Migrant Workers and the Great Depression - Leaving Home

Connecting with History
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 7–12
History, Language Arts, Art
Individual, Small Group, Primary Source, Document Analysis, Introductory


  • Students will improve their document analysis skills.
  • Students will connect the experiences of individuals during the Great Depression to the experiences of characters in The Grapes of Wrath.


The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl uprooted hundreds of thousands of Americans. At its worst, the Depression saw 25% of the work force unemployed. People lost not only their jobs, but their homes, their land, and any savings they might have had.

The average person struggling to survive the Depression is a common theme in the writings of Steinbeck. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Depression and the Dust Bowl are virtually characters in the novel, shaping the lives of the Joads and others around them.

Several hundred thousand people fled North and West during the 1930s. Yet these regions were not immune from the effects of the Depression. This activity is meant to expand students’ analytical skills and to give them a greater understanding of life during the Great Depression. The experiences that they will read about are those of teenagers during the 1930s. Like the Joad family, these teenagers are on the move finding temporary work where they can.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Review what students know about the Great Depression and the migration that it caused.
  • Read The Great Depression article here on the Steinbeck in the Schools site.
  • Copies of “Letters from Boxcar Boys and Girls of the Great Depression.”
  • Students should already have practiced analyzing documents and should be familiar with the Document Analysis process.
  • This activity could also be used as a first introduction to the Document Analysis process; if so, plan for it to take more time.
  • Copies of "Leaving Home Organizer" (optional)

Estimated Time

2 class periods (can be shortened if need be.)


  • Distribute or post questions on the board (consider doing this the day before the activity as an advance organizer).
  • ~Along with the Document Analysis process, students should be guided towards some essential questions (see below for sample/starter questions). If the class is not ready to go into the depth of the Document Analysis format, consider adding more specific questions/expanding the sample questions.
  • ~~Why did the author leave home?
  • ~~Based on what the author wrote, what was life like during the Great Depression?
  • ~~How did the Great Depression affect the author? The author’s family?
  • ~~What themes of the Great Depression are demonstrated in the document?
  • Create groups, partners, etc. and assign each a document to analyze (consider doing this the day before the activity).
  • Distribute documents.
  • ~Each student should have her/his own copy of each of the documents.
  • Give students time to silently read their document prior to beginning to work with partners (consider assigning as homework the day before the activity).
  • Give students time to analyze the document.
  • ~Use the Document Analysis handout.
  • ~Refer to the specific questions (see above).
  • ~Students should be marking up their document, taking notes, answering the questions, and marking specific examples to support their conclusions.
  • Give students time to read the other documents.
  • Share out to the class.
  • ~Each group should share their findings to the class.
  • ~To help students to prepare, consider allowing time for a pair share.
  • ~It may be helpful to allow each group to choose a spokesperson.
  • ~Students in other groups take notes on these findings.
  • ~Questions and discussions should be encouraged.
  • For classes that are not ready for this level of analysis, have students work in groups to create a poster, drawing, or some other artistic rendition of one of the letters.
  • ~Students should use the guiding questions (see above) to help them create their poster, drawing, etc.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Have students create a poster, drawing, or some other artistic rendition of one of the letters.
  • Have students compose their own letters, as if they were leaving home during the Depression.
  • After having listened to Period Music, have students compose their own song, poem, etc. about leaving home or life riding the rails.


  • Students should come away from this activity with a sense of how the Great Depression affected teenagers. The idea is for them to be able to relate to George and Lennie in a more personal way.


  • Have students compare and contrast the experiences and motivations in “Letters from Boxcar Boys and Girls of the Great Depression” with those of characters in the novel.


  • As this is an on-going skill, it is important to consider the overall progress of individual students.
  • Was the Document Analysis process complete (all steps)?
  • How well did students provide proof for their conclusions? Did they reference passages in the letters that support their ideas?

California State Content Standards Met

  • History and Social Science Content Standards 11
  • ~Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government:  3
  • History-Social Science Content Standards 6-8
  • ~Research, Evidence, and Point of View:  1, 4

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details:  1, 2
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge:  8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration:  1, 2, 3
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details:  1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure:  6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:  8
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes:  1

Related Lesson Plans for this Work