The Dust Bowl Experience: Dust Bowl Writing Project

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

This lesson is designed as a culminating activity about the Dust Bowl. It allows students to synthesize their learning by recreating the voices of those who experienced the Dust Bowl. First, students will recap what they have learned about the Dust Bowl. Then they will consider how the events of that time might have affected different people within a community. Students will generate a list of possible characters in a fictional Dust Bowl community. Each student will choose a character and conduct research to find details that will make the character more realistic. Then each student will write a text in the voice of that character, using a RAFT organizer and rubric to guide their writing. Students will revise and edit their work and present it to the class.

Lesson Overview

Grade Levels: 5–8

Time Needed: 2–3 class periods, 40–50 minutes each

Background Needed

Students should have previously learned about the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl and the experiences of the people who lived through it. The following resources can be used to provide this instruction before students begin this lesson:

Essential Questions

  • How were people’s experiences of the Dust Bowl affected by their roles in society?
  • How did people’s different experiences help shape their points of view about the Dust Bowl?
  • How can writing narratives and informational texts about the Dust Bowl create a deeper, more complex understanding of this era?

Enduring Understandings

  • Learning about the Dust Bowl can help us understand how people endure and survive when faced with disaster.
  • Primary sources deepen our knowledge by helping us understand important historical events from different points of view.
  • Studying the past helps us to better understand the present world and the future.


  • Students will produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Students will develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  • Students will integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Key Vocabulary

  • point of view
  • primary source

Standards Connections

Common Core State Standards

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

  • CCSS-ELA Writing Anchor Standard 4: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4
  • CCSS-ELA Writing Anchor Standard 5: ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.5

Anchor Standards in Speaking and Listening: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/SL/

  • CCSS-ELA Speaking and Listening Anchor Standard 2: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2


In the Classroom

  • a computer with Internet access
  • an interactive whiteboard or another classroom projector

Works of Art

Other Resources

AACL Links

Websites for Student Research

Lesson Steps

  1. Recap what students have learned about the Dust Bowl: Invite students to share what they have learned about life during the Dust Bowl. Ask them how the images, primary source documents, videos, and other sources they have examined have helped them understand the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl and its impact on millions of people.
  1. Discuss the particular hardships that people in a Dust Bowl community would have faced:
  • What would different members of the community have observed during and after a dust storm? For example, think about what a doctor, farmer, storeowner, child, teacher, banker, or mother would have noticed.
  • How did people get their news at that time? How and when would they learn about the dust storms?
  • How did the dust storms affect their homes and businesses?
  • Where did they get their clothes and food? How could the dust storms affect that?
  1. Have students create a list of characters: Using historic images as source material, have students create a list of characters in a fictional farming community affected by the Dust Bowl. Students can examine FSA photographs from the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/index/subjects/d/) or Dust Bowl images from PBS (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/photos/) for further inspiration. Characters could include children, newspaper or radio reporters, musicians, farmers, storeowners, doctors, teachers, documentary photographers, bankers, or other people in the community. Then have students look at the list of characters and generate some specific questions they would like to ask each character about his or her experiences during the Dust Bowl. Record the questions so students can refer to them as they conduct their research.
  1. Use the RAFT Organizer and Rubric to describe the task: Tell students they will bring the Dust Bowl to life by choosing a character, conducting research to create a realistic portrayal of the character, and writing a text in the voice of that character. Distribute copies of the Dust Bowl Writing Project RAFT Organizer and Rubric. Explain that their writing should do the following:
  • Role: The writing should be from the point of view of a specific character in the community.
  • Audience: The writing should be directed to a particular audience.
  • Format: The writing should be in a specific format, such as a letter, a multimedia presentation, or a speech.
  • Topic: The writing should focus on a particular topic related to the Dust Bowl.

Go through a few examples on the organizer. Students may choose one of these examples or create their own character and writing task by filling in the role, audience, format, and topic in the blank row at the bottom. Go through the rubric so that students will understand the expectations.

  1. Have students conduct research: Allow students time to conduct research in order to build a realistic understanding of their characters and their experiences in the Dust Bowl. Students can use the questions generated about each character to guide their research. The Lesson Overview includes links to websites with photographs, videos, audio recordings, articles, and primary source documents that will help students “flesh out” the characters they have chosen.
  1. Have students write and edit their work: Have students write a first draft. Provide time for peer editing in pairs or small groups, using the rubric as a guide. Then have students revise and edit their writing to prepare a final draft.
  1. Share students’ writing with the class: Have students present their final written work to their classmates by displaying it or reading it aloud. Students might create or bring in objects and items of clothing to help bring their characters to life. Invite the class to respond to their classmates’ writing orally or in a journal, reflecting on what they’ve learned about life during the Dust Bowl.