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Disaster and Government Response

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal

Maintaining “Home”

Learning Targets

  • I can identify attributes of a home and the importance of this concept in people’s lives.
  • I can explain how home is a place where culture and traditions are promoted.
  • I can describe how identity is connected to home both today and during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Background

Many family and cultural traditions are maintained in homes. The concept of “home” plays an important part in people’s lives. Students will be able to share different traditions that their families recognize in their homes, and these traditions will be varied and diverse. The homes of migrant and displaced workers during the 1930s provide an opportunity to explore two ideas related to homes: 1) families maintained traditions in their homes, and 2) families maintained a physical space as a home, even in economically difficult settings. In photographs of migrant workers, we see traditions such as playing musical instruments in the home. We also see that the homes have tablecloths or decorations, even though the family lives in a tent. The consistent message these images give is that, despite people being extensively uprooted and moved because of the Depression or the Dust Bowl, effort and importance was placed on maintaining a sense of “home” for families.

Makeda Best, a historian of photography at the California College of the Arts, uses the photo titled “Migrant family from Arkansas playing hill-billy songs” by Dorothea Lange to show how a home is maintained and how home traditions are kept, even in a rudimentary tent structure.

Best provides a detailed description of this image that ties home, history, and the plight of the migrant worker together:  

The young girl is here with presumably her brothers, they are playing music, they seem engrossed in what they are doing. The girl is dressed nicely, the boys are wearing work clothes, they have muddy boots. If we look at the space, it appears quite cramped, the photographer is only a few feet from the trio — so the composition is compressed. On the left, one of the boys is partially cropped out of the image. In the background we see another large instrument on a shelf. Notice the pattern created by the shadows of the beams of wood used to hold up the tent. If we look at the back of the image, we realize they are seated in a tent, and from the bed the boy sits on and the towel hanging from the beam on the left of the image, it appears they probably live in this tent. If we look at the title, we understand that they are from Arkansas and they are living in some sort of camp in California. From the date, 1939, we know that these are some of the many families who were forced to leave their homes in search of other means to survive and live because of a severe drought that destroyed the region's farm-based economy.
We see in this image people trying to carry on their lives and their culture, even though they have been uprooted and are living in desperate circumstances.

In addition to the physical aspects of home (the structure, the furniture) and the tangible elements in a home (the traditions, the food), home life creates many emotions. People do not always come from supportive homes, and—at times—homes can be dangerous or abusive. Recognizing all of that, the main focus of this activity is that when the devastation from the Dust Bowl and the Depression hit families, home was one area that gave some stability and social anchors. The Farm Security Administration provided images where the concept of home could be seen to turn public opinion in favor of the progressive federal welfare state the New Deal initiatives were producing.

Questions to Consider

  • Why is home an important concept to people?
  • How do photographs create an emotional reaction/response to the idea of home?
  • How is a home maintained when people are faced with losing the physical place/ structure/location in which they live?

Begin the Activity

In this activity, students will consider what makes a home and how this idea is important to people (today and back in time). (This information is also provided in the previous background information section.)

Download Home Handout (PDF)

Note: As an alternate to students sharing with the class, have students bring to school images related to their tradition and display them on a poster. This will allow students to “see” the diversity present with classmates and to discover each other's life stories through this process.

Explain to students that the homes of migrant and displaced workers during the 1930s were often shacks or tents. Families maintained a physical space as a home, even in economically difficult settings. In photographs of migrant workers, we see traditions such as playing musical instruments in the home. We also see that the homes have tablecloths or decorations, even though the family was living in a tent. The consistent message these images give is that, despite being extensively uprooted and moved because of the Depression or the Dust Bowl, effort and importance was placed on maintaining a sense of “home” for families.

Have students look at picture 8008, and tell them that music was one way that the idea of a home was kept, even when migrant workers were literally homeless. Have students look at this image and then point out what they see that makes this seem like a home. Students might share their ideas with a partner, and then share with the class. Dr. Best’s description above (see Background) can serve as a guide for students’ ideas and thinking with this photograph.

Have students look at images 8030, 8035, 8037, 8038, 8041, 8045, 8046, and 8047, and describe the nature of the homes they see. Ask them to explain what they see in each photograph that represents “home.”

Have students look at the images, and then engage in a selection process from the following prompt:

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a New Deal program that oversaw programs to help sharecroppers, very poor farmers, and migrant workers by moving them from poor farmlands to larger group farms that were more productive. This was expensive and needed the public support of Americans. The FSA hired many photographers to take pictures of impoverished farmers in the 1930s Dust Bowl to help raise awareness of the ravages of the drought in the plains and the Depression, and to build public support for relocating farmers and sharecroppers. These photographers were often sent out with directions and scripts to find and photograph particular images and scenes in order to send a particular message to the American people. Of the following images, which ones do you think would be the best to influence public opinion in favor of this government program? What types of photographs would have been the most effective at showing the following:

  • The plight of the farmer was bleak, and the federal government needed to intervene to help them survive.
  • The government placement of farmers from poor farmlands to productive group farms allowed the farmers and sharecroppers to have some semblance of a home.

Select at least two photographs for each, and be ready to explain your selection. Note that these photos will be used again in the next activity: Captions and Photographs.

next: Captions and Photographs

Grade Level

High School

Subjects

Earth and Space Science
English Language Arts
Geography
Literature
U.S. History

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Photographs in This Activity

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