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Lesson Plan

What do we know about the Great Depression?
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) as an Historical Document

Applying Oklahoma Standards for Social Studies

Looking back as historians we have several types of evidence that we can bring together to understand how the people of the United States responded to the Great Depression and its longer term impact on local economies that ran out of money to lend to people.

In this lesson students will examine a “bank run” during the Great Depression, through a set of primary sources that include:

  • Direct personal testimony of a bank president
  • Nationally broadcast radio address by the newly elected president of the United States
  • Reenactment of a bank run scene in the historic film “It’s a Wonderful Life”
  • First-hand recollections of financial hardships faced by African-Americans during the Great Depression

The lesson provides a compelling demonstration of the key objectives in social studies as listed in the Oklahoma Standards (2019) by meeting the following standards simultaneously:

  1. Engage in Democratic Processes – Students will understand the principles of government, the benefits of democratic systems, and their responsibilities as citizens
  • By examining the testimony of Marriner Eccles, students will observe the kind of ordered conduct required in a democratic community facing a crisis;
  • President Roosevelt’s first “Fireside Chat” provides an example how a leader reaches out to community members to secure their cooperation and support in a time of crisis;
  • The clip from “It’s a Wonderful Life” exposes students to a key source for public memory in the twentieth century (motion pictures);
  • The words of W.E.B. DuBois and Isadore M. Martin require students to compare the experiences of certain Americans against the idealized representations of society on a presidential address and a motion picture;

1.C. Students will demonstrate understanding of the processes and rules by which groups of people make decisions, govern themselves, and address public problems.

  • The documents in this curriculum provide students with a basis for debating the strengths and weaknesses of the political system

2. Analyze and Address Authentic Civic Issues – Students will determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering essential, compelling, and supporting questions addressing authentic civic issues.

  • The different kinds of evidence about how the financial system enables students to debate how well the financial system worked before during and after the New Deal;

2.B. Students will demonstrate the ability to investigate problems taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in arguments, structure of an explanation, and other sources.

  • This lesson plan places the importance of “taking into consideration multiple points of view” front and center.
  • A key point of this unit is that there are no “perfect” sources: the fullest picture is found after consulting many different sources which represent different points of view.

3. Acquire, Apply, and Evaluate Evidence – Students will utilize interdisciplinary tools and master the basic concepts of the social studies in order to acquire and apply content understanding in all related fields of study.

  • By presenting a” Hollywood classic” as a legitimate source of evidence about a nation’s culture and collective memory this lesson plan provides a model for an interdisciplinary approach;

3.A. Students will develop skills and practices which demonstrate an understanding that historical inquiry is based on the analysis and evaluation of evidence and its credibility;

  • By bringing together these different kinds of sources and different voices (along with compelling questions in each section), this lesson plan provides the opportunity to engage in historical analysis and evaluation;