Riding the Rails

Connecting with History
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 9–12
Language Arts, History, Economics, Art, Performing Arts
Individual, Small Group, Cumulative, Writing


  • Students will develop a more personalized understanding of the impact of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.
  • Students will connect the experiences of individuals during the Great Depression with the experiences of characters in Of Mice and Men.


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. However, in Of Mice and Men, the great migration of men, women, and children caused by the Depression and the Dust Bowl is more of a traditional element of setting – yet important nonetheless.

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 see and read about are those of teenagers during the 1930s. Like George and Lennie, 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.
  • ~If the class history book is insufficient, see The Great Depression in the context section.
  • A copy of the PBS American Experience documentary “Riding the Rails.”
  • ~More information about “Riding the Rails,” including a complete transcript, can be found on the PBS website.
  • Copies of “Letters from the Boxcar Boys and Girls of the Great Depression.”
  • Copies of Pre-documentary Journal/Discussion Topics and Conversation Map (optional)
  • Copies of Post-documentary Journal/Discussion topics and Conversation Map (optional).

Estimated Time

  • 1 hour and 12 minutes to view the documentary
  • 1-3 class periods for activities


Prior to watching the documentary

  • Journal entry/discussion: What is homelessness? What prejudices are there about the homeless? Why are people homeless?
  • Consider bringing in current articles on homelessness to share with the class.
  • Consider providing these questions to the class as an advance organizer prior to watching the documentary.
  • Consider providing a conversation map for students to use.

Watch the documentary.

Post documentary

  • Journal entry/discussion: Why were teenagers homeless during the Depression? Why did they ride the rails? What was life like for teenage hobos?
  • ~Consider providing these questions to the class as an advance organizer prior to watching the documentary.
  • ~Consider providing a conversation map for students to use.
  • Individually or in small groups:
  • ~Have students create a list of everything their parents provide for them (essentials as well as luxuries).
  • ~Have students brainstorm what life would be like with no one to care for them. What would they have to do in order to survive? Assign or have students do one of the following:
  • ~~Write a diary entry about a day in their life on their own. Consider allowing students to do this in the style of postings to social networking.
  • ~~Write and perform a one act play about a day in their life on their own.
  • ~~Write and perform an interview about a day in their life on their own.
  • ~~After having listened to period music, have students compose their own song, poem, etc. about a day in their life on their own.
  • ~~Have students create a poster, drawing, or some other artistic rendition about a day in their life on their own.
  • Allow time for sharing, critiquing, and discussing what students produce. This can be done as a pair share or in small groups.

Writing/discussion topic: How do the experiences of hobos in “Riding the Rails” compare with the experiences of Lennie and George?  

  • This prompt can be used if this activity is done after completing the novel.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activities

  • See Leaving Home
  • See Why California?
  • See The American Dream
  • Have students research information on homelessness and then compare and contrast homelessness today and homelessness as seen in “Riding the Rails” and Of Mice and Men.


  • 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.
  • Students should have a stronger understanding of life as a migrant farm worker while reading Of Mice and Men.
  • Students should have a greater awareness of homelessness today.


  • How well do students understand the life of teenage hobos as seen in “Riding the Rails”?
  • For writing assignments, evaluate how well students adhered to the proper style for their prompt.
  • Quiz on “Riding the Rails”

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, 2, 3
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 9
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4, 5, 6
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standards of English: 1, 2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 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: 7, 8, 9

Related Lesson Plans for this Work