Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Dust Bowl Migration: An Arts-Integrated Lesson

Main content start

by Kris Sieloff, Baltimore City College High School, Baltimore, MD, 2009

GRADE LEVEL: 9th -10th Grade American Literature/History


  1. Students will watch excerpts from the PBS documentary film “Surviving the Dust Bowl” so that they will be able to explain the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl, including farming practices and economic circumstances that contributed to the environmental catastrophe and subsequent migration.
  2. Students will read excerpts from Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies to explore the social and economic hardships faced by Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930’s.
  3. Students will create a multimedia art project to visually demonstrate their understanding of the hardships faced by Dust Bowl migrants and survivors and the larger social effects of the migration.


The following arts integration lesson in American History was originally part of a semester-long focus on American Migrations, and it was intended to support students’ reading of Of Mice and Men in their 9th grade English class. This lesson could also serve as an introduction to the novel The Grapes of Wrath. This approach was inspired by Steinbeck’s Harvest Gypsies, a collection of reports on Dust Bowl migrants that he wrote for The San Francisco News in 1936. The PBS film “Surviving the Dust Bowl” includes information about the causes of the Dust Bowl, including information about Pare Lorentz’s documentary “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” as well as horrific eye witness descriptions of dust storms.


  1. The teacher will provide excerpts from Steinbeck’s journalistic renderings of the migrant experience. Suggested texts include: “Dubious Battle in California,” “The Harvest Gypsies: Squatters’ Camps,” or “Starvation Under the Orange Trees” from America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. The class will read these collaboratively and discuss, preferably in a Socratic Seminar format. Some questions may explore Steinbeck’s point of view and methods of persuasion.
  2. The teacher will also provide students with a packet of readings that includes a news article containing a Dust Bowl survivor’s account and Dorothea Lange photographs.
  3. Students will view excerpts from the documentary “Surviving the Dust Bowl” and take notes about the hardships faced by those who endured dust storms and those who remained rather than migrating.
  4. Students will analyze photographs from the Dust Bowl era and draw conclusions about the migration experience.
  5. Students will be required to research and locate images of the Dust Bowl using the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs section, using search terms such as “Dust Bowl refugees” to use in their multimedia art project.
  6. On project day, students must have their printed images of the Dust Bowl. They will receive art supplies such as a canvas board, paintbrushes, mod podge glue, different colors of tissue paper, magazines for collage cutouts, and acrylic paints.
  7. The teacher should demonstrate the technique for creating a mixed media piece by selecting images, painting them on the canvas board using the mod podge, and overlaying tissue and magazine cutouts. Acrylic paints should be thinned with water to create a transparent wash that will be painted over selected images. (See attached completed projects.)
  8. The teacher can use the included rubric to evaluate the completed projects.

UNIT: “The Quest for Home”
The Dust Bowl Migration Project





Needs Improve-ment

Creativity: The student created a unique and thought provoking piece of work inspired by the Dust Bowl experience. The student carefully thought through the idea in order to present a clear message to the audience.




2 - 1

Effort: The student went above and beyond the basic requirements of the project and used ALL class time well. The student came prepared each day with all required materials, ready to work on the project. The piece is completely finished.




2 - 1

Craftsmanship: The student took time to work through the idea. The student carefully created the work and took pride in the final product. The work is neat and professional looking. In written pieces, there are no misspellings or grammatical errors.




2 - 1

Explain the work that you created.
-What is happening in the piece?
-How does the work represent what you learned about the experience of people in the Dust Bowl?

Describe your process in creating the work.

  1. How did you go about planning what you wanted to create?
  2. What steps did you take to prepare?
  3. What was the creation process like?
  4. Did someone help you? Explain.
  5. What decisions did you have to make while you were creating the work?
  6. Did you encounter any difficulties in the process of creating the work?
  7. Do you believe the final product was successful? Why or why not?
  8. What might you do differently if you were to undertake a similar project in the future?


WGBH American Experience. “Surviving the Dust Bowl.” 2007. Chana Gazit, Producer
and Writer.

The History Place - Dorothea Lange Photographs.”Migrant Farm Families: Photos with
Original Captions.” 2000.

The New Deal Network: The Great Depression and the Arts. A Unit of Study for Grades
8-12. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. 2003.

Shillinglaw, Susan and Jackson J. Benson, Eds. America and Americans and Selected
            Nonfiction. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.

Steinbeck, John. The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath. The San
Francisco News. Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA: 1936.
Online Text:

Wessels Living History Farm. York, Nebraska. “Farming in the 1930’s: The Dust Bowl.”
Contains oral history interviews and background on soil conservation legislation.

Examples of art work produced by students