How Teachers Can Make the Most of “The Dust Bowl”

The Dust Bowl: Series Overview  |  Educational Resources  |  Additional Resources on the Website  |  About the Author  |  About the Image

Historical Background on the Dust Bowl

Dust storm on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935, Boise City, OklahomaJust before the turn of the 20th century, the Southern Plains were being touted as “the last frontier for agriculture” in America. By the 1910s, rising wheat prices, a war in Europe, and several years of unusually high rainfall created a land boom known as the “Great Plow-Up.” Millions of acres of thick native grassland were converted into wheat fields virtually overnight. People swept into the area like locusts, buying up land, building boom towns, hoping to hit it rich and achieve the American dream.

By 1931, the Southern Plains were on their way to a near decade-long natural disaster of Biblical proportions. The constant plowing of the land upset the delicate balance and exposed huge swaths of once native grassland to dry weather and high winds. At its peak, 100 million acres in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico were hit with dust storms that rose 10,000 feet into the air and 2.5 million desperate Americans left their homes in a massive exodus to start new lives.

The Dust Bowl: Series Overview

Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl examines the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history documenting its causes, impact, and lessons as well as personal stories of survival and human endurance.

The Dust Bowl encompasses a broad spectrum of the humanities:

  • It presents photographs and newsreels, newspaper accounts and diaries to tell the epic saga and interviews with individuals who experienced it first-hand;
  • It explores the impact of natural disasters on small communities of the Southern Plains and the ways many people filtered their experience through the prism of their religion;
  • In addition, national politics and government policies of the Roosevelt administration are examined as the administration struggles to devise policies that would address the Dust Bowl and the Depression;
  • The series delves into the history of U.S. agricultural policy from the Homestead Act to the first massive federal government intervention, which will shape the decisions of individual farmers for decades;

The series also embraces the arts and the purpose of art from the work of painter Alexander Hogue, to the Farm Services Administration photographs of Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange. Film director Pare Lorentz’s documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains is featured with its critical analysis of Plains farming methods. These art forms were not only objective depictions of the time and place, but also powerful tools of government propaganda. The career and works of Woody Guthrie are also featured as he sings about the Dust Bowl’s hardship on the farmers and the oppressed “Okies” in California.

Educational Resources

“If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are, and you can’t possibly know where you’re going.” — Anonymous

The curriculum for The Dust Bowl explores the humanities through a wide range of classroom lessons and activities in history, public policy, economics, and ecology. Carefully selected video segments from the series are integrated into the lesson plans to highlight subject matter, themes and enhance student understanding of the historical period. In addition, The Dust Bowl lessons and activities build students’ understanding of the period, expand their critical thinking skills and provide opportunities culminating projects such as documentaries, public forums, and digital storytelling.

In designing these lessons, co-authors Greg Timmons and Michael Hutchinson wanted students to see that history provides a prism to not only went before them, but also to what is going on now. They designed integrated lessons that feature broad areas of the humanities, incorporate active learning strategies to engage students in historical thinking and advanced reasoning. These lessons provide opportunities for students to consider multiple perspectives and develop original narratives that demonstrate not only a firm understanding of the events, but also to make decisions and address problems that are similar today.

The lessons also integrate technology applications that are familiar and comfortable and provide students opportunities to share their creativity with broader audiences outside the classroom.

The Dust Bowl curriculum contains four full lessons that encompass three major curriculum areas—the Arts, Social Studies, and Environmental Studies. In addition, there are six smaller lessons, entitled “Whirlwind Activities” that feature many of the educational themes presented in the larger lessons but are present in adaptable activities that teachers can tailor for their individual classroom and teaching style.

The multi-disciplinary lessons of The Dust Bowl can be divided into three categories. Click the links below to for details on these lessons.

Additional Resources on the Website

The website for The Dust Bowl contains many features that will enhance viewers experience with the film and students’ exploration of the lessons. The site includes excerpts from the episodes, selections from scripts, archival footage and photographs, music, bibliography, and timelines as well as educational outreach materials and lesson plans. The website also serves as a base for an overall digital strategy with many interactive tools such as “Share Your Story” and “Send Email Postcards” that provide opportunities for people to share their own Dust Bowl stories and experiences and their reactions to The Dust Bowl film.

Selected links from the Website:


About the Author

Greg Timmons, a Social Studies teacher for over 30 years, has also written lessons for the several other series by Ken Burns. He resides in Washington state and Montana.


About the Image

During the decade-long drought that turned the southern Plains into the Dust Bowl, the hardest hit area was centered on Boise City, Oklahoma, in a part of the Panhandle formerly known as No Man’s Land. And the worst storm of all hit on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935—a day remembered as Black Sunday. Here the storm sweeps over a farmstead on its way toward Boise City. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Producer: Florentine Films.