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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > American Life Histories

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[Detail] Woman living with her family of four in an old street car.

Arts & Humanities

This collection offers a number of opportunities for students to enrich their language arts experiences.

Creative Writing

Students can develop a short story or poem based on one of the interviews. They can use photographs, newspapers, and other sources to illustrate contemporary parallels to the themes or concepts described in the interview.

Studying Vernacular

The interviews often capture local vernacular. Students can study the influences and evolution of speech and language in our country. Students might search for immigrant narratives that reflect the influence of people's native languages. They might search for words that are no longer used in common parlance today. Then, students can write a definition for these older words using the context of the interview and other sources. For example,

Search on scalawag, carpetbagger, or desperado.

Themes in Literature

The life histories, in combination with fictional novels, can engage students in the study of themes such as loss of innocence, consequences of failure, corruption and its consequences, and loss and recovery. They can compare Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets with the life history, "New York: [The Private Life of Big Bess]," [November 11, 1938], which can be found in the life histories collection. Students might look for life history interviews that parallel events and themes in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Students can study the Harlem Renaissance using the life histories collection and the Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection from the Library of Congress. The interviews with Albert Burke and Ophelia Jemison can serve as real-life examples of the characters and themes prominent in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Claude McCay, and the novels of Richard Wright. Students can search for other interviews that highlight themes (such as vision and ideals, and conflict and resolution) that are prominent in the works of Hughes, McCay, and Wright. Students can search for pictures of the authors in the Van Vechten collection.