Hard Times and New Deals:

Teaching Fifth Graders about the Great Depression


Gary Fertig

The Great Depression that began in 1929 and persisted until America’s entry into World War II was the most devastating economic crisis our nation has ever endured. Widespread unemployment and a pervasive sense of despair caused many people to question the nature of their relationships to social institutions—that interrelated network of social, political, and economic institutions that define us as a civil society. For example, to what extent should government assume responsibility for the welfare of its citizens and, alternatively, to what extent should individual citizens take care of themselves without relying on government intervention? In order to help individuals and families cope with economic hard times, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created a multitude of “alphabet” agencies and programs that dramatically changed the ways Americans thought about and interacted with their institutions.

Some studies of how children develop historical understanding suggest that elementary students find knowledge related to social history (changes in people’s material culture and social relations) more interesting and accessible than knowledge related to political history (changes in government and related institutions).1 In one study, children as young as first grade already knew something about changes in clothing, architecture, transportation, and communication over time; these young learners also appeared to be interested in, and know something about, how people differing in age, race, and gender treated each other in the past.2

Knowledge of social history is often acquired outside of school through listening to family stories, reading historical fiction, watching television and movies, and playing with certain kinds of toys.3 In contrast, political history is more often learned in school as part of the formal social studies curriculum. Some research suggests that elementary students may best understand the workings of social institutions by seeing how they affect the daily lives of people.4

This article describes a study unit on the Great Depression that attempts to incorporate the above findings on children’s historical understanding. Two classes of students attending the same elementary school in a cluster of middle class neighborhoods in Greeley, Colorado, participated in these activities. The classroom teachers involved taught the unit one hour each day, Monday through Friday, for three weeks.


Study Unit: The Great Depression

Unit Objectives

Objectives related to the development of conceptual knowledge included:5

> viewing the government as groups of elected officials who created New Deal agencies and programs to help Americans cope with economic hard times caused by the Great Depression

> viewing the economy as an interrelated system of businesses, banks, and the stock market

> describing how unrealistic speculation in the stock market during the 1920s caused many investors to lose their money in 1929

> explaining how people’s lives were changed by economic developments and government programs during the Depression

> identifying multiple causes and effects of the Great Depression

Objectives related to developing skills in conducting historical inquiry included:

> using more than one source of historical evidence to interpret Depression era events

> considering economic and social consequences of the Great Depression from the perspectives of different groups of people

> determining the historical significance of various people, places, events, and social issues


Objectives related to the cultivation of historical dispositions included:

> recognizing that every historical account is an incomplete story in need of additional information and critical interpretation

> reflecting on historical evidence as well as personal experience when making decisions about the historical significance of people, places, and events

> expressing historical empathy for people who lived during the Great Depression


Testing Prior Knowledge

Prior to instruction, the teachers asked students the following two questions:

> “People talk a lot about the GOVERNMENT of the United States: What is GOVERNMENT and what does it do for people?”

> “People also talk a lot about the ECONOMY of the United States: What is the ECONOMY and what does it do for people?”

After discussing these questions in small groups, students presented their ideas to the class. They believed that government (1) consists of groups of politicians who are elected by the people, (2) has the power to tax the people, and (3) makes and enforces certain rules that people must live by. Students were less certain about the economy; in most cases, they said they simply “didn’t know” anything about it, although a few remarked that the economy had something to do with the way “people make money.”

Responses to these questions provided more direction for teaching the upcoming unit. First of all, it became clear that students viewed social institutions as “people.” However, understanding how political and economic institutions shape the course of history entails much more than knowing about the intentions and behavior of a few famous individuals. Institutions represent the ideas of many diverse groups that entrust them with the responsibility, for example, of making and enforcing laws, mediating conflicts, regulating the distribution of limited resources, and affirming the culturally prescribed values that people use to distinguish between right and wrong. Our social system—viewed as an interrelated network of institutions such as families, schools, churches, financial markets, and government agencies—influences how we interact with others, satisfy material and emotional needs, and define ourselves as a people.

Although students had only a narrow understanding of institutions, they were quite capable of conceptualizing relationships between people’s personal troubles and institutional changes that took place during the Great Depression—provided that abstract ideas and processes were connected to familiar experiences. Lessons that successfully engaged students in the construction of knowledge related changes in institutions to people’s material needs and their treatment of one another.

This unit of study included a sequence of lessons designed to increase students’ conceptual knowledge, skill in interpreting historical evidence, and empathy for people who lived during the Great Depression. Three of these lessons are presented here. The first lesson is a simulation demonstrating how people made and lost money in the stock market during the 1920s and the repercussions of their economic behavior. In the second lesson, students wrote letters to Mrs. Roosevelt asking for her personal assistance as a culmination to their study of primary source letters written by young people during the Great Depression. In the third lesson, students wrote and performed their own historical scenarios of a conversation between two imaginary, but historically plausible, Depression era characters.


Lesson 1. Playing the Stock Market

The first lesson was designed to help students develop an understanding of how changes in the stock market and banking industry affected the lives of many ordinary Americans during the 1920s. In this simulation activity, students became investors who speculated in the stock market by using $500 in play money to purchase 50 shares of stock in an imaginary radio company. A large bar chart summarized the company’s earnings from the sale of radios from 1926 to 1931. Investors who sold their stock in 1927, 1928, and most of 1929 benefitted because the company was making a profit. As long as the company produced and sold more radios each year, the value of students’ stock holdings increased. In late 1929, however, the bottom fell out of the radio market and the value of the stock decreased dramatically. By 1931, it was essentially worthless.

Investors (students) could sell their stock at any time through the agency of their stockbroker (the teacher). Those who held on to their stock until the end of the simulation not only failed to make a profit, but also lost their initial investment of $500. To show why, the teacher introduced the topic of buying stock on margin, explaining that $250 of the original $500 had come from the investor’s savings account and the other $250 had been borrowed from the stockbroker—who wanted the money paid back now (in 1929). Students were also told that the banks in which they kept their savings “failed” because they had invested their customers’ money in the stock market and lost it all in the crash. (In fact, many Americans found their savings accounts wiped out although they had never speculated in the stock market).

At the end of the simulation, students were asked: “How do you intend to pay the $250 back to your broker and make up for the $250 in savings you just lost?” They learned that a large number of middle class Americans lost their entire life savings during the Great Depression through a process similar to that which they experienced in the simulation. As a result of the stock market crash, people also went into debt—especially those who, on top of everything else, lost their jobs—and were now in danger of losing their homes, cars, and businesses, which they had to sell in order to pay off debts and feed their families.

Participating in this simulation allowed students to experience how speculating in the stock market during the 1920s could create great wealth in a relatively short amount of time, but also, how unrealistic expectations and badly timed investments could just as well lead to financial ruin. Students learned how a company’s profits or losses affected the workers who produced the goods or services they sold. They also became aware that banks do not simply store people’s cash in guarded vaults, but, rather, operate as businesses that profit by using their customers’ savings to speculate in financial ventures. This understanding helped students realize why so many banks failed and closed their doors for extended “bank holidays.” Students viewed photographs of people waiting in line in front of banks to withdraw their savings, and were asked: “How would you feel if you were one of these people?”

Rather than presenting the stock market crash as an isolated event that—all by itself and in one day—”caused” the Great Depression, “Playing the Stock Market” was one of several simulations used by students to examine historical causes and effects during this period. Another simulation was developed to help students understand the plight of farmers in rural areas of the country. Students learned that many farmers in Colorado and neighboring states had “overextended” themselves financially during the 1920s—borrowing money to purchase more land for growing crops, buying machines such as tractors to increase productivity, and taking out loans to finance the construction of extra granaries to store grain—all for the sake of making larger profits.

A third simulation on town-and-city workers involved competing automobile dealerships in our own town and highlighted the “vicious circle phenomenon” of too much supply and not enough demand. In this simulation, new cars were constantly delivered to several car dealerships, resulting in increased competition and a lowering of prices to lure customers. Although the loss of local agricultural jobs meant that fewer people could afford a new car, all of the automobile dealerships in town continued to receive new cars from the factories prooducing them in large cities. Thus, not only did auto workers in large cities begin losing their jobs due to over-production, but lower demand for cars in our town led to the unemployment of people who worked for businesses that were directly or indirectly dependent on the automobile.

For purposes of assessment, students worked together in small groups developing their own simulations. While they were encouraged to make use of the format used in the teacher-generated simulations, group members had to substitute a different company and product in the case of the stock market simulation, a different kind of crop in the farm simulation, and a different kind of business in our town simulation. Although not attempted here, each group might have been asked to teach another group how to “play” its simulation as a way to assess students’ comprehension of the interrelationships among these economic events.

Simulation activities laid the foundation for developing historical empathy by developing students’ conceptual understanding of how changes in economic systems caused families to fall upon hard times. Students were also discovering that many people’s personal problems during the Great Depression resulted from changes over which individuals, groups, and even the government had little control in any immediate or direct sense.


Lesson 2. Writing Letters to Mrs. Roosevelt

This lesson began with an investigation of primary sources. Students read letters written by young people to Eleanor Roosevelt asking her for help during the Depression.6 After discussing these letters as a class, students worked together in small groups to interpret a particular letter. Group members collaborated with one another in an effort to determine:

> whether the letter was written by a girl or a boy

> the writer’s age

> where the letter was written (from what state or region of the country)

> what was being requested of Mrs. Roosevelt

> the reason for asking Mrs. Roosevelt for help

> when the letter was written

Working together, the class completed a data retrieval chart in order to summarize and compare data collected from the nine primary source letters (see “Data Retrieval Chart” below). The teacher helped to generate rich discussion by asking students questions that encouraged them to examine the chart carefully and formulate some tentative conclusions based on its data. [Note: Students were reminded that these letters were only a tiny sample of the thousands of letters sent to Mrs. Roosevelt, and did not necessarily represent what historians would discover if they examined every letter.] The questions:

> Did more boys or girls write these letters to Mrs. Roosevelt? What differences do the letters show in what girls and boys were asking for?

> What do these letters suggest about the severity of the Great Depression in different regions of the country?

> What kinds of personal and family problems motivated these young people to write letters to Mrs. Roosevelt?

> How do you think these young people felt about the need to write a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt in the first place?

Students had already learned that in order to join the National Youth Administration (NYA), one had to be a boy and at least 15 years of age. These requirements discriminated against all girls and boys under the age of 15, and this gave us an angle to use in writing our own letters to Mrs. Roosevelt. Girls in the class would try to persuade Mrs. Roosevelt that they were just as qualified as boys to join the NYA, while the boys would try to persuade Mrs. Roosevelt to let them join the NYA even though they were not yet 15 years old. The “Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt from a Fifth Grader” on page 37 is typical of those written by students.

Writing letters to Mrs. Roosevelt built directly on students’ prior knowledge and experiences to develop historical empathy. Most of the fifth graders were familiar with at least some of the hardships endured by the young people whose letters they had examined. For example, students could personally identify with families in which one or both parents were out of work, the need for new clothes, not having a bicycle to ride with friends, being disappointed at Christmas, and feeling embarrassed at the prospect of having to ask the local community for help with basic necessities. Structuring this letter-writing assignment in a way that encouraged learners to relate their own life experiences to those of young people living during the Depression motivated students to write their letters with compassion while paying close attention to historical details.

Lesson 3. Creating and Performing Historical Scenarios

As a final project, students received a list of Depression era scenarios from which to choose a situation and characters to role play in front of the class (see “Scenarios for Great Depression Dialogues” on this page). Working together in pairs, students collaborated in the research and writing of a scripted conversation between their two characters. Giving students the freedom to choose the scenario increased their interest in learning more about their characters’ situations during the Great Depression. The teacher helped students to select the most appropriate sources and to interpret different kinds of historical evidence. Using written dialogue during the role play reduced stress levels by avoiding the need for students to improvise and risk embarrassment in front of peers. Requiring written scripts also yielded more evidence of their historical reasoning power.

Students followed these guidelines for conducting research, writing scripts, and preparing their role plays:

> Locate at least FIVE sources of evidence to use in creating a historically accurate portrayal of your characters. Use character webs to describe their feelings, friends, appearance, and family situations.

> Create a “talking heads” graphic organizer—a silhouette of two heads talking to each other7—to use in writing the first draft of your scripted conversation.

> Rehearse your role play with each other in preparation for performing in front of the class and teachers.

Unfortunately, students made little use of the historical evidence available in writing their scripts, despite the fact that teachers had used a wide variety of resources throughout the unit. These resources included historical documents, artifacts, paintings, posters, letters, photographs, songs, informational books, and data collected from interviewing guest speakers, watching documentary films, and reading historical fiction. Most students, however, seemed perfectly content with the identification of a single source of information. Moreover, they did not examine the evidence in any critical sense or compare multiple sources of evidence in order to enhance the historical plausibility of their characters and conversations.

In retrospect, although the teachers had employed a rich variety of resources and instructional strategies to make learning about the Great Depression a meaningful experience for students, not enough time was devoted to the teaching and practice of specific skills for interpreting different types of historical evidence. For example, many Depression era photographs were used to help students imagine what it must have been like to live during the 1930s; however, students received little instruction about the kinds of questions historians ask when they construct interpretations of the past using photographs as primary sources.

Despite this lack of critical analysis, students’ narratives displayed an impressive range of knowledge pertaining to the Great Depression. Each script was evaluated for evidence of historical thinking that supported a plausible interpretation of the Great Depression. Taking an institutional perspective was considered to have been accomplished whenever students related or attributed changes in people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior to their involvement in economic developments leading up to the Depression and/or in New Deal programs. Interpreting history from multiple perspectives became evident when students viewed or explained the situations of their characters from the perspectives of diverse individuals and groups. For a script representative of the students’ work and an assessment of it, see the “Dialogue Between Billy and Chris” on page 40.


In Conclusion

These three lessons used to teach fifth graders about the Great Depression helped to produce effective learning by encouraging students to work through important social studies ideas in their own minds. Important concepts and institutional relationships were made accessible through a simulation that students found engaging (playing the stock market) and familiar (producing and selling radios). Students’ historical dispositions with regard to people caught in the Great Depression were strengthened by their study of actual letters written by young people at the time, and their subsequent letter-writing activity. The final project challenged students to develop characters and written dialogues that would accurately reflect what they had learned from examining historical evidence about the Great Depression. The constructive nature of these lessons made learning active and allowed the teachers to assist and assess student efforts at the same time. Moreover, throughout the unit, the teachers added to their own understanding of how students learn about the past, gaining important knowledge that can inform their development of sound history instruction in the future.



1. Linda Levstik and Christine Pappas, “Exploring the Development of Historical Understanding,” Journal of Research and Development in Education 21 (1987): 1–15; Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, “‘Back When God Was Around and Everything’: Elementary Children’s Understanding of Historical Time,” American Educational Research Journal 33 (1996): 419-454.

2. Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, “‘They Still Use Some of Their Past’: Historical Salience in Elementary Children’s Chronological Thinking,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 28 (1996): 531-576.

3. Ibid.

4. Keith Barton, “‘Bossed Around by the Queen’: Elementary Students’ Understanding of Individuals and Institutions in History,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 12 (1997): 290-314.

5. Unit objectives were adapted from three sources: The Colorado Model Content Standards (Denver, CO: 1995); National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994); National Center for History in the Schools, Lessons from History: Essential Understandings and Historical Perspectives Students Should Acquire (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA, 1992).

6. Robert Cohen, “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Cries for Help from Depression Youth,” Social Education 60, no. 5 (September 1996): 271-276.

7. Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1997).



Gary Fertig is an associate professor in the School for the Study of Teaching and Teacher Education at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley. He wishes to express appreciation to Kelly Seilbach and Jennifer Rios-Alers, fifth grade teachers at Jackson Elementary School, for their assistance and dedication to teaching social studies.


Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt from a Fifth Grader



Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,


I think we should join the NYA. My first reason is, my parents are sick. My brother is younger than I, and I’m a girl at the age of ten. My brother can’t join because he’s eight. We’re all very hungry. My brother and I can do many things. We do many things at our own house. For instance, we built our separate bedroom outside, our doghouse, and our outhouse, but that was before the Great Depression. I think it’s not fair that only boys at the age of 15 can join. I’m not just asking for my brother and I, I’m asking for every young person under the age of 15. Please Mrs. Roosevelt, I’m asking one large favor.


Please, Thanks.



Greeley, Colorado


Scenarios for Great Depression Dialogues


> Members of two Oklahoma farm families are discussing the “foreclosure” (sale) of their farms by the local bank. It is 1937 and hard economic times have forced them to sell everything they ever owned.


> Two young boy and girl hoboes are talking about their travels around the country by rail, how they have survived, why they left home, where they are headed, and what they have seen in the countryside and large cities of America.


> After listening to a fireside chat, two family members discuss several of the New Deal alphabet agencies they just heard about on the radio and how they might be able to help them and their community.


> Two young people from different families meet each other for the first time and discover that they have some things in common; for example, both have written letters to Mrs. Roosevelt asking for help and both lived in middle class families, but are now quite poor because of the Depression. What other memories, hopes, and dreams might these new friends share with each other?


> Two young men working for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) are talking to each other about the hard work they do for this alphabet agency, although they feel very lucky to have jobs. What kinds of projects might they be building, how do they spend their free time and money, and what is happening to their families back home?


> Two young people are standing together in a bread line waiting for food. They begin to talk to each other about the hard times they and their families are experiencing because of the Depression, comparing their brothers and sisters, and talking about school and what they do for fun.


> A Dust Bowl family living in Texas is sitting around the kitchen table trying to decide whether to sell their property and move to California to become migrant workers or remain on their farm, fight the dust storms, and wait for the rains to come.


Dialogue Between Billy and Chris


The Scenario: BILLY, a hobo, offers to work for CHRIS, a homeowner, in exchange for food or money.


BILLY: I’ll work for a bite to eat or a few pennies.

CHRIS: Who are you?

BILLY: My name is Billy, but you can call me “B.”

CHRIS: How did you become a hobo, “B?”

BILLY: I was a farmer once, but when that drought hit, I lost all my crops and money cause the bills were pilen up.

CHRIS: I was a stock investor. I invested almost all my money in the stock market ...

BILLY: That was not very smart.

CHRIS: As I was saying, I waited too long ‘til 1929, then I lost my money, so I decided to move to Pennsylvania.

BILLY: Why didn’t you just move back with your Ma and Pa?

CHRIS: I couldn’t. My mother died when I was only ten and my father pretty much disowned me because I moved to New York to become a stock investor. Well, I’m sorry, I’ve been talkin your ear off with my problems. I’m sure you have plenty of your own. What made you come here?

BILLY: I was ridin the rails not knowin where I was goin for five years. Then I met you.

CHRIS: Well, I’ve got some work to do around the house you could help with. Then I’ll give you some food.


The students who created this dialogue assigned historical significance to four different groups of people (hoboes, farmers, homeowners, and stock investors) and two events (the stock market crash and the Dust Bowl) during the Great Depression. Billy, the one-time farmer, fell upon economic hard times because of drought, crop failures, and a loss of the income needed to pay his bills. As a result, Billy was forced off his land and into the transient life-style of a hobo who now had only his labor to trade for food or money. Chris, on the other hand, moved to New York City “to become a stock investor” because his mother died and his father disowned him. After investing most of his money in the stock market, Chris lost it all because he “waited too long ‘til 1929.”

This student dialogue presents historically plausible chains of events. Billy and Chris describe the causes of economic hard times and their personal experiences in logical relation to the Dust Bowl and the stock market crash. They also engage in a sophisticated bit of perspective-taking, first, by portraying themselves as young men and not as children, and, second, by relating their personal histories to each other as a means of explaining how their current circumstances resulted from events that took place in the past.

Knowledge of the Depression is expressed through references to doing odd jobs in exchange for money or food, and both students appear mindful of the fact that the Great Depression was a prolonged period in U.S. History: “Billy” is portrayed as a hobo who had been “riding the rails” for five years after losing his farm because of the Dustbowl: “when that drought hit I lost all my crops and money cause the bills were pilen up.” Chris moved to New York City in the mid to late 1920s, and on to Pennsylvania sometime after 1929.

Some of the misspellings in this and other student scripts may be attributed to their attempts to speak as they imagined their Depression era characters would have spoken, as suggested by their use of “Ma” and “Pa,” “pilen up,” and “ridin the rails.” The fact that students spontaneously took it upon themselves to employ Depression era vocabulary and ways-of-speaking was in itself an interesting outcome, for the teachers had not even mentioned—let alone recommended—that students use such language in their scripts and performances.

Chart 1. Data Retrieval Chart for Young People’s Letters to Mrs. Roosevelt

LETTER: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Initials? M.B. L.H. M.I. M.W.S. D.C. A.C. J.B. L.V. F.W.
Boy or Girl? Girl Girl Girl Boy Girl Girl Girl Girl Boy
Age? 14 13 15 17 14 10 15 16 16
Asking for? Bicycle Clothes Coat and Food Medical Care Money XMAS Gift Coat Money Clothes
Reason? To do chores Have none Cold and hungry Teeth hurt Pay Dr. bills Have none For Easter Pay bills For school
Date? 1935 1936 1936 1936 1935 1934 1934 1937 1933