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Re-packaging the Alphabet Agencies and the New Deal


Read this, whether you teach the New Deal or not!

It’s an activity devised by Helen Birchill who teaches in Cheshire and there’s not one but several important lessons to be learned from it – the importance of developing an emotional response, the modelling of the activity as a starter, the creation of purposeful enjoyment and, perhaps most importantly, the explicit references with students to how they can learn most effectively.

Also note Helen’s reference in the second paragraph to the previous way of teaching this topic ‘quickly and painlessly’ which ‘painlessly’ left students confused and short of understanding. Thanks to Helen’s efforts and risk-taking and focus on how learning happens her students’ understanding became much greater and longer-lasting. Finally, while this activity was designed for GCSE it would work equally effectively with an A level class.

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This is Helen’s description of her activity.

I came up with this idea whilst playing with my two small children at home. We had had several ‘insets’ at school on active learning and what makes us remember something. Our strongest memories are of things which evoked an emotional response, be it happiness, or sadness. For example, we can all remember what we were doing on 9/11. I was keen to tap into students’ emotions to enable them to remember a difficult topic and laughter and fun seemed the order of the day! Hence buckets and spades, lego, balloons, plastic animals and trees, felt markers and empty MacDonald’s Happy Meal boxes and flags were all requisitioned for use in the classroom. I got a lot of strange looks from other members of staff when I arrived in school…!

I use this lesson at GCSE when teaching AQA’s Conflict in the Modern World course, option B. Roosevelt’s New Deal is often one of the last topics to be taught, just before the exams, when time is running out and when students are tiring and are stressed. There has been a tendency to teach it quickly and painlessly to enable ‘regurgitation’ for exam questions. As a result, many students get confused over which Alphabet Agency is which and don’t really understand why they were introduced.

Therefore my objectives were for students

  • to develop an understanding of how the Alphabet Agencies were designed to tackle the economic problems faced by the USA in the 1930s

and that by the end of the lesson students should be able to

  • identify the main Alphabet Agencies
  • recall the problems which each Agency sought to tackle
  • recall what each Agency did in detail
  • appreciate how the work of each agency was supposed to generate economic success

and, in addition, I wanted

  • to enable the students to reflect on how they learn and retain information.

Setting Up

This lesson comes just after work on the context of the early 1930s, the problems of unemployment caused by the Wall Street Crash and a discussion of Keynes’ ideas of spending as a way out of a depression, the election of Roosevelt.

It takes at least 40 minutes to work through a modelled example, engage the students in their own group tasks, and allow them to present back to the group. It takes at least a further 30 minutes to debrief the students which must be done in a follow-up lesson (see below).

The tables can be arranged into groups, if you wish, but the emphasis will be on movement too, so it is not essential.

Resources Needed

1. 5 colourful pieces of card containing a problem faced by Roosevelt on one side and the solution in the form of an Alphabet Agency on the other, relating to

The AAA, CCC, Dustbowl, TVA, WPA

2. A McDonald’s Happy Meal box re-labelled with a ‘New Deal’ sticker (to show how we can ‘re-package’ ideas)

3. Plastic animals and trees, lego, buckets and spades, flags (McDonald’s again!), balloons, tissues, and any other ‘prop’ the students might improvise with.

4. Felt pens and paper

The Activity

1. Introduce the purpose behind the lesson. People learn best when something is:

R eal (to them)

E xaggerated

V isual

Get the pupils to write this mnemonic down.

2. Link the lesson to previous lessons with a re-cap of the depression and what it entailed. MODEL an example through a picture or role-play of how an image of the depression might be conjured up:

Eg Depression – lots of sad faces, large black clouds descending containing homelessness, shortages of food, unemployment, poor diet and health, lack of medication, businesses and banks closing (use your imagination!)

The emphasis is on how the American dream became the American nightmare

3. This can lead on to an explanation of how the Americans had lost their confidence and this needed to be won back.

MODEL an example of one solution to this problem so the students can see what will be expected of them when it is their turn. – e.g. Roosevelt’s fireside chats

Get a student to take off his jumper, roll up his sleeves and sit and relax at a table in front of the class. Get him to lean forward in his chair and suggest how this would instill confidence in the audience (you could refer to the way in which a teacher might make a student feel more comfortable by getting down to his/her level)

4. Talk about how important this was to the people. Suggest how this was a way of showing the president in a different light. Show them the McDonald’s box to emphasise the key words : NEW DEAL (repackaging)

5. Student task

Put the students into groups and distribute one card per group

AIM: they must come up with their own role-play which informs the others in the class what the problem was and what the solution was. They must try to make this as memorable as possible using the resources, eg.

  • AAA – plastic animals, cans, trees
  • TVA – building bricks, plastic trees, flags
  • WPA – balloons (for scaring birds) sketchpad, shows, spade
  • CCC – buckets, spades and trees
  • Dustbowl – improvise!

The teacher should encourage each group to be creative and to use all their skills and offer suggestions if needed.

6. Student presentations. Each group reports back in alphabetical order on their selected agency. Emphasise there will be 5 in total. Nobody should write anything down.


Debriefing (Lesson 2)

This requires at least 30 minutes. It should take the form of a brief whole-class re-cap of the objectives before swiftly moving onto asking the students to recall the 5 alphabet agencies in alphabetic order. A table should then be filled in by the students alone, then the results pooled as a class:




How I remembered it






















Finally students need to think about how they have learned as well as what they have learned.

  • What has the group managed to recall?
  • Why have you remembered it? Why were some alphabet agencies easier to recall than others? What was it about the presentations which made them easy to follow? How can you link this experience to other subjects you need to know?

Follow Up

Students could be given ready-made sheets on the New Deal with gaps in them to complete as a class or a group and ensure that each person has a complete set of revision notes. Students could be asked to produce a visual diagram for their agency on a par with the image drawn by the teacher of ‘The Depression’ at the start of the activity.


The first reaction of the students to the task is one of pleasure at being able to ‘play’ in History in a way they recall more from KS3. All students are able to find their own level and participate in their own way, using skills they don’t always get to use (eg drama/ singing!) and it is amazing to see students who aren’t usually very animated, becoming so. They can impress with their creativity and resourcefulness – eg one group, devoid of props to use for the Dustbowl, screwed up lots of tissues and blew them across the table to simulate tumbleweed, whilst singing old cowboy songs in gloomy voices to express their misery. Students ‘became props’ in the form of trees being planted or statues around which birds were chased away with balloons. A group describing the AAA threw plastic animals in the bin to show the cutting of production, the CCC was demonstrated by getting people to queue up with spades and buckets, whilst the WPA involved students going around the classroom scaring birds with balloons and putting on various shows!

Students have amazed themselves with how much they have been able to recall – not just the basic outline of each Agency but even statistics, which they didn’t expect to know. Even two years after teaching one group, they remembered this particular lesson and could still recall the facts! Importantly, for learning, the students appreciate how new knowledge can be harnessed to already-grasped ideas or knowledge of current affairs to aid recall. They feel this can be a ‘tool’ which can be gainfully employed in other subjects to aid revision.

The reaction from colleagues and other teachers of history has been very positive. It has been a lesson they have enjoyed as much as the students, and has allowed them to see different sides of students, and bring a ‘dull’ topic to life. They too, have been impressed with the recall abilities of students.


  1. What was the importance and impact of explicitly discussing how learning can be more effective?
  2. Did you learn anything about individual students that would have been harder to learn from more standard activities?
  3. How else could this kind of technique be used within your History courses across the age-ranges?
  4. What are the implications of this activity for collaboration with colleagues in other departments on learning styles?

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

Resources Needed

The Activity


Follow Up