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Lesson Plan New Deal Programs: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

The New Deal programs and agencies, created under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had a powerful impact on the relationship of government to the people of the United States. Yet a study of New Deal programs often leaves the student with a disconnected list of 'alphabet soup' programs and no real grasp of the impact of the New Deal.

This lesson takes a student through a process of examining primary sources, both photographs and life histories, to develop a sense of the profound impact the Great Depression had on real people’s lives. Then after studying New Deal Programs, students learn how the WPA programs helped to improve the situations of those people, whose life history interviews they have read. They synthesize the information gathered into an essay which has both an expository and a creative component.


Students will:

  • analyze and evaluate primary sources.
  • apply research skills to solve problems.
  • understand the intent of New Deal programs and their impact on people's lives.

Time Required

Two weeks

Lesson Preparation


Before beginning this lesson, take time to plan with your librarian to see what print and non-print resources are available to support student research on the New Deal. Students may need some guidance in locating information on the New Deal independent research component.

These materials are needed for the lesson (listed in order used):

New Deal Essay Guide


You have studied photographs and read the life histories of Americans who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and have learned about the New Deal agencies created to help these people.

You have researched some of these New Deal agencies that might have offered help to the person/family whose life history you read.

With this collection of information on the person/family and the New Deal agencies that could help them, it is now your job to pull this information together. Write an essay that is both creative and informed to demonstrate your understanding of the effect of the New Deal on private citizens.

The Task:

Imagine that you have found that person/family after the Great Depression ended. Conduct a second, imaginary, interview with them asking which New Deal agencies were the most helpful and how the agencies helped them.



  1. Review the information regarding the person or family. Discuss their problems, concerns, and crises, based on the reading of the first American Life History interview. Reflect on the kind of help they seemed to need.
  2. Consider the New Deal agencies which were available to help people with such problems.


Using an interview format, provide both questions and answers that reveal the following:

  • What experiences and problems occurred to you during the Great Depression?
  • Explain at least two New Deal agencies and/or organizations which could have provided help to your person or family. Be very specific about how those agencies could have helped this particular family.
  • Include an explanation of what your person/family has been doing since the Great Depression and since the last interview?


  • Reflect on the family's problems.
  • Review and summarize the New Deal agencies mentioned and how the agencies helped this particular person/family.


Lesson Procedure

Activity One

Students can be prepared for critically viewing photographs. Analyze with students the first photo from the set of photos in Photographs from the Great Depression, selecting questions to prompt discussion, closer observation and deeper analysis.

  1. Students examine Photographs from the Great Depression, selected from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.
  2. Working with a partner, students select two photographs record their thoughts and observations using the Primary Source Analysis tool and questions selected from the Teacher's Guides and describe the life circumstances portrayed in the photos to review the social conditions occurring during the Great Depression.

Activity Two

  1. Students skim several Life Histories selected from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
  2. Working with a partner, students select one and analyze it using the Primary Source Analysis tool and questions selected from the Teacher's Guides as a way to begin to understand the needs of real people which New Deal programs were designed to meet.

NOTE: Before launching students into the life histories, be aware that:

  1. Oral histories reflect the experience and attitudes of the narrator and as such, may show biases and prejudices which might seem inappropriate to the reader.
  2. The interviewer may choose to reflect the speech patterns and pronunciations of the narrator by using misspellings and non-standard English.
  3. The text of the interviews may have brackets indicating questions and uncertainties of the transcriber.
  4. Each page of text has a "page image" link at the top to an image of the original manuscript page. The page image is in .tif format and requires viewing software (plug-in) to see it in the Web browser.

Life Histories

Read about people who lived during the Great Depression by choosing from the life histories below. These life histories are from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1940 in the Library of Congress digital collections. After you have read several life histories carefully, answer the questions on Reading Oral Histories.

For more life histories, search the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1940

Reading Life Histories

Read the questions below and keep them in mind as you read and study your selected Life History. Then, answer the questions below based on your reading.

  1. What is the general tone or attitude of the person being interviewed?
  2. What do you infer about the person/family from their tone or vocabulary as recorded in the interview?
  3. What are the circumstances of this person's life?
  4. What seems to have led to these circumstances?
  5. What can you infer about the general emotional state of this person from what he/she says?
  6. Is there anything interesting or surprising about the situation represented by this interview?
  7. What problems or frustrations is the interviewee dealing with?
  8. What adaptations can you assume or infer the person is making to his/her situation?
  9. Explain any assistance or programs you can identify that are presently helping this person.
  10. If you had some power or authority and could make something good happen, something realistic, what would you propose as a way to help the interviewee improve his/her circumstances?

Activity Three

Students research New Deal programs to assess which programs or agencies might have improved the life of the person whose interview was read in Activity Two.

Activity Four

Students use the New Deal Essay Guide to help them write an explanation of the New Deal programs they selected and create a follow-up interview with the person whose life history they read. This writing will make clear how the New Deal programs affected the life of the person interviewed.

Lesson Evaluation

This lesson merges the content area of the Great Depression with important information literacy skills. Students interpret and construct meaning from the photographs and life histories and apply the information in a new context. They evaluate the quality of primary sources and learn independently as they research the New Deal programs. Finally, students create a quality product synthesizing information and meaning from several sources.

Student products include:

  1. A personal interpretation of photographs.
  2. An evaluation/analysis of an oral history.
  3. An essay explaining two or more New Deal programs and including a creative interview which demonstrates the ability to apply information gathered through research to a new situation.
  4. An optional primary source analysis worksheet to provide a process by which to study the effect and impact of primary sources.

Rubrics for these products should be designed in a teacher-student collaboration.


Marilyn Swan and Elaine Kohler