Nonfiction Historical Pick: Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp

Children_of_Dustbowl_Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. New York: Crown, 1992. Print.

Plot:  In 1931, just as the Great Depression  hit, it stopped raining in the Oklahoma Panhandle. A severe drought and unrelenting winds made farming impossible and eventually hundreds of thousands of destitute families left the area for verdant California- the largest migration of people in U.S. history. With nothing but hope, the “Okies” arrived in California’s San Joaquin Valley to a hostile populace and very few jobs. Barred from local schools and living marginally in migrant camps, migrant children could not get an education.  Not until one man, touched by their plight, established an ‘emergency’ school for them by gathering donations, using his own resources, and having the children themselves construct the school.  The ‘Weedpatch School’ was a great success and a tremendous source of pride for the children- who, for the first time in their lives, had something to call their own.

Topics: History – U.S.- Depressions -1929-1941- Great Plains,  Dust Bowl Era, 1931-1939, History – California – 20th Century, Migrant Laborers – Children of, Education, Droughts.

Awards: Friends of Children and Literature (FOCAL) Award; Jefferson Cup Award; Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children; Spur Awards: Best Western Juvenile Nonfiction.

Review: This non-fiction historical work takes place at the emergency farm-labor camp immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Short of reading the classic, this documentary history gives readers a real sense of the hopeless depravity suffered by the migrants in a well-researched, richly conveyed, and easy-to-digest format. A great pick for anchoring further discussions on the Great Depression and the ‘dirty thirties’.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 1120 L, ATOS Book Level: 6.8, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 6.0, AR Interest Level: Middle Grade ; AR Book Level: 6.8

Qualitative Reading Analysis: Rated medium-low for knowledge demands, structure, meaning/purpose, and language features. Like a textbook, Children of the Dust Bowl is organized into fairly dense chapters with informative archival photographs, yet unlike a textbook it remains a compelling story from beginning to end. Large photographs, simple maps, song lyrics, and descriptive first-hand accounts help bring the “Okies” to life. Nine short chapters with plenty of white space that follow the Okie migration experience in a predictable chronological order will help offset the rather high Lexile rating of 1120. Readers will only need a basic level of preparation to situate this documentary history, but further teacher-led discussions will be required to fully integrate the story into the context of the Great Depression. Bypassing lengthy explanations of the larger economic and ecological factors contributing to the mass migration, the book zeros in on the inspiring story of the Weedpatch School, making it highly relatable to young readers.

Content/Subject Area & Standards: History- Social Science: 4.4: Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s– #5: Discuss the effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II on California.

English Language Arts- Reading Informational Text:

Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.

Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Curriculum Suggestions:

After reading Children of the Dustbowl, read (aloud in class) the March 12th, 2011 New York Times article, Itinerant Life Weighs on Farmworkers’ Children and discuss how the socio-economic issues of migrant labor continue to affect children in California today. [Sourced from:  Schulten, K. “Teaching Steinbeck and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with The New York Times” The Learning Network, The New York Times, 19 August, 2010. Web. 29, September, 2015.]

Pair Children of the Dust Bowl with the 2013 graphic novel, The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown, which relates the science behind the ‘dirty thirties’ that gave rise the the mass exodus of poor farmers out of the Oklahoma panhandle, and which highlights the potential of future similar ecological disasters. Alternatively, pair with Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan to compare the circumstances of the Mexican farm workers in southern California.

Many of the book’s photos were taken by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in order to document the lives of farm workers (see pg. 79). Expand on this by having students create a Pinterest board that tells the story of the of dust bowl, or of more recent migrant laborers using photos from Photos For, a free, safe (G-rated),high-quality, pre-cited/attribution-attached photos for students. Be sure to brainstorm a list of search terms that will find photos to convey the most important aspects of the story.

Have students listen to Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi song two times, and then pass out copies of the lyrics. Read the lyrics together and discuss situations Guthrie sings about that students discovered in the book. [Sourced from Colleen Carroll, children’s book author, curriculum writer-developer, and education consultant; Sleepy Hollow, New York. Random House Children’s Books. Web. 5 October, 2015.]

Supporting Content (Multimedia & Links):

Woody Guthrie singing “Do Re Mi” (2 min video [subtitled]): Woody Guthrie is famous for his songs telling the truth of the Dust Bowl period. This song, in particular, speaks to the ‘Oakies’ headed to a presumably better life in California: “Don’t swap your old cow for a car, you better stay right where you are…California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see; but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got the do re mi.” The archival photos of both Guthrie and the Dust Bowl storms are interesting, and the subtitles help with the lyrics (full text of the lyrics can be downloaded here). An engaging way to begin a discussion of the situations that students discovered in the book.

The Dust Bowl PBS Interactive (website): This is a comprehensive website hosted by PBS in support of the Ken Burns Film, The Dust Bowl. The photo gallery section highlights the important role of visual images in exposing social problems, with an excellent selection of Farm Security Administration photos, some of which students are likely to recognize from the book. An interactive component of the site allows you to ‘choose your own’ story by assuming the role of the protagonist and making your own choices, such as Things are going well- do you keep the farm the same size or expand the farm? Each choice leads down a different path, illuminating the various economic, social and environmental factors that came into play. The Legacy section focuses on the thought-provoking question, Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again? While not designed specifically for young students, the site is visually interesting with accurate information. Detailed lesson plans and classroom activities using the site’s content are available in the Educators section.

The Geography of the Great Depression (Activity): The National Archives’ Docs Teach program offers this interactive map with archival photos to help students see how the Great Depression affected Americans in different parts of the country. This simple activity that engages a student’s visual literacy and geography skills, can be completed in 5-10 minutes. By investigating both the common themes and the differences in the photographs from different parts of the country, students can begin to contextualize the Dust Bowl events in the wider context of the Great Depression. Afterwords, students may be interested in browsing through the rest of this important institution to discover thousands of primary sources on the Great Depression and WWII, or on California by historical era. This is an excellent resource for both students and teachers alike, providing high resolution digitization of primary sources alongside a summary of their significance.

Drought severity map for the period 1930-1934 (interactive map infographic): The National Centers for Environmental Information creates animated maps of drought conditions in the US by stitching together monthly, color-coded drought indices data. The result is a visually dynamic demonstration of just how dry the central plains area (and indeed the large majority of the US landmass) became at the height of the Dust Bowl period. The animation is set to run like a slide show, but controls allow the viewer to slow it down, speed it up, pause it, or view it frame by frame (month by month). I have it set to display Jan, 1930- August, 1934, but students can easily change the dates to anywhere from 1900 up to last month. Use this as a jumping off point to discuss drought conditions in California- then and now, tying the discussion back to the central question posed in the PBS/Ken Burns resource: Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again?


Haiku Deck Dust Bowl Presentation: The beauty of Haiku Deck presentation software is its limitation on words. It forces presenters into selecting words efficiently, which results in a ‘less-is-more’ type of impact. This is true of this particular Dust Bowl presentation, where elementary students are sure to pick up on important information without being overloaded. The question and answer format is effective and the photographs selected are interesting. Having students create their own Haiku Deck presentation would be a wonderfully instructive research activity, as they will have to sift, sort and prioritize the information they have on a particular topic. It would also work well as a way of practicing visual literacy, by selecting photos that best convey that slide’s content. Be aware that the photo selection utility automatically links out to Flickr to source photography, which may pose concerns, but ultimately reflects the reality of children using the world wide web, and could be a useful real-world exercise.




Tags: Book Review, INFO237,MS-History-SocSci,Nonfiction-Historical


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