The Dust Bowl

The students will learn about the Dust Bowl, which took place in the 1930’s in parts of the Midwest and Southwest. As we are finishing the LCPS unit on the Midwest, this lesson fits into this unit. The students will consider the location, the natural fertile soil, over farming practices, economics, and the Dust Bowl itself. In a previous lesson, they learned how farming practices changed over the centuries. This will help them see that change is not always for the best. They will also learn that despite the Dust Bowl, this region is once again the Bread Basket of America.

Historical Background

The Great Plains were originally home to the Plains Indians and countless buffalo. The buffalo grass was well adapted to the harsh weather this region can bring. For example, this region has periodic droughts. The buffalo grass has five foot long roots that can get moisture from deep in the earth, keep moisture in the earth at a depth of one foot, and keep the land from eroding even with the constant winds that sweep across the region.

In the 1890’s farmers tried to settle this part of the country. However, a drought forced the farmers to leave. Slowly, farmers returned because of free or inexpensive land.
With new farming methods, farmers could use machinery to prepare the fields and harvest larger crops. A wet spell also helped the wheat to grow well. Additionally, during WWI, Western Europe was cut of from their regular supply of wheat from Russia. American was able to supply Europe with wheat at $2.00 a bushel. After the WWI, the price wheat dropped to $1.00 per bushel. This put the farmers in a financial bind. They still needed to pay for the tractors they had purchased on credit. So, they plowed more of the prairie to grow wheat. Speculators, called “Suitcase Farmers” purchased large plots of land, planted wheat in the spring and returned in the fall just to harvest it. Because there was more wheat, the demand dropped and so did the prices of wheat. In 1929, the Great Depression hit most of the US. Ironically, the Great Plains had a bumper crop of wheat that year. Government officials encouraged displaced workers to move to the Great Plains to be farmers.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression worsened and a drought hit the Great Plains at the same time. Because of poor farming practices, the top soil blew away in the constant wind. This became known as the Dust Bowl. Not only did the farmers lose their wheat crop and livestock, many lost their homes and farms because they were unable to pay their mortgage. Many suffered from pneumonia from breathing the black air. A small pox epidemic also hit during this time. Under President Roosevelt’s leadership, scientists investigated better farming practices. Part of the New Deal employed Civilian Conservation Workers to plant trees to act as windbreaks. Finally, the drought ended and with the trees and better farming practices, the land was able to recover. It was the largest natural disaster that has ever affected the United States.

Sources the students will access will be photographs of real people during this hardship. They will also listen to President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat about the Dust Bowl. Additionally, they will listen to Dust Bowl Refugee by Woody Guthrie (who experienced Black Sunday) which has pictures of the Dust Bowl. We will touch on the Great Depression.

Lesson Objective

Students will see how many factors led to the Dust Bowl. They will also learn what the Dust Bowl is (I don’t expect any of the students to be aware of the Dust Bowl). Additionally, they should learn MC II.20 explain why people settled the Middle West and identify problems they encountered.



  1. Introduction/Hook: Students will sit on the reading carpet to hear the first two chapters of The Dust Bowl: an Interactive History Adventure by Allison Lassieur.
  2. Next, introduce the lesson using the Dust Bowl PowerPoint. The beginning is an introduction to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
  3. While looking at the Black Sunday Dust Bowl picture ask the following questions: What do you see in this picture? What does the text say? How does it make you feel? What is it? What has happened before this picture, etc.?
  4. Look at picture of three women wearing gas masks. Ask the students to do a Think/Pair/Share with their elbow partner and think about the following questions: Who are they? What is going on? How does it make you feel? If you had asthma, would it be worse, etc.?
  5. Students will be divided into heterogeneous groups of 3 or 4 and mix different academic levels and special needs students.
  6. Each group will have a folder with a different picture of the dust bowl and a list of questions to help them stay focused while analyzing the picture. (see questions on Primary Source Analysis, Teacher Information)
  7. After the groups have answered each question, they will present a summary of the photograph. Photograph will be shown on the Promethean Board.
  8. Students will listen to FDR’s Fireside Chat on the Dust Bowl, watch a quick preview for Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl on PBS, and listen to Woodie Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Refugee.”
  9. Students will write a word or phrase on an index card to describe the dust bowl. We’ll read them together and end the class.
  10. To conclude, students will write an acrostic poem about the Dust Bowl.


Students will write an acrostic poem on The Dust Bowl. They will need to think of vivid adjectives or phrases to describe the dust bowl. Additionally, they will draw a picture to go with the poem.


Students will be divided into heterogeneous groups of 3 or 4 and mixed with different academic levels and special needs students.


Arthur Rothstein, “Sand, blown by the wind, piles up in dunes in front of farmhouse in Cimarron, County, Oklahoma,” (photograph) Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, Library of Congress, Dust Bowl Collection, (accessed February 13, 2013).

Arthur Rothstein, “Dust bowl farmer raising fence to keep it from being buried under drifting sand. Cimarron County, Oklahoma,” (photograph), Cimarron County, Oklahoma. April 1936, Library of Congress, Dust Bowl Collection, (accessed February 16, 2013).

Arthur Rothstein, “Son of farmer in dust bowl area,” (photograph), Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, Library of Congress, Dust Bowl Collection, (February 15, 2013).

Arthur Rothstein, “Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma.” (photograph) Cimarron County, Oklahoma. April 1936, From Library of Congress Dust Bowl Collection, (accessed February 16, 2013).

Bert Garia, “Three Girls Model Mask,” (photograph), Keystone/Hulton Archive/ Getty Images, Ca 1935, (accessed February 13, 2013).

“Collage of 1930’s headlines about the Dust Bowl. (Library of Congress),” (photograph) American Business, 20 April 2011. (accessed February 16, 2013).

Dorothea Lange, “Oklahoma dust bowl refuges. San Fernando, California,” (photograph), San Fernando, California, June 1936, From Library of Congress, Dust Bowl Collection, (accessed February 16, 2013).

Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age 32.,” (photograph), March 1937, From Library of Congress, Dust Bowl Collection, (accessed February, 13, 2013).

Krista Karstensen, “Central Irregular Plains Ecoregion Summary,” U.S. Geological Survey, last modified December 13, 2012, (accessed August 28, 2013).

“Patch Burning: Integrating Fire and Grazing to Promote Heterogeneity,” Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Okalahoma Cooperative Extension Service, and Oklahoma State University, June 2013, (accessed August 28, 2013).

“Sunday, April 14, 1935. Dust Clouds rolling over the Prairies,” (photograph), Storall Studio. Dodge City, Kansas, 1935, Special Collections, Wichita State University Library, (accessed February 16, 2013).

“The Lincoln Memorial in the Middle of a Dust Storm,” 21 March 1935 (accessed February 16, 2013).

“Three Tractors Plowing at Night,” Shutterstock, (accessed February 13, 2013).

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