Sometimes it is hard to come up with a unique lesson plan to help students engage with the books they are reading in class. Here is a lesson plan for the book Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. This lesson plan places the novel in a wider context of history and gender issues to give students more reason to relate to and delve into the book. Similar tactics can be taken with novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, or any piece of historical fiction.
Out of the Dust is a novel written in free verse poetry revolving around one girl’s life in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This novel revolves around the struggles of a young girl to deal with the hardships of Depression-era American, the Dust Bowl, loss (her mother and baby brother, as well as her hands), growing up, and a difficult relationship with her father. While this is a historical novel, it also deals with the universal experiences of adolescence such as the search for personal identity and functions primarily a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of one of the most famously difficult times in American history.
The goal of this activity is to have students engage in literary criticism and to place Out of the Dust in the context of changing societal perceptions and expectations based upon gender specifically (though a variety of issues could be examined through this book). Of course, an understanding of the time period and the circumstances of the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and rural farm culture must be dealt with as well. It is essential that students engage critically with a text not only to use it as a catalyst for creative writing (which is also important) but also as a means by which to examine society. In this case, this historical setting of the novel affords students and teachers with the opportunity to compare and contrast their experiences of society with those of another generation.
Out of the Dust is a book that is accessible to students of a variety of ages and grade levels. In researching this lesson I found some teachers who recommend it for students as young as 4th grade, though I think this is a bit too young. I would say students 6th-grade and up would be able to effectively engage with this text though I would situate it more in the realm of 8th-10th grade so that students (hopefully) have a more solid base of knowledge about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. This book could easily be used in a history classroom as supplemental material on 1930s America, or can be utillized in an English classroom. It would even be beneficial for teachers in History and English to coordinate these lessons.
Out of the Dust is at the same time a work that can be used to teach students about the harsh realities of living in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and a piece of literature that can be analyzed from a myriad of different perspectives. It is important that students learn to engage with a text in a critical manner in order to not only prepare them for the types of literary analysis that will be expected of them in college, but also to hone their critical thinking skills and to teach them not to simply act as a “sponge” for information, but to actively engage in the world around them and especially to question. Literary analysis is sometimes a difficult topic to broach with students because the theory aspect of it is so daunting (anyone who has attempted to read Derrida will understand what I mean), but it doesn’t have to be and can be taught to students in a variety of ways without them even knowing. Because the field of literary analysis is so rich and varied, it is essential to narrow the scope or lens through which one views a text. In my case, I chose to focus on gender roles because this is something that can be dealt with at a variety of ages, from elementary school through high school. This topic is accessible to all students of all age ranges because students deal with proscribed gender norms on a daily basis.
- Background on the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and New Deal
- Read Out of the Dust as a class and take home reading
- While reading discuss historical context and other issues such as economic difficulties, grief, etc…
- Also while reading the novel throw in some literary analysis theory (i.e. what to look for in a novel, going through and picking out key “issues” that are addressed by the novel), learning to question what they’re reading, etc…
- Have students keep a “Guided Reading Journal ” while reading the novel
- In this reading journal have categories for students to keep an eye out for such as “gender,” “community life,” etc… Within these categories have them list the passages in which these categories are addressed, both page number and the passage itself.
- After reading the novel: Have the students break into groups and discuss the passages they noted on whichever issue you would like them to discuss (in my case I chose to focus on gender).
- After the students discuss the issue in groups come together as a class and have students share their passages and why they thought they were important.
- Place the gender experiences of the characters in Out of the Dust in a societal context. Have students write about gender expectations and realities in Out of the Dust and compare them to modern day life, perhaps drawing specifically on their own experiences. Students can choose to focus on women (as Billie Jo’s perspective clearly emphasizes the limitations placed upon females). Students are welcome to also discuss other issues as they may relate to gender (the way social class may have an influence on what’s expected, etc…)
- This writing activity can either be an assignment in and of itself, or a brainstorming activity for a larger analytical paper.
Other Potential Activities in the Classroom:
- Bring in pictures (or pull them up online) of Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and have students write descriptive poetry about one of the images (the descriptions in Out of the Dust are so vivid)
- Incorporate music into the lesson to give students a better understanding of the time period
- Have students write a free verse poem from Billie Jo’s perspective 10 years after the book closes (i.e. during World War II) asking students to answer the question “What do you think became of her?”
These are a few of the many ways to take a simple piece of literature and have students engage with it in a meaningful way that will be applicable to their daily lives.