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Lesson Plans
  • Hard Times, Soft Sell
    Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

    This lesson is divided into three sections:
    Prep -- Preparing for the Lesson.
    Steps -- Conducting the Lesson.
    Tips-- Managing Resources and Student Activities.

  • Prep

    Student Prerequisites:
    Students should have an understanding of the events that lead to the Great Depression of the 1930s; how to locate sites and search for information online; how to download audio and graphic resources from the Web; and word-processing and page-layout fundamentals.

    Review with students why the period from 1929 to 1940 is called the Great Depression. After reviewing and discussing the political and economic climate, challenge students to investigate how people responded to the prevailing "hard times." Questions to consider will include:

  • What role(s) did gender, race, economic status, and geography play in people's experience?

  • How did politicians respond, and how did they seek to direct public opinion and the social climate?

  • How did artists respond? What themes do you see repeated?

  • Did the outlook seem different in the mass media compared to the fine arts?

  • How did people see the future? The past? Why might they have chosen to see them in those terms?

  • How was optimism, or dissatisfaction, expressed in the arts and popular culture of the time?

    For supplemental online teacher resources on this topic, visit the NCHS' National Standards for U.S. History. You can also find a comprehensive outline on the "Depression and FDR's New Deal," and a good overview on the causes and effects of the Great Depression.

    Computer Resources
    You will need at least one multimedia computer workstation with Internet access. We recommend, as a minimum, using Macintosh II series running Stystem 7.0 or higher, or a 386 IBM-compatible PC running Windows 3.1 or higher.

  • Steps

  • Step One: Ask students if they know what the word "zeitgeist" means. Have students look it up in the dictionary and then discuss briefly how they would define the word. To illustrate the concept, ask students to come up with words or themes that define the zeitgeist of the 1960s, then the 1980s. List answers on the board.

  • Step Two: Ask students to describe the zeitgeist of the period in American history known as the Great Depression. In order to investigate further, have students -- either at home, in the classroom, or in the library -- visit art critic Robert Hughes' take on art and design in the AMERICAN VISIONS' Streamlines and Breadlines Online Exhibition. Ask each student to identify one or two themes that seem to pervade the art and social climate of the 1930s. These may include futurism, Utopian thinking, optimism, a yearning for the past, and a variety of social themes.

    To focus students on some of the central themes in Robert Hughes' online essay and exhibit, give students handout #1 with questions to consider while exploring the online Streamlines and Breadlines exhibit.

    You will find additional resources and lists of related books, articles, and multimedia resources on American Art and Art History at Thirteen/WNET's AMERICAN VISIONS Web site. Explore the WebTours for additional episodes from the AMERICAN VISIONS series, and encourage students to visit the AMERICAN VISIONS online gallery and to participate in the bulletin board discussions going on in the site's Art Talk section.

  • Step Three: Divide students into groups to report and discuss the themes they have uncovered. Have each group pick one or two themes that express the zeitgeist of the Great Depression. Have students conduct online research to illustrate material, artistic, and ideological examples of the theme(s) they've chosen. You may choose to give students handout #2 which includes a number of online resources to get them started.

  • Step Four: After conducting their online research, have student groups report and present their ideas and materials to the class. Remind students that they should be prepared to illustrate and defend their ideas. After each group has presented "themes" and "evidence," have the class discuss their findings. Ask: How can we find out more about life in the 1930s? What can we do to illustrate our ideas and findings about the zeitgeist of the depression? What can we do to share and publish our work? If not already suggested by the students, propose that students interview family and community members that lived through the Great Depression. Have students -- individually or in their collaborative groups -- brainstorm and write ten or more questions they would like to ask in their interviews.

  • Step Five: Have students hone their questions and interviewing skills by interviewing one another. In their respective groups, have students give each other feedback. Which questions were most effective or stimulating? Distinguish between open-ended and close-ended questions, and discuss the merits of each. Have students devise their own interviewing questionnaires. Students can visit the WPA Oral Histories home page ( to get a feel for some sample oral histories from the 1930s.

  • Step Six: After writing and compiling t.heir collections of Depression-era stories, have students peer-edit each other's work. (They also might want to share the work with the interviewees for fact-checking and editorial suggestions.

    Final Project: As a culminating project, the class -- either in groups or as a whole -- will design print pages, a multimedia slideshow, or Web pages that illustrate the prevailing themes, the zeitgeist of the Great Depression. Watch in coming weeks for detailed instructions on how to build Web pages and make multimedia projects. Students may choose to use a variety of formats, including:

  • cartoons or comic strips.

  • multimedia "e-zine" -- including text, graphics, photos, video and audio files.

  • a compilation of illustrated oral histories catalogs of popular culture media of the period.

  • a "How To Survive the Depression" Guide, featuring recipes and suggestions.

  • a mock journal of a composite character living through the Depression, with multimedia elements including photos, sound, or video files, maps, etc.

    Optional Project: An additional culminating, or assessment activity, might include a mock debate (in the classroom or online) between characters role-played by various students and other participants. Characters will discuss topics in a voice consistent with the position their character would have taken in life. Sample roles may include socialist artist, Art Deco architect, Dust Bowl farmer, wealthy Republican banker, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Orphan Annie! Integrated Curriculum Extensions
    English: Literature is a great way to further investigate the central mood and themes of an era. Using James Agee's LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN or John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, have students look for ways in which these books reflect -- or fail to reflect -- the times in which they were written. You might have students compare and contrast these Depression-era works with Tom Wolfe's BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. How does Wolfe's book portray the zeitgeist of the 1980s?

    The Depression was known for its proliferation of "alphabet soup programs" -- a nickname given to the many New Deal programs initiated to provide relief and reform. Programs like the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) are two examples. Have students devise acronyms befitting existing or mythical social programs.

    Math/Social Studies: Students can research and compare prices and wages then and now. In addition to looking at advertised prices in 1930s' magazines, students can visit a list of Depression-era salaries and prices posted by the Michigan Historical Museum ( -depressn/costlist.html). How many hours of work did it take to buy the various items? Critical thinking skills can be employed when students rank those items most and least necessary when money is scarce.

    Since the 1929 stock market crash is considered to be the genesis of the Great Depression, the stock market is a natural for providing the lesson with math extensions. Students can track specific stocks and research companies using the Web. (Companies' Web sites are typically Working within an assigned budget, individually or in teams, students can create mock diversified stock portfolios. Stock market information can be found at:
    Check Free Investment Services

    As students track their portfolio's performance over a two- or three-week period, the Web's virtually live information is a better indicator of just how volatile a single stock can be than newspapers which only report stocks' highs and lows on a given day.

    Art/Political Studies: Robert Hughes touches upon the social and political themes pervading much of the art of the 1930s, in the AMERICAN VISIONS site. Students can conduct online research and investigate samples of political posters from a variety of perspectives. Challenge students to design their own political posters, using images and graphics to convey political ideas or a philosophical vision. For students interested in communicating by integrating text with their graphics, have them explore the medium of comics. Comics is not only a medium for children; check out the How-To Guide to Comics for information on writing, drawing, and publishing comic strips.

    History/Art: Using the Editorial Cartoons of the New Deal Era, newspapers, and magazines of the New Deal era, students can examine the art -- and meaning -- behind editorial cartoons. Individually or in groups, students can select three or four cartoons and write analyses that demonstrate an understanding of the political and social issues of the day. Students can extend the assignment by creating and potentially publishing their own editorial cartoons. These may reflect political or social themes from the 1930s, the 1990s -- or both.

    Find out more about Using The Editorial Cartoons of the New Deal Era by looking at this AP United States History portfolio assignment.

  • Tips

    Working in Groups
    If you have access to one computer in your classroom, you can organize your class in several ways. Divide your classroom into two groups. Instruct one of the groups to do paper research while the second group is working on the computer. Bring in books, encyclopedias, etc. from the library for the group doing paper research. Lead the group working at the computer through an Internet search or allow the students in the class to take turns. (It may be efficient to have a set of bookmarks ready for the students working before they start working on the computer.) When the groups have finished working have them switch places.

    Look for Web Resources Together as a Class
    If you have a big monitor or projection facilities you can do an Internet search together as a class. Make sure that every student in your class can see the screen. Go to the AMERICAN VISIONS Web sight and review the information presented there. Bookmark the pages that you and your students think are helpful. Go to a search engine page, allow your students to suggest the search criteria, and do an Internet search. Again, bookmark and/or print the pages that you think are helpful for reference later.

    Using a Computer Lab
    A computer center or lab space, with a computer-to-student ratio of one to three, is ideal for doing Web based projects. Generally, when doing Web-based research, it is helpful to put students in groups of three. This way, students can help each other if problems or questions arise. It is often beneficial to bookmark sites for students ahead of time and make suggestions. This way, you can be sure that students have a starting point.

    Submit a Comment: We invite your comments and suggestions based on how you used the lesson in your classroom.

    Overview | Procedures for Teachers | Organizers for Students