Past and Present Parallels

9, 10, 11, 12

In this lesson, learners study vocabulary and concepts of the Great Depression. They explore the factors that led to the Great Depression and compare them to the economic conditions of the recent recession of 2008 and 2009. Learners read excerpts from two literature books by John Steinbeck and view a New York Times movie review of "The Grapes of Wrath," comparing The Great Depression to a modern recession. Students complete three independent activities related to the Great Depression and recent economic issues. They also discuss how economic times affect volunteering and serving. Students propose action young people can take to help unemployed people in their community, and plan and carry out a service-learning project.

Lesson Rating 
PrintSeven 50-Minute Class Periods, Plus time to carry out a service-learning project

The learner will:

  • identify major causes of the Great Depression.
  • compare/contrast the Great Depression to the recession of 2008-2009.
  • read excepts from The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.
  • complete three creative activities related to the Great Depression and recent economic issues.
  • research needs in the local community relating to the job market.
  • provide a needed service for the local community relating to the job market.
  • engage in ongoing reflection and evaluation.
  • one small bag of M & Ms candy for each pair of students
  • copy of Handout One: M & M Game for each pair of students
  • student copies of Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (one or more copies per small group)
  • index cards, one per student
  • copy of Handout Two: Great Depression Vocabulary for each student
  • copy of Handout Three: Great Depression Tic Tac Toe for each student
  • projected copy (or recreate on chart paper) of Handout Four: Action Plan for whole-class planning
  • copy of Handout Five: Planning a Service-Learning Project (one for teacher reference or one for each learner)
  • copy of Handout Six: Great Depression Quiz for each student
  • Internet access in a lab setting
  • various materials for completing independent activities (paper, pencils, Internet access, etc.)
Home Connection 

Homework after Day Two: Print one article about the relationship between tough economic times and service and volunteerism. Be ready to discuss the effect of The Great Depression and the recession of 2008 and 2009 on philanthropy (giving and serving). Homework after Day Four: Complete three activities from the Tic Tac Toe board.


Scott, A.O. New York Times "Critics' Picks: 'The Grapes of Wrath'"

Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Classics: 2006. ISBN: 978-0143039433

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Classics: 2000. ISBN: 978-0141185101


  1. Day One

    Anticipatory Set:

    Tell the students you want to find out what they already know about the Great Depression while they play a game with M&Ms. Give each pair of students a small bag of M&Ms candy and a copy of Handout One: M & M game. Give the students 10 minutes to read and discuss the True and False statements. Read through the statements with the entire class, ask for their responses, and discuss the correct answers. (Correct answers are 1T, 2F, 3T, 4F, 5F, 6T, 7T, 8T, 9F, 10T, 11T, 12F.)

  2. Use the school textbook or other resources to share background information and talking points about the Great Depression.

  3. Tell the learners that some people think the economic situation of 2008-2009 was similar to the economic situation leading up to the Great Depression. Brainstorm a list of recent issues with the economy: buying on credit, joblessness, foreclosures, bankruptcy, etc. Discuss similarities between information learned from the M & M game and the brainstormed list of recent problems. Learners may be able to make parallels between the Great Depression and the recent economic crisis.

  4. Day Two

    Anticipatory Set:

    Show a video clip online of a New York Times review of the movie "Grapes of Wrath." This movie portrays the difficulties of farming families displaced during the Depression. This clip talks about the relevance of this movie to recent economic issues. Discuss the ending film clip with Tom Joad dedicating himself to standing up for the downtrodden.

  5. Put the students into small groups according to interest or reading ability. Have some groups read a selection from Of Mice and Men. (Section # 3—pages 56–61—begin with the dialogue: "'Tell us about that place, George.' 'I jus' tol' you, jus' las' night.' 'Go on—tell again, George.'" This section ends with the quote "'Don't tell nobody,' Lennie said to himself.") Have others read a selection from Grapes of Wrath (chapters 13 and 15). When they are done reading, have groups discuss the setting, character traits, and the goals of the characters. They should prepare to tell the rest of the class a summary of what they read and discussed.

  6. As a whole class, discuss how these books reflect the attitudes of the Great Depression and other tough economic times.

  7. Discuss how the Great Depression made people feel. Discuss ways people helped each other in tough times. Guide the students to recognize that helping each other is one way to feel less powerless.

  8. For homework, have students research the following topic: How does service and volunteering activity change during tough times (Great Depression and recent recession)? Ask each learner to bring in one printout of an article about the topic.

  9. Day Three

    Anticipatory Set:

    As students enter the classroom, hand them a blank index card, called an "entrance card." Tell them to write on the card as many causes of the Great Depression as they can recall. After a few minutes, review the major causes: stock market crash, bank failures, decreased spending, higher taxes on imports, and drought conditions.

  10. Write the term Black Tuesday on the board. Ask the students to raise their hands if they know what this term means. Tell them that this was the day of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 on October 29, 1929. This day was a trigger for the Great Depression.

  11. Introduce the vocabulary words for the unit on Handout Two: Great Depression Vocabulary. Students work on their own or in pairs to define the words. They may use any resources available, such as textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias and the Internet.

  12. At the end of the class period, meet together as a whole class to review the vocabulary.

  13. Discuss the articles students brought in from the homework assignment of the previous day. Start the discussion with the following question: When times are tough, does philanthropy increase or decrease? (Define philanthropy as giving time, talent, or treasure and taking action for the common good.)

  14. Day Four

    Anticipatory Set:

    Post the following quote on the board for students to read as they enter the classroom: "Time and money spent in helping men to do more for themselves is far better than mere giving" — Henry Ford. Ask the students to reflect on the meaning of the quote. Discuss what Ford meant by "helping men to do more for themselves." Discuss examples and nonexamples of this and discuss whether students agree with the quote.

  15. Discuss recent issues surrounding the job market in the area, beginning with anecdotal stories of people they actually know. Lead the discussion to address areas of concern for the students and community members.

  16. Give each learner a copy of Handout Three: Great Depression Tic Tac Toe. Assign students to complete at least three activities in a row, diagonal, or column for the minimum grade. Give them the rest of the class period, plus homework time to complete the activities. Give them a due date for completing the activities and presenting one of the activities to the class.

  17. Day Five

    Anticipatory Set:

    Ask the students if they have any ideas for ways they can help people in their own community to find work. Discuss ways that young people could make a difference.

  18. Discuss what happens when business and government cannot meet the needs of unemployed workers. Discuss the role of nonprofit organizations. Review the four economic sectors: business, family, government, and nonprofit. Tell the students that nonprofits and volunteers have been behind many of history's biggest changes: civil rights, suffrage, Revolutionary War, etc.

  19. Have the learners work in the computer lab to research community programs that already exist to help people find jobs. Have small groups of students research different organizations to identify the strengths and weaknesses of those programs. They should prepare a brief description to share with the rest of the class about their organization and some ideas of ways they can help the organization with its efforts.

  20. Reconvene and have learners present information to the whole class. Lead a discussion about possible action they can take. Have learners brainstorm ways that they could impact their community and help address issues of unemployment.

  21. Guide the students as they design a service-learning project to address the issue of the learners' choice. See Handout Four: Action Plan. and Handout Five: Planning a Service-Learning Project.

  22. Make a timeline and follow student voice to gather information, make a plan, and take action to carry out the service-learning activity related to unemployment. This service-project may be a long-term plan of action that continues throughout the entire unit and semester.

  23. Day Six and Seven

  24. Have each learner present to the class one of their completed activities from the Tic Tac Toe board.

  25. Review vocabulary concepts about the Great Depression and give students the quiz (Handout Six: Great Depression Quiz).

  26. Learners reflect on their service project in order to continue to improve its impact and effectiveness.

  27. Quiz answers: 1c, 2d, 3c, 4a, 5b, 6b, 7c, 8b, 9b, 10d, 11a, 12b, 13c, 14b, 15a


Observe student participation in discussions and group work. Teacher evaluates Tic Tac Toe activities for creativity and accuracy. Assign a letter grade for The Great Depression Quiz.

Cross Curriculum 

Learners look at past and present trends in the local job market. They research available community resources and identify local needs not currently being met by the government or business. They develop a plan of action to help the community create jobs. Establish a timeline and incorporate reflection before, during, and after the service project. Be aware that the service-learning component may continue beyond the actual time of the lessons.The service-learning is not clearly defined in order to allow student voice in deciding upon and implementing the project.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Explain why needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society and family.
      2. Benchmark HS.3 Identify an example of failure in each sector, and how the other sectors modified their roles in response.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss and give examples of why some humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
    2. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark HS.11 Analyze the impact of volunteerism on the economy of communities.
      2. Benchmark HS.7 Explain why the civil society sector rather than the government or private sectors address particular economic areas.
      3. Benchmark HS.9 Analyze a major social issue as a "commons problem" and suggest ways the civil society sector could help to resolve it.
  3. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Research the need in the school, neighborhood, local community, state, nation, or world.
    2. Standard VS 03. Providing Service
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Provide a needed service.
    3. Standard VS 05. Integrating the Service Experience into Learning
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Evaluate progress on the service-learning project before, during, and after the project.
      2. Benchmark HS.3 Identify outcomes from the service.