment

Key Skills

Sequencing, text structures, text evidence, key details, inference, text features, domain-specific vocabulary, narrative writing, close reading


Standards Correlations

This article and lesson support the following standards:
Common Core anchor standards: R.1, R.4, R.5, R.7, W.3, SL.1, SL.2, L.4, L.6
TEKS: 3.2, 3.4, 3.13, 3.18, 3.20, 3.29, 3.30

Teaching Materials

Video Read-Aloud

In this video, your students will hear author Lauren Tarshis narrate the article as they watch gripping images and footage!

Vocabulary Slideshow

Activity Sheets

Download All
Close Reading Questions
Pause and Think
Quiz - On Level
Quiz - Higher Level
Reading Kit: Text Evidence
Reading Kit: Text Features
Reading Kit: Sequencing

Lesson plan

Print All

Watch a Video/Preview Text Features 


(25 minutes) 


•This story is accompanied by a Video Read-Aloud, in which author Lauren Tarshis narrates the article as gripping photos and footage help students visualize what’s happening. Consider showing the video as a “first read.”
• Have students open their magazines to pages 4-5 and look at the headline and subhead. Ask:  How does the subhead help you understand what the headline means?
• Point out the Pause and Think boxes, starting on page 6, which aim to check basic comprehension. Explain that these questions will help the students better understand the story. (Students will delve into higher-level work with the close-reading questions.)
• Direct students to the map on page 7. Explain that the larger area of the map is shown in the inset. Ask them if they’re familiar with the area shown.
 • Ask students to look at the photos on pages 8 and 9. Using the information in the captions, discuss how destructive the tornado was.



Introduce Academic Vocabulary
(15 minutes, activity sheet online)
• We have highlighted in bold the words having to do with weather and tornadoes and defined them at the bottom of the column in which they appear. Preview these words by projecting or distributing our vocabulary activity and completing it together as a class.
• Highlighted words: storm chaser, radar, meteorologists, forecasts, tornado shelter, rubble


Set a Purpose for Reading
(5 minutes)

•  Call on a volunteer to read the Think and Read box on page 4 for the class.

Reading and Unpacking the Text

First read: Read the story as a class. At the end of each section, use the Pause and Think questions to quickly check comprehension.
Second read: Distribute some or all of the close-reading questions and preview them together. After the class answers the questions, discuss the answers together. Then discuss the critical-thinking question.



Close-Reading Questions
(30 minutes, activity sheet online)
• In the first section, why are Ethan and Bennett excited? (key details) They are excited for Bennett’s birthday pool party at their grandparents’ house.
• According to the section “The Storm Chaser,” how do warnings from storm chasers help save lives? (inference) Storm chasers warn people that tornadoes are coming so that people can prepare or escape.
• “False Alarms?” says that most people ignored the tornado sirens. Why is that?  (inference) People ignored the tornado sirens because they had gone off many times and nothing happened.
 • What’s the first thing that happens in the section “An Awful Attack”? (sequencing) The Satterlees and their guests take shelter in their basement storage room.
• The last section is called “The Greatest Gift.” What is the gift? (key detail) The greatest gift Bennett got for his birthday is his family surviving the tornado.


Critical-Thinking Question
(10 minutes, activity sheet online)
• If tornadoes could be predicted better, what could the Satterlees have done differently that day? How would that have changed the outcome of the storm? (sequencing, cause and effect) They could have made a plan for how to stay safe. They could have made sure that they were all in the basement tornado shelter together before the storm hit. If the tornado had been predicted, people would have had more time to leave town or get to a shelter, and fewer people would have gotten injured and/or died.



• Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Think and Write box at the bottom of page 9.
• Have students work in pairs to underline details that they would include in their journal entries. Regroup as a class to discuss which ones are most important.
• Brainstorm the first event for the journal entry.
• Have students write their entries in class or as homework.

Teaching Extras

Behind-the-scenes video

To watch a behind-the-scenes video about this article from when it originally appeared in Storyworks, click here and then scroll almost halfway down the page until you see the video titled “Storyworks Behind the Scenes: The Evil Swirling Darkness.” Your students will love hearing from Lauren Tarshis about her process of researching and writing this article!

More on Joplin

Did you know that before Lauren wrote this article, she wrote a whole book about the Joplin tornado? It’s one of the most popular of her I Survived series. Check it out here!

The state of Joplin now

If your students are wondering what Joplin is like now, more than 5 years after the tornado, you can show them this video of Fire Chief Jim Furgerson giving a tour of Joplin in 2016.

Dancing tornadoes

The wife of Jeff Piotrowski, the storm chaser in the article, is also a storm chaser. Kat Piotrowski created this video of a May 2016 storm in Kansas. She set it to music to illustrate how the tornado appears to be dancing.

Types of tornadoes

This infographic breaks down the different types of tornadoes—including the waterspout, the gustnado, and the dust devil.