Ken Burns Classroom

Examining the Dust Bowl


The Dust Bowl was an environmental catastrophe that destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains throughout the 1930s and turned prairies into deserts. The Dust Bowl 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 understand the historical significance of the Dust Bowl by reviewing segments from the film and completing a worksheet activity.

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.

Lesson Procedure:

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.

Opening Activity—KWL Chart:

  1. Distribute the “Video Notes/Graphic Organizer” handout to all students.
  2. Review the instructions at the top of the handout and show students the introductory video segment (THE DUST BOWL introduction) or have them view it as homework. Have students complete the KWL chart in the handout and discuss what they know, and what they still want to discover in class. Save the “What I Learned” column for after the Video Viewing Activity.

Video Viewing Activity:

  1. Have students review video segments 2–5 and take notes on the graphic organizer either in class or as homework.
  2. Have students review the Discussion Questions on the handout either in groups or as a full class.
  3. Divide the class into groups of 2 or 3 students. Have them complete the third column in the KWL chart explaining what they’ve learned about the Dust Bowl.
    These can be single sentences rather than full explanations. Tell students they can write additional details of what they’ve learned on the back of the handout or on a separate sheet of paper.
  4. After groups have completed their “What I Learned” statements, distribute several index cards to each student.
  5. Have students develop a storyboard for a documentary that explains what they’ve learned from watching THE DUST BOWL video segments. The sequence of the storyboard should follow either a traditional essay-writing format (introduction – body – conclusion) or a news article format, in which, a wide view of the issue and sequencing down to specific details. Students can include illustrations on the index cards.
  6. Have students arrange their index cards as scenes in the documentary and present to the class.

Assessment Strategies:

  • Assess thoroughness in completing video notes and participation in class discussions
  • Evaluate storyboard development on the Video Viewing Activity.

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: Video Notes/Graphic Organizer

Instructions for Video Segment 1: THE DUST BOWL (series introduction)

This video serves as the introduction to THE DUST BOWL series. View the segment and develop the KWL chart below.

What I KNOW about the Dust Bowl What I WANT to Know about the Dust Bowl question prompts below write your own What I LEARNED about the Dust Bowl (save for of viewing activity)












Instructions for Video Segments 2–5: View the following video segments and take notes on the graphic organizer below. After you complete your notes, review the discussion questions included for each segment, and be ready to discuss those in class. You may wish to view the segments more than once in order to more completely answer the discussion questions and take notes on the segment.

Video Segment 2: “Recollections of No Man’s Land”

This video segment provides a description and history of the southern Plains to give you an idea of what the environment was like prior to human settlement.

a. What are some of the natural plants and animals that live in this environment?  


b. What do these plants and animals use for shelter?  


c. What do they use for food and water?  


d. What climate and weather factors influence plants and animals in this environment?  


e. In a short paragraph, describe the environment of the southern Plains.  


f. Document the ways humans influenced this environment from the 1600s to the early 1900s.  


Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Caroline Henderson wanted to start her future in this environment?
  • Would you want to live your life in this environment at this time in history?
  • How did different forms of human activity between 1500 and 1900 change the Great Plains?

Video Segment 3: “Boom Time”

  1. During the last years of land settlement on the southern Plains, land promoters promised that the very act of farming would increase the precipitation: “Rain follows the plow.” What exactly does that phrase mean?
    • Do you think such a thing is possible? Why or why not?
  2. How did the weather change the way people looked at the southern Plains?
  3. How did land speculators and their agents convince people that the southern Plains were changing and could sustain farming as well as livestock grazing?
  4. How did world events encourage the expansion of wheat farming in the southern Plains?

Discussion Questions:

  • Summarize the messages farmers received that changed their earlier belief that the southern Plains were not good for crop growing.
  • Identify other information that would disprove or at least question what people were saying about the economic viability of wheat farming on the southern Plains.
  • Why do you think many farmers didn’t heed the caution about farming on the southern Plains?

Video Segment 4: “Modern Machinery Changes the Southern Plains from Virgin Buffalo Grass to Millions of Acres of Wheat Fields”

This video segment shows how modern machinery made crop farming more profitable and changed the structure of the land. The result was more land speculation, more acreage turned over to wheat farming, and a blind faith that the good times wouldn’t end.

  1. Explain the environmental impact that modern plows had on the southern Plains.
  2. How did the ability to plow vast tracts of land change the economic value of the land in the southern Plains?

Discussion Questions:

  • Summarize the messages of those who doubted that the good economic times of the southern Plains would continue.
  • Why do you think they were not that optimistic that the good times would last forever?
  • Why do you think their warnings weren’t taken seriously?

Video Segment 5: “Environmental Catastrophe”

As the nation slipped into the Great Depression, farmers on the Great Plains slowly began to feel its effects. In 1930, the price of wheat per bushel dropped from a dollar to 70 cents. Farmers believed they could still make a profit by planting more wheat. But reduced rainfall and the environmental impact of plowing so much land led to massive dust storms that moved into the southern Plains with increased frequency and intensity.

  1. Document your reaction to the photos of the dust storms coming close to the towns in Texas and Oklahoma. Describe what you see and your thoughts if you had been there.
  2. Describe the impact of the dust storms on the environment of the southern Plains.
  3. Describe the impact of the dust storms on the economy of the southern Plains.
  4. Describe the impact of the dust storms on the people’s quality of life and emotional state.

Discussion Questions:

  • Discuss the changing conditions that began occurring in the late 1920s and early 1930s that led to the massive dust storms on the southern Plains. Identify the different natural factors and the human activities that contributed to these changes.
  • As people began to understand how the environment was changing due to the natural factors and human activities you identified, what actions could people have taken to reduce the impact of the dust storms?
  • Why do you think people continued to live on the southern Plains even though it became clear that the dust storms were getting worse?