The Library of Congress

Learning About Immigration Through Oral History

Barbara Wysocki and Frances Jacobson

The primary goal of this activity is to give students the genuine experience of oral history in order to appreciate the process of historiography. We identified immigrants in our community who reflect the ethnic diversity of our student body, enabling students to compare and contrast the stories of these contemporary immigrants with those researched in the thirties reflected in American Life Histories, 1936-1940 and other American Memory collections. Students engage in visual and information literacy exercises to gain an understanding of how to identify and interpret primary historical sources. Further background on the project and its context in our eighth grade history course can be obtained by reading this letter to parents.

As designed, this project is almost a year-long experience. However, individual components can be adapted as standalone units, dropped altogether, or expanded to suit local needs.

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?


    Students will:

  • Be able to demonstrate the techniques of recording oral history.
  • Be able to discern how point of view influences and effects historical understanding.
  • Learn about the experiences of some modern immigrants in East Central Illinois.
  • Evaluate selected experiences of modern and early immigrant experiences.
  • Be able to demonstrate the literacy skills required to identify and analyze visual, oral, and written primary sources related to immigration.
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Time Required

This project is comprised of several components which can be used in total or implemented independently as standalone units or expanded to suit local needs. Some components can take as little as three days. The complete curriculum takes approximately five months (with other class activities interspersed).

Recommended Grade Level

Middle school. Can be adapted for high school. See Steps in Putting Together an Oral History Project for Middle School Students: Brief Notes

Curriculum Fit

Social Studies, History, English, some interrelated arts. Initially piloted within the history curriculum, components can also be implemented across curricular areas in an interdisciplinary approach.

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McREL 4th Edition Standards & Benchmarks

Standard 4. Understands the physical and human characteristics of place
Standard 12. Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes

Historical Understanding
Standard 2. Understands the historical perspective

Language Arts
Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes
Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

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Resources Used

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Note:  Each of these activities can be implemented/adapted/expanded as standalone units.

  1. Voice: personal story as history
    • Make a Difference Day outreach activity.  Students collect books and supplies for the East Central Illinois Refugee Center Saturday tutorial program.
    • Activity:  Readers' Theater, using excerpts students select from a book in the " Otherness: Teenage Voices" bibliography.  Each of these books focuses on the experiences of an "outsider" group of teenagers (e.g., immigrants, runaways, another culture, etc.) and primarily contains first person narrative.   Students in groups of three or four pick a book and select excerpts to read aloud to the class. Follow up with a class discussion. How did it feel to put yourself in that person's shoes? What impressions did you gather of the various lives you heard about?
  2. Historical context: lessons on immigration history
    • Classroom lecture on the history of immigration to the United States.
    • Video selections from: Ellis Island, produced by Greystone Communications for the History Channel, 1997. Optional: other videos as needed.
    • Reflection assignment: students write essays based on quotes and scenes from the Ellis Island video.
  3. Ethnography: the art of collecting voices
    • Analyze American Life Histories interviews. Students are given a homework assignment to read paper copies of the Introduction (edited for length) to Who Were the Federal Writers and what did they do? on the Voices From the Thirties page, and the four American Life Histories (see Resources section of lesson) interviews (also edited for length). In class, conduct a large group critical reading that includes:
      • Discussion of 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 to parents at Open House night is mailed home to alert parents to this stage of the project.
      • Discuss the format that the ethnogaphers 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.
    • Speaker from the University (practicing anthropologist) visits class to discuss the goals and techniques of ethnography and illustrate them with his or her own personal experiences. See sample outline of our anthropologist's notes.
    • Optional: analyze the two photographs of immigrants from Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920.  Large group critical viewing exercise.
  4. 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 "adopt."
      • 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 problem log for recording their difficulties and experiences searching the collections and selecting an interview.
      • Groups present their adoptee to the class.
  5. Oral history methodology
    Note: These methodological activities do not happen in isolation, but should be interspersed throughout the lessons in historical content. The exact sequence depends on local curriculum and needs. The two processes: content (context) and methodology (oral history, archives) should be thought of as parallel and equal partners.
    • 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.
    • Exercise in formulating questions
    • Practice experience -- interviewing a teacher.
    • Practice with the equipment (tape recorder, etc.).
    • Formulate teams
      • Job descriptions based on experience and strengths
      • Identify informants (teacher's role)
        Talk with potential informants 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 informant's home country and culture. Discuss the difference between this type of research and doing research with primary sources. They are experiencing the full cycle: from voice and memory to archive to synthesized treatment.
      • 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 pursue leads unique to the situation.
    • Professional anthropologist returns to conduct post-interview classroom discussion.
    • Students conduct a self-evaluation
  6. Synthesis
    • Final essay assignment: Students write an essay synthesizing their new knowledge of the immigration experience.
    • Radio broadcast: students edit the interviews into a radio piece that will be aired on the local public radio station. (Note: older students may facilitate with this process. In our situation, one student who was a a junior, received independent study credit for his extensive contribution. He had participated in the oral history unit three years earlier as an eighth grader and was able to draw on his earlier experiences.)
      • 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.

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Evaluation and Extension:

Activities used to evaluate student work and to expand the reach of the lesson.

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Last updated 09/26/2002