Reflections on the Dust Bowl (National Youth Summit)

Editor's note: This is a guest post from former summer teacher associate Carla Pacitti, and is a follow-up to the post Dust Bowl Summer. Carla describes her participation in the Dust Bowl National Youth Summit for high school students and teachers. You can watch an archived version of the program.

After spending my summer at the National Museum of American History, I was thrilled to learn that I would have the opportunity to take a select group of students to the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl in October hosted by the musuem. My husband is also an English teacher in my county, and together we built a group of students from both of our high schools to bring with us for the program.

Even though many of our students are from rural farming communities, their knowledge of the Dust Bowl was somewhat limited. In preparation, we wanted to make sure that each of the students had the background information necessary to fully participate in the program.

In our classes, we used the museum's teacher resource materials in order to help us prepare for the event. Each of our students read informative primary-source documents, including Caroline Henderson's letters and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. We also studied photographs and audio recordings from the era, and discussed the nationwide impact of the Dust Bowl. Finally, our students created and shared final presentations on a pressing environmental issue that was important to them. Doing these activities not only strengthened their understanding of the impact of the Dust Bowl, but also helped them to become more aware of the issues that affect them today.

On the day of our trip, we all were abuzz with excitement. Some of our students had never been to the museum before and were incredibly excited about all they would see and do. As a teacher, seeing a group of 16- and 17-year-olds enthused about visiting a museum is a refreshing and memorable experience! Luckily, we arrived in enough time to allow the students to explore the museum and speak with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who did a book signing before the actual event.

Ken Burns meets student Isabelle Maina and signs copies of his new book "The Dust Bowl."
Ken Burns meets student Isabelle Maina and signs copies of his new book "The Dust Bowl."

Our experience with the National Youth Summit was a powerful one. Many of our students shared their insights with their fellow students and teachers following their return, including some of the following comments:

Kyle Lahr: "...I had great respect for Ken Burns before the Youth Summit and a greater respect afterwards in having learned the measures that he takes to accurately portray the history of the subjects that his documentaries focus on... Having had the chance to learn about some of the history behind the Dust Bowl and how agriculture in the Midwest affects the rest of the nation, I am now incredibly excited to watch the upcoming documentary and learn even more." 

Joshua Rivera: "The Dust Bowl is an important time in American history that showed the triumph of man and the vitality of the American people... The panel discussion at the Youth Summit provided an important insight onto this time and I am very happy to be given the opportunity to have this experience." 

Panelists at the National Youth Summit discuss the Dust Bowl and current drought with students.
Panelists at the National Youth Summit discuss the Dust Bowl and current drought with students.

Nathaniel Philip: "I will openly admit that prior to attending the forum, I didn't know much about the Dust Bowl. I had seen portions of Ken Burns's documentaries, and I knew that this one wouldn't fall short of the rest. Not only was the information that he provided great, but the additional information provided by the other guests was so informative and interesting. It was truly a wonderful experience." 

It was incredible to see these students get to experience this opportunity, and watch as they gained a fresh perspective on an important event in American history. As Ken Burns has said, the key to great storytelling is unlocking "emotional truth." It isn't until we understand the struggle, the heartache, or the triumph of our history that we can truly learn from it.

Carla Pacitti is an English teacher at Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown, Maryland.