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Lesson Plan The Grapes of Wrath: Voices from the Great Depression

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 Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, 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 be able to:

  • research in the Library's digital collections;
  • analyze primary sources of various formats;
  • understand the politics of migration and the Great Depression.

Time Required

Two weeks

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Activity One - Analyzing a Photograph (1-2 class periods)
Using Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, students search, select, and analyze a photograph of a migrant farm worker.

Activity 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.

Activity 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.

Activity 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 Activity One.

Activity One: Analyzing a Photograph

  1. Prior to the lesson you may want to print and distribute background information on the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The online collection includes a brief explanation of The Farm Security Administration.
  2. Explain to the class that each student will choose a photograph of a migrant from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.
  3. In the computer lab, introduce Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Model a search of the collection using the keyword migrant and the keyword phrase California migrant. Note the difference in the quantity and specificity of the material obtained with in these two searches. The phrase California migrant obtains the most relevant material.
  4. Give students time to search the collection and narrow their interests to one or two photographs; once they have selected a photograph they should print a copy of it.
  5. In the classroom, demonstrate how to analyze a photograph, recording thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before beginning, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  6. Have each student analyze the selected photograph, recording thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool.
  7. Students will save their work for use in creating the scrapbook in Activity Four and will turn in the completed Primary Source Analysis Tool for assessment with the completed scrapbook.
  8. Students will complete the analysis individually, but when they form groups to compile the scrapbook, they will choose a photograph from this activity.

Note: The subject of the photograph selected in the Activity One exercise may be chosen as the subject of the scrapbook produced in Activity Four, or students may perform additional research and choose another subject for the scrapbook.

Activity Two: Gathering Voices

Students gather examples of "voices" of migrant workers from various kinds of sources:

  • literature;
  • folk music;
  • sound recordings, and
  • other documentary evidence collected by folklorists about Depression-era migrant workers.

Individually or in groups of three to four, students select snippets of language using any of the following three criteria. The way that the migrant workers use language is different than the speech of today. For example, the speaker:

  • uses words or phrases that we no longer use;
  • uses words or phrases we no longer use in the same way, and
  • uses sentence structure different than what we are accustomed to.

Students are to trust their ears in identifying variations in language usage. They might wish to choose examples of language that:

  • seems to capture the feelings of the workers, and/or seems to refer to issues they think are important, and
  • is interesting, and captures the attention of the reader or listener.

Part One: The Grapes of Wrath

Assign each group of students a few chapters from The Grapes of Wrath to skim. Students gather "voices" from the novel, noting details. Notes on the text should include:

  • an example of a sentence or phrase;
  • the name and age of the character speaking;
  • the page number on which the sentence or phrase occurs;
  • the context in which the sentence occurs;
  • why he or she selected this sentence or phrase, and
  • the meaning of the sentence or phrase (if necessary).
  • Example: "I get so god daam tired jus' figgerin' how to eat."
  • Speaker: Timothy
  • Page: 377
  • Context: man who helps Tom get a job digging ditches
  • Why Selected: emphasizes frustration, "figgerin" repeated often in text - shows how frustrated they get having to plot
  • Meaning: solutions

Part Two: Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941

Have the students read the background material provided online for Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941. Some of the resources available in this collection are songs, interviews with migrant workers, Camp Council Meeting minutes, court proceedings in the government camps, migrant camp newsletters, field notes, and miscellaneous audio snippets.

Demonstrate to the students strategies for locating different types of documentary sources in this collection. Give students time to practice searching the collection.

Using both audio and written sources from the collection, students compile examples of language. Students note details including:

  • example of language;
  • source;
  • speaker  (name, age);
  • genre  (song, conversation, notes);
  • notes about recording, if given;
  • location;
  • date;
  • context;
  • why selected, and
  • meaning  (if necessary).

Part Three:  Compilation and Reflection

Within the groups students compile the "voices" from the various sources. Students may want to organize them in a stack of index cards, or perhaps on pages of paper. They may want to organize the cards or papers by speaker or by topic. Students may use the notes generated from the previous activities to organize their material.

After compiling their materials, each student writes an informal reflection focusing on the following questions:

  • When you examine the examples from fiction (The Grapes of Wrath) and those selected from documents, what observations can you make?
  • In what ways are the voices similar?
  • In what ways are they different?
  • In what way do you, or people you know, speak similarly to the "voices" that you selected?  Give specific examples.
  • Are there ways in which your language is distinctly different than these migrants?  Explain.

Activity Three: Analyzing Issues

  • Before teaching this lesson, select and print out examples of news articles and clippings from the Voices from the Dust Bowl Scrapbook. Choose an article to use as a model in your presentation and several articles for distribution to the students.

Classroom Presentation

Activity Four: Putting It All Together

  • Students form small groups and compile a scrapbook of materials illustrating the perspective of the migrant selected in Activity One. Give as much class time as you wish for students to create their scrapbooks.
  • The scrapbook takes the point of view of a fictional migrant character, and includes documents detailing where the migrant traveled, the details of the journey, and what life was like in the California government camp.

The scrapbook should include:


  • 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.
  • 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?

Lesson Evaluation

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

Criteria might include:

Tells story and reflects character

  • explains where the migrant came from
  • gives details from the journey
  • gives details about life in the government camp

Uses required documents to serve a well-integrated purpose

  • photographs with captions
  • song lyrics
  • letters

Other documents used to serve a purpose are well-integrated. May include maps, souvenirs, mementos, or any other relevant ephemera

Presentation and polish

Process photograph evaluation analysis of news article analysis and of song lyrics "voice" log


Amy McElroy & Chris Pietsch