Volcanoes: Suggested lesson plan and exercises


We have all seen spectacular pictures of volcanoes erupting, where molten rock and other materials surge up due to a rupture in the tectonic plates below the Earth’s surface through the Earth’s crust to the surface.

At the University of Liverpool, volcanologists such as Dr Janine Kavanagh study volcanic eruptions. In the below video Dr Kavanagh shows how a simple experiment can help us learn about the beahviour of magma. Look at the way the foam surges up and runs down the side. I imagine that happening on a far larger, and hotter, scale!

Optional Exercise 1:
After watching Dr Kavanagh's video, and looking at some photos or videos of an eruption, see if you and a partner can brainstorm some adverbs and adjectives that you might use to describe a volcano. They might be words which describe size, or noise, or speed, or the texture and colour of lava. Use these words to write either a sentence that might form the first sentence of a story, a rhyming couplet or, if you are feeling like a challenge, a haiku.

TIP: See if you incorporate some of the language that scientists themselves use to talk about volcanoes: e.g. viscosity, pyroclastic flows, magma. If you don’t know any of these words, ask your teacher.


The way that volcanoes have fired the imaginations of artists and writers is not just due to stories of eruption. They also change the way we think about ourselves and our civilization. For example, read this poem called “Peace” by the novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence.

Lawrence is writing about another Italian volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily. Etna is an active volcano, it still erupts!


Peace is written on the doorstep
In lava.

Peace, black peace congealed.
My heart will know no peace
Till the hill bursts.

Brilliant, intolerable lava,
Brilliant as a powerful burning-glass,
Walking like a royal snake down the mountain towards
the sea.

Forests, cities, bridges
Gone again in the bright trail of lava.
Naxos thousands of feet below the olive-roots,
And now the olive leaves thousands of feet below the lava fire.

Peace congealed in black lava on the doorstep.
Within, white-hot lava, never at peace
Till it burst forth blinding, withering the earth;
To set again into rock,
Grey-black rock.

Call it Peace?

by DH Lawrence

Do you know what a simile is? What similes does Lawrence use in his poem? Why do you think he makes these comparisons – are they effective?

One way of reading “Peace” is to see the volcano in the poem as a kind of metaphor. In his poetry and novels Lawrence was very interested in the passions and energies bubbling underneath the surface of both individual humans and society as a whole. His writing explores how these energies (like love or anger) sometimes bubble up to the surface with explosive, and sometimes violent effects, just like a volcano!

Optional Exercise Two:

Similes and metaphors work by comparing one thing to another. Using the table below, see if you can come up with some similes and metaphors of your own. In each case try to say WHY you have made this comparison. When you have three or four of these similes or metaphors, use them to write a poem or a story. These are some suggestions to get you started:


Thing you are writing aboutThing you want to compare it toWhy?
Humans  Volcanoes  Humans are like volcanoes because bubbling underneath their surfaces are strong forces that occasionally erupt.




When they erupt, volcanoes not only produce lava (the name we give magma when it hits the surface), but also super-hot mixtures of rock and gas known as pyroclastic flows. The flows can travel at over 700 kph (as fast as a plane) and reach 1000 degrees centigrade (ten times hotter than boiling water).

Pyroclastic flows were responsible for some of the most famous victims of volcanoes, those citizens of Pompeii whose bodies were frozen in the moment of death when the nearby volcano Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.

As well as the famous casts of these bodies, another reason that Pompeii has captured the imagination is that we have a first-hand description of the eruption written by a man called Pliny the Younger. He described the eruption in a letter that he wrote after fleeing the volcano.

Letter from Pliny to Tacitus (79 AD):

The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to he driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it. On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger.

ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. 'Let us leave the road while we can still see,' I said, 'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind. 'We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

Pliny wrote this nearly 2000 years ago, but Pompeii has still fired the imaginations of recent filmmakers. Can you think of any other films or books that deal with natural disasters?


In Lawrence’s poem lava is an obliterating force. It is ‘intolerable’ to humans, as it surges down the mountainside it destroys both the natural ‘forests’ and human civilization of ‘cities’ and ‘bridges’. This includes the town of Naxos which, like Pompeii, was buried in an eruption. Volcanoes often produce very fertile soil, so people often live near them. But with such power under their feet, power that might erupt to the surface in the future, would local communities always feel at peace? Can you think of any other forces that threaten human civilization either on a local or global scale?

One very old literary technique, that has existed since before Etna and Vesuvius buried Naxos and Pompeii around 2000 years ago, is called prosopopoeia, This is where a writer gives human characteristics to an inanimate object or an abstract idea (like an emotion). This technique is actually something we are very used to today. It has even been used in a video that you might well have seen about volcanoes! Likewise, the recent film Inside Out used prosopopoeia to turn different emotions (like joy, sadness and anger) into human characters. Prosopopoeia is sometimes called ‘personification’.

Optional Exercise 3:
Lawrence’s poem ends with a question. For this exercise EITHER write a short story or a poem that answers Lawrence’s question (‘Call it peace?’) in the voice of the Mt. Etna (i.e. using prosopopoeia) OR write a poem or short story about the ‘power of nature’ from the perspective of an inanimate object…whether that is a tree, a volcano, a lightning bolt, a raindrop, a wave or a tornado.

Writing Tip:
If you are going to write a poem, have a think about what rhyme and rhythm you are going to use. Will all the lines be the same length? Will there be a repeated refrain? Will you use a regular rhyme scheme such as ABAB; AABB; ABBA; ABCB or, if you want to try something really tricky such as ABA, BCB, CDC (this last one is called terza rima).