Great Depression Curriculum Unit

Great Depression icon

History holds many economic lessons. The Great Depression, in particular, is an event that provides the opportunity to teach and learn a great deal about economics-whether you're studying the economic reasons that the Depression took place, the factors that helped it come to an end or the impact on Americans who lived through it. This curriculum is designed to provide teachers with economic lessons that they can share with their students to help them understand this significant experience in U.S. history.

The Great Depression: A Curriculum for High School Students

The curriculum begins with a message from former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and an introductory essay, "The Great Depression: An Overview," written by David C. Wheelock, a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and an expert on the Great Depression. The essay is incorporated into many of the lessons, as students are asked to read and refer to various sections of the essay.

Following the essay, the curriculum includes six stand-alone lessons, allowing the teacher to pick and choose the lessons most appropriate for his or her students. Although each lesson is written to stand alone, the lessons are sequenced for instruction so that a teacher can use the entire unit.

Lesson Format

Each lesson includes:

  • a list of economic concepts taught in the lesson,
  • the economics and history content standards and the social studies strands addressed in each lesson,
  • learner objectives,
  • estimated time required,
  • a list of materials required,
  • a detailed set of procedures,
  • an assessment,
  • blackline masters for visuals,
  • handouts for the teacher to copy and distribute, and
  • an interactive whiteboard application.

Also visit the Great Depression website for video interviews, audio clips, photography, activities and many other resources related to the Great Depression.

•  Full curriculum (pdf)

Lesson 1 – Measuring the Great Depression

This lesson introduces tools—such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the unemployment rate and the Consumer Price Index (CPI)—that are used to measure the economy's health, through an analysis of simple bar charts and graphs. Developing an understanding of these concepts is critical to understanding the magnitude of the economic problems that took place during the Great Depression.

•  Lesson 1 – Measuring the Great Depression (pdf)

•  Whiteboard (SMART/notebook)

•  PowerPoint (pptx)

Lesson 2 – What Do People Say?

There are many suggested causes for the Great Depression. It is important for students to understand that occurrences such as the stock market crash—and other events that affected particular sectors of the economy—were important, but not significant enough to cause the Great Depression. By reading fictitious letters that reflect actual problems and people's concerns during the Great Depression, students begin to identify with the people of that era and to uncover the problems that people experienced during the Great Depression.

•  Lesson 2 – What Do People Say? (pdf)

•  Whiteboard (SMART/notebook)

•  PowerPoint (pptx)

Lesson 3 – What Really Caused the Great Depression?

Through participation in two simulations, students determine that bank panics and a shrinking money supply were the primary causes of the Great Depression. Through an additional activity, they see how the many other factors they have discussed, such as problems in the agricultural sector and the stock market crash, exacerbated the situation.

•  Lesson 3 – What Really Caused the Great Depression? (pdf)

•  Whiteboard (SMART/notebook)

•  PowerPoint (pptx)

Lesson 4 – Dealing with the Great Depression

Students learn about programs initiated through the New Deal. By comparing and categorizing New Deal programs, they recognize that the value of most of these programs was their effects on the confidence that U.S. citizens had in the economy. Students also identify the impact that these programs had on the role of the U.S. government in the economy.

•  Lesson 4 – Dealing with the Great Depression (pdf)

•  Whiteboard (SMART/notebook)

•  PowerPoint (pptx)

Lesson 5 – Turn Your Radio On

Students use excerpts from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "fireside chats" to identify his plans for restoring the economy. They determine that using available technology to communicate was important to FDR's effort to restore consumer confidence.

•  Lesson 5 – Turn Your Radio On (pdf)

•  Whiteboard (SMART/notebook)

•  PowerPoint (pptx)

Lesson 6 – Could It Happen Again?

Students learn about the roles and functions of the Federal Reserve System. Through a simulation, they learn how the Fed manages the money supply through open market operations. They identify what central bankers have learned about implementing monetary policy as a result of the Great Depression. Furthermore, they recognize the steps the central bank has taken to respond effectively to financial crises since that time.

•  Lesson 6 – Could It Happen Again? (pdf)

•  Whiteboard (SMART/notebook)

•  PowerPoint (pptx)

Glossary of Terms

The glossary of terms includes an alphabetical list of economic terms used in the lessons, a definition of each term and a reference to the lesson(s) in which the term is used.

•  Glossary (pdf)


The appendix of the curriculum includes:

NAEE Gold Award Badge

This lesson received the 2015 Curriculum Gold Award from the National Association of Economic Educators. Read more about this and other awards.


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