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National Agriculture in the Classroom

Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Lesson Plan

Growing a Nation Era 2: From Defeat to Victory

Grade Level

9 - 12


Students will engage with the Growing a Nation timeline to explore the significant historical and agricultural events and inventions from American history during the years 1930-1949. Students will examine the cause and impact of the Dust Bowl, recognize how the Dust Bowl led to the Great Depression, and describe the government's response to assist farmers in the 1930s. Grades 9-12

Estimated Time

60 minutes

Materials Needed

Supporting Question 1:

Supporting Question 2:

Supporting Question 3:

  • Jiffy 7 peat pellet pots,* 1 per student
  • Plastic cups, 1 per student
  • Permanent markers, 1 per group
  • Grass seed,* 2-3 teaspoons per group
  • Plastic spoons
  • Water
  • Trail activity sheets

*These items are included in the Ranch Starter Kit, which is available for purchase from

  • Growing a Nation multimedia program and necessary projection equipment or computer lab
  • Embedded Resource Cards
  • Photo Analysis Activity Sheets
  • Sound Recording Analysis Sheet

conservation: the wise use of resources, to conserve them for use by present and future generations

Works Progress Administration (WPA): WPA was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads

Did You Know?
  • Minerals are the primary component of soils. These minerals are from weathered rock, called parent material.
  • Soils can come in black, red, yellow, white, brown, and gray.
  • It can take 1,000 years to form one inch of topsoil. If people grew that slowly it would take 80,000 years to grow a basketball player.
Background Agricultural Connections
C3 Framework

Growing a Nation: From Defeat to Victory uses the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework's Inquiry Arc as a blueprint to lead students through an investigation of the environmental changes and human choices that affected society from 1930-1949. The Inquiry Arc consists of four dimensions of informed inquiry in social studies:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence;
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

The four dimensions of the C3 Framework center on the use of questions to spark curiosity, guide instruction, deepen investigations, acquire rigorous content, and apply knowledge and ideas in real world settings to become active and engaged citizens in the 21st century.For more information about the C3 Framework, visit

From Defeat to Victory (1930-1949) is the second story event in the Growing a Nation online interactive timeline. The timeline provides a chronological presentation of significant historical events focusing on the important role agriculture has played in America's development. Growing a Nation uses a graphic organizer (timeline) and online multimedia resources to bring depth and meaning to historical events. The interactive timeline and lesson plans merge seamlessly with existing American history textbooks and high school history curricula.

Our country has witnessed sweeping changes—from the untamed wild times of Buffalo Bill to the technological era of Bill Gates and Elon Musk—but food has never lost its central role in our lives. Food not only sustains life but also enriches us in many ways. It warms us on cold, dreary days, entices us with its many aromas, and provides endless variety to the everyday world.

Food is also woven into the fabric of our Nation, our culture, our institutions, and our families. Food is on the scene when we celebrate and when we mourn. We use it for camaraderie, as a gift, and as a reward. We are all aware of how food has changed. What Americans often forget, however, is the remarkable system that delivers to us the most abundant, reasonably priced, and safest food in the world. The American food system—from the farmer to the consumer—is a series of interconnected parts. The farmer produces the food, the processors work their magic, and the wholesalers and retailers deliver the products to consumers, whose choices send market signals back through the system.

Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl describes both a time and a place. The dust bowl region of the United States covers the southern portion of the Great Plains, including parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. But Dust Bowl—with a capital D and B—refers to the time during the 1930s when drought, prairie winds, and poor land use practices combined to make life in this region miserable and farming nearly impossible.

In the early 1900s, gas-powered tractors enabled farmers to cultivate millions of acres and enjoy bountiful harvests. In the southeastern Great Plains, farmers used the newly invented steel plow to dig up acres of perennial prairie grasses and plant annual crops like wheat. When the economy declined in the late 1920s, farmers were forced to cultivate more land to pay their bills. Poorer quality land was tilled, and conservation practices were abandoned to reduce costs. Few recognized that they were setting the stage for mass erosion. In 1930, farmers tilled and planted their fields, but the rains never came, so their crops didn't grow. The drought continued through the 1930s, leaving acres of dry soil vulnerable to the wind with no plant cover to hold it in place.

On Sunday afternoon of April 14, 1935, clouds of dust moved through the southern Great Plains and turned the sky black. People had to cover their noses and mouths so they could breathe. The day would go down in history as Black Sunday. Robert E. Geiger was a writer for the Associated Press who visited the area during that time. In a series of firsthand articles for the Washington Evening Star, Geiger described "pelting winds full of topsoil" and was the first to call the area the "Dust Bowl."

Government actions helped reverse the situation caused by the dust bowl. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS), a special branch of the United States Department of Agriculture that is called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today, was created and went to work. The SCS used carefully planned conservation methods to restore grasses and helped farmers implement techniques like conservation tillage to reduce erosion. Local Soil Conservation Districts were established, which still promote conservation on public and private lands today. As vegetation was restored, farmers and ranchers moved back onto the land. Using improved farming and grazing management practices, agriculture has returned to the Great Plains.


Rangeland refers to a large, mostly unimproved section of land that is used for livestock grazing. Rangelands can be found in a wide variety of ecosystems, including natural grasslands, savannas, shrublands, deserts, tundras, alpine communities, coastal marshes, and wet meadows. Rangelands are usually mountainous, rocky, or dry areas that aren't suitable for growing the usual farm crops. However, grass and other plants on this rangeland can be used for grazing livestock. People can't eat grass, but cattle and sheep can turn grass into beef and lamb. Rangeland ecosystems provide nutritious forage for grazing livestock, which produce food, fiber, leather, and many other useful by-products.

Grass is one of our most important and available renewable resources. Grass plays a number of environmentally important roles. Grass covers the soil and holds it in place, slowing runoff of rain, preventing erosion, and reducing the potential for floods. Grass traps and filters sediments and nutrients from runoff and helps water percolate through the soil and back into streams and groundwater.

Cattle and sheep are like rangeland lawn mowers that can help care for grassland ecosystems. Imagine what your lawn would look like if you didn't mow it! At first glance, when we see animals grazing, it seems like the animal wins all. However, there are more winners here than first meets the eye. The moment grass is shorn, it seeks to restore a balance between its roots and leaves. When the tops of the grass leaves are eaten by grazing livestock, the same amount of root is lost. When the roots die, the soil's population of bacteria, fungi, and earthworms gets to work breaking down the dying roots. This creates fertile organic matter.

Rich soils, in turn, support more grass growth. Grasses regrow from the bottom up. Because their growing point is low to the ground, grasses can usually recover well after grazing. However, repeated, heavy grazing can kill grass. When a grass plant is grazed very low to the ground, a large portion of its roots die, and it has little leaf area left to make energy through photosynthesis. Because the plant can't generate much energy, it takes a long time for the roots to regrow, and the plant is very susceptible to drought. Proper management of grazing involves moving livestock to a new area before grasses are grazed too low and allowing grasses a period of rest to regrow leaves and roots before grazing them again. 


Compelling Question: How do environmental changes and human choices affect society?

  1. Use the following questions to hold a class discussion to assess your students' prior knowledge:
    • What was the cause of the Dust Bowl?
    • How did the Dust Bowl and agriculture contribute to The Great Depression?
    • How did the Dust Bowl impact the environment?
    • What was government's response to help farmers during the 1930s?
    • What ended The Great Depression?
    • What resources could be used to answer these questions about the Dust Bowl and Great Depression?
  2. After the discussion, inform your students that they will be learning the answers to these questions throughout this lesson.
Explore and Explain

Supporting Question 1: What events led to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression?

  1. Using a projector, mobile devices, or computer lab, review the Growing a Nation: From Defeat to Victory section of the multimedia timeline. The Growing a Nation events and sub-events are designed to be adaptable to a variety of teaching strategies. Each Main Event contains Sub-events that explore American history for a greater understanding of the time period or historical cause and effect relationships. The sub-event tiles ask higher order questions to not only expand student knowledge, but also to increase their comprehension to the level of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  2. After students view selected events and sub-events, assign or allow students (or student pairs) to choose a sub-event tile. Students can work off of a computer or mobile device or take a screenshot of the selected sub-event and print.
  3. Ask the students to be prepared to answer the questions on their tile by either using the Think, Pair, Share strategy or by using one of the attached Demonstration of Learning Strategies. You may want to choose a particular strategy to use with the entire class or cut the strategies into strips and ask each student to pick one or two. If the student or group of students is allowed to pick two, ask them to choose the learning strategy they prefer and put the other one back. Keep in mind that some Demonstration of Learning Strategies will be a better fit for some of the event topics than others and that some take more time than others. Some strategies may need to be grouped depending on the available time.

Activity 2: How did the Dust Bowl impact society?

The ballads of Woody Guthrie, the novels of John Steinbeck, and the WPA photographs of artists such as Dorothea Lange have embedded images of the Dust Bowl in the American consciousness. Introduce this dramatic era in our nation’s history to today’s students through photographs, songs, and interviews with people who lived through the Dust Bowl. Help your students understand the problems Americans were facing during the Great Depression. Students learn from their textbooks what caused the Dust Bowl and where the Dust Bowl occurred, but to better understand the impact of this environmental disaster, students need to use a variety of primary source documents from this time period. This activity uses the resources from the American Experience PBS website Surviving the Dust Bowl. The resources on the site allow students to explore the Dust Bowl through photographs, songs (lyrics), interviews, and other archival documents from the Dust Bowl era. 

  1. Assign each student to listen to or read one of the interview transcripts from J.R. Davison, Imogene Glover, or Melt White on the PBS Surviving the Dust Bowl website. From the Media Analysis activity sheets, each student should complete either the "Sound Recording" (if they listen to the interview) or the "Written Document" (if they read the transcript) analysis pages.
  2. In addition, the “Eyewitness Account” and primary resource of Lawrence Svobida could be used with the "Written Document" analysis pages.
  3. As a class, listen to or view one or more of the following radio broadcasts or films linked in the Growing a Nation timeline. (These are engaging, dramatic primary sources. You may want to explain to the students that radio was the state-of-the-art media of the time!) From the Media Analysis activity sheets, students should complete the "Sound Recording" or "Motion Picture" analysis pages or note the three most significant concepts they hear. Discuss the concepts and issues raised in each radio program. The audio and movie files can be downloaded or streamed by searching the title on the Growing a Nation timeline.
    • Fireside Chat 8, The Drought and The Dust Bowl, 1936 (2:03 minutes)
    • Westward Movement and Resettlement, 1936 (15:16 minutes)
    • What Price America? Taylor Grazing Act, 1939 (30:11 minutes)
    • Food to Win the War, circa 1941 (4:58 minutes) 

Supporting Question 3: How does proper rangeland management benefit the ecosystem?

  1. Read the "Rangelands" section of the Background Agricultural Connections portion of this lesson to review the information concerning rangelands, grazing, and the nature of grass.
  2. Explain to the students that they will be starting their own "ranch" with a small planting of grass.
  3. Provide each student with a peat pellet and a plastic cup to hold it. Make available permanent markers, bowls of grass seed, plastic spoons, and water.
  4. Ask the students to write their name on their cup, place their peat pellet into their cup (make sure the end with the small hole faces up), and fill the cup half full with water. It takes about 15 minutes for the peat pellet to hydrate and expand into a pot in which seeds can be planted. While the peat pellet is hydrating, have students work on one of the Trail activity sheetsNote: Some of the "Trail" activity sheets will be most pertinent to Utah students, but the majority are generic and will be relevant to students in any state.
  5. When the students finish the Trail activity, the water should be absorbed and the peat pellet completely hydrated. Use a pencil to loosen the top 1/4 inch of peat moss.
  6. Evenly spread 1/2 teaspoon of seeds on the top of the peat pot. Press the seeds down gently with your thumb.
  7. Once the seeds germinate (in about 1 week), keep the peat pots moist, and allow the grass to grow until it has reached 2-3 inches in height.
  8. Ask the students to use scissors to cut half of the grass blades short (1 inch) above the soil to simulate a cow grazing.
  9. They should clip another quarter of the grass down to the crown—where the blades meet the roots; this part of the blade is white in color. To stimulate overgrazing, ask the students to clip this quarter area to the crown every couple of days.
  10. The last quarter section of the grass should remain unclipped.
  11. Observe the grass for a few weeks and then make comparisons. What are the results of the overgrazed, grazed, and ungrazed grasses? Ask the students how their grazing experiment compares to mowing their grass. 
  12. Discuss the following questions:
    • How do humans rely on the environment?
    • What human actions help conserve natural resources and promote sustainability?
  • Visit the website PBS American Experience and then select two historical figures or two events or one historical figure and one event and create a Venn diagram after you read your selection. The Venn diagram should note each point of view or event content that the people or event do not have in common on the outside of the circles. Do the viewpoints or events have anything in common? If so, place these commonalities in the place where the circles overlap. Present your historical character or event and your diagram to the class.

  • Using the timeline from PBS American Experience, note what the government did to help people during the Dust Bowl. Which two or three do you think had the most impact?


Summative Performance Task 

Using evidence from historical sources, construct an argument (e.g., essay, project, video production, portfolio, detailed outline, poster) that addresses the compelling question, "How do environmental changes and human choices affect society?"

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • The Dust Bowl had a deep impact on agriculture and the overall economy.
  • The Dust Bowl changed the way farmers managed their land. Widespread use of conservation management practices began to be used to prevent future disasters.
  • Agricultural land that is suitable to grow crops for food and fiber is a valuable resource.
  • There is a close relationship among humans, animals and the environment.


Growing a Nation was funded by USDA CSREES cooperative agreement #2004-38840-01819 and developed cooperatively by: USDA, Utah State University Extension, and LetterPress Software, Inc.


Debra Spielmaker


National Center for Agricultural Literacy

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