Resources Details

All in the Clouds

This is an activity on cloud classification and weather prediction that teaches students to observe natural phenomena in local skies. Students work individually and in groups to record daily outdoor observations, drawing cloud formations and testing whether cloud shapes help predict local weather conditions. Students also write journal entries and compile charts and graphs to illustrate their observations. A narrative about Blackfeet use of clouds to forecast incoming wind conditions shows students an early use of weather prediction.

Key Concepts

Atmospheric Science, Cloud Shapes, Classifying Clouds


Multicultural Classroom Activities  View All »


2 - 50 min. class periods, 2 weeks data collection




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Earth Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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More Info for this Extended Lesson Plan


In today's society, weather predictions and forecasting are as common as the evening news. Long ago, finding weather predictions was not as easy as turning on the radio or television. A simple way used by the Blackfeet Indians was studying the shape of clouds in the local sky. The Blackfeet lived along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains in present-day Montana and southern Canada. Weather in this area, called the Rocky Mountain Front, could change often and quickly. Winds are common here, from gentle summer breezes to near-hurricane-force winds. One natural occurrence, which the Blackfeet called "wind clouds," forecast strong heavy winds.

These clouds collect in the sky on the eastern side of the mountain range, characterized by soft, smooth edges on the eastern side of the clouds and sharp edges on the western side. These cloud formations told the Blackfeet that a strong, gusty wind would soon be rushing through their country. Other cloud formations were signs of incoming snow storms or other types of weather conditions. The Blackfeet tell stories about one type of cloud called "mofo" clouds (lenticular clouds).

One such story tells of how Starman met and married one of Mother Earth's daughters and gave the ancient pipe bundle to his new wife's people.

Meteorologists are scientists who study weather changes and try to predict future weather conditions. They gather and interpret information from a variety of sources, including local weather observers, instruments carried by balloons, satellites, and weather stations around the world. They use computers, maps, and charts to analyze the data and to prepare weather forecasts. Radar helps meteorologists follow the path of a storm system by detecting areas of rain or snow, as well as the presence and thickness of clouds.

Meteorologists classify clouds into three main types based on characteristic shapes: cumulus, stratus, and cirrus. Clouds also are classified by their altitude, or height above the earth's surface (Figure 1). Each type of cloud is associated with a different type of weather. The word cumulus means "heap" or "mass." Cumulus clouds form less than 2 kilometers above the ground, but may grow in size and height until they extend upward as much as 18 kilometers. Cumulus clouds usually indicate fair weather. Towering clouds with flat tops, called cumulonimbus clouds, often produce thunderstorms. The suffix "nimbus" comes from a Latin word meaning "rain." Clouds that form in flat layers are called stratus clouds -- "strato" means "spread out." Stratus clouds usually cover all or most of the sky. As stratus clouds thicken, they may produce drizzle, rain, or snow. They are then called nimbostratus clouds. Wispy, feathery clouds are called cirrus clouds. Cirrus clouds form only at high levels, above about 6 kilometers, where temperatures are very low. As a result, cirrus clouds are mostly made of ice crystals.

Figure 1 -- Ten Most Common Cloud Types (1 km = 1,000 M)


The purpose of this multi-week activity is to teach students about basic cloud classification based on shape and altitude, as well as introductory concepts of weather prediction. Students observe and record daily cloud and weather conditions, marking the changes over time. They learn that Native Americans paid close attention to clouds in order to predict incoming weather systems.


Edith Horn Wagner
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

I have been teaching for 12 years, two of which were in Frazer, MT. I currently teach 6th grade math and science for the Browning Public Schools. I am married and have 3 children.


  • Ksaah-Koom-ahpi - Blackfeet word for Mother Earth
  • Cumulus - heap or mass type clouds
  • Stratus - spreadout clouds
  • Cirrus - whispy feathery clouds
  • Nimbus - Rain clouds
  • New vocab term.

Learner Outcomes

  • Recognize different types of cloud formations.
  • Understand features of weather forecasting, including the presence of specific cloud formations.
  • Record daily changes in local cloud formations and weather conditions.
  • Appreciate that native cultures recognized the importance of cloud types in predicting local weather.
  • New outcome for clouds.

Content Standards

  • Science as Inquiry Content Standard A: Abilities to do scientific inquiry
  • Earth and Space Science D: Objects in the sky
  • Earth and Space Science D: Changes in the earth and sky
  • New Content Standard.


Lesson Procedures

  • Gather together for a large group discussion. Talk about clouds. Let children tell stories about the clouds they have seen. Discuss the connection between the appearance of clouds and the types of weather that we see. Show the newspaper with the weather forecast. Discuss how weathermen forecast the weather.
  • List on the board everything students know about clouds. Discuss what they would like to learn about clouds.
  • Have each student select two things that he/she would like to learn about clouds and write these on the first page of her/his science journal.
  • Show the class pictures of the ten types of clouds listed in Figure 1. Discuss how some clouds are higher in altitude than others. Tape the three cloud reporting sheets on walls around the classroom. Tape the pictures of high-altitude clouds above the high-clouds chart, pictures of medium-altitude clouds above the medium chart, and pictures of low-altitude clouds above the low chart.
  • Take students outside with their science notebooks as well as pencils and crayons.
    • Have students put the current date on page two of their notebooks. Have them draw a picture of the clouds they see and a note about what the weather is like.
    • Return to the classroom and assign students to one of the three charts -- high, medium, or low clouds.
    • Have students in each group compare pictures and try to decide what type of clouds they just saw while outdoors. Once they come to agreement, have a class discussion about which cloud types the three groups saw outside. Have one person from each of the three groups go to the appropriate cloud reporting sheet taped to a wall and enter the current date, type of cloud observed, and the weather condition.
    • Repeat the three steps above for two weeks.
    • Bring class together and graph the data from each cloud reporting sheet. Make two bar graphs per reporting sheet. One graph will have the cloud types on the bottom and the number of times that cloud type occurred in the 2 weeks. The other graph will have the weather type and the number of times that type of weather appeared in the two weeks.
    • Compare the six graphs. Is there a connection between cloud type and weather pattern? Can students predict what the weather will be from looking at the cloud types? What other information might help them predict the weather?
  • Have students write in their journals what they learned about clouds. Were their questions written earlier on the first page answered or not?
  • New Learner Procedure.


  • There are many types of clouds that can form in the sky.
  • Different types of clouds are characteristic of different types of weather.
  • New conclusion.


  • Participation in class discussions
  • Participation in plotting data on cloud reporting sheets
  • Individual science notebook
  • New Assessment.


  • Watch the weather forecast on a local or national television station and list the different types of information included in that report (e.g., local and national temperatures, precipitation amounts, wind speed, high and low temperatures, etc.).
  • Using the weather forecast section of a local newspaper, make a daily note of which U.S. cities had that day's high and low temperatures.
  • Create stories about the different cloud shapes that you saw standing in your own yard and share those stories with your family.
  • Discuss the different types of weather that most often occur in your local area, either with your family or with the class. Ask them which type of weather is their favorite.
  • New Extension.