Lesson Plan: Flood Control—Environmental History
Student Learning Objectives
  • Students will interpret visual and verbal descriptions of the Missouri Flood of 1937 and assess the impact this event had on midwesterners’ lives.
  • Students will assess the costs and benefits of flood control in the 20th and 21st century.
Visual Arts

I.V.1, I.CX.1, I.CX.2, I.CR.1, A.CX.1, A.CR.1, A.CR.2

Social Studies

USH.H.1, USH.H.2, USH.H.3, USH.H.8

Written by Zoe Voigt, Humanities Teacher
Essential Question: How does Thomas Hart Benton’s painting help us understand the impact of flooding on the lives of midwesterners in the 20th century? What are some of the policy issues around flooding?
Abstract: Students will learn about the history of flood control as well as flood control practices today. They will also experience the difficulty in deciding upon the best solutions for environmental policies in a debate format.
  1. Assign the class to examine Spring on the Missouri.
  2. Hold a brief class discussion focusing on the following themes:
    Biographical details of the artist Thomas Hart Benton, specifically his role as a documentary artist.
    Depiction of the Missouri River in the painting.
    Association of the painting with the Flood of 1937.
  3. Divide the class into three groups and assign each group an identity:
    United States senators, farmers living in the flood plain, or environmental lobbyists.
  4. Assign each student to examine the maps and images of midwestern floods and flood control programs in the United States from 1927 to 1993.
    After the Flood of 1927
    The Flood of 1937
    The Flood of 1993
    Landsat Images of the Tri-River Area
    New Approaches to Flood Control
  5. Hold a brief whole-class discussion focused on the students' opinions on floods and flood control formed from examining the maps and images.
  6. Assign each student to read the article "Flood Plain Development: A Curse, Not a Blessing" and the congressional testimony of Jim Robinson Jr.
  7. Assign both the farmer and the environmental lobbyist groups to write a one-page petition to be presented to the United States senator group requesting some flood control action consistent with the perspective of the groups' constituents. Each group should also select one member to present the petition to the senators.
  8. Prepare a Senate Committee setting with desks and chairs at the front of the classroom to seat the members of the Senate group. Provide a lectern or podium as a presentation point. Assign the spokespersons for both the farmer and the environmental lobbyist groups to present the group petition to the senators.
  9. Once both petitions have been presented, assign the senators to deliberate among themselves for about 10 minutes and to reach a decision on the fate of the respective petitions. The Senate group should select one member to present the Senate response to the petitions. Assign the Senate spokesperson to present the Senate findings on the petitions.
  10. Hold a class discussion focused on the following question: Which needs are more critical, those of the human population or those of the nonhuman environment? Have these needs and considerations changed in the floods of 2011?
  • The teacher will use class discussion to evaluate the students’ analysis of the painting, maps, and photographs and their understanding of the impact of the 1937 flood.
  • The petition, Senate presentation, and deliberation will be used to evaluate the students’ assessment of the costs and benefits of flood control.




environmental lobbyists

flood control



Maps and images of midwestern floods and flood control programs in the United States from 1927 to 1993

Additional Print Resources:

Fairbrother, Trevor, and Potts, Kathryn. In and Out of Place: Contemporary Art and the American Social Landscape. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1993.

Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Menkes, Diana, ed. Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1980.


Two sharecroppers struggle to load their meager belongings - mattress, cast-iron stove and blanket - into a mule wagon before rising floodwater reaches their small home. A darkening sky and lightening add a sense of urgency to their actions. Deep furrows in the mud and high water in the background suggest escape will be difficult.

Benton used compositional elements, such as color, line and shape, to increase the drama of his painting. He squeezes the activity of the scene between two wooden structures - the white house on the left and red barn on the right. He crops our view of these buildings, as a photographer does when zooming in on the action. This helps narrow our focus on the rectangular wagon, which repeats the shape and texture of the buildings. Benton also uses color to direct our attention to the wagon. The yellow of the man's shirt and the orange blanket catch our eye and encourage us to take inventory of the items being loaded. The artist also repeats round objects, such as the white jug, wagon wheels, metal tub and horses' bodies, to move our eye from the foreground to the middle ground of the painting. Diagonal lines in the mud and streaks of lightening suggest action and heighten anticipation about the outcome of this story. This drama is accentuated by the contrast of dark clouds on the left and a clear sky on the right.

Does this painting document a real occurrence?
This painting is based on drawings Thomas Hart Benton made on travels in the Midwest during the Great Flood of 1937. He was hired by the Kansas City Star newspaper to document this natural disaster, which ravaged much of the Ohio River Valley. He traveled through Missouri making sketches of the flood's effect on the land and its residents. He wrote, "the roads of the flood country were full of movers…Every once in a while seepage from under the levee would force the evacuation of a house and you would see a great struggle to get animals and goods out of the rising water."

What is Thomas Hart Benton's background?
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Missouri and went to art school in New York. Rejecting the abstract style popular in modern Europe and America, he chose to paint in a more illustrative manner. He is part of an art movement called American regionalism, characterized by images of everyday subjects that celebrate the virtues and struggles of rural America.

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