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Mulberry Street, New York City

[Detail] Mulberry Street, New York City

Lesson Procedure

Why oral history?

  1. Serves as a link from the immediate present to the immediate past in a very understandable and human way.
  2. Fills an information gap when less and less information and reflections are recorded in written form.
  3. Provides a natural opportunity to obtain information related to ordinary people.

General guidelines on selecting an oral history topic:

  1. Survey the community -- discover anniversary events for organizations, movements, institutions.
  2. Determine availability of background information for students to research as preparation for the project.
  3. Assess the time commitment -- how long will it take to research, prepare for, interview informants, and process the information?
  4. Assess the general interest level -- who will be interested in the final product?


1. Ethnography: the art of collecting voices

  • Analyze American Life Histories interviews. Students are given a homework assignment to read the Introduction to Who Were the Federal Writers and what did they do? and the four American Life Histories interviews. In class, conduct a whole group critical reading that includes:

    Discuss unfamiliar terms and references to infer historical context.

    "Is it racist?" Lesson on issues related to the use of primary sources. Discussion of attitudes, prejudice, voice of the time period. Note the letter that was distributed.

    Discuss the format that the ethnographers used to record their interviews and identify any discernible differences in the voices of interviewer and the interviewee (including bias, point of view, etc.).
    Identify what might be missing from the interview.
  • Optional: analyze the two photographs of immigrants from Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920. Large group critical viewing exercise.

2. Making meaning out of an archive

  • Lesson in search techniques for American Life Histories. Emphasize strategies for key word searching in a full-text collection that lacks subject indexing. Experiment with variations of words, vernacular expressions, names of foods, and so on.
  • Optional: lesson in search techniques for Touring Turn-of-the-Century America. Emphasize strategies that take advantage of linked index terms.
  • Students (in small groups) select an immigrant from the American Life Histories manuscripts to study.
  • Optional: Students select photographs from Touring Turn-of-the-Century America that fit the theme and/or time period of the interview.
    Groups maintain a research log for recording their experiences searching the collections and selecting an interview.
    Groups present their adoptee to the class.


3. Collecting oral history

Learn more about oral history techniques, consult Explore Your Community: A Community Heritage Poster for the Community.

  • Practice experience -- interview a family member regarding a memorable holiday or special activity. An early experience in interviewing, students just need to let the conversation happen in this exercise. Conduct additional interviews as appropriate.
  • Form teams and assign roles based on experience and strengths
  • Assign roles
  • Identify interview subjects (teacher's role)
  • Talk with potential interview subjects to ascertain:
    • The extent of their knowledge on the subject
    • Their ability to shed new information on the subject
    • Their ability to talk about an event, a recollection, in detail
    • Their willingness to participate in an oral history project
    • The clarity of their voices (how will a person's voice sound on tape?)
  • Students do library research to find background information in secondary sources on their interview subject's home country and culture.
  • Develop interview questions. Student groups identify a starting point and an ending point for their conversations. From this skeletal framework they develop and insert questions.
  • Conduct interviews. The list of questions serves as a guidepost, but students should expect to pose follow up questions.

4. Synthesis

  • Final essay assignment: Students write an essay synthesizing their new knowledge of the immigration experience.

This assignment is designed to help you pull together some of your thoughts regarding immigration. Through our oral history work, you've come to hear at least four contemporary stories from immigrants and, if you think about it, you've probably heard even more stories from family members and friends. So, reflecting on all these experiences pull together some thoughts on the subject.

  1. What kind of qualities do you think it takes for individuals to make the decision to leave one part of the world for another?
  2. What kind of conditions (economic, political, cultural), do you think motivates people to leave one part of the world for another?
  3. Is coming to the US an easier decision in more current times than it was at the end of the last century? Why/why not?
  4. What kind of situation(s) would have to exist before you/your family would think about emigrating from the US?

This assignment should be in the form of a two page typed essay (minimum).

  • Radio broadcast: students edit the interviews into a radio piece that will be aired on the local public radio station.
    Edit out comments that have nothing to do with immigration, are difficult to hear, or are inappropriate in other ways.
    Add music, as desired.
    Add student narration.