Ken Burns Classroom

Examining the Dust Bowl and Other Environmental Events Through Story

Lesson Overview:

The Dust Bowl was an environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that for many seemed to herald the end of the world. It was the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.

In this lesson, students will research and produce their own narrative that describes an environmental event, either recent or in the past, in their local community. This narrative can take one of the following forms:

  • Short video documentary
  • Storyboards for a documentary that follow a traditional essay-writing format: Introduction/Thesis Statement, Body/Topics and supporting evidence, and Conclusion
  • Essay
  • Informational website or blog
  • Slide presentation
  • Traditional oral presentation

Students will brainstorm a list of events in their community that involve human activity, natural disasters, and/or human and natural disasters; research the event; conduct a field study to gather data; and, finally, compile the information into a documentary. (Note: If students are not able to conduct the local field study research in this lesson, they can still produce a final project on a local or national environmental event).

Materials Needed to Complete the Lesson:

  • Computers with Internet access for research
  • Video editing software, if applicable
  • PowerPoint, if applicable
  • Digital Storytelling (optional): How to Create Storyboards

Lesson Objectives:

The student will:

  • Examine the Dust Bowl event as an ecology case study on how natural and human- caused factors changed an environment.
  • Explore a familiar local environment and understand the connections in that environment.
  • Research how a natural disaster, human activity, or a combination of both caused environmental change in a local area.
  • Document the changes to the local environment and formulate a presentation.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Provide a brief introduction to the lesson by instructing students to examine the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. In the process, students will learn how climatic cycles and human activity combined to create the worst natural and environmental disaster in American history. You may choose to watch the following video segment introduction to the Dust Bowl as a class: The Dust Bowl: Introduction.
  2. Explain to students that they will investigate an environmental event, either recent or in the past, in their local community. They will take a broad look at environmental change: this could involve natural disasters, human activity, or natural disasters with human activity. This change may or may not be negative or transformative. It might just be a change in land use from natural to human activity. Select several events that occurred in your community (either recently or historically) where human activity and/or natural disasters have had an effect on the environment, or have students brainstorm a list of these events. Then research an event, conduct a field study to gather more data, and compile information into a final project: an essay/narrative on the subject, a storyboard for a documentary on the subject, a video documentary, website or blog, a slide presentation, or a traditional oral presentation.
  3. As a class, and taking inspiration from the categories below, identify a list of local events where the environment has experienced some type of change:
    • Human activity (housing subdivisions, business park construction, new roads, introducing farmland in wilderness areas, mining, oil/gas drilling, logging, etc.)
    • Natural disasters (fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides, climate change, weather pattern change, drought, flood, etc.)
    • Human environmental disasters (chemical or oil spills, landslides, over-plowing, clear-cutting, nuclear power plant accidents, over-fishing, garbage dumping,
    • etc.)
      Natural disasters where human activity caused or exacerbated the natural disaster (hurricanes and weak levies, sea tides and oil/chemical spills, poor building construction and earthquakes)
  4. Distribute the handout “Producing Your Documentary” to all students and review.
  5. Form groups of 3 or 4. Have each group select one environmental event from the list. As an alternative, you can have the entire class document one event, dividing the different tasks outlined in the student handout.
  6. Provide time for students to conduct background research on the area following the “5 Ws and H” research method to create and answer questions. Major events can be researched in local media outlets. Smaller events can be researched through local resources like history societies, city or county planning boards, local EPA chapters, or local chapters of environmental groups.
  7. Mapping Activity: using Google Maps (or an equivalent), have students map the site to document its location (latitude and longitude), size, shape, proximity to populated areas, and location.
  8. Field Experience: Students will go to the location to observe and record notes. Before having students visit the site of the event, guide them in obtaining any necessary permission from property owners or officials who control the site. The field experience is an important component of this lesson, but if students are not able to conduct the field experience, they can still complete the other tasks in the activity.
  9. Producing the final project: Whether you have students produce a documentary, a website or blog, a slide presentation, or a traditional oral presentation, have them follow the guide on the student handout to compile their information.

Assessment Strategies:

  • Asses thoroughness in completing video notes and participation in class discussions
  • Evaluate storyboard development on the Video Viewing Activity.Evaluate students’ documentaries on their construction, including historical accuracy, spelling and grammar, aesthetic aspects of the presentation, etc. Sample rubrics for digital documentary or traditional oral presentation that can be used as is or adapted to meet the
  • teacher’s needs are included at the end of the lesson.


  • Have students hold a film festival to present their documentaries to the community or have them broadcast their documentaries on a local cable access channel. They could invite local environmental supporters, government officials, and members from local industries or commercial development projects to comment on the productions.
  • Have students screen other environmental documentaries on major natural or human-made disasters. How do their documentaries compare with those produced? Have them conduct an evaluation of one of these documentaries, examining how facts are presented, the balance or bias in the presentation, the flow coherence of the documentary’s story, and its effectiveness in telling the story.


  • America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945:
  • Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Education (PLACE)

Related Academic Standards:

This lesson meets the following standards set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) (


  • Standard 16: Understands how the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society
  • Standard 22: Understands how the United States changed between the post- World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression

Historical Understanding:

  • Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

Visual Arts:

  • Standard 1: Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts


  • Standard 1: Understands the characteristics and uses of maps, globes, and other geographic tools and technologies
  • Standard 2: Knows the location of places, geographic features, and patterns of the environment
  • Standard 4: Understands the physical and human characteristics of place
  • Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: Producing Your Documentary

Producing a documentary is an excellent method for expressing your ideas and what you’ve learned. Documenting your findings not only helps you strengthen your understanding of a topic, event, or idea, it also helps others understand what you know and helps educate them on the issues, problems, or concerns you are trying to address.

Use the following guide to produce your documentary on the environmental event in your community.

Research Your Event:

  1. Start your research by getting some basic understanding of the event. Use the “5 Ws and H” research method (Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?) to develop questions and answers regarding the event. Some of this information you might already know.
  2. Go deeper in your research by gathering the following information:
    1. What was the cause of the event?
    2. How long did the event last and how long have its effects been felt?
    3. If the event caused a problem, what efforts have been made to address the problem and by whom?
    4. How has the event affected people in the area?
    5. What are the opinions people have about the event, the change, or any of the problems?
    6. What action has been taken on the site after the event?
    7. What are people’s opinions of the actions taken?
    8. What further or different actions do people think should be taken?
  3. Consult media archives (television, radio, print) at your library and on the Internet for more information. Also consider contacting or visiting local historical societies, local environmental quality agencies and environmental groups. Obtain any photographs, maps, and descriptions. Consider recording interviews with individuals knowledgeable about the event. If the event involves some controversy, obtain information and interviews that reflect all sides of the controversy.
  4. Record all your data in an information log. Document examples to support the information you gathered in step two. Remember to record your sources for later identification.
  5. Develop a map of the area using mapping tools like Google Maps or others listed in the resources section below. Document the area’s location, size, shape, proximity to populated areas, and location within the state with an inset map. If possible, compile historical maps and descriptions of the area before and after the event.

Field Experience:

Before you visit the site of the event, work with your teacher to obtain any necessary permission from property owners or officials who control the site.

  1. If possible, take a trip out to the site and become familiar with the area. Look at your map(s) and identify areas you see.
  2. Record your observations of the site in its current condition using the following guide. Take photos, video, and notes.
    1. General description of the site (natural and human-made)
    2. Describe any changes caused by the event, by observing and recording differences in the environment that have occurred since that time. These could be any initial changes caused by the event and any subsequent changes or developments.
    3. Record any relationships between different elements in the environment and how the event might have affected these relationships. (For example: What is the relationship between the birds and trees in the area? How has clear-cutting affected both? What are the relationships between people and the environment, and what has been the effect of each on the other?)
    4. Record your personal reactions to your observations of the event and its effects on the environment.

Producing the Documentary:

Whether you produce your documentary as a video production, a website or blog, a slide presentation, or a traditional oral presentation, use the following guide to compile your information.

  • Background on the site location and the environmental event
  • Examples of the site before and after the event
  • Summary of the changes caused by the event
  • Different viewpoints of the event and its effects
  • Any actions taken since the event
  • Different viewpoints on the actions taken (or not taken)
  • What further actions people think should be taken
  • Your thoughts on the event, its changes, and actions taken

Handout: Documentary Production Rubric

CATEGORY 4 3 2 1
Effectiveness Project includes all material needed to gain comfortable understanding the topic. It is a highly effective study guide. Project includes most material needed to gain comfortable understanding the material but is lacking one or two key elements. It is adequate study guide. Project is missing more than two key elements. It would make an incomplete guide. Project is several key elements and inaccuracies make it a poor study guide.
Content – Accuracy All content throughout the presentation is accurate. Thereare no factual errors. Most of the content is accurate but is one piece of information that might be inaccurate. The content is generally accurate but piece of information is clearly flawed inaccurate. Content is typically confusing or contains more than one factual error.
Sequencing of Information Information is organized in a clear, logical way. It is easy anticipate the type of material that might be on the next card. Most is organized in clear, logical way. One card item of information seems out of place. Some information is logically sequenced. An occasional card or item of information seems out of place. There is no plan for the organization of information.
Spelling and Grammar Presentation no misspellings or grammatical errors. Presentation 1–2 but no grammatical errors. Presentation 1–2 errors but no misspellings. Presentation more than 2 grammatical and/or spelling errors.
Originality of Production Presentation shows considerable originality and inventiveness. The content and ideas are presented in a unique and interesting way. Presentation shows some originality and inventiveness. The content and ideas are presented in an interesting way. Presentation shows an at originality inventiveness 1–2 cards. Presentation is rehash of other people’s ideas and/or graphics and shows very little attempt at original thought.
Cooperation Group Group tasks and responsibility effectively all of the time. Group tasks and responsibility effectively most of the time. Group tasks and responsibility effectively of the time. Group often is not effective in delegating tasks and/or sharing responsibility.
Digital Camera Use (optional) Picture is high quality. The subject is in focus, centered, and of an appropriate size compared to other objects in the picture. Picture is good quality. The subject is not quite in focus it is clear what the picture is about. The pictures of marginal quality. The subject is in focus but it is clear what the picture is about. No picture OR picture of poor quality.

Handout: Dust Bowl Oral Presentation Rubric

CATEGORY 4 3 2 1
Preparedness Student is completely prepared and has obviously rehearsed. Student seems pretty prepared but might have needed a couple more The student is somewhat prepared, but it is clear that rehearsal was lacking. Student does not seem at all prepared to present.
Content Shows a full understanding of the topic. Shows a good understanding of the topic. Shows a good understanding of parts of the topic. Does not seem to understand the topic very well.
Comprehension Student is able to accurately answer almost all questions posed by classmates Student is able to accurately answer most questions posed by classmates Student is able to accurately answer a few questions posed by classmates Student is unable to accurately answer questions posed by
Speaks Clearly Speaks clearly and distinctly all (95–100%) the time and mispronounces no words. Speaks clearly and distinctly all (95–100%) the time but mispronounces one word. Speaks clearly and distinctly most (85–94%) of the time Often mumbles or cannot be understood
Posture and Eye Contact Stands up straight, looks relaxed and confident. Establishes eye contact with everyone in the room Stands up straight and establishes eye contact with everyone in the room during the presentation. Sometimes stands up straight and establishes eye contact. Slouches and/or does not look at people during the presentation.