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
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
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?
General guidelines on selecting an oral history topic:
- Serves as a link from the immediate present to the immediate
past in a very understandable and human way.
- Fills an information gap when less and less information and
reflections are recorded in written form.
- Provides a natural opportunity to obtain information related
to ordinary people.
- Survey the community -- discover anniversary events for organizations,
- Determine availability of background information for students to
research as preparation for the project.
- Assess the time commitment -- how long will it take to research,
prepare for, interview informants, and process the information?
- Assess the general interest level -- who will be interested in the final
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Be able to demonstrate the techniques of recording oral
Be able to discern how point of view influences and effects
Learn about the experiences of some modern immigrants in
East Central Illinois.
Evaluate selected experiences of modern and early immigrant
Be able to demonstrate the literacy skills required to identify
and analyze visual, oral, and written primary sources related to immigration.
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
Recommended Grade Level
Middle school. Can be adapted for high school. See Steps in
Putting Together an Oral History Project for Middle School Students:
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
Standard 2. Understands the historical perspective
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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Organizations to help identify informants and/or speaker:
East Central Illinois Refugee Center
El Centro para Trabajadores
Area studies departments from the University campus
Representative from the East Central Illinois Refugee Center
Video selections from: Ellis Island, produced by Greystone
for the History Channel, 1997. Host/narrator Mandy Patinkin.
Color, 3 videos, approx. 50 mins each, VHS.
selection(s) from Fabian and Baber series.
Optional: The Irish in America: Long Journey Home, Buena Vista Home
Entertainment, Inc., 1997. Color, 4 videos, 6 hours, VHS. Available from
Teenage Voices", a bibliography of books featuring first person
experiences of alienation.
- American Memory sources:
Folklife and Fieldwork:
A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques. Library of Congress.
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Note: Each of these activities can be implemented/adapted/expanded
as standalone units.
Voice: personal story as history
Historical context: lessons on immigration history
Make a Difference Day outreach activity. Students collect
books and supplies for the East Central Illinois Refugee Center Saturday
Activity: Readers' Theater, using excerpts students select from a
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?
Ethnography: the art of collecting voices
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.
Making meaning out of an archive
- 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
- Discussion of unfamiliar terms and references to infer
- "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
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
- Optional: analyze the two photographs of immigrants from Touring
Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920. Large group
critical viewing exercise.
Oral history methodology
- 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
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.
Note: These methodological activities do not happen in isolation, but
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.).
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
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
Students conduct a self-evaluation
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.)
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
- Voice: personal story as history
- Outreach activity - collecting books and
supplies for the East Central Illinois Refugee Center.
- Readers' Theater using books from the "Otherness: Teenage
- Historical context: lessons on immigration history
- Making meaning of an archive
- Oral history methodology