Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: History–Social Science
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
2 class periods
Author: Linda Harris, A.P. U.S. History Teacher, Fairfax Senior High School Magnet Center for Visual Arts, Los Angeles, with J.Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

Curriculum Home
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Biography of Lange
Lange in U.S. History
Lange and Social-Documentary Photography
Bibliography & Links

Lesson Overview

Students examine primary resources, photographs by Dorothea Lange, and a U.S. map to understand the migrant experience during the Great Depression

Learning Objectives

• Students will analyze primary resources and a map in order to draw conclusions regarding the migrant-worker experience during the Great Depression.
• Students will understand and explain the impact of economic and ecological events on individuals during the Great Depression.
• Students will be able to locate and label areas on a map affected by the Dust Bowl.
• Students will understand the importance and impact of an image during an historical period.
• Students will be able to understand different points of view regarding one event.
• Students will compare expression in different media.

Note: Students should have covered 1930s American History in class before this lesson.


Lesson Steps

1. Review Dust Bowl terms and history.

2. Show the image Highway to the West on overhead and ask students to think about what it brings to mind.

3. Read the following excerpt from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) aloud and discuss in relation to the image Highway to the West:

"And then the dispossessed were drawn West—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, and most of all for land."
(See Bibliography for publication information.)

• Does the photograph Highway to the West express any of the ideas in this passage from Steinbeck's book? Why or why not?
• Why do you think Dorothea Lange titled the image Highway to the West?
• Does Steinbeck's writing help you understand Lange's photograph? Please explain.

4. Provide handout of U.S. map with questions. Have students locate and label the items on their maps, explaining the significance of these locations to the Dust Bowl. Point out the states Steinbeck mentions in the excerpt.

5. Show students image of Dust Bowl Refugees and give them time to look and answer the following questions. Do this as oral discussion, or have students answer questions independently in writing.

a. What objects are tied to the car? Why do you think these particular items were packed?
b. How many people are in the car? What are they doing?
c. Can you tell they are moving, and not just taking a trip somewhere? Please explain.
d. Why do you think they are traveling? What do you think their destination is?
e. What problems might arise during their journey?
f. What date would you give this photograph?
g. Why are there crop marks on the photograph? Block out the parts of the photograph as indicated by these lines. Does it look any different to you? Does it change the mood or message of the picture?
h. Do you think this photograph was made to be a work of art?
i. How is this image different from Highway to the West?

6. Hand out copies of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article and read aloud. Have students write out answers to the following questions independently.

a. What was the population of Los Angeles in July of 1937?
b. What percentage of the population of Los Angeles was on relief?
c. How many people entered California by automobile during the twelve-month period ending April 30, 1937?
d. What percentage of new arrivals indicated that Southern California was their destination? What kind of work did most need to find?
e. Name two problems that would result from the "horde of newcomers."
f. How much had the cost of relief in Los Angeles County increased between 1925 and 1936?
g. What did the Los Angeles County Supervisors demand that the state and federal governments do for these "indigent persons"?
h. Why do you think this article was written? Is it sympathetic towards migrants? Explain your answer.
i. Do you think Lange's photographs helped or hindered the cause of the migrant workers? Explain.

7. Discuss the article and compare it with the images of Highway to the West and Dust Bowl Refugees. From whose point of view is this article written? Whose point of view do you think Lange was trying to express in her photographs? And from whose point of view was Steinbeck writing? How is a photograph similar to or different from text? What can a photograph tell you that a written text cannot, and vice versa?

Dust Bowl Refugees / Lange
Dust Bowl Refugees Arrive in California, Dorothea Lange, 1936


• Teacher observation of class discussion, or evaluation of written work. Students should be able to critically analyze and show an understanding of photographs and/or newspaper article.
• Students should be able to point out at least one visual element in a photograph or fact in written text, and explain its connection to the Dust Bowl.

Comparison Rubric:

• Students should be able to answer questions provided about individual sources.
• Students should be able to make connections between different sources of the same medium.
• Students should be able to make connections between different sources in different media, e.g., compare photographs to written text, and connect locations on the map to written text or photographs.
• Students should be able to interpret primary source material using their knowledge of American history.


• Students might write a diary entry or letter from one of the following points of view:

A farmer who has taken his family west
A mother with an ill child in a migrant farm camp
A taxpayer living in Los Angeles

• Students could read and report on The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.
• Students can further investigate the work of Lange and other photographers and writers who documented American conditions in the 1930s while working for the U.S. government and evaluate their impact on the New Deal.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Text Types and Purposes
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

History–Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 6-8
Historical and Social-Sciences Analysis Skills
Chronological and Spatial Thinking
3. Students use a variety of maps and documents to identify physical and cultural features of neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries and to explain the historical migration of people, expansion and disintegration of empires, and the growth of economic systems.

Research, Evidence, and Point of View
5. Students detect the different historical points of view on historical events and determine the context in which the historical statements were made (the questions asked, sources used, author's perspectives).

Grades 9-12
Historical and Social-Sciences Analysis Skills
Chronological and Spatial Thinking
3. Students use a variety of maps and documents to interpret human movement, including major patterns of domestic and international migration, changing environmental preferences and settlement patterns, the frictions that develop between population groups, and the diffusion of ideas, technological nnovations, and goods.

Grade 11
U.S. History and Geography: Continuity and Change in the Twentieth Century
11.6.3–Discuss the human toll of the Depression, natural disasters, and unwise agricultural practices and their effects on the depopulation of rural regions and on political movements of the left and right, with particular attention to the Dust Bowl refugees and their social and economic impacts in California.

Grade 12
Principles of American Democracy
12.8.3–Explain how public officials use the media to communicate with the citizenry and to shape public opinion.

National Standards for U.S. History

Grades 5-12
Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
1b. The student understands how American life changed during the 1930s.