Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Dust Bowl Days

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Eighteen-year-old mother from Oklahoma, now a California migrant.

Eighteen-year-old mother from Oklahoma, now a California migrant.

Credit: Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of Library of Congress.

On the fourteenth day of April of nineteen thirty five,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky:
You could see that dust storm coming, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track...
This storm took place at sundown and lasted through the night,
When we looked out this morning we saw a terrible sight:
We saw outside our windows where wheat fields they had grown
Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.
It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and windy storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down the highway to never come back again.


— Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)
From "Dust Storm Disaster"

The ballads of Woody Guthrie, the novels of John Steinbeck and the WPA photographs of artists such as Dorothea Lange have embedded images of the Dust Bowl in the American consciousness. Introduce this dramatic era in our nation's history to today's students through photographs, songs and interviews with people who lived through the Dust Bowl. Help your students understand the problems Americans were facing during the Great Depression.

Guiding Questions

What can be learned from photographs, songs, interviews and other archival documents from the Dust Bowl era?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • List problems ordinary Americans faced during the Great Depression.
  • Cite examples of the attempts of the government and citizens to solve these problems.

Background

Other Resources

Recommended reading from American Memory

  • Stein, R. Conrad. The Great Depression. N.Y.: Children's Press, 1993.

Recommended reading from The New Deal Network

  • Blassingame, Wyatt. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Four Times President. Garrard Pub. Co., 1966. (Grades 2-5)
  • Cavanah, Francis. Triumphant Adventure: The Story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rand McNally, 1964. (Grades 5-8)
  • Epstein, Samuel, and Epstein, Beryl. The Picture Life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Watts, 1968. (Grades 2-5)
  • Faber, Doris. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Abelard Schuman, l975. (Grades 3-6)
  • McKown, Robin. Roosevelt's America. Grosset & Dunlap, 1962. (Grades 5-8)
  • Wise, William. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Putnam, 1967. (Grades 2-4)

Recommended reading from Women of the West Museum

  • Friedrich, Elizabeth. Leah's Pony. Pennsylvania: Boyd's Mills Press, 1996. (Grades 3-5)
  • Myers, Anna. Red-Dirt Jessie. New York: Walker and Co., 1992. (Grades 3-5)

Other recommended reading

  • Guthrie, Woody. This Land Is Your Land. Illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen.
  • Hunt, Irene. No Promises in the Wind. Berkley Pub. Group, 1981. (Reading level: Young Adult; Paperback, 223 pages; ISBN: 0425099695)
  • Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. 1993. (Reading level: Ages 9-12; Paperback, 85 pages)

Recommended video from The New Deal Network

  • "Dust Bowl," 30 minutes. Del Mar, California: CRM/McGraw-Hill Films, McGraw-Hill Book Company. 714-453-5000 (offers for sale or rental)

Recommended video from The Library of Congress

  • A Teacher's Guide to Folklife Resources for K-12 Classrooms. Prepared by Peter Bartis and Paddy Bowman, American Folklife Center. Washington: Library of Congress, 1994.
  • A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Music Educators National Conference (MENC). Study guide by Will Schmid. Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, 1991. (Materials are correlated with "A Vision Shared and the Original Vision" audiocassette, CD or video. Available from MENC, 1902 Association Dr., Reston, Va.)

Other recommended video

  • John Ford's classic film of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is widely available for rental. The video may also be available at your local public library.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What Happened Here?

The destructive wind storms that hit the plains of the American West in the 1930s rank among the greatest natural disasters of all times. Because they occurred in the midst of the Great Depression, dealing with the dust storms was all the more difficult.

To introduce this activity, tell the students you are wondering whether the classroom needs a good clean up. Give them a chance to look for dust in the room. Do they think there is a potential "dust problem"? How bad could it get? If it were 10 times worse, how would it affect activities in the classroom? What if it were a hundred times worse? Could it ever get that bad? Worse?

Divide the class into small groups. Explain to students that historians learn a great deal from primary sources, records of events from participants and eyewitnesses (interviews, diaries, photographs, official documents and so on). Various archival primary source documents that paint a dramatic picture of the Dust Bowl are listed below in two equivalent sets. Use one set, both sets, or parts of both, as appropriate to your class. (Note: Some items are included in both sets.)

Distribute a set of documents, with captions, to each group, along with related questions, such as:

  1. What was the Dust Bowl?
  2. Where was the Dust Bowl?
  3. How were people affected by the Dust Bowl?
  4. What did the people who were affected by the Dust Bowl do?
  5. What did the United States government do?

What can the students learn about the Dust Bowl — something that happened in the U.S. during the Great Depression of the 1930s — from these documents? Students should form hypotheses to answer the questions. Succeeding lessons in this unit will provide materials with answers to these questions; correct hypotheses can be shared with the class at that time.

Set 1

Set 2

Activity 2. What Was the Dust Bowl?

Discuss the students' hypotheses about this question from Activity 1. Then share with the students a Basic Account of the Dust Bowl, available on Encarta, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.

Activity 3. Where Was the Dust Bowl?

Discuss the students' hypotheses about this question from Activity 1. Have students locate on a classroom map the states in the Dust Bowl region. Share with the class a Map of Dust Bowl, available on American Experience, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website River of Song.

Activity 4. How Were People Affected by the Dust Bowl?

Discuss the students' hypotheses about this question from Activity 1. Remind students of the previous discussion about dust in the classroom. Of course, the classroom often could use some sprucing up, but for people living in the Dust Bowl region, dealing with the dust and its ramifications became the center of everyday life.

Review material here such as Interview about dust storms in Oklahoma, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory (Audio File), and photographs like Abandoned farm in the Dust Bowl. Coldwater District, near Dalhart, Texas (photograph by Dorothea Lange), available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, and Abandoned house, Haskell County, Kansas (photograph by Irving Rusinow, April 1941), available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Digital Classroom.

Activity 5. What Did They Do?

Discuss the students' hypotheses about this question from Activity 1.

Some people migrated.

 On the fourteenth day of April of nineteen thirty five,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky:
You could see that dust storm coming the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track...
This storm took place at sundown and lasted through the night,
When we looked out this morning we saw a terrible sight:
We saw outside our windows where wheat fields they had grown
Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.
It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and windy storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down the highway to never come back again.

 

Some people received assistance from the government.

Some people simply did the best they could.

For more in-depth information, a complete transcript of PBS interviews with witnesses to the Dust Bowl is available on American Experience, a link from the EDSITEment resource River of Song.

Activity 6. What Did the United States Government Do About the Dust Bowl?

Discuss the students' hypotheses about this question from Activity 1. Use the Timeline of the Dust Bowl, available on American Experience, a link from the EDSITEment resource River of Song, in your discussion of events related to the Dust Bowl. The timeline emphasizes actions taken by the government to provide relief to victims of the Dust Bowl.

The government worked to improve the agricultural practices of those in the affected areas. The poster "Plains farms need trees: Trees prevent wind erosion, save moisture ... protect crops, contribute to human comfort and happiness" was part of a campaign to improve farming practices (search for the poster by its exact title on the EDSITEment resource American Memory).

The government also provided direct relief to farmers, gave work to the unemployed on government projects, and helped improve conditions for migrants. The following photographs, all available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The New Deal Network, illustrate these actions.

Activity 7. A Letter from the Dust Bowl

Letter writing was a more important pastime before the telephone became ubiquitous and before e-mail and other innovations provided other avenues of communication. Share with the class the Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt from a Dust Bowl sufferer, a letter from a 13-year-old boy, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The New Deal Network. Note that the letter is written in dialect and that the spelling and grammar are often incorrect. Nevertheless, the desperate situation of the writer is communicated.

Have each student write a letter from the point of view of someone involved in the Dust Bowl. Students could be assigned or choose to write as one of the following (students also may have some ideas of their own):

  • A farmer in the Dust Bowl region
  • A government official who has been sent to investigate conditions
  • A child who just found out his/her family has decided to migrate to California
  • Someone living in a migrant labor camp in California
  • Mrs. Roosevelt writing back to the letter writer above
  • A gas station owner on Route 66, as the migrants stream past
  • A California citizen living near the places where the migrants are arriving

Letters should include some facts the students have learned about the Dust Bowl. Give the students the opportunity to share their letters either by reading them aloud or posting them on the bulletin board. The EDSITEment lesson I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Someone a Letter provides additional information and activities on letter writing.

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

5-7 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
Skills
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Letter writing
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis

Resources

Media