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The Great Depression and the Arts
A Unit of Study for Grades 8-12

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Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange
"Migrant Mother," by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Lesson Two: Documenting the Migrant Experience

Lesson Plan  |   Documents  |   Handouts

  1. Lesson Objectives
  2. Background Information
  3. Lesson Activities (2 days)
  4. Extension Activities
  5. Resources

A. Lesson Objectives

  • To examine information about the migrant experience during the 1930s.
  • To analyze and evaluate the validity of primary source materials and to identify the point of view from which it was constructed.
  • To recognize and assess multiple narratives regarding the migrant experience.

B. Background Information

In 1936, The San Francisco News hired John Steinbeck to write a series of articles on the Dust Bowl migration. The seven article series, The Harvest Gypsies, provided the factual basis for The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck began his research with an escorted two week tour of California's Central Valley visiting farms, labor camps, "Hoovervilles", and shantytowns. One camp visited was the Arvin Sanitary Camp—Weedpatch, built in fall 1935 as part of the New Deal's Resettlement Administration.

On this tour Steinbeck met Tom Collins, manager of the Weedpatch Camp. According to Jackson Benson, a Steinbeck biographer, Collins became the most important single source for The Grapes of Wrath. Collins traveled with Steinbeck on three trips around California observing camp operations, talking to residents, going to meetings, and even attending a weekend dance.

Collins collected statistics on many aspects of camp life which Steinbeck used as primary material for his newspaper series and The Grapes of Wrath. After the publication of The Harvest Gypsies Steinbeck and his wife drove west on Route 66 through Oklahoma and on to California. In 1937, he and Collins worked in the fields harvesting hops. They stayed at ranches, camps for squatters, and visited such cities as Bakersfield, Barstow, Blythe, and Needles. Later Steinbeck went to Visalia to help in response to severe flooding.

These experiences provided Steinbeck with the background needed to accurately depict the migrants and specifically a family like the Joads. Historians have provided evidence of the complexity of the migration story. James Gregory contends that the Dust Bowl migration was a media event of the 1930s. He argues for a distinction between the Dust Bowl and drought area and points out that only about 16,000 people from the Dust Bowl migrated to California. "While Steinbeck's Joad family were indeed an important element of migration—there were also many other participants who defied the popular image of the rural Dust Bowl migrant." [1] Gregory demonstrates that more than fifty percent came from urban and small town areas. He contends the migrants had a chain of connections (relatives) already in California and that the automobile trip posed few problems usually taking only four days.

Catherine McNicol Stock extends the drought affected area. Arguing that conditions in the Northern plains were the worst, she says that "by 1940, one third of all farmers who owned their land had lost it to foreclosure; tenancy had risen to nearly fifty percent; more than 150,000 people had left the region forever; and the Federal government had spent $400 million to help those who stayed behind." [2]

C. Lesson Activities (2 days)

The documents in this lesson include selections from John Steinbeck's "The Harvest Gypsies" and two readings from business periodicals, Business Week (July 3, 1937) and Fortune (April 1939).

Have students read each of "The Harvest Gypsies" articles, the news article from Business Week, and the feature story from Fortune (See Documents).

While Steinbeck wrote seven articles only four are used in this lesson. If possible provide each student with his or her own copy of all the articles and have them underline or highlight specific passages. Written answers to the questions are useful for well focused discussions. Be sure students link their answers to the specific passages they have highlighted in the documents. These activities may be done individually or as part of cooperative/grouping centered strategies in which findings are shared and jigsawed together. Conduct a discussion comparing and contrasting these readings. Use student responses to the questions as a guide for class discussion.

Refer students to textbook accounts of Dust Bowl migrations or oral histories recounting the experiences of migrants. Do these accounts support or refute those of Steinbeck, Business Week, and Fortune? How would you assess the credibility of these accounts? To what extent did different motives, beliefs, and interests color the perspective of the reports?

D. Extension Activities

Write "Letters to the Editor"

Students write letters to the San Francisco News, Business Week, or Fortune responding to the articles. Assign students different roles, such as:

  1. A social worker for the state of California working with migrants
  2. A Central Valley or Imperial Valley farmer who hires hundreds of migrant laborers
  3. A businessman—one of Fortune's or Business Week's typical readers at the upper management level of a major corporation
  4. A migrant/agricultural labor union organizer
  5. A mayor of a small California town close to migrant work camps (either shanty towns or government operated camps)
  6. A spokesman for the Associated Farmers Organization
  7. An unemployed laborer in San Francisco
  8. A business owner in a small town in the Central Valley or Imperial Valley

You may want to consider other roles to include political party members and people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, or the Dakotas, the origin of many of the migrants. Also more than one student may be assigned each role so that larger classes will still have all students write a letter.

As these student letters are shared and discussed have students consider the "voices" that are not likely to be heard in a "Letter to the Editor" section in either a newspaper or magazine. What are the implications of developing solutions to problems without hearing the voices of significant groups who are affected by the situation?

Conduct a "public hearing"

Simulate a public hearing on migration. Select a panel composed of a member of the school board, a representative from a public health agency, the local sheriff, and an elected city official who will serve as chair of the committee. Assign other members of the class roles from the "Letter to the Editor" activity and present the views of their "character" at the local public hearing. Conclude the activity by having students write a reflective essay on the migrant problem in which they must state a thesis and support it with information provided through the testimony presented at the public hearing, other materials in this lesson, and information gleaned from extended research.

E. Resources

The following resources will assist in the development of this lesson:

Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Shindo, Charles. Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination. Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 1997.

Steinbeck, John. The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1988.

Stock, Catherine McNicol. Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

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The Great Depression and the Arts

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