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Desert DwellersDesert-Dwellers

  • Subject:
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Deserts occur where evaporation greatly exceeds the rainfall.
2. More than one-third of Earth is already classified as arid or semiarid desert.
3. There is a general trend toward desertification.
4. Measures can be taken to combat desertification and promote rehabilitation of land that has already become desert.


For this lesson, you will need:
Computer with Internet access
Books and articles concerning deserts and desertification of existing grasslands and other ecosystems
World maps showing deserts and drylands
Blank world maps


1. Share the following background information with your students:
  • Deserts occur where evaporation greatly exceeds the rainfall
  • More than one-third of Earth is already classified as arid or semiarid, meaning that rain can be extremely infrequent in those locations.
  • Furthermore, there is a disturbing trend toward desertification, in which existing grasslands and other ecosystems change into dry wastelands.
2. Tell students that they are going to research deserts and desertification to find out if they think the trend toward desertification can be avoided or controlled.
3. Divide the class into small groups. Invite groups to use the materials you have provided to chart on blank world maps areas of the world that are currently prone to desertification.
4. Have each group member choose an area the group has identified and research and evaluate possible causes for desertification, such as degradation of natural resources, global climate changes, effects of economic development, and other possible factors.
5. Have groups reconvene, and challenge students to create model action plans that could combat desertification or promote rehabilitation in an at-risk area they choose. Before the groups begin their plans, remind students that because ecological processes such as desertification override boundaries between nations, a high degree of international cooperation is necessary to combat the problem.

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Instead of asking them to come up with their own plans for combating desertification or promoting rehabilitation, have students do research to find out about areas in which such action has already been taken.

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Discussion Questions

1. Given its meteorological and geographical extremes, discuss what it would be like to live year-round in a great desert. What changes would you have to make to your lifestyle? What new practices might you need to adopt? What new resources might you need?
2. Discuss possible reasons why today's Bedouins, with their camels, struggle to preserve their nomadic lifestyle in the desert, coping with desolation and isolation, gale-force winds, sand storms, and only occasional rainfall, rather than living a more modern existence, complete with all of the creature comforts that modern society has made available.
3. Bedouin and camel are mutually dependent upon each other. Compare this relationship with examples from other cultures in which an animal plays a pivotal role in the lifestyle of the people.
4. Why have species of prehistoric origin such as tiny crustaceans been able to survive in desert water pools? Why don't we find such creatures in other regions or habitats?
5. Typically, it is assumed that the changes that accompany progress are desirable. Has that been true of the changes that have occurred in the desert? What criteria would you use to determine if the changes that a region experiences are beneficial or not?
6. In the United States, we hear a lot of publicity about endangered animal species around the world. We seldom see or hear any publicity about endangered cultures, however. Why do you suppose this is true? Should international efforts be made to help the Bedouins preserve their ancient lifestyle, or should they be left alone to succumb to progress? If you believe the Bedouin culture is worth preserving, how would you convince the international community to agree with you?

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You can evaluate your students on their assignments using the following three-point rubric:
  • Three points: areas prone to desertification accurately identified on blank world map; causes of desertification clearly explained; model action plans well thought out, creative, and realistic
  • Two points: some areas prone to desertification accurately identified on blank world map; causes of desertification fairly well explained; model action plans realistic
  • One point: few areas prone to desertification identified on blank world map; some areas inaccurately identified; causes of desertification incompletely explained; model actions plans not well thought out
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining how many areas should be identified, what constitutes a clear explanation, and what are the criteria for an acceptable action plan.

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Desert Journal
The seasons and the meteorological and geographical changes that accompany them have some degree of impact on most people. For the Bedouins living in the Rub' al-Khali desert region, however, this impact is extreme. To help students begin to understand this, have each one imagine that he or she is a young, contemporary Bedouin living in the desert. Ask them to write a pair of imaginary journal entries, one describing a typical summer day in Arabia, one describing a typical winter day. Students will need time to research facts about Bedouin life and about the weather and geography of the Arabian Desert region.

Venus, Mars, and Arabia
Divide your students into two debate teams and assign a small group of students to serve as debate moderators. One team should argue in favor of the Bedouins' patriarchal tribal system, the other against it. In preparation for the debate, however, each student should assume the persona of a Bedouin woman or man so that he or she can debate from a more realistic point of view. In order to get into their roles successfully, students will need time to research facts about the Bedouin way of life, the roles of the genders in the culture, the laws and traditions that govern the tribal system, and the challenges that Bedouins are currently facing. Ask students to consider whether such a system would flourish or flounder in another part of the world; that is, how does the geography of this desert region influence the cultural mores of the people? Will their system be able to survive as their landscape is slowly developed and covered with roads and buildings? Will their system be able to survive a transfer to an entirely different form of existence—say, in an Arabian city?

Let Me Count the Ways
Your students will be amazed to learn that there are 160 different words for "camel" in Arabic. Ask them to think about why this might be so; then challenge them to find parallels in the English language (and any other languages that your students may speak fluently). As a whole class, or in small groups, ask students to consider first whether any single animal has nearly as many English synonyms as "camel" does in Arabic. Let them brainstorm as many words as they can on their own before they look to dictionaries and thesauri for assistance. When they are finished, lead a discussion about their lists. What do their findings tell us about English-speaking cultures? Finally, ask your students to investigate beyond the subject of animals by identifying words for which English does have dozens of synonyms. (Hint: "Money" is a good place to start!) As students generate their lists, they will learn much about the values and priorities of their own culture. To present what they have learned, give students time to make illustrated posters of their word lists.

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Suggested Readings

Saudi Arabia
Hunt Janin. Benchmark Books, 1995.
This detailed book is a basic introduction to the people and culture of this desert nation.

Deserts: Miracle of Life
Jim Flegg. Replica Books, 1999.
This cutting-edge book presents a thorough view into the desert biome, considering the ecology of the world's major deserts as well as the people who call the desert home.

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Desert Life
An excellent resource with a broad range of information on desert geography, desert habitats, plant and animal life.

Includes desert habitat information and links to desert animals.

NOVA: Arabian Desert
Information about the Arabian Desert with connections to teacher activities and desert-related links.

ArabNet--Saudi Arabia
An extensive web site with information about Saudi Arabia, links to other Arab countries, and a search feature that will enable the user to access content about the "Bedouin" desert people.

Photos from Oman
Photographs from Oman in the Middle East.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    aquifer
Definition: A water-bearing stratum of permeable rock, sand, or gravel.
Context: Because the entire Arabian landmass tilts downward, rainwater is trapped underground in massive aquifers.

speaker    Bedouin
Definition: A nomadic Arab of the Arabian, Syrian, or North African deserts.
Context: Over the centuries, the Bedouins and the camel have formed a vital partnership.

speaker    crustacean
Definition: Any of a large class of mostly aquatic mandibulate arthropods that have an exoskeleton, a pair of often much modified appendages on each segment, and two pairs of antennae and that include the lobsters, shrimps, crabs, wood lice, water fleas, and barnacles.
Context: Tiny desert water pools have been home to ancient crustaceans for millions of years.

speaker    irrigation
Definition: To supply with water by artificial means.
Context: Large areas of central Arabia have been transformed by irrigation.

speaker    nomad
Definition: A member of a people who have no fixed residence but move from place to place usually seasonally and within a well-defined territory.
Context: In winter, the nomads—both Bedouin and camel—begin their wandering through the desert.

speaker    reservoir
Definition: An artificial lake where water is collected and kept in quantity for use.
Context: The Bedouins look for underground reservoirs of ancient water.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8, 9-12
Subject area: science
Knows about the diversity and unity that characterize life.
(6-8): Knows that animals and plants have a great variety of body plans and internal structures that serve specific functions for survival (e.g., digestive structures in vertebrates, invertebrates, unicellular organisms, and plants).

(9-12): Knows how variation of organisms within a species increases the chance of survival of the species, and how the great diversity of species on Earth increases the chance of survival of life in the event of major global changes.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: world history
Understands long-term changes and recurring patterns in world history.
Understands the emergence of capitalism (e.g., the origins, development, and characteristics of capitalism; capitalist systems compared with other systems for organizing production, labor, and trade).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes.
Knows ways in which both the landscape and society change as a consequence of shifting from a dispersed to a concentrated settlement form (e.g., a larger marketplace, the need for an agricultural surplus to provide for the urban population, the loss of some rural workers as people decide to move into the city, changes in the transportation system).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: geography
Understands the nature, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.
Knows how human mobility and city/region interdependence can be increased and regional integration can be facilitated by improved transportation systems (e.g., the national interstate highway system in the United States, the network of global air routes).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: geography
Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.
Knows how cultures influence the characteristics of regions (e.g., level of technological achievement, cultural traditions, social institutions).

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Wendy Buchberg, instructional technology support specialist, Corning-Painted Post Area School District, Corning, New York, and Schuyler Chemung Tioga BOCES, Elmira, New York.

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