Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives Educational Curriculum
SCIENCE: Causes of the Dust Bowl
Woody Guthrie sings, "On the fourteenth day of April of 1935, there struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky. You could see that dust storm coming, the cloud looked death-like black and through our mighty nation it left a dreadful track." (The Great Dust Storm). In "Dust Can't Kill Me" he laments, "This old dust storm it's a kickin' up cinders, this old dust storm cuttin' down my wheat, this old dust storm it pushed my shack down, but it didn't get me, girl, it can't stop me."
Devastating images of the dust bowl traditionally show dark clouds enveloping farm houses and livestock. Other scenes depict piles of sand covering fences and piled high against sheds. We have a tendency to blame the dust bowl on natural causes, overlooking the role of humanity. What are the causes of the dust bowl? Can it happen again?
Here is a group of thematic ways to approach the science of dust bowls. Some are straight forward charts of "human causes-natural causes" while others are more creative responses such as charcoal drawings or creating a newspaper dated April 14, 1935. When taken together, these lessons reflect Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences and allow the student to internalize the information.
There are excellent websites providing the facts on the causes of the dust bowl which covered six states during the 1930's.
Start with The Dust Bowl. This site features documentary photos from the Farm Security Administration as well as interviews of survivors.
Voices from the Dust Bowl uses material from the Library of Congress such as interviews and recordings of migrant workers in California labor camps.
Discovery Channel Online developed a four part series chronicling the storm of April 14, 1935. This series can be coupled with a timeline and maps found on the PBS website. A segment on the reform of the plains by journalist John McCarty is included.
Finally,the USDA-ARS Wind Erosion Research Unit shows the wind erosion problem on the plains and the role of agriculture.
These websites can compliment books found in the bibliography found on the Woody Guthrie Archives as well as almanacs and research done by students in the school library.
A good activity to guide or culminate lessons on the dust bowl would be a whole class discussion facilitated by the teacher using a big chart paper with the question, "What Caused the Dust Bowl?" Prepare it in two columns with "Humans" at the top of one side and "Nature" on the other. As students give reasons for the dust bowl, write them in the appropriate column. Natural causes will include lack of rain, or drought, and winds. Human factors may include unsound agricultural practices, specifically overgrazing, overplowing and removal of native grasses, constant planting of the same crops which depleted the soil, tractors which removed topsoil, destruction of the natural prairie, dependence on cotton or wheat year after year, lack of technological advances , poor land sold for farming, reduced diversity of the ecosystem.
This would be a good time to introduce alternatives to destructive land uses, such as crop rotation, irrigation techniques and no-till farming. Guest speakers could come to your class and talk about alternative land uses.
Could the dust bowl happen again? Yes! Currently in Lamar, Colorado (see the front page of the New York Times, May 3, 2002) there are dust bowl conditions. Also, there are dust bowls developing in China. Causes are similar to those of the 30's.
What mistakes do people make today with regard to the land? Unsound agricultural practices continue. So do unsound logging practices, strip mining, overgrazing, the use of agrochemicals and pesticides, high water consumption, destruction of rain forests, over consumption of non-renewable resources. Students can branch out into issues of ecology and stewardship of the earth. Look into local ecology groups who can link your class with special hands-on projects.
If your town has destructive practices relating to land use, have your students write letters. They can also complete positives actions like planting a butterfly garden, planting a vacant lot with wildflowers or native grasses.
Using black pastels and gray paper, students can draw scenes of the dust bowl including as many details as they can. Afterwards, display all the pictures and have the students share.
Have students dress up like children of the 1930's and act out scenes of the dust bowl. They can create dialogue or improvise.
Use a response sheet (see templates) of a newspaper for "The Dust Bowl News", dated April 14, 1935. Students write their own headlines and articles including the weather report.
On a giant sheet of chart paper write the headline, "Dust Bowl News" and a date from the thirties. During language arts students may come and add a sentence or two about how their family is being affected by the dust bowl, as if they are living back then.
Using first person, students write letters to relatives explaing what is going on with their family farms and during the dust bowl.
Study the images created by photographer Dorothea Lange. Provide black and white film and cameras and have students document their own neighborhoods.
Sing the following Woody Guthrie songs about the dust bowl:
Based on the reality of the dust bowl and the resources and bibliography, students write poems reflecting their feelings and thoughts about the dust bowl. The whole class can have a poetry reading and share out loud, later making copies of the poems to make a class book.
On a map of the United States, color in with pencil the states affected by the dust bowl. Add physical features of the area.
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