Out of the Dust Storia Teaching Guide
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
About this book
In powerful and lyrical free verse, Billie Jo Kelby tells the story of her life on the Oklahoma prairie from the winter of 1934 through the autumn of 1935—during the hard times of the Dust Bowl. Despite the constant dust storms and the struggle to make ends meet, Billie Jo is happy with her life. She loves to play the piano, her mother is pregnant with a much-wanted child, and her father is determined to keep their farm and home.
Then a terrible accident brings tragedy into Billie Jo’s life. Her mother mistakes a pail of kerosene for water and pours it onto the stove. Trying to save her mother from the fire, Billie Jo accidentally makes things worse. After her mother and the baby die, Pa falls into a deep depression and Billie Jo can no longer play the piano because of the burns on her hands. Nor can she forgive her father or herself. Billie Jo’s life is so painful, with her wound, her guilt, and the dust, that she tries to escape on a freight train. The journey results in Billie Jo’s own personal journey toward forgiveness and healing.
Set against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl and the hardships faced by prairie families, the novel is a testament to the power of hope and the triumph of the human spirit.
Teaching the Book
In the midst of the Dust Bowl, with dust piling up like snow across the prairie, 14-year-old Billie Jo’s life is transformed by a terrible accident. It leaves her scarred—inside and out. Karen Hesse’s award-winning novel provides an unforgettable reading experience told in free verse against the backdrop of a desperate time in American history. Students will engage in activities including researching the history, geography, and art of the Dust Bowl.
Theme Focus: Historical Fiction
Comprehension Focus: Analyze Theme
Language Focus: Dust Bowl Vocabulary
Get Ready to Read
Provide students with a visual context for the dust storms to go with the dramatic and unreal descriptions in Out of the Dust. Fortunately, because the US government hired remarkable photographers such as Walker Evans to document the storms and the people who suffered through them, there is a rich visual history available. Share these photographs, from the Kansas State University website, to show how humans and the landscape were ravaged by dust storms during the 1930s.
Before showing the photographs, share basic information about the Dust Bowl. Consider discussing how, by the 1930s, the soil in Oklahoma and neighboring states had become loose and dry partly as the result of converting too much wild grassland to farmland. Also consider sharing that wheat crops failed, and nearly 50 million acres were severely damaged before conservation measures helped put an end to the storms that threatened the lives of people and animals, as well as, the crops.
Preview and Predict
Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Explain that the image on the cover is a picture of a real girl from the 1930s. In the novel, the girl is named Billie Jo, and she narrates her own story of survival during the Dust Bowl. Ask students what sort of challenges they think Billie Jo might face in the story.
Words from the Dust Bowl
Explain to students that the author uses some unfamiliar words that were part of people’s vocabulary during the Dust Bowl. She also uses words that describe the landscape of the times. The list below contains words from the world of the Dust Bowl. Ask students to look for clues in the text to figure out the words’ meanings or to check dictionary definitions.
Use Resource #1: Vocabulary Cards and distribute copies to students. Ask them to write down the definitions of the words as they read them in the book.
- drought (p. 31)
- withered (p. 39)
- scorch (p. 81)
- sod (p. 107)
- duster (p. 109)
- parched (p. 128)
- migrants (p. 199)
- gaunt (p. 200)
Ask students to write sentences using the vocabulary word bolded in each question. Have volunteers share their sentences aloud.
- How did drought affect people during the Dust Bowl?
- What made the wheat look withered?
- How was Billie Jo’s father like the sod?
- What did a duster look like as it came across the prairie?
- What does Billie Jo mean when she says she saw the “gaunt of hunger in his cheeks”?
Ask students to ask and answer more questions about the vocabulary words, applying them to the novel or to their own lives.
As You Read
Reading the Book
First, ask students to read the season and date on page 1: Winter 1934. Note that the book is divided into seasons from winter, 1934 to autumn, 1935. Then read aloud the first poem in the book. Explain that it is titled “Beginning, August 1920” because that is the date of Billie Jo’s birth, which she describes in the first poem. Model a fluent reading of the poem, being conscious of both the line breaks and the punctuation. Clarify any questions students have before they begin reading the book.
Assign students to read Out of the Dust independently. Remind them to keep the big question in mind as they read.
Big Question: Critical Thinking
Ask students to think about this question as they read and be ready to answer it when they have finished the book. Write the question on chart paper or have students write it in their reading journals. How will Billie Jo come “out of the dust”?
Out of the Dust delivers a powerful message about forgiveness, hope, and healing through its sparse, poetic text. Guide students to do a deep reading of the text, making inferences and analyzing the theme. Remind students that the theme is a message about life or human nature that the author expresses through the character’s actions and ideas.
Ask students to think deeply about the themes of the book for themselves and to decide what message the book gives them. Emphasize the importance of supporting their interpretation of the theme with specific evidence from the text.
Use Resource #2: Analyze Theme to support students in examining the themes in Out of the Dust. Ask them to answer the questions on the resource as they read and discuss their responses with a partner. When they have finished the book, ask them to state the theme of the book in one or two sentences. Guide a discussion about theme with the group, encouraging students to offer their answers and to supply evidence from the book to support their ideas.
After You Read
Questions to Discuss
Lead students in a discussion of these focus story elements.
1. Historical Fiction
14-year-old Billie Jo tells this story. How does her point of view affect what you learn about life in the Dust Bowl? How would the story be different if an adult told it? (Sample answers: Billie Jo tells about how she dreams of playing the piano, tests she has in school, and her friends. An adult might talk more about money and farming.)
2. Analyze Theme
How have Billie Jo and her father healed by the end of the book? How has the land begun to heal as well? (Sample answer: Billy Jo has finally forgiven herself and her father; she has healed inside, as well as, outside. Her father has also healed from the bitterness of losing his wife and is courting another woman. The land has healed from the dust storm and there is a rebirth of growing things.)
3. Words from the Dust Bowl
Use the words drought, parched, and gaunt to describe both the landscape of the Dust Bowl, Billie Jo, and her father. (Answers will vary, but should be supported by word meanings and text evidence.)
Questions to Share
Encourage students to share their responses with a partner or small group.
If you were Billie Jo, would you get off the train to return home or would you stay on to find a new life?
The Dust Bowl was a natural disaster. What natural disasters have occurred recently? How did they affect people’s lives?
What other young characters have you read about who have faced desperate conditions for survival? Compare one of the characters to Billie Jo.
Content Area Connections
Letters to the White House
Ask students to read letters that young people wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Ask students to report back to the class by choosing a letter and reading it to the class. Then ask them to explain what it reveals about the times of the Great Depression.
Dust Bowl States
Ask students to research the geographic area of the US that was affected by the Dust Bowl. Guide them to do an image search on “Dust Bowl maps,” to find several good maps of the affected areas and those hardest hit. Project a map of the United States on the whiteboard and have students draw in the states that were hit by the dust storms.
Causes of the Dust Bowl
Have students research the causes of the Dust Bowl, which are attributed to detrimental farming practices and climatic shifts. Ask them to report on their findings, citing the sources they read and explaining the theories behind the natural disaster.
Photographs from the Dust Bowl
Photographers working for the US government captured historic images of the Dust Bowl and the people it affected. Encourage students to examine these photographs on sites such as Wessel’s Living History Farm, which includes interview transcripts with people who lived through the Dust Bowl, as well as, photographs. Ask students to choose one photograph that they are especially drawn to and describe it to the class while projecting it on the whiteboard or a screen.
Poetry to Prose
Out of the Dust provides an opportunity to teach students about the differences in writing genres. Ask students to choose one of their favorite poems in the book. Then challenge them to rewrite it in the form of a expository text like a newspaper article or a narrative text like a diary entry. Help students to see the economy of poetry (the power of using few words) as they translate the genre into a prose form.
Don't Forget the Big Question
Give each student an opportunity to answer the big question. Encourage students to support their answers with details and evidence from the text. Tell students there is more than one right answer. How will Billie Jo come “out of the dust”?
Free Verse Poem
After students have read Out of the Dust, discuss things they notice and things they like about free verse. The book provides a wonderful example of the power of poetry to express deep feelings and meanings. Ask students to experiment with the form of free verse poetry to express something important in their lives by using the Big Activity: Free Verse Poem. Guide them through the following steps to create their poem:
- Choose an experience from your life that has a special meaning to you.
- Brainstorm words and phrases that capture the feeling of the experience.
- Create a rhythm and shape for the poem that grows out of your feelings.
- Use punctuation to guide the reader to stop and start at important places.
- Write an ending line that emphasizes the theme of your poem.
This Storia e-book has the following enrichments to enhance students’ comprehension of the book.
- Word Twister
- Word Scramble (4)
- Who Said It?
- Do You Know?
About the Author
Karen Hesse was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1952. From an early age, she aspired to become an author, partly because of the encouragement of her fifth grade teacher. “Mrs. Datnoff believed I could be a professional writer some day and because she believed, I believed too. I love writing. I can’t wait to get to my keyboard every morning. Adults often ask why I write for the younger set. My reply: I can’t think of anyone I’d rather write for. Young readers are the most challenging, demanding, and rewarding of audiences.”
In 1998, Hesse’s novel Out of the Dust won the Newbery Medal. It is based on extensive research into the history of the Dust Bowl and the people who survived it. Hesse has authored several other award-winning works of historical fiction on topics that range from World War II to the Holocaust. Karen Hesse currently lives in Vermont with her husband and has two grown daughters.
Visit the Scholastic website for more information about Karen Hesse.
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