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Charles Todd at the recording machine

[Detail] Charles Todd at the recording machine

Lesson Procedure

I. Introduction to Social History

  1. Ask students to write down topics they think of when they hear the word "history."
  2. Poll the class to see how many students wrote down topics such as presidents, wars, explorers, government activities, famous people, or famous inventions. Find out how many students suggested topics such as family life, recreation, work, clothing, and school.
  3. Point out that different kinds of historians look at different topics within history. While many history textbooks deal with political and military history, historians also study the lives and activities of everyday people. Everyday lives and activities are the subject matter of social history, which students will explore in this lesson. Here are examples of questions social historians might research:
    • What kind of food does this family usually eat? How do they get their food?
    • What kinds of natural resources are available where this family lives? How do these resources influence the types of food, shelter, and clothing available?
    • Does every child in the family attend school? Why or why not?
    • Can every member of the family read and write? Why or why not? What kinds of books are available to the family?
    • How important is religion to the family's life?
    • What work does each member of the family do?
    • Does the family own property? Why or why not?
    • Which family members can vote? Which family members do vote?
    • What transportation does the family use to get around?
    • What games do children play? What do adults do for relaxation?
    • What family activities might be considered an art or craft today?


II. Oral History and the Federal Writers' Project

In preparation review (or have your students review) the special presentation American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 contains audio recordings of actors reading from oral history interviews.

See How to View for information about using these recordings.

III. Analyzing Oral Histories

  1. Students analyze the oral histories, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Oral Histories to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. If computer time is limited, you may wish to print out, duplicate, and distribute copies of the primary sources for each group:

    A: Working Women in the 1930s

    B: Dancing as a Form of Recreation, 1890s-1930s

    C: Americans and the Automobile

  2. Assign each group three primary sources to read and analyze. Allow about 30 minutes for reading and analysis. Groups that finish early can read additional excerpts.
  3. As they finish their analysis, remind groups to generate three research questions related to the primary sources they have reviewed.

    Each group will choose a social history topic as the focus for their upcoming oral history interviews. Groups may choose to pursue additional questions about dancing, cars, or women's work from this section of the lesson, or they can choose another topic to research. Alternatively, the class may choose to research one topic, with small groups each choosing a different aspect of the topic.
  4. If necessary, assign as homework the generation of research topic ideas by each student.
  5. Conclude this section by compiling a class list of the research questions student groups have identified for further study.


IV. Background Research for Oral History Interviews

  1. To begin this section, post the class list of research questions on the chalkboard. Let student groups meet for about 10 minutes to review the social history topic they wish to pursue. You may wish to approve the research topics before groups proceed with their background research.
  2. Remind students that, after their background research, they will conduct oral history interviews of their own to gather information on their research topic.
  3. While the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection is rich in information on a wide range of social history topics, the online search process can frustrate students. Searches often turn up as many irrelevant as relevant documents. Help students use detailed search words to narrow their results.
  4. Students are asked to find just two or three documents relevant to their research topic. They should be able to accomplish this task in one class period.

V. Guidelines for Oral History Interviews

  1. You may need to identify interview subjects for your students. Some ideas for identifying interview subjects include:
    • Recruit community residents to come to your classroom.
    • Arrange a field trip to a local senior center for a student interview day.
    • Prepare a list of names and telephone numbers of community residents willing to be interviewed.
    Begin this section by explaining the method you have selected for identifying interview subjects for oral history interviews. Establish the due date for completion of interviews and for class presentations on research results. Tell students that they will be expected to report on both their interview results and how those results influence their answers to the research questions they posed.
  2. Students should be accompanied by an adult for face-to-face interviews. (Interview subjects sometimes talk above a young interviewer's head to an adult. Adults may want to sit to the side to keep the focus on the student interviewer. Students can go in pairs. One student can take notes, and the other can ask questions. Taking notes is helpful if the interviewer asks questions not on the original list.
  3. Before interviews begin, you may wish to review and approve the list of ten interview questions each group will generate. Role play an interview for the class using questions from one of the groups.
  4. You will want to review interview manners with students before they meet with interview subjects.
  5. More advanced students may be interested in the story of Charles Todd, a graduate student who decided to do field research for the Library of Congress to earn money for his summer vacation in California. The results of his work have become Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941.
  6. On the due date for group presentations, allow time for each group to describe their interview and research results. Then conduct a general class discussion to summarize the experience of the interviews and what students learned about their social history research topics. The following questions may be useful:
    • What was the most surprising piece of information your interviews generated? Why was it surprising?
    • What types of interview questions led to relevant, interesting answers? What types of interview questions were less effective?
    • Was it hard to keep interview subjects on the topic? What strategies worked to pull the person back to the focus of the interview?
    • What good follow-up questions did you ask?
    • What might have made the interview more productive?
    • Did you question the accuracy of the information the interview subject provided? Why?
    • What other sources might you check to see if the interview subject provided accurate information?
    • Based on your interviews and those you read in the American Life Histories collection, what changes have occurred in the lives of everyday Americans over the last 100 years? How significant do you think these changes are?
    • Do your oral history interviews or Federal Writers' Project interviews show areas of everyday life that have changed little over the last 100 years? Why do you think this is true?
    • Through the interviews, what information did you gather about causes of change in everyday life? For example, were changes in work related to changes in technology? to society's ideas about the role of women?


  1. Encourage students to search the American Memory collection, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs, for visual sources related to automobiles, dancing, women's work, or topics they pursued in their own oral histories. The following questions may help students select and analyze the photographs:
    • Do the photographs support the results of your oral history interviews and background research? If so, how?
    • Do the photographs refute the social history conclusions you made in this lesson? If so, how?
    • Do the photographs provide evidence of changes over time? Why or why not?
  2. Students can host an open house for their interviewees during which they present their displays.