Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Woody Guthrie: A Better World A Comin'

Contributions of Influential Oklahomans

Sarah Brewer, Bj Sneed | Published: November 22nd, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course Oklahoma History
  • Time Frame Time Frame 100 - 150 minutes
  • Duration More 2 -3 class periods


What motivated and inspired legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie to create and perform music? Students explore this question throughout the lesson by engaging in a Gallery Walk analysis of Guthrie photos and quotes and then using his lyrics to determine the political and social issues that Guthrie highlighted with his music. To extend their learning, students consider how Guthrie's most popular song, "This Land Is Your Land," has been reinterpreted over time.

Essential Question(s)

What purposes can music have? How can music inspire change?



Students consider the purposes music can have and the reasons why people create and perform music.


Students analyze photos and quotes to make inferences about why Woody Guthrie created and performed music.


Students analyze Woody Guthrie’s song lyrics to determine some of the political and social issues he highlighted with his music.


Students determine how Woody Guthrie’s song "This Land Is Your Land" has been reinterpreted and adapted over time.


Students use Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to create Blackout Poetry that reflects his political and social commentary.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Gallery Walk Posters (attached, one set printed and hung around the room)

  • Woody Guthrie Organizer (attached, one per student)

  • Woody Guthrie Organizer with Teacher’s Notes (attached, one copy)

  • Woody Guthrie Lyrics (attached, one song per student)

  • Woody Guthrie Lyrics with Teacher’s Notes (attached, one copy)

  • This Land Is Your Land Lyrics (attached, one per student)

  • Blackout Poetry Examples (attached)

  • Student devices with internet access

  • Portable speakers (optional)

  • Dry erase pockets (optional)

  • Dry erase markers (optional)

  • Highlighters (optional)

  • Headphones (optional)


Begin the lesson by displaying slide 3 of the attached Lesson Slides and organizing students into groups of 3-4.

Using a version of the Think-Pair-Share strategy, ask students to consider the two questions on the slide:

What purposes can music have?

Why do people create and perform music?

Give students one minute to think about these questions individually. After one minute is up, invite students to share their thoughts with their small groups. Then, call on someone in each group to share with the whole class.

Display slide 4. Share with students that throughout this lesson they should consider the following essential questions as they explore the work of one of America’s most influential folk musicians, Woody Guthrie:

What purposes can music have?

How can music inspire change?

Consider also sharing the lesson objectives on slide 5.


Display slide 6 and share some background about Woody Guthrie’s life. Tell students that Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912 and learned about music throughout his childhood from family and friends. He grew up at a time when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl devastated Oklahoma, Texas, and the surrounding region. By the time Guthrie was a teenager he had moved to Texas, and from there he joined the thousands of people fleeing the Dust Bowl and migrated to California to look for work. This experience profoundly influenced Guthrie’s early music.

Tell students that to begin their exploration of Guthrie and his music they are going to engage in a Gallery Walk. Display slide 7 and distribute copies of the Woody Guthrie Organizer. Explain that there are four stations at different points throughout the room that each have a photo of Guthrie paired with a quote. Assign students a number from 1-4, and instruct them to start at the Gallery Walk station that corresponds with their assigned number. Students will rotate to each station to analyze both the photo and the quote with their group in an effort to answer the following question:

Why did Woody Guthrie create and perform music?

Once groups are at their assigned station, tell them they will have two minutes at the station before rotating to the next. Students should record their inferences, along with relevant evidence from the quote and photo, in the corresponding space on their organizers.

After students have visited all of the Gallery Walk stations, ask them to return to their original groups of 3-4. Give group members a few minutes to compare their findings, and encourage students to add to their notes based on this discussion.

When groups have concluded their conversations, ask a representative to share the group’s thinking at this point with the whole class. As group members share their hypotheses about why Woody Guthrie created and performed music, ask them to note specific text evidence from the quotes and the photographs to support their responses. Slides 8-11 contain the photos and quotes from the Gallery Walk should you want to refer to them during the whole-class discussion. Refer also to the Woody Guthrie Organizer with Teacher’s Notes for additional information to help facilitate this discussion.

Display slide 12 and show students the Road to Now promo video about Woody Guthrie. As students watch the video, ask them to add information from the video to their chart that helps answer the question, "Why did Woody Guthrie create and perform music?"

After viewing the video, ask several students to share any additional thoughts or evidence with the whole class.

Have students return to their small groups and work together to summarize their findings by completing the sentence in the bottom section of their chart:

Woody Guthrie created and performed music…

Ask someone from each group to share the group’s response with the whole class. During this discussion, add any missing information or clarify any misconceptions that students might have. Encourage students to modify their responses based on the whole-class discussion.

Display slide 13 and summarize the discussion by noting that after Guthrie moved to California, he co-hosted a radio show. The show provided Guthrie with a platform from which he developed his ability to use music as a form of social and political commentary. He used his songs to comment, and in many cases critique, what he saw happening in American society with the hope of promoting change by informing the public about a problem or issue and appealing to their sense of justice. Therefore, to Guthrie, his songs were not purely entertainment but a tool for speaking out against social, economic, and political wrongs. Guthrie loved the possibility of America and spent the rest of his life as an artist and activist helping to create a more just America with the songs that he wrote and performed.


Now that students know that Woody Guthrie wanted to create music to fight against the injustices he saw happening, explain to them that they are going to analyze the lyrics of various Woody Guthrie songs to determine the types of issues and causes that he felt compelled to highlight with his music.

Have students continue working with their small groups. Assign each group a different song from the attached, curated Woody Guthrie Lyrics, providing a copy of the lyrics for each student in the group.

Once each group has a song, display slide 14. Tell students that before they read the lyrics they should consider the title of the song and read the brief description below the title that provides some important historical context for their song analysis. Tell students to read the lyrics two times with their group, the first time reading them straight through and the second time using the Why-Lighting strategy to note any lyrics that address the following question:

What political or social issue or issues is Woody Guthrie addressing in this song?

As they Why-Light, students should highlight any words or phrases that help them answer the question and make notes in the margins to explain their reasoning.

After students have finished Why-Lighting their lyrics, display slide 15. Bring the whole class back together and ask them to use the sentence stem on the Woody Guthrie Organizer to summarize their findings. Clarify to students that they should write multiple sentences to explain their evidence and reasoning.

When groups have completed their sentence stem summaries, display slide 16 and ask members of each group to share their analysis with the whole class. As groups share their responses, compile a class list of the major issues Guthrie highlighted with his music. You can either add student responses to slide 16 or write responses on the board.

Ask students to record the list in the appropriate section of their Woody Guthrie Organizer. Slide 17 includes possible responses.

Conclude the discussion by summarizing the common themes and issues that Guthrie addresses with his music.


While many of the themes and issues Woody Guthrie highlighted in his music are still relevant today, giving his songs a sense of timelessness, his songs also continue to be critiqued and adapted within today’s context, perhaps none more so than Guthrie’s most popular song, "This Land Is Your Land."

Pass out copies of the This Land Is Your Land Lyrics. Display slide 18 and have students listen to a recording of Guthrie performing the song as they follow along with the lyrics printed on the handout. As they listen, ask students to consider the following questions and make any relevant notes on their handouts:

What is Guthrie’s purpose for writing this song?

What political or social issue does he address with this song?

After they have listened to the song, ask students to share their responses to the questions above with the whole class. Ask them to identify the words and phrases that support their answer. Wrap up the conversation by summarizing students’ thoughts.

Display slide 19. Explain to students that they are going to listen to a more recent recording of the same song made by Pete Seeger (one of Woody Guthrie’s friends and a champion of his music) in 1976, almost 10 years after Guthrie’s death. As students listen to this version of the song, have them use the lyrics on the This Land is Your Land Handout to follow along, and ask them to consider the following question and make relevant notes on their handout:

What do you notice about Seeger’s version of the song when compared to the original lyrics?

After listening to the song, ask students to share their responses to the question with the whole class.

Display slide 20 and ask students the following question:

Why do you think Seeger would include these new verses in his performance of "This Land Is Your Land"?

Give students a few minutes to discuss this question with their small groups. When they have finished their discussion, bring the whole class back together and ask groups to each share their thoughts with the whole class.

Conclude the discussion by noting that this song continues to hold a significant place in our public consciousness with what seems like a simple and important message—we are all equally entitled to rights in this country, including access to and use of the land. At the same time, some have highlighted our need to consider the song within new contexts, especially as it is sung at significant events like presidential inaugurations and modern-day protests. Guthrie himself often created new iterations of his own songs to fit current circumstances, so it is likely that he would appreciate seeing his song continue to foster important dialogue about how to make the world a better place for all.


The Woody Guthrie Organizer and Why-Lighted lyrics can be collected to serve as assessments for this lesson.

If time permits, display slide 21 and consider assessing students’ understanding further by having them create Blackout Poetry. Starting with the lyrics to one of the songs that they analyzed earlier, ask students to black out portions of the text to create a poem that reflects Guthrie’s social and political commentary. Once students have created their poems, they should write a short 3-5 sentence response to explain how their poem reflects the social and political commentary that Guthrie shared through his songs.

Consider asking students to share their poems and explanations with small groups or with the whole class before turning them in.

Conclude the lesson by noting that, as we reflect on Woody Guthrie’s legacy, we should consider our own talents and how we can use those to fight for a society that is more just and equal, where we do a better job of taking care of one another.