Migrant Workers and the Great Depression – Why California?

Connecting with History
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 8–12
Language Arts, History
Individual, Small Group, Primary Source, Document Analysis, Introductory


  • Students will understand why people migrated West during the Depression.
  • Students will gain an understanding of the mythical image of California and the West.
  • Students will develop a more personalized understanding of the impact of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.


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. Why then did so many people uproot their lives and head to California and the West? Using first-hand accounts archived in the Library of Congress, students will attempt to help answer this question.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

1-2 class periods


  • Consider allowing students to work in pairs or in small groups.
  • Discussion starter/journal entry:
  • ~Imagine that you had lost your job, your home, and even your land. What factors would pull you to migrate to another city, county, state, or even country?
  • ~Take time for a short discussion or sharing session.
  • Post the Why California? Organizer guiding questions on the board or distribute as a handout.
  • ~Why did the person being interviewed leave his/her home? (push factors)
  • ~Where did he/she go? Why?
  • ~What was life like once he/she arrived? Did this live up to expectations? Example/proof.
  • ~How does this relate to the novel? Example/proof.
  • ~~Skip this prompt if this activity is being done as part of the introduction to the novel.
  • Play one of the interviews.
  • ~Students should be taking notes using the guiding questions as an advance organizer.
  • ~Give students some time to finish writing once the audio clip has finished.
  • Share out answers:
  • ~Allow time for students to share their answers out loud to the class.
  • ~To help students prepare to share, consider allowing a brief amount of time to pair share.
  • ~Allow for time to discuss/react to the audio clip and/or the answers other students shared. See group-to-class discussion for more ideas on how to facilitate this activity.
  • ~Consider using the "fishbowl" activity for this discussion.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Interview: Have students work in pairs to script out an interview of their own. “Why did you come to California?”
  • Interview: Have students interview a family member who has immigrated or migrated.
  • Propaganda and Boosterism: Have students create advertisements, brochures, pamphlets, etc. that promote moving West.
  • Letters Home: Imagining that they have now arrived in the West, have students write home about the realities of life in California/the West during the Great Depression.
  • Have students compare and contrast the experiences and motivations in the interviews with those of characters in the novel.


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


  • How well did students understand the different push and pull factors involved in migration during the Great Depression?
  • How well did students provide proof for their conclusions? Did they reference parts of the interviews 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 Standard 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

Additional Information

Bibliography of audio files used in this activity.

Related Lesson Plans for this Work