The Great Depression in Images

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 9–12
Language Arts, History, Art History
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Cumulative


  • Students will examine the historical realities of the Great Depression that inspired John Steinbeck.


During the Great Depression, artists, writers, historians, and photographers were employed under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA). They traveled the country capturing the lives and histories of the people and places, leaving a wealth of images and firsthand accounts.

John Steinbeck read reports, saw photographs, and toured migrant worker camps across California seeing the struggles of everyday people. What he saw made him angry and inspired him to write The Grapes of Wrath.

Relevant Sections

  • Description of the girl cooking breakfast Tom’s first morning in Weedpatch: Chapter 22 (289)
  • Description of Ma: Chapter 22 (322)

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

2 class periods


Warm up

  • Read the description of the girl cooking on page 289 and of Ma on page 322.
  • Look at Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” collection.
  • ~What do you see in the images that are seen in the two excerpts from chapter 22?
  • ~What do you think Steinbeck is trying to convey with these images?


  • Locate other photos of migrant workers and migrant camps during the Great Depression.
  • ~Refer to the Library of Congress links above
  • ~Look for images of people, the conditions they lived and worked in, of camps, farming, the weather, etc.
  • Create a photo presentation
  • ~Use images that reflect descriptions in The Grapes of Wrath
  • ~~Be specific, what examples from the text are represented in the photograph?
  • ~Use images that perhaps show a different perspective than what is found in the novel
  • ~~Be specific, how are these images different from the descriptions Steinbeck employs?

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • By researching images of the Great Depression (and not just the famous images), students will gain a visual understanding of the realities of the time.


  • Return to and continue this exercise after completing the novel.


  • Read “Breakfast” by John Steinbeck (published in The Long Valley).
  • Compare Steinbeck’s description of the scene with the description of Tom’s breakfast with Wilkie and Timothy (289-292).


  • Assess students based on the analysis of the images.
  • ~Are they citing specific examples from the text?
  • ~Do the scenes and descriptions they site correlate to the images? Are there better, stronger examples in the text?

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1,2,3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7,8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 2
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • ~Presentation and Knowledge of Ideas: 4
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8, 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 2
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5

Related Lesson Plans for this Work