A New Deal for the Arts - WPA Photographs

Students will learn about the 1930s, especially school life during that time, by studying photographs and then comparing and contrasting them to contemporary schools.

60 minutes

Students will:

  • better understand the effects of the Great Depression and the New Deal.
  • study a series of photographs taken by New Deal photographers for clues about school life during the time period.
  • develop categories and lists of corresponding information from the photographs.
  • compare and contrast what they’ve found with their own school experience.

  • Teacher Information Sheet: The New Deal
  • Worksheet: School Pictures
  • Website: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fahome.html

    1. Tell students that they are going to look at photographs that were taken during the 1930s. Ask them what they know about the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. After noting some of their ideas, describe the program to students. (See the Teacher Information Sheet for more information.)

    2. Today, the Library of Congress houses thousands of the black and white images taken by New Deal photographers, most of which are available online: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fahome.html. To introduce the site to the class, you might read the introductory text on this page aloud. (More background information about the collections exists at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fabout.html.) Tell students that these photographs are vital primary source materials. Unlike a history book that is information filtered through several sources (including the writer and editor) these photographs are original material from the 1930s that can be used to learn about the people and customs of the day. The students’ task is to view a series of photographs in the collection and use them to compare and contrast the 1930s with today.

    3. Divide students into pairs or small groups. Direct them to the aforementioned Library of Congress website and have them complete the School Pictures Worksheet.


  • Assessment Rubric: WPA Photos
  • Have student groups or pairs review each other’s handouts and provide feedback.

  • Have students take pictures of school life today and compare them to those from the WPA project.
  • Following further research about the Great Depression and its affects on day-to-day life, have students write a first person narrative describing what life may have been like for one young person during the Depression. They should illustrate their writing with a photo from the Library of Congress site and incorporate the image into their narrative.
  • Read the Riding the Rails website (http://www.erroluys.com/frontpage.htm), especially the letters excerpts and discuss why young people left home in such large numbers during the 1930s. What was exciting and what difficult about their experiences?
  • Look at this online exhibit, A New Deal for the Arts (http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/new_deal_for_the_arts/index.html). As a class, brainstorm what jobs artists could do today for the government and how this would affect and improve citizens’ lives.

    Standards at McRel: http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/

  • Understands the causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society
  • Understands patterns of change and continuity in the historical succession of related events
  • Students will learn about the 1930s, especially school life during that time, by studying photographs and then comparing and contrasting them to contemporary schools.
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