Top of page

Lesson Plan The Great Depression and the Present Day

Using the Library of Congress online collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 documents, personal interviews, and (, students will be able to gain a better understanding of the Depression-era beginnings of many of the government programs that continue to the present day.


Students will be able to:

  • Understand the connection between past and present history, particularly related to government funded programs;
  • Research legislation from the Depression era and legislation currently proposed on the federal and state levels;
  • Use the resources from the Library of Congress American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection,, local libraries, and personal interviews;
  • Research different viewpoints on controversial issues using the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection,, and local libraries; and
  • Write clearly, speak articulately and think critically.

Time Required

Two to three weeks

Lesson Preparation


Lesson Procedure

Lesson One: Understanding the 1930s

(Estimated lesson time: 5-6 days class days.)


In this lesson, students will come to grips with what conditions were like in the 1930s. Students will be divided into seven groups of 4-5 students. Six groups will be assigned to research the experience of a group of people affected by the Great Depression. Groups may include but not be limited to: children, laborers, the moneyed, migrants, farmers, artists.

New Deal Expert Group

The seventh group will become experts on the New Deal measures: WPA (Works Progress Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), NRA (National Recovery Administration), Social Security, bank recovery, TVA/CBRP (Tennessee Valley Authority/Columbia Reclamation Project).

This group work will comprise two steps. The first will be to research Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, often called Alphabet Soup. The second will be to communicate with the other six groups to see how the legislation affected the people in the depression. After researching and advising, the New Deal students compose dialogues, soliloquies, letters or fictional memoirs from the viewpoint of a administrator of one New Deal program.

People Affected by Depression Expert Groups

Students will research their group's experience during the Great Depression. For research, they will use the collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 and independent library research.

The focus of their research should be:

  • What was life like for their group of people in the 1930s?
  • How did the New Deal affect the lives of these people?


To demonstrate an understanding of their theme, each student will find a photograph from the Great Depression that illustrates the group's identity. Photos from the American Memory collection, from books on the depression era, and from the classic portraits taken by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and other photographers provide a rich visual anthology for students to draw from. Using the photograph, they will create a dialogue, soliloquy, letter or fictional memoir based on the people in the photographs. These writings need to reflect the students' understanding of the group's character and the historical period of the Great Depression. Students will share their writings with classmates to get peer assessment and learn from the work of their fellow researchers.

Lesson Two: The New Deal's Legacy

(Estimated lesson time: 5-6 class days.)


Students will begin this lesson by reviewing the New Deal measures. After this review, the class will discuss the question: Do these programs still exist today and, if so, in what form? Additional questions to consider or discuss might include: How much should the United States government and state governments be involved in helping improve the lives of its citizens? Which groups do you think could better help impoverished United States citizens: private charitable organizations or government agencies? The teacher will guide the students here, suggesting modern welfare programs, farm subsidies, Americorp, minimum wage, FDIC, the Columbia River Reclamation Project, and Social Security as modern-day programs with their roots in the New Deal. In groups, students will be assigned one of the existing programs. Using, students will identify at least two current pieces (one provided, one researched) of proposed legislation dealing with their program.

After examining and researching these pieces of legislation, student groups will prepare a position paper on their program. The position paper should contain two main elements. First, a brief overview of the contemporary program should be given. Second, the position paper needs to address the following questions:

  1. Who does this program benefit?
  2. Given the budgetary restrictions of the government, should the existing program remain intact, be reduced, or be expanded?
  3. What is your opinion on the pieces of legislation that you investigated?

After the group position papers are completed, the students will participate in a Congressional Policy Forum. One student from each group will directly participate in the forum as a Congressperson. The remainder of the students will serve as Legislative Assistants. These Legislative Assistants (LAs) will advise their member of Congress when needed. During the forum, the members of Congress, with help from their LAs, will each justify the need for their piece of legislation. After all policies are heard, all students will debate the pros and cons of each policy. Finally, the class members will vote on which three pieces of legislation they will recommend to Congress.


To enrich classroom discussion, a teacher could connect with a willing colleague from another school. Students from each school could share their pieces of writing and respond via e-mail to the viewpoints expressed by their electronic classmates.

Lesson Evaluation

Built into this unit there are several assessments

  • Individual piece of creative writing based on a 1930s photograph
  • Position paper on current welfare state issue

Final evaluation of the unit may contain an essay on the Great Depression and its effects today and a bibliography.

Bibliography: Students will turn in a list of the resources they used on all parts of this project.


Douglas Perry and Wendy Sauer