The literary value of this novel has been widely recognized through its Newbery Medal and, among other ways, by a survey of ALAN members, who selected it as one of the best young adult novels of the 1990s. Additionally, this story’s context can also address Common Core State Standards, such as “Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies” (Grades 6-8 Students): “Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts."
The first step is to unearth the geographical references embedded in this novel. The story is set in the Oklahoma Panhandle. In pre-settlement days, this 35-mile wide and 210-mile long swath in the Southern Plains was known as “No Man’s Land,” suggestive of both its political and geographic isolation. Belatedly, at the dawn of the twentieth century--and only after all the other desirable tracts of land had been chosen, settlers finally laid claim to half sections of this grassland on the western edge of Oklahoma. The state’s name, itself, is an ironic combination of two Choctaw words--okla meaning “people” and humma meaning “red”—suggestive of a people perpetually dislocated by waves of settlement.
If you can imagine Oklahoma being shaped roughly like a clinched fist with the index finger extended, Cimarron County, the location of Billie Joe’s family farm, is at the very tip of that finger. The county is bordered by New Mexico to the west, Texas to the south, Colorado to the north, and, nearby, Kansas to the northeast. Not surprisingly, the story includes over a dozen actual place locations across this multi-state region (see Out of the Dust: Social Studies Connections Table in the file below).
I could not catch my breath
the way the dust pressed on my chest
and wouldn’t stop.
The dirt blew down so thick
it scratched my eyes
and stung my tender skin,
it plugged my nose and filled inside my mouth. (143-144)
In spite of concerted efforts, the dust particles that filled the air with each black blizzard also soon inhabited every nook and cranny including peoples’ lungs. These particles were extremely fine (63 microns) roughly one fourth the size of the period at the end of this sentence. As Timothy Egan has described it in The Worst Hard Times:
"The windows of houses were covered with wet sheets and blankets, the doors taped, the walls cracks stuffed with rags and newspapers. Men avoided shaking hands with each other because the electricity was so great it could knock a person down (153)."
Even with Vaseline on their noses and respiratory masks on their faces, the citizens of Cimarron County and the rest of the Dust Bowl (i.e., parts of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma) “inhaled grit”. As the dust builds up in the lungs, it tears the air sacs and weakens the body’s resistance. Symptoms included coughing jags, body aches, shortness of breath, and nausea. Similar, but more rapid than prolonged exposure to coal dust, some of those suffering from “dust pneumonia,” particularly children, infants, and the elderly, did not survive (Egan, 153 & 173).
How might an ELA teacher (or a geography teacher working in a complementary role) maximize the learning of Out of the Dust by teaching both the novel’s geography and its setting?
Let me offer a few suggestions. Just as student begin reading Out of the Dust, you might introduce the broader geographical context using the Visual Discovery strategy to increase student interest in the book. Visual Discovery, a five-step strategy outlined by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, is both flexible and impactful.
Step Two: project the selected photograph on a large screen arranging the desks in parliamentary seating, so students are facing each other—in order to facilitate discussion—with a wide aisle in the center leading to the image.
Step Three: ask carefully sequenced and spiraling questions that lead to discovery:
Gathering Evidence: What do you see in this image? Identify key details from this photograph (e.g. three children, their clothing and attire, items they are carrying, the building they are standing next to, the lack of vegetation and the dusty haze in the background).
Interpreting the Evidence: Where was this photograph taken? When was this photograph taken? What is their relationship? Where are these children going? (For each question, have students provide at least two pieces of evidence to support their interpretation)
Making Hypotheses: Why are these children wearing scarves and goggles on their way to school? (Have students provide at least two pieces of evidence to support their hypotheses.)
The sky darkened, as if the sun was blocked by an eclipse, and then--bang! bang!—like gunshot, the school windows were blown out, shattered, and the dust poured in, covering desks, the floor, faces. It was gone in a minute, leaving glass shards on the floor and the hard, tiny particles of fields . . . Some to the children could not stop crying. They went home with tears turned muddy and told their parents the school had exploded that day. (121-122)
Step Five: Have students interact with the images to demonstrate what they have learned. This final step of Visual Discovery challenges students to synthesize the information in the photography and textual sources. One engaging way to do this is through an “Act-It-Out”. Ask student triads to step into the Green family image and carry on a conversation just as if they are brother and sisters leaving home and on their way to school. Encourage them to infuse their dialogue with information they have learned from analyzing the photograph and reading the textual sources. You may want to support this process with a script or role cards (including brief talking points) or, perhaps, have the students ad lib.
The artistry of Out of the Dust is revelatory. It helps us make sense of the gales of human experience. Isn’t that one of the purposes of literature and the social studies?