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Drought refugee family from McAlester, Oklahoma. Arrived in California October 1936 to join the cotton harvest. Near Tulare, California. Figuring Somepin 'Bout the Great Depression

Amy McElroy and Chris Pietsch

By examining primary sources, including songs, newspapers, interviews, and photographs of migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression, students create a scrapbook from the point of view of a migrant worker, providing evidence of the colloquial speech used by the migrants and the issues affecting their lives. Using Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941 and FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945, students select photographs and use the sound recordings of voices of the migrant workers to create captions, letters, and/or songs based on these primary sources. This lesson can be used in connection with a unit on the Great Depression, and specifically on The Grapes of Wrath.

Students will:

Time Required 7-10 class days, about half in the computer lab, and half in a regular classroom setting; time out of class to complete the scrapbook.
Recommended Grade Level 10 – 11 (may be adapted for other grades learning about the Great Depression)

Curriculum Fit Ideal for a team-taught American Studies course, but may adapted to a history or English class on the Great Depression in general, or more specifically on The Grapes of Wrath and the Great Depression.


McREL 4th Edition Standards & Benchmarks

Historical Understanding
Standard 2. Understands the historical perspective

Language Arts
Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes
Standard 6. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts
Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

US History
Standard 23. Understands the causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society
Standard 24. Understands how the New Deal addressed the Great Depression, transformed American federalism and initiated the welfare state


American Memory

Other Electronic and Print Resources

  • Ford, John.  The Grapes of Wrath.  Los Angeles, California:   Twentieth Century-Fox Films, Inc., 1940.
  • Guthrie, Woody.   Dust Bowl Ballads.   Cambridge, Mass.:  Rounder Records, 1988.
  • Steinbeck, John.   The Grapes of Wrath.   New York:  Penguin Books, 1986.
  • "Woody Guthrie."  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

How to Analyze a News Article
How to Analyze a Photograph
How to Analyze a Song
How to Analyze a Text
Language Examples
Scrapbook Evaluation Rubric


Lesson One:  Analyzing a Photograph   (1-2 class periods)

Using FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945, students search, select, and analyze a photograph of a migrant farm worker.

Lesson Two:  Gathering Voices   (3 class periods)

Using the novel The Grapes of Wrath and Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941, students collect migrants' quotations, illustrating different aspects of their colloquial language.

Lesson Three: Analyzing Issues   (2 class periods)

Students interpret articles and editorials from newspapers to gain understanding of political issues of the Great Depression relevant to migrant farm workers.

Lesson Four:  Putting It All Together   (2 class periods)

Students compile a scrapbook of photographs, quotations, and notes, representing the perspective of a migrant farm worker selected in Lesson One.


Students' scrapbooks must contain examples of the colloquial speech of Depression-era migrant farm workers and evidence of the issues which they faced.

See the Scrapbook Evaluation Rubric.


  • Small groups of students may create a skit to be inserted into the government camp portion of either the novel or film versions of The Grapes of Wrath; the skit should include student-created characters.
  • In addition to resources used in Lesson Two demonstrating the colloquial speech of the migrant workers, lyrics from Woody Guthrie's songs may be selected to enrich the scrapbook created in Lesson Four.
  • The collection Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941, includes a forty-five page scrapbook containing newspaper clippings about John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. Students may read these clippings to enrich their understanding of Steinbeck's writing process.
  • Students may compare and contrast the Republican and Democratic party policy positions of the 1930s with those of the modern day.
  • Students may develop theses explaining what their political views would have been if they had lived during the Great Depression. Would they have been Republicans, Democrats, socialists, or communists? Why would they have chosen a particular party or ideology?

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Last updated 09/26/2002