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Lesson Plan Immigration and Migration: Today and During the Great Depression

Is there a novel in every person? Are there stories that have never been told because they seemed unimportant? What is the value of the lives of people who will never be famous or have their biographies written?

Students address these questions through activities using oral history methods and investigating life in the 1930s. They compare the immigration/migration experiences of their families to those of people living through the Great Depression using interviews with parents, and photographs, films, and documents from the Library of Congress and other sources.


Students will be able to:

  • Conduct oral history interviews;
  • Understand and use research methodology, including online primary resources;.
  • Discuss changes in immigration/migration over time; and
  • Analyze photographs.

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Lesson 1 - Introduction

  1. Describe the project briefly:
    Students will collect stories of their own, or their family's or friends' immigration or migration to the United States and compare them to immigrant/migrant stories that took place during the Great Depression. The stories may be published in print and on the Internet and may be presented in class and to an invited audience.
  2. Ask the class:
    Why do you think we are called a "nation of immigrants?" Write student answers on the board. Discuss ideas about immigration/migration.
    If you have an immigration story in your family, relate it to the students, following the questions below. Write the questions and your answers on the board in chart form. (If you don't have an immigration story, use one of the students' stories).
  3. Explain that the students will now seek the same information about their families as part of the larger project . The four questions will be homework, due in three days. If any students state that they have no one to ask in their family, suggest that they try the oldest neighbor or a person that they know who has moved to the area.
  4. Example of one teacher's story in chart form:
When did family come? From where? Why did they leave? Why did they pick Philadelphia?
1898 Russia Father was draft dodger Heard there were jobs here

Lesson 2 - American Life Histories

  1. Using the homework, volunteers/chosen students (from diverse ethnic groups) will add their information to the chart.
  2. After four or five responses, ask the students if they see any similarities or differences in the chart.
  3. Define oral history and explain that what the students have done is an informal interview, the start of doing oral history. They will be learning from an expert how to develop questions, conduct a more detailed, structured interview, and record the sessions.
  4. Explain what primary sources are, that American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 are examples of primary sources. When students conduct their oral histories, they will be creating their own primary sources.
    [Definition: Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.
  5. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 are oral biographical stories collected for the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression. The WPA (Work Projects Administration) was formed during the thirties to employ people who didn't have jobs. A wide range of public work was accomplished from construction to musical performances. In the area of documentation, the WPA hired writers and professionals who did outstanding work in folklore, oral history, photography, and local history. Their works, about 300,000 items, are valuable sources of information for us today.
    Give excerpts from American Life Histories 1936-1940 to groups of students. Use these selections or select from the many oral histories available at from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
  6. Working in cooperative learning groups, students read the excerpt and record the answers to the same four questions they asked their families. Point out that it is important to read the beginning material of the interview because in some cases, that is the only mention of the interviewee's place of origin.
  7. Ask one person in each group to report the results of their analysis to the class (they can use the chart form as before). Discuss questions the students have and ask for similarities and differences they have found.

Lesson 3 - Voices From the Dust Bowl

  1. Introduce the online collections of the Library of Congress, reinforcing the concept of primary sources. Demonstrate how to access the Voices from the Dust Bowl collection. Students (in cooperative learning groups) will search the collection to find an interview. The groups will listen to the interview, find a three to five minute excerpt to transcribe, and repeat the analysis (four question) exercise.
  2. Students report their findings to the class.

Lesson 4 - Oral History

  1. Work with students in formulating questions for the person to be interviewed and discuss the use of photographs and artifacts (pictures that will be scanned and used in students' projects). For ideas on working with oral histories, consult Explore Your Community: A Community Heritage Poster for the Classroom or check with local universities and historical societies for someone with oral history experience.
  2. Model interview. The teacher will invite a guest from the school, and with the list of questions created by the students, begin to interview the person. Volunteer students will take over the interview, and record and photograph the person.

Lesson 5 - Conducting the interview

  1. Distribute and discuss the importance of consent forms both for the interviewer and the interviewee. Students will conduct the interviews using their questions, and record the session. Students will choose the two most interesting five minute segments, log/catalog/index the topics discussed by each of the interviewees and transcribe the segments. Students will ask for permission to photograph the person interviewed; they will also ask to borrow or photograph important artifacts, such as documents, connected to the immigration/migration experience. In addition, students will ask to borrow relevant photographs in order to analyze photos and scan them for the project.
  2. Students will assemble the transcripts and photographs in a folder.

Lesson 6 - The Great Depression

  1. While students are conducting their interviews outside of class, in class they will be learning about the events, causes and effects of the Great Depression and viewing WPA photographs of the era.
  2. Students select a photograph from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives or Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs collections. Students analyze the photograph, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. [The students may come up with more questions than answers.] Write a one or two-paragraph narrative about the photograph.

Lesson 7 - Role Playing from Voices from the Dust Bowl

In pairs, using the "subject" from Voices from the Dust Bowl, a student will role-play the person while another person asks questions used for family members, and then change places. [If the original interview was too brief, select a longer one.] The pairs of students will discuss the similarities and differences between the Voices from the Dust Bowl people and the American Life Histories.

Lesson 8 - Presentations

  1. Students will present to the class some form of multimedia project that will show their interview, the Library of Congress oral history selections, photographs and any other artifacts that show the two time periods (this can be their web site). Each presentation should be three to ten minutes in length.
  2. The interviews and scanned photographs will be published so that each student will have hard copies of the project. [Check for releases.] One copy of each will become part of the library's collection. If possible, bind the paper copies.
  3. Extra credit - students will create a collage of voices (Voices of the People), excerpts from the tapes of everyone in the class, with a transcription, that convey some of the strong emotions and experiences of the people.
  4. Students may present their projects and the voices collage (Voices of the People) at an evening program.

Lesson Evaluation

The presentations may be graded by a rubric, identifying criteria, the value of each part, and due dates.


Evelyn Bender and Byron Stoloff