Using 'The Wizard of Oz' to Teach About the Great Depression

Using 'The Wizard of Oz' to Teach About the Great Depression
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Most of us can recall the first time we saw The Wizard of Oz, with its surprising transition from harsh black and white to intense colors, the melting witch disappearing before our eyes, and the giant head of the Wizard being reduced to meek voiced, mere mortal. It is an iconic part of American culture, and yet, in schools, it is rarely studied for the reasons it should be. It is a video elementary school teachers pop on during a Friday afternoon lull and high school students? Forget about it; it is deemed babyish and childlike, of no relevance to the important learning that goes on in the upper grades. However, educators have been misjudging the important use of this film for years. More than a classic children’s tale, it illustrates the need Americans felt for escape during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression

The harsh, stark, black and white coloring, mixed with some sepia tones captures the harshness of the Depression. The farm itself that the Gales own does not look too prosperous, and the “wizard”, in reality is a traveling fortune telling, most likely homeless, looking to con a few bucks out of the poor Kansas residents. And Ms. Gultch? Snatching away poor little Toto and ripping him from the family he loves? This is symbolic of how Americans lost everything during the Depression; their very lives torn away and they could barely clutch at straws. It is this loss that motivates Dorothy to run away and seek something better for herself, which is just what scores of Americans did during the Depression.

And once we reach Oz, the symbols abound even more. The seemingly benign old man masquerading as a wizard can really be a symbol for President Hoover, misguiding Americans during those lean years. Glinda, showing Dorothy the Yellow Brick Road and eventually having her realize that she is in control of her own future and destiny, is a much prettier FDR, showing Americans that they have the power within them always to change their states.

What of those famous friends of Dorothy, the scarecrow, Tin-Man, and Lion? Who they represent is the challenge, the one that is put forth to you and your students during the viewing of the film. What virtues of famous Americans does each of them capture? How can the combination of all three of those characters become representative of the American dream? Those are the questions you are too explore when using the film as a teaching tool.

Download the power point introducing the film, use the film review from the NY Times as a pre viewing reading assignment, sit back and watch, and then give the assessment and writing assignment. You’ll be flying with the bluebirds over the rainbow yourself, because you’ll be so filled with joy at what your students can do, when they are motivated.


  • Wizard of Oz movie poster from

This post is part of the series: Film Genre Study: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

Teaching a class on film is not just a throw-away elective. Popular movies often make references to history or the state of the culture at the time. Use ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to teach about the Great Depression, or ‘Star Wars’ to teach about the rise of communism with this series.

  1. “Over The Rainbow To The Land Of Mordor!” The Escape Into Sci-Fi and Fantasy
  2. Heading “Over the Rainbow” to Escape the Depression with ‘The Wizard of Oz’
  3. “Use The Force” to Teach Communism: Drawing Connections Using Star Wars
  4. Teaching Transcendentalism Through A “Field of Dreams”
  5. From the Shadow Filled Depths of Mordor Emerges a Love of Reading