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Children's Letters to Mrs. Roosevelt

Using short documents, this lesson from the New Deal Network engages students in analyzing textual evidence about children’s lives in the 1930s.

Migrant girl by Dorothea Lange

We love this 1-2 day lesson plan for its short, evocative primary sources. Reading letters from children to Eleanor Roosevelt, students gain an intriguing picture of what their own lives might have been like in the 1930s. The letters are part of a larger phenomenon—Americans sent an unprecedented amount of letters to the White House during FDR's presidency. In fact, an average of more than 5,000 letters arrived daily!

Experienced teachers may want to create their own lesson using these sources. Others can choose from the lesson's list of teaching ideas—we particularly recommend Tasks 2 and 8. Task 2, which asks students to track each letter writer's gender, age, race, and other characteristics, helps students realize that the letters represent certain groups rather than a random sample of American children. Task 8 asks students to use the letters to support or refute claims about the Great Depression and gives students practice with evaluating primary sources in response to an historical claim.

Some of the tasks we have not recommended (Tasks 3-7, 12, and 13) ask students to speculate about feelings or events rather than to make analytical judgments rooted in documentary evidence. Tasks 1, 9, 10, and 11 will be useful to some teachers, depending on students' skill levels and on teachers' goals for the lesson.


In addition to this lesson plan, the New Deal Network website contains a variety of resources for studying the Great Depression, including a letter from Mr. Roosevelt responding to the volume of letters she received and the primary sources used in this lesson.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?

The letters come from Professor Robert Cohen’s book Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression

Includes historical background?

Although historical background is not provided as part of the lesson itself, contextual information is available on the website. We recommend teachers read the background information and excerpts from Cohen's analysis of the letters.

Requires students to read and write?

This lesson involves reading and analyzing fascinating primary sources! Teachers can plan lessons so that students write in response to these texts

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence

Tasks 2 and 8 are particularly rich.

Requires close reading and attention to source information?

We recommend Tasks 2, 8, and 9.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?

The primary sources were written by young people and are easy but engaging. Teachers can help students with any unfamiliar colloquialisms .

Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Teachers using Task 2 may want to provide students with a worksheet to help them compile the information.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

Most of the tasks involve discussion and allow for teachers to hear what students are thinking and doing. But there are no explicit assessment criteria. Teachers will need to plan how and what they will assess in this lesson.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?

The lesson does not rely on a particular progression—each task stands alone, so teachers can choose whatever seems most relevant to their classroom needs.

Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?

While a teacher will need to select and possibly modify a particular task from the set, this lesson should be easily adaptable to a variety of classroom settings .