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

How Literature and Visual Arts Teachers Can Make the Most of “The Dust Bowl”

Dust Bowl Multimedia Project  |  The Art of the Dust Bowl  |  Photography of the Dust Bowl  |  The Plow that Broke the Plains  |  Will Rogers's Dust Bowl  |  Additional Resources on the Website  |  About the Author  |  About the Image

Lessons and Activities Overview

Forester family in their covered-wagon truckEmphasis on the arts is found in many of Ken Burns’s films, and The Dust Bowl is no exception. One major lesson and five Whirlwind Activities feature the influence of the arts. From the work of painter Alexander Hogue, to the Farm Security Administration photography of Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Langue, students will explore the visual drama and impact of the Dust Bowl. The works of Woody Guthrie are also featured and students will examine the ways history can affect music and vice versa. Students will also explore the prose of John Steinbeck and the humor of Will Rogers as well as a controversial film by Pare Lorentz.

Dust Bowl Blues

Since the early days of the republic, musicians have produced songs of social and political commentary expressing their views and promoting discussion. During the 1930s, Woody Guthrie was one of those musical artists who wrote songs about issues that mattered to him: social injustice, intolerance, and prejudice. In this lesson, students explore the issues surrounding migrant workers and their problems with finding work and acceptance in the “land of plenty.” They will look at the labor movement through the music of Woody Guthrie and how a socially conscious artist tried to improve working and living conditions for a forgotten segment of society. They will present their analysis of Woody Guthrie songs identifying their message and effect on audiences in the 1930s and today.  

Dust Bowl Multimedia Project

Dramatic events like the natural disasters, wars and hard economic times provide artists and writers with ample material to create vivid and moving pieces that tell the emotional stories of peoples’ lives and experiences. In this activity, students construct a multimedia presentation (either in traditional poster-presentation form or as a digital multimedia project) of their impressions of the Dust Bowl. They may use examples from literature, photographs, art work and music to tell the story of the devastation, and the misfortune and endurance of millions of people who lived through it. Students explore these ideas in the arts of the time such as the 1930s photography of Dorthea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Alexander Hogue’s paintings, as well as Woody Guthrie’s music.

The Art of the Dust Bowl

One of the casualties of the Great Depression was the art market. Artists sought out new audiences, focusing their work on the people affected by the economic crisis. Presenting images of people in urban and rural scenes, clashing and coexisting with the environment and themselves, the artists portrayed the positive and negative connections between them. In this activity, students review various visual art examples depicting the disastrous effects of the Dust Bowl. They then research the backgrounds of these works, the artists, the times in which they lived, their inspirations and descriptions of their work. Working in small teams, they develop museum exhibits on a particular artist, analyzing their works and the impact on audiences. Students can present their exhibits as a traditional museum exhibit on poster board or a digital presentation online.

Photography of the Dust Bowl

During the 1930s, photographers working for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information took more than 160,000 photographs, many depicting the Dust Bowl. These photos provide a unique historical record of the period, one that makes the era “come alive” for later generations. In this activity, students research photographs from the FSA-OWI collection at the Library of Congress website and select one as their favorite that depicts the “Greatest” photograph of the Dust Bowl for inclusion in a national exhibit of 1930s-era photography. They will research the details, analyze the photograph, and develop and present a persuasive argument for their decision. Students’ analysis can be made in a class presentation, public forum, or online blog.

The Plow that Broke the Plains

Pare Lorentz’s 1936 masterpiece, The Plow That Broke the Plains, was produced for the Resettlement Administration to raise awareness about the Dust Bowl and New Deal efforts to provide relief for Great Plains farmers. It also served to present government reform policies to ensure the environmental catastrophe did not occur again.  For some, the film was seen as inspirational, for others as government propaganda. Students will view the film and develop a critique analyzing the historical accuracy of the film, its aesthetic value, and its effectiveness in telling the story of the Dust Bowl and the government efforts to provide relief and reform in the Great Plains.

Will Rogers’s Dust Bowl

American humorists have a unique way of blending social commentary and humor it ways that describe the life and times they live in. Humorists like Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Jon Stewart provide an introspective look at human nature and the American character. In this activity, students explore a Will Rogers commentary on the Dust Bowl. They will analyze Rogers’s views on the spread of dust storms throughout the Midwest, the impact on other areas of the country, and on the future of American civilization. Students will then assume the role of farmers living on the Great Plains experiencing by the Dust Bowl and write “fan letters” to Rogers either supporting or opposing the views expressed in his monologue. 

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 will include exerts 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 will also serve as a base for the overall digital strategy with many interactive tools such as “Share Your Story” and “Send Email Postcards” 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

When Harry Forester lost his farm to the dust and Depression in Oklahoma, the family converted its truck into a modern-day covered wagon and migrated to California in 1936, where Forester had found work. Two of his daughters (Louise, front row, left, in cap; and Shirley, second row, second from right) help tell the story of their father's broken dreams and the journey to a new life. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Producer: Florentine Films.