America in Hard Times: How We Dealt with Economic Adversity

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Depression-era vagabondWhen economic times are hard, Americans have learned to call on our own past experiences as a nation for lessons in fortitude, courage and creativity. This EDSITEment spotlight shines on lessons plans that focus on some of the hard times that challenged previous generations and the lessons they can still teach us. By incorporating the rich mulitimedia resources available on the web, these lessons will help you bring the voices, the faces, and even the songs of these turbulent decades in our nation's history into your classroom.

panic of 1837 cartoon What happens when a new president comes to power during a bad economic downturn? How does his role as the leader of his political party affect his decision making? In the EDSITEment lesson The Panic of 1837 and the Presidency of Martin Van Buren, students study the causes of that economic downturn, Van Buren's response, and the public reaction to his measures by analyzing political cartoons created by the highly partisan popular press. Through these cartoons students will also learn how the depression affected ordinary working Americans.

migrant child in tent, D. LangeIn Worth a Thousand Words: Depression-Era Photographs students will be able to study the federal government's initiative that employed photographers to document the need for New Deal programs in the 1930s and the extent of these programs' successes. Today, students can view this arresting visual record of an era through the Internet and see for themselves how Americans faced the challenge of those testing times.

One of those photographers hired by the federal government was Dorothea Lange, whose photograph Migrant Mother, 1936, can be found in the NEH's Picturing America initiative. The Picturing America Teachers Resource Book includes a two-page chapter on that famous Depression era photograph, with suggestions for classroom discussion. The Getty, an EDSITEment-reviewed website, also has additional resources on Dorothea Lange's photography.

motherless migrant children by tent and stove, D. LangeLange's seminal contribution as a documentary photographer figures in another EDSITEment lesson Dust Bowl Days. By means of her photographs and those of others, as well as the ballads of Woody Guthrie and the novels of John Steinbeck, the lesson puts the plight of migrant workers into the context of the Dust Bowl and financial depression which struck the United States almost simultaneously in the 1930s. A more personal examination of the plight of migrant farm workers is found in the EDSITEment lesson Esperanza Rising: Learning Not to Be Afraid to Start Over. Students are encouraged to explore hard times with a young Mexican girl who goes from privilege to hardship but also finds she has great resources of strength and character.

migrant automobile with kids, D. LangeIn combating the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Students can watch our 32nd President inspire the nation at his inaugural in "An Electrifying Leader" an online segment of the PBS series on The Presidents an NEH-supported project. One way Roosevelt attempted to calm the nation's fears was through his famous fireside chats with his fellow Americans using the new medium of national radio broadcasts. The EDSITEment lesson FDR's Fireside Chats: The Power of Words allows teachers to bring Roosevelt's actual voice into their classrooms so students can better understand how a president used the power of words not only to calm the nation but to gain acceptance for his New Deal agenda. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs were intended to help American's combat the hard times of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. In another video segment "Above All, Try Something" students learn how much of an experiment the New Deal programs were.

Social Security was one of the most famous and enduring of those programs and still offers a measure of protection to most working Americans. The EDSITEment lesson, The Social Security Act, engages students in the national debates that led to the passage of that landmark legislation Another New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was intended to put Americans back to work right away. African-Americans and the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps helps students understand the impact of the Depression on African Americans.

turpentine worker, GeorgiaIn the September/October 2011 issue of Humanities magazine, former NEH Chairman Bruce Cole interviews author Amity Shlaes about her recent book, The Forgotten Man, which re-examines the effects of Roosevelt's New Deal programs and how she tackled the complicated question of how successful these programs were. The distinguished historian David Kennedy gives his own overview of the causes of the Depression and the legacy of the New Deal in a podcast from the Gilder Lehrman Institute for the American History an EDSITEment-reviewed website.

For a more contemporary view of America and hard times, our Thinkfinity partner, EconEDLink, has links to websites and lessons related to current economic problems.

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Migrant worker on California highway. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.