Ken Burns Classroom

Understanding The New Deal

Lesson Overview:

In the mid-1930s, the southern Plains were gripped by drought, high winds, and massive dust storms that threatened the health and safety of tens of thousands of people. To aid in the crisis, the Roosevelt administration was willing to experiment, see what worked, abandon what didn’t and move on. But these solutions sometimes ran afoul with political opponents who felt government shouldn’t step in or objected to the cost, or felt the solutions didn’t go far enough. Groups affected by the Dust Bowl had varied views about how to solve the problems, but which solution provided the most effective remedy? How could different groups deliberate a common solution?

In this activity, students will view four segments from Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl that explore the Dust Bowl, New Deal programs, and government relief and reform during the Great Depression. Students will answer questions and complete the corresponding activity sheets.

Lesson Objectives:

The student will:

  • Analyze liberal and conservative political philosophies
  • Describe the views of various groups regarding the causes and solutions for Dust Bowl problems
  • Complete activity sheets related to information shared in four segments from Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl

Lesson Methodology:

  1. Begin the lesson by reminding students that President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to solve Depression-era problems by providing government solutions via “relief,” “recovery,” and “reform.” Explain to the class the meaning behind each of FDR’s “Three R’s.”
    • Relief: Actions the government can take to solve the immediate problem, in this case, the destruction of people’s livelihoods caused by the Dust Bowl.
    • Recovery: Actions by government to return people and the land back to their condition prior to the Dust Bowl.
    • Reform: Policies created by government to ensure that destruction caused by the Dust Bowl does not recur in the future.
  2. Conduct a class discussion in which students identify New Deal agency legislation that fits one of the “Three R’s”. Ask students why their selection is a good example of “relief,” “recovery,” or “reform.”
  3. Ask students to view the four video clips and complete the “Video Notes/ Discussion
    Organizer” on the segments, answering the content and discussion questions. (Note: You may also assign the video segments as homework to allow students to view the clips multiple times or pause the clip if needed to write notes or answer questions. You may want to make arrangements for students without home Internet access to view the clips during class time, study hall, or non-instructional period.)
  4. Review and discuss the worksheets for each segment as a class.

Assessment Strategies:

Student groups should submit their completed “Video Notes/Discussion Organizer” worksheets for assessment.

Extension Activity:

Students can conduct a talk show featuring various “players” in the Dust Bowl debate regarding possible solutions to the crisis.

Related Academic Standards

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


  • Standard 22: Understands how the United States changed between the post- World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression
  • Standard 24: Understands how the New Deal addressed the Great Depression, transformed American federalism, and initiated the welfare state
  • Standard 24, Level III, Benchmark I: Understands renewed efforts to protect the environment during the Great Depression and their success in places such as the Dust Bowl and the Tennessee Valley
  • Standard 24, Level III, Benchmark 5: Understands various challenges to the New Deal (e.g., arguments of leading opponents, the roots of opposition to Roosevelt’s policies, the ideas of the Townsend Plan and the “Share the Wealth” program of Dr. Francis Townsend and Senator Huey Long)

Historical Understanding:

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


  • Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society
  • Standard 12: Understands the relationships among liberalism, republicanism, and American constitutional democracy
  • Standard 13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity
  • Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life
  • Standard 21: Understands the formulation and implementation of public policy
  • Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals

Language Arts:

  • Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Earth Science:

  • Standard 1: Understands atmospheric processes and the water cycle
  • Standard 2: Understands Earth’s composition and structure

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: Video Notes/Discussion Organizer

Instructions: View the four video segments. Take notes on each one and summarize the main points in the clip. Review the content and discussion questions included for each segment and be prepared to discuss them in class.

Segment 1: Relief

What did the New Deal do to provide relief for the general population during the Depression? How did these programs provide relief to Americans? (Be sure to list specific program names mentioned in the video in your notes for this segment.)

New Deal Programs Relief Provided








Discussion Question:

What reasons are given in the clip for the controversy of or resistance to the New Deal relief program? Explain why these concerns sound realistic, or do not seem realistic to you.

Reasons for Controversy of or Resistance to New Deal Check if Realistic Check if Not Realistic Reasons Why


Segment 2: Recovery

Summarize Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’ views on how to deal with the problems of the Dust Bowl. Why would this solution be highly controversial?

Summary of Secretary Ickes’ Views Reasons for Controversy


Discussion Question:

How did the views of Hugh Hammond Bennett and Howard Finnell contrast with those of Secretary Ickes? Describe what they wanted to do to help the southern Plains recover from the Dust Bowl.

Views of Secretary Harold Ickes Views of Hugh Hammond Bennett

and Howard Finnell



Description of Bennett’s and Finnell’s Plans to Promote Recovery


Segment 3: Reform (Finnell’s system)

Listen to and summarize FDR’s Fireside Chat in this video segment regarding southern Plains farmers and the Dust Bowl. How do his words instill a sense of confidence and commitment to reform farming practices on the southern Plains and help ensure that conditions that caused the Dust Bowl would not recur?

Summary of FDR’s Fireside Chat Explain How FDR’s Words Instill

Confidence and Commitment



Discussion Question: How did soil scientist Howard Finnell plan to convince farmers to try his theory of contour plowing? Be sure to include information from the video clip about Soil Conservation Service Director Hugh Bennett’s report regarding the “basic cause” of the Dust Bowl problem. According to author Donald Worster, why would many farmers be resistant to this sort of reform?

Describe Howard Finnell’s plan based on Hugh Bennett’s report Reasons for Resistance to Plan


Segment 4: Government Reform Programs

  1. How does historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg explain why normally “independent” farmers would allow themselves to be “meddled” with?
  2. Compare Timothy Egan’s quote with that of Donald Worster in the clip. What sorts of powers or authorities did they suggest farmers wanted exercised? Who should exercise that power or authority, according to Worster?
Summarize Quote from Timothy Egan Summarize Quote from Donald


Describe What the Farmers Wanted Exercised and by Whom


  1. Describe the reforms that were instituted by the federal government. In your own words, use evidence from the clip to evaluate the success or failure of the government’s action.
Federal Government Reforms Success or Failure of Each Reform