Great Depression a Timely Class Topic

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 09, 2009 6 min read
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Margo M. Loflin teaches sophomores in Oklahoma, a state that was once part of the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression era. But most school years, her high school students don’t find the struggles of Oklahoma farmers to combat drought and financial hardship in the 1930s relevant to their lives. That’s not true this year.

“I’ve taught [the Great Depression] for a long time. Usually, kids are not interested at all. They were very interested this year,” she said recently.

Ms. Loflin, who teaches U.S. history at Norman High School in Norman, Okla., is among a number of history and social studies teachers who have found that because of the parallels they’re able to draw between the current economic crisis and the Depression, their students are seeing that history is relevant. They’re engaging more deeply in history lessons than they have in previous years.

The teachers say they have brought new energy to their lessons about the Depression and the recovery efforts of that time, and in many cases have devoted more class time to them than usual.

The Great Depression was a worldwide economic slump that occurred in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929 and ended in the late 1930s or early 1940s, depending on the country. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt devised a series of programs, called the New Deal, that included economic stimulus, social-safety-net policies, and new regulatory structures designed to reform the nation’s economic and social systems and put unemployed Americans back to work.

Teachers are comparing and contrasting the causes of the Great Depression and the current recession, as well as the New Deal and the recent stimulus package and other government responses to today’s crisis.

Ms. Loflin spent about 2½ weeks—two days more than usual—on the Depression and New Deal era this year. “I lost time every time the discussion got good,” she said. “I’d let it go because there was so much value in the discussion.”

Teaching about that period is standard fare in American schools at the secondary level, according to Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Every state makes the Great Depression and New Deal an important part of the curriculum for the history of modern America,” said Mr. Nash, who is also the director of the National Center for History in the Schools.

He said high school teachers work their way through U.S. history chronologically and often “run out of time” at the end of the school year. Often, they get only as far as the Vietnam War era, but they typically make it through the Depression and World War II, he said.

They Get It

Teachers from Washington state to Georgia say their lessons about the Great Depression and ensuing recovery efforts have come alive this school year.

For the first time, Elaine Holmes invited guest speakers with a vivid memory of the Depression to her history classes at Fort Collins High School in Colorado.

A father and his sons trek through a dust storm—one of the enduring images of the severe drought that primarily struck the southern Plains during the Depression—in Cimarron County, Okla., in 1936.

Lucile Knaus, 91, told the students she owned only two dresses to wear to school and treated herself to nickel hamburgers during the period. Her family sold farm produce, and they lived on the cracked eggs, crooked-breasted turkeys, and damaged vegetables they were unable to sell. Dick Riddell, 86, talked about how his mother helped support his family in the 1930s by taking up odd jobs around town.

One difference between then and now that the elderly guests noted, according to Ms. Holmes, was that news didn’t travel as fast as it does today. They also didn’t have as good a fix on the bigger economic picture. Still, the guests said they had a sense that everyone locally was in similar financial straits.

Ms. Holmes said it seemed the students could relate to the speakers’ stories because her community has been directly affected by the current recession, with the downsizing of a local technology plant.

Cheryl Spear, a U.S. history teacher of 11th graders at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School in Bridgewater, Mass., said articles in the newspaper with headlines such as “Obama’s New Deal” helped her link past and present.

“I noticed that my students this year seemed to have a much better handle on the New Deal programs than they did in the past, and I think it’s because of the comparison,” she said. “The test results came back better; the questions were more in-depth; there wasn’t as much lecture; there was more give and take. They are aware of what’s happening with them.”

Ms. Spear spent 14 days this school year teaching about the era, about three more than last school year.

Krista Jackson, a social studies teacher at Midway High School, an alternative high school in Oak Harbor, Wash., taught her students lessons on the Depression and New Deal period when the economic-stimulus package was pending in Congress.

“They really connected with why they were studying the Great Depression because of the current conditions,” Ms. Jackson said. “Some were saying, ‘I get why we have to study this stuff.’ ”

Ms. Jackson had her students work in small groups to compare the New Deal and President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the formal name of the stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed into law last month. They had to decide if they thought the president’s plan would work and send an e-mail to their senators asking them to support or oppose the plan.

Elementary Understanding

Florence Thompson, a mother of seven, sits with three of her children at a farm workers’ camp in Nipomo, Calif., in 1936.

Teachers said that even elementary students are being primed by news coverage and conversations at home to understand the importance of the Great Depression and the federal government’s response to it.

“This is the first year that when we are talking about recession and job loss, this isn’t something that happened all those years ago,” said Heather MacKenzie, a 5th grade teacher at Ola Elementary School in McDonough, Ga. “This is something happening to their neighbors and friend’s dad.” She said she doubled the amount of time to four one-hour lessons that she spends on the Great Depression and New Deal period.

In past years, she said, she focused on cultural aspects of the 1930s by having students read books set in the Depression such as Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, and look at the famous Dorothea Lange photos of impoverished families during that period. This year, she added a lesson about the economy.

“After the lesson, they were a little outraged that people would go to the bank to get their money and it wouldn’t be there. I think they were concerned because they had this image that if I put my money in the bank, it sits there just like in a piggy bank,” said Ms. MacKenzie, who explained to them that the U.S. government put safeguards in place in the 1930s to protect bank deposits.

While the current economic crisis has provided rich opportunities to provide connections between the present and the past, Gayle Y. Thieman, an assistant professor in education at Portland State University in Oregon, tells her teacher-candidates that they should include a connection to “the real world” within every history or social studies lesson.

“Every social-science lesson should have students’ developing multiple perspectives and engaging in substantive communication. They aren’t sitting and taking notes for 45 minutes. They solve problems. Every lesson should have a real-world connection,” she said.

Mr. Nash said it’s probably not possible to link every history lesson to the present, but it’s important to try to help students understand “that the study of history isn’t just a pastime. It prepares them to be active citizens.”

In teaching about the Depression era, he says, “What seems most relevant today is the role of the federal government in trying to rescue the country from a very deep recession. We’re not yet calling it the second Great Depression, but we are getting close. It’s the role of the federal government in this to try to right the ship, which is floundering.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Great Depression a Timely Class Topic


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