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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

12. Migrant

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Activities: Context Activities

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)

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Progress (The Advance of Civilization)

[7023] Nathan Sherman, Work With Care (1937), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1172].
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During his acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "I pledge you -- I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people." One of the major components of the "new deal" was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA provided over nine million people with work and sustaining wages by employing them to build roads, beautify buildings, play concerts, and write histories, along with a wide range of other activities. Created in 1935, the WPA was led by Roosevelt appointee Harry Hopkins. Whereas the previous president, Herbert Hoover, and his administration had refused to offer government assistance to individuals, Roosevelt's plan was to provide multiple forms of relief to the army of unemployed people created by the Great Depression.

The Civil Works Administration (CWA), the predecessor of the WPA, was created in the fall of 1933. In exchange for a weekly government check of fifteen dollars, previously unemployed workers repaired schools, built or beautified parks, constructed swimming pools and athletic fields, and taught people how to read. Writers and artists were also employed and paid for their services. About four million people found work under this program.

After the CWA expired, the WPA was formed and became the largest and farthest-reaching work-relief program of all those founded during the Roosevelt years. WPA workers participated in public service projects and programs, but the WPA is best remembered for its many artistic and literary projects. One division of the WPA, known as Federal Project Number One, included a Music Project, a Theater Project, an Arts Project, and a Writer's Project. The Federal Theater Project put on plays across the country, along with vaudeville shows, puppet circuses, and dance festivals. The Federal Music Project offered free concerts and music education across the country and created an Index of American Composers, cataloguing thousands of pieces of American music and gathering the biographies of U.S. composers. Artists such as Ben Shahn painted large murals inside and outside public buildings as part of the Arts Project. This project also included art education classes and seminars. As part of the Writer's Project, well-known authors like Richard Wright and John Steinbeck were paid to create regional histories of the areas they lived in. Other famous writers who were part of this project include Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom documented life histories and regional folklore. The Writer's Project also helped record many of the narratives of living African Americans who had been born into slavery.

  1. Comprehension: Who do you think benefited the most from WPA projects? Who did not benefit?

  2. Comprehension: How were the arts influenced by these government programs? What was created or saved that might have been lost had it not been for the WPA?

  3. Context: In Chapter 34 of America Is in the Heart, Bulosan seems to both poke fun at and praise the WPA and some of its projects. How does he do so? What does this brief chapter tell us about Bulosan's general impression of the WPA?

  4. Context: How do you think Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, "The government is best that governs least," would have reacted to the government programs of the 1930s? How do you think the American public would react to such initiatives today?

  5. Exploration: Research President Johnson's efforts to enlarge government in the 1960s, especially the expansion of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, VISTA, and Head Start. In the 1980s and 1990s, these programs came under great scrutiny and were attacked as wasteful and counterproductive. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

[4672] Conrad A. Albrizio, The New Deal (1934),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLR). A fresco of New York's Leonardo Da Vinci Art School showing working people. The mural was dedicated to President Roosevelt and commissioned by the WPA. Work was an important theme in depression-era art.

[4808] Alan Lomax, Rev. Haynes's Methodist Church, Eatonville, Florida (1935),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-1707].
Zora Neale Hurston worked with Alan Lomax on a WPA project collecting recordings and images of southern black life. African American religious beliefs, practices, and music were of particular interest to both of them. This is a church in Hurston's hometown of Eatonville, which she wrote about in both her fiction and her ethnographic work.

[5865] Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration (FSA) Rural Rehabilitation Client. Tulare County, California (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018636-C].
In the 1930s, the Rural Rehabilitation Program was established to provide loans and other assistance to small-scale farmers who were hard hit by the depression. The Farm Security Administration also hired teams of photographers to document both the necessity for and the benefits of the program.

[7023] Nathan Sherman, Work With Care (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1172].
This woodprint was created as part of the WPA Federal Art Project. The Works Progress Administration provided mil-lions of people with work and sustaining wages by employing them to build roads, beautify buildings, play concerts, and write histories, along with a wide range of other activities. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan was to pro-vide multiple forms of relief to the army of unemployed people created by the Great Depression.

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