Migrant Workers Through the Lens of Dorothea Lange

What can be learned about the experience of Depression-era migrant workers through photographs and songs?


Key Staff

Social Studies teacher with opportunities to collaborate with visual arts teachers.

Key Skills

Making Art: Composing and Planning
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


In this lesson, students will learn about migrant workers to better understand the environmental and social impact of the Great Depression. For example, students will learn about the effects of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl on American farm owners, tenants, and sharecroppers. Using photography, specifically Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, and song lyrics of the era, students will explore the challenges faced by migrant workers and their families, and will create their own portrait or song to bring attention to the plight of the migrant worker.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Describe the life of a migrant worker during the Great Depression and today
  • Develop multiple perspectives of the life of a migrant worker today, and the life of the children of migrant workers today
  • Identify Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother,” and explain its underlying meanings
  • Identify vocabulary associated with migrant workers of the Great Depression era
  • Learn a brief history of Dorothea Lange

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Multimedia Instruction
  • Research

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
  • Projector
  • Speakers
  • Video Camera
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should review the Teacher Notes prior to conducting the lesson to acquire background on Dorothea Lang and her famous image, Migrant Mother.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with the Great Depression and the conditions of the Dust Bowl.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab
  • Media Center or Library


Large Group Instruction


  • Test internet connection
  • Make necessary photocopies

Accessibility Notes

  • Sight-impaired students should move closer to the front of the room so they will be able to see projected images and the board more clearly.
  • For hearing-impaired students, prepare lyrics to "Sunny Cal" on a handout.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Begin by providing an overview of the Great Depression. A good overview can be found at Today's Teacher and PBS.

2. Introduce the lesson with a folk song by Jack Bryant, entitled "Sunny Cal." As a class, listen to the song once, then read through the lyrics together. Foster a discussion about the meaning of the song by asking students the following:

  • What do you think the song is about?
  • What is the purpose of the song?
  • Why might it have been written?
  • Look at the date of the song. What do you know about this period in American History?
  • Is the song telling a story?
  • What is the story about?
  • Is it a happy story or a sad story?

3. Explain that "Sunny Cal" is a folk song about a migrant worker’s story. Provide a brief introduction of migrant workers to students. Elaborate as you see fit, depending on students’ prior knowledge of the subject. Discuss the terms "migrant worker" and "Okie," which are both mentioned in the lyrics to "Sunny Cal" (refer to the Vocabulary handout located within the Resource Carousel as needed).

4. Tell students they will learn more about what it means to be a migrant worker. As a point of comparison, pass out the assignment sheet entitled Job Titles located within the Resource Carousel and have students ask their parents, guardians or other relatives to share their job titles, and to describe what they do for a living (this information will be compared to the jobs of migrant workers later in the lesson).

Build Knowledge

1. Review information about migrant workers and vocabulary that was covered in the previous lesson. Introduce the photographer Dorothea Lange to students, and show her work, Migrant Mother, to students. You may choose to project the image with an LCD projector connected to the Internet. Digital images can found in the Farm Security Administration Collection from the Library of Congress.

2. Discuss the meaning of the photograph with students. Ask the following questions to foster discussion:

  • Why would the artist have taken the photograph?
  • Who do you see in the photograph?
  • Where do you think they are?
  • What can you tell about these people based on the photograph?
  • How do you think they feel in this picture? How can you tell?
  • What techniques does the photographer use to draw you into the subject matter or to draw an emotion from you?

3. Tell students they will have more opportunities to analyze the photograph after they learn more about migrant workers.

4. Ask students to take out the completed Job Title's homework assignment, and distribute the Job Comparison worksheet located within the Resource Carousel. In one column, students should list five facts about the job of one parent or guardian. In the other column, they should list five facts about what they learned about migrant workers’ jobs. Have students compare and contrast these lists, so they can see the differences and/or similarities between their parents’ jobs, and those of migrant workers. Direct students to compare and contrast hours of labor, salary, job placement, and conditions and materials used on the job. (For more information about migrant workers, refer to the American Memory site, Voices from the Dust Bowl.)

5. Allow students to explore the collection of photographs and songs available on Voices from the Dust Bowl. Have them record some of the recurring themes they find in each photograph on the Voices From The Dust Bowl handout located within the Resource Carousel, as well as some of the images or phrases they find most illuminating about the lives of migrant workers of the Depression era. They should also list the title of the photograph and song that they find most effective in portraying the lives of migrant workers, and explain their reasons for selecting each. (Students will use this list in the next section when they create their own original portrait or song.)


1. Have students create an original portrait or song depicting the life of a migrant worker in the 1940s.

  • Students should create their portraits on white paper or light-colored construction paper using colored pencils, crayons, or markers.
  • Students should refer back to the notes collected when browsing Voices from the Dust Bowl, and integrate the types of imagery or words that they found most effective in depicting the migrant experience.

2. Hang students’ artwork and song lyrics around the classroom in a "gallery exhibit." You may choose to tape each student's work onto a larger sheet of construction paper to "frame" each portrait or sheet of song lyrics. Allow students to record songs for playback or set aside time for each student to perform their song if they wish.

3. Place 3" x 5" index cards or slips of paper in front of each work in the exhibit. Encourage students to respond to each work, and post their reflections alongside the corresponding works. Students should point out specific ways in which the artist/songwriter captured the migrant experience, as well as elements of the work that were particularly evocative or effective. (If students are responding to music, they can turn in their responses to the teacher.) You may wish to regularly monitor the responses of students to make sure they have written constructive or positive comments.


1. Close and summarize with a question-and-answer session about everything students learned about migrant workers through this lesson. Discuss housing and stereotypes of migrant workers, as well as vocabulary and Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother.

2. Discuss as a class what students found most interesting and most surprising about the plight of the migrant worker. Then, ask each student to write a paragraph describing the most interesting things they learned about migrant workers.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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