Top of page

Lesson Plan Immigration and Oral History

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: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 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.

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.


Students will be able to:

  • Discern how point of view influences and effects historical understanding.
  • Evaluate selected experiences of modern and early immigrant experiences.
  • Demonstrate the literacy skills required to identify and analyze visual, oral, and written primary sources related to immigration.

Time Required

This project consists of several components which can be used together 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).

Lesson Preparation


Family Story Assignment

Assignment: Talk with a family member (not an immediate member) about a particularly memorable Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, or special event. Be sure to get some details about the holiday or event such as:

  • How old was the person?
  • Where was the person living?
  • What actually happened?
  • What were the person's feelings about the event at the time?
  • What are the person's feelings about the event now?

Turn the information into a typed report (that's the preferred form) to be handed in to your teacher. The report must be at least one page long, but no longer than two.

Your report must conclude by you sharing your thoughts about how you felt getting this story or information or just talking with the family member.

Presentation Format

You and your partner selected an interview from the American Life Histories collection to examine and report back to the class.  Using the format below, be prepared to share your analysis by relating the following:

  1. Your choice and the reason for your selection
  2. Your analysis of the choice
    • What do I/we know from the information provided?
    • What don't I/we know from the information that is unavailable or just not evident?
    • How does the information, impressions, insights confirm or contradict what you already know about immigrants/immigration?

Time Limit: 5 minutes

Letter distributed to parents at Open House night:

September 24, 1997

Dear Parents:

In addition to the regular curriculum of the subfreshman history program, there is a special oral history feature. This experience is designed to give students a hands-on sense of how history is constructed and how they, acting as the historians, are able to manage and control the information they obtain.

In the past, oral history interviews have focused on African-American quilters, survivors of the Holocaust, and University High School alums as the school celebrated its 75th anniversary. Each collection of interviews became a final product including a museum guide cassette that accompanied a quilt exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum and an audio tape that was aired on WILL AM to recall the Holocaust on its April observance day.

This year, we are focusing on Immigration. We are interested in the stories of people living in East Central Illinois and their decision to move here from another part of the world. The final product, we hope, is another audio tape which WILL AM has already agreed to air on May 1st -- Law Day -- a day on which many immigrants formally become citizens of the U.S.

We are fortunate this year to pilot some enriched features to the oral history piece as a result of an institute we attended this summer at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. We were selected as one of twenty-five teams from across the country to review the American Memory Collection, a vast resource of digitized American history primary source materials. Each team at the Institute was charged to develop and pilot a teaching unit in our respective school settings that would then be made available to other teachers, encouraging them to utilize the collections based on these twenty-five models.

Our project is focusing on the photo collections of the Detroit Publishing Company and oral histories of the WPA writers program that the Library of Congress has digitized and made available online. We saw images and read stories that really fired our imaginations. Our planning, thus far, has really elevated a rather simple project into one with many facets and directions. We can only hope that the feedback from the students will move us into even more challenging possibilities for analyzing and utilizing primary sources.

While working with primary sources is indeed exciting, we are fully aware that some sources reveal attitudes and perceptions about immigrants that are not complimentary. Rather than shield students from this information, we've decided to confront the issues of prejudice and stereotype thinking and help them understand the context and motivation for such statements. If you and/or your student have any unease about this approach, please feel free to discuss the matter with us.

We look forward to sharing more of this project with you as we get closer to implementation. No doubt you will be hearing quite a lot about it from your son/daughter in the near future.

Yours truly,

Barbara Wysocki
History Instructor

Frances Jacobson

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.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluate student success and progress in analyzing primary sources, working with oral histories and synthesizing what they learn according to criteria you specify or generate with the class.


Barbara Wysocki and Frances Jacobson