The Dust Bowl Experience: Analyzing Point of View: “Freak Show” from Out of the Dust

Amy Andrews, Chicago Public Schools
Jennifer Chisholm, District 65
Judy Koon, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
Sarah Salto, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
Corinne Rose, Museum of Contemporary Photography

Students will do a close reading of two photographs from the Dust Bowl period. Then they will discuss what historical fiction can reveal about the past. They will carry out a close reading of “Freak Show” from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse to understand how some individuals faced the challenges of the Dust Bowl. Students will then discuss how the point of view of a writer or an artist may differ from that of the subject. Finally, they will write in their journals to compare how Karen Hesse and Dorothea Lange each approached the task of conveying people’s experiences in the Dust Bowl.

Lesson Overview

Grade Levels: 5–8

Time Needed: 2 class periods, 40–50 minutes each

Background Needed

Students should have a general awareness of the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains region of the United States during the 1930s. These resources can be used to provide helpful background information:

You could also introduce Dorothea Lange’s work as a documentary photographer with these resources:

Essential Questions

  • How can a close reading of a text deepen our understanding?
  • What can photographs and historical fiction reveal to us about the Dust Bowl experience?
  • How can the point of view of an author or an artist differ from that of the person who is the subject of the work?

Enduring Understandings

  • Understanding a text’s structure and themes helps the reader make meaning of the text.
  • Key details reveal the content and tone of a text.
  • A person who is the subject of a photograph or another work of art may have a different point of view than the artist who created the work.

Standards Connections

Common Core State Standards

Anchor Standards in Reading: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/R/

  • CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 2: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2
  • CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 6: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
  • CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 7: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7

Anchor Standards in Writing: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/W/

  • CCSS-ELA Writing Anchor Standard 10: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10


  • Students will summarize key supporting details and ideas in images and texts about the Dust Bowl.
  • Students will evaluate content that is presented in diverse media and formats.
  • Students will analyze how an author’s purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Students will write to compare different ways that artists and writers convey people’s experiences in the Dust Bowl.

Key Vocabulary

  • documentary photography
  • point of view


In the Classroom

  • Karen Hesse, “Freak Show,” from Out of the Dust (New York: Scholastic Press, 1997), 170- Provide enough copies of the book so that students can read this excerpt in pairs or small groups.
  • a computer with Internet access
  • an interactive whiteboard or another classroom projector

Works of Art

Other Resources

Lesson Steps

  1. Have students look closely at Migrant Mother: Display the photograph (http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8b29516/). If students have not studied it before, explain that noted photographer Dorothea Lange made this image in 1936, when she was visiting camps of migrant workers in California. Choose from the following questions to help students look closely at the image or to review what they have already learned about it:
  • Describe what you see.
  • Where does your eye go first? Where does it go next? Why?
  • What do we learn about the people and the place in the photograph? What specific details provide this information?
  • What is the mood or feeling of this image? How is it communicated?
  • How would you describe Lange’s attitude toward the subject of this photo? What details reveal this?
  • The woman in the photo is named Florence Thompson. What thoughts and feelings do you think she might have had about being the subject of the photo?
  1. Have students look closely at another photograph: Display a photograph by Arthur Rothstein, Father and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma (http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsc.00241/). Use the following questions to guide students as they look closely at the image:
    • Describe what you see.
    • What details do you notice about the landscape?
    • Look closely at the building. What details show that it has changed from what it was before?
    • Look at the people in the image. What do you notice about the younger child? What do you notice about the other two people in the image?
    • The title of this image is Father and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma. It was made by Arthur Rothstein in April, 1936. What do you think the photographer wanted to express with this image?
  1. Discuss the purpose of historical fiction: Point out that these two photographs allow viewers to learn about a very difficult period in American history, a time when dust storms destroyed millions of acres of farmland and forced millions of people to move to other parts of the country. Explain that historical fiction can be another way to learn about the Dust Bowl. Ask these questions to lead a discussion about historical fiction.
  • What might we learn from historical fiction that might not be communicated in an informational text?
  • Historical fiction can combine or juxtapose people and events in a way that didn’t occur in real life, but that allow us to think about the time in new ways.
  • Fiction allows us hear a story from a specific point of view, and it can provide everyday details that allow us to visualize the period.
  • Fiction includes thoughts and dialogue so that we can imagine what people were thinking, feeling, and expressing to each other.
  • Through character, literary devices, plot structure and dialogue, fiction builds themes and big ideas.
  • Can historical fiction be “truthful” even it is made up? In what ways?
  • Informational text about the past is limited to documented historical evidence. But sometimes information might be lost and the author can offer possible scenarios about how things may have transpired.
  • Also, it is impossible to fully document what individuals were thinking and feeling—fiction allows us to understand what might be true.
  • How could historical fiction be misleading?
  • It might leave out important facts and events, or change facts so that the reader doesn’t know what really happened.
  • If it presents the point of view of only one character or a few characters, it might not offer a balanced view of the historical events or put them in a larger context.
  1. Read aloud “Freak Show” from Out of the Dust: If students are not yet familiar with this novel, explain that it is a work of historical fiction that is told through a series of poems. The fictional narrator is a 14-year-old girl named Billie Jo, and her life is revealed in the poems that she writes from January, 1934, through December, 1935. Read the poem “Freak Show” (pages 170-171) aloud to the class.
  1. Have students do a close reading of the text: Form pairs or small groups of students. Distribute copies of Out of the Dust and the Close Reading Graphic Organizer for “Freak Show”. Have them complete the graphic organizer as they work together to conduct a close reading of the poem. Invite students to share their responses to the questions on the graphic organizer.
  1. Make connections between “Freak Show” and Migrant Mother: Ask these discussion questions:
  • Do you like to have your picture taken? When you have your photograph taken, do you care how you appear?
  • In “Freak Show” from Out of the Dust, how do you think the narrator, Billie Jo, feels about her community being photographed by James Kingsbury? What details from the text support your thinking?
  • What connections can you make between Billie Jo and Florence Thompson, the real-life subject of Migrant Mother?
  • Would you be willing to become famous for something you were not proud of if you believed it might create a positive change in the world?
  • What are the themes or big ideas that Karen Hesse, the author of Out of the Dust, might be trying to share in this poem from the book?
  1. Have students address one or more of these questions in their writing journals:
  • What more have you learned about the people who lived through the Dust Bowl?
  • Both author Karen Hesse and photographer Dorothea Lange were trying to convey people’s experiences in the Dust Bowl. What is similar about their approaches? What is different?
  • Why is it important to consider the role of the artist or author when experiencing the work that he or she has created?

Extension Activities

  • Research the Documentary Photography of Dorothea Lange
    Have students research other works by Dorothea Lange. Have them create presentations that display several of her images and provide the historical context for those images.
  • Experience the Roles of Artist and Subject
    Have students work with partners to take pictures of each other in posed situations. Then have them write in their journals to compare what it was like to be the photographer and what it was like to be the subject of the photographs.

Additional Resources

“The Dust Bowl: A Film by Ken Burns,” Public Broadcasting Service, accessed August 14, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/