The Federal Writers’ Project and the History of Everyday Life by Renée Beilstein and Kristin Elmquist July 24, 1997 NCSS Thematic Strand: Time, Continuity and Change Culture Grade Level: 6-12 Class Periods Required: 3 Purpose, Background and Content During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the Works Progress Administration employed over 6 million Americans. As part of that, the Federal Writers’ Project gave unemployed professional and non-professional writers jobs collecting the life histories of over 10,000 Americans of diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. The information they collected is invaluable to us today in a number of ways. Students will place themselves in the position of both interviewers and interviewees as they research characters and recreate the interview process using information collected from the Federal Writers’ Folklore Project. This information is available on-line from the Library of Congress. Students will be introduced to oral history research, and will question notions of what kinds of people make history. Goals/Objectives/Student Outcomes/Performance Expectations Students will:
Analyze primary data as they read and research WPA life history interviews. Place themselves into the lives of historical figures by role playing.
Recreate the Federal Writers’ Project experience and learn to conduct research through mock interviews. Extract information about the purpose and results of the WPA, the Great Depression, and the 1930’s in general as they analyze their interview experience. Synthesize data and link it to larger questions of the purpose of historical inquiry and who historical actors are as they write short interview report essays.
Materials Access to the Library of Congress – American Memory web site (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/) Procedures Day One Procedure 1: 50 minutes Students spend the class hour exploring the WPA, Federal Writers’ Project Folklore collection on the Library of Congress -- American Memory website (where web access is available, such as the library or computer lab). Instructors will be available to help guide students not familiar with navigating the world wide web. Instructions:
Go to Library of Congress – American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/) Click on Documents under the Browse Heading Scroll down, and click on American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Search for subjects by keyword, or by state (depending on your interests) A search will come up with a list of interview subjects - click on any to read the text of the interview. Navigate through the site using forward and back commands, by returning home, or doing new searches. For more information, click on Voices of the Thirties: an Introduction to the WPA Life Histories Collection.
Students will be instructed to explore different interviews, and select one for indepth study. Copies of interviews can be printed out. They will use their research and the print-out to prepare for a role-play exercise the next day in class, when a WPA researcher will interview them.
Day Two Procedure 1: 30 minutes Half the class will be WPA researchers and half will be the characters which they researched the day before. Have students pair up. For 15 minutes, the WPA researchers will interview subjects on a topic of their choosing. Who are they? Where are they from? What do they do for a living? What are their hobbies? etc. Interviewers must take notes, in preparation for writing up an interview report the next day. Students trade roles, in the same pairs, for the next 15 minutes when the other half gets a chance to interview, and former interviewers become subjects. Procedure 2: 20 minutes Lead the class in a discussion about the interview process.
What kinds of things did the subjects talk about? (List on board) In what ways are these things interesting or important? What do these things show about life at the time? What kinds of things are different today? What additional questions should/could have been asked of the subjects? What was good or bad about the interview process?
Day Three Procedure 1: 10 minutes Using photos (from the web site) have students brainstorm on who these people are, what their lives were like, what concerns they might have had (using information from yesterday’s interviews). Procedure 2: 15 minutes Give students basic information on the WPA writer’s project. Ask students to discuss:
…why do you think the Works Progress Administration collected interviews during the 1930’s? Where do you think most of the interviews took place? What did the program do for the interviewers? What did it do for the subjects? Can the interviews help us to understand daily life during difficult times? How is that material important today?
Why are the words of everyday people important to US history?
Procedure 3: 25 minutes Students write short "research/interview reports" in which they sum up the information gleaned from their interview, and answer the question "What makes this person an important part of history?" Assessment of Outcomes As a result of this lesson, students will:
Do primary research from historical interviews and role play figures from history. Interview subjects, and take critical notes to be used in writing an essay. Write short "research reports" which utilize interviews and engage students in historical inquiry. Question conventional notions of who historical actors can be.
Extensions and Adaptations
Students can do further research into who and what were chosen as appropriate research subjects. What voices were left out? Students can further explore issues which they encountered in the interviews, such as slavery, immigration, music, particular ethnic groups, etc. This could be used as an introduction to further oral history research, and students could interview relatives or community members, and compile their own "WPA" archives.
Resources: Library of Congress – American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/)