Exploring Social Services

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
History, Language Arts, Civics
Small Group, Research, Community Action, Leadership, Cumulative


  • Students will understand the differences between social services available today and those available during the 1920s/30s.
  • Students will learn about different challenges and struggles faced by society and how those problems are addressed/have been addressed.


In “The Great Mountains,” Steinbeck implies several times that the Tiflins were struggling to make ends meet. These moments show that The Red Pony took place sometime during the 1920s/30s.

In this activity, students will examine how the Great Depression affected people like the Tiflins, Billy Buck, and Gitano. Through a short research project, students will compare what social services were available during the 1920s/30s with those that are available today.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • This project may take a shorter amount of time if computers can be used in the classroom, or if time in the school computer lab can be scheduled.
  • Consider doing the brainstorming work on large easel pads or butcher paper.
  • If doing the research portion of the activity in small groups, prepare groups prior to beginning the activity.

Estimated Time

This could be a one-period “web quest” activity, or it could span several days.


Warm-up activity: Find references to financial hardships in “The Great Mountains.”

  • Consider modifying this activity by using group-to-class or fishbowl methods. Assigning non-traditional roles for the discussions may also help.
  • Students may find more examples, but the following are the most common:
  • ~“This old man wore a blue denim coat buttoned to the throat with brass buttons, as all men do who wear no shirts” (43).
  • ~Gitano is traveling with almost no possessions.  
  • ~“‘I can’t afford food and doctor bills for an old man’” (45-46).
  • ~“… [Carl] explained, ‘I’m having a hard enough time keeping this ranch out of the Bank of Italy without taking on anybody else to feed’” (51).
  • Discussion topic: What kinds of help and support could people down on their luck find? What kinds of help and support could someone like Gitano find?
  • ~Answers will vary, particularly depending upon student knowledge of the Great Depression and the New Deal.
  • Follow-up question: What kinds of help and support exist today for people who are struggling
  • ~Again, answers will vary.
  • ~Unemployment, disability, and Social Security are good examples.  
  • ~Also, remember private support such as charities and other organizations.

Brainstorming activity: What kinds of problems/challenges does society face today?

  • Through class participation, create a list of problems and/or challenges that exist today.
  • ~Consider modifying this activity by using group-to-class or fishbowl methods. Assigning non-traditional roles for the discussions may also help.
  • ~It may help to consider local issues as well as state and national ones.
  • ~Consider allowing students to discuss hardships that are not related to only people (e.g. stray animals, animal abuse, public park funding, etc.).


  • This part of the activity can be done in class or can be assigned as homework.
  • Form small groups.
  • Each group should decide on one issue to research (with teacher approval).
  • Students begin researching their topic:
  • ~Define the problem or issue.
  • ~What solutions, programs, charities, etc. already exist?  
  • ~How effective are the solutions, programs, charities, etc. that already exist?
  • ~How can individuals help?
  • Have each group present a summary of their findings to the class.
  • ~Consider comparing what programs and support are available now with what was available during the 1930s.

Extension project

  • For ambitious teachers and students: as a class, choose a charity or program to support and plan a community service project.
  • ~This could be a blanket or coat drive, a painting or other beautification project, or some other form of volunteer work.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Have students design their own program to help solve the issue/problem they researched with their small groups.
  • Have students create a webpage devoted to their volunteer efforts.
  • Have students write newspaper articles reporting on their volunteer efforts.


  • Students should become aware of different local, state, and national issues which require programs, charities, and volunteers to help solve.
  • Students should be more aware of the hardships of the 1930s.


  • After reading “The Leader of the People,” discuss what kinds of social services existed when Jody’s grandfather came west.


  • How thoroughly did students search the story to find examples of financial hardship?
  • How thoroughly did students research their issue?
  • ~Were all the research questions addressed? How thoroughly?
  • This is a very participation-driven activity; students should be assessed on how often they participated.

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
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2, 4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9

Related Lesson Plans for this Work