The not-so-famous person report
Instead of teaching the history of the famous, use research in primary sources to teach students that the past and present were made by people like them.
You don’t have to be a famous person just to make a mark. — Gwen Stefani
Yes, I’m quoting a popular singer to lead off an article about why kids don’t need to be writing reports about popular singers. Take a moment, if you will, to enjoy that irony with me, and then let’s recognize that she has a point: history is made by everybody, not just a handful of formally certified Important People.
Which is more important, for example, in understanding World War II and its impact on American history and culture: the experience of Dwight Eisenhower or that of a random G.I. on the beach at Normandy? It depends on what you’re interested in: as an individual, Eisenhower had the greater impact, but the G.I.’s experience was more nearly representative of the experience of war for millions of Americans — who, as a group, had a greater impact on American history and culture than the general and future President. You can’t watch Saving Private Ryan and not recognize that there’s a lot to be learned about both history and character from the extraordinary experiences of ordinary people.
While it can be inspiring to read about great men and women, many people are turned off by the history of the famous, especially when those famous people don’t seem to be anything like them. It can be just as inspiring to students to see the greatness that is possible in the lives of people they’ve never heard of — and, by extension, to realize that they, too, can do great things, even though they’re not famous, either.
There are many possibilities for research assignments on not-so-famous people. In this article, I’ll provide broad outlines for two that can be widely adapted. The first is a community study with oral history; the second uses documentary sources available on the Web. To help you find and use primary souces on not-so-famous persons, I’ve included links to collections on the Web and “historian’s notes” on using them, as well as a list of questions to guide students’ research.
A community study with oral history
Oral history projects, on a small or large scale, can bring history to life in the K-12 classroom in ways that no other assignment can. In this approach to the biographical report, students interview people in their community who lived through the times they are studying. Focusing on their own community gives added relevance to history, and helps them put the lives of individuals in context.
For example, suppose you are studying the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of having students write another report on Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, ask them to investigate the impact of the Movement on their own community. A possible focus would be the integration of a local high school: have students interview individuals who were students and teachers, both white and black, during integration. After doing their interviews, students can share what they’ve learned and perhaps do collaborative projects to help them put the experiences of individual interviewees in the context of the community and of the broader events of the time.
Both your approach and the students’ product will vary depending on grade level. In elementary grades, you can ask members of the community to come to your classroom, discuss their experiences, and answer student questions; at higher grades, students can go out on their own to do recorded interviews.
For a product, fourth-grade students might write a narrative about what it would have been like to live at a particular time in the past, which could prompt them to think about character issues (not to mention giving them practice for the state writing assessment). Students from fifth grade through high school could turn their interviews into a script for a short play, which they could perform for classmates or for other classes. To save time, trouble, and money, consider a radio play (see resources listed below).
If you’re teaching eighth grade or high school and are techologically savvy, consider a documentary video or a website. To see what’s possible, see the list of student projects on the Web in Kathryn Walbert’s article “Oral History Links and Resources.”
Resources for oral history projects
If you’re considering doing an oral history project with your students, start by reading “Oral History in the Classroom,” a series of articles by Kathryn Walbert on LEARN NC. In this series, you’ll learn more about what oral history is, why it is a valuable and vital tool for professional research and student learning alike, and how you can do creative, exciting oral history projects that fit all levels of the K–12 curriculum. Part 3, “Incorporating Oral History into the K–12 Classroom,” gives specific strategies for primary, elementary, middle, and secondary grades. Additional resources are linked from the last article in the series.
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Magazine of History’s Spring 1997 issue was devoted to oral history in the K-12 classroom. All articles are available on the Web in PDF format. See in particular “Fish Bowls and Bloopers: Oral History in the Classroom” by Paula J. Paul, which provides excellent strategies for helping students practice various aspects of the interview process. Other articles offer strategies for using oral history to study particular time periods and events in U.S. history.
If you’re considering an in-classroom oral history project for elementary students, read this article on Interviewing Artists in the Classroom.
Resources on classroom radio plays
If you’d like to turn an oral history project into a radio play, here are some resources to help you.
- Using Radio Drama: Turning Passive Students into Active Learners
- An introduction to why a radio drama makes a great learning tool.
- A Radio Drama Project
- Brief lesson plan with an example of a script.
- The Mercury Theatre on the Air
- Information on the acclaimed radio series of the 1930s, with audio files.
- Examples of present-day radio documentary.
The atom and the hurricane: a not-so-famous person in context
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo titles one of his chapters “The Atom Fraternizes with the Hurricane.” The title evokes perfectly the chaos of the events Hugo describes — a failed student revolution in the streets of Paris — and the seemingly random ways in which individual human beings and grand historical events can influence each other.
That tension between the individual and his or her historical context, the atom and the hurricane, is at the heart of a good biography, even (or maybe especially) when the subject was not-so-famous. The strategies for research and discussion I’ll outline here, combined with the guiding questions for student research (see below), will help students examine the lives behind primary sources and the relationships between individuals and the times in which they live.
Although this unit could be adapted to various eras of U.S. history, depending on what primary sources are available (see #1, below), it might work particularly well as a unit on the Great Depression. The WPA Life Histories (see below) would be a good collection of source materials for such a unit.
This unit combines individual research and writing with group projects and small and large group discussion. Assessment is based on both written and oral presentation and on both individual and group work. The unit should be undertaken after you complete general reading and discussion of the major events and issues of the time period.
Selecting primary sources
Later in this article, I’ve provided information about three good Web-based collections of primary sources on the history of the American South. All of these sources are about more or less “ordinary” people, and all are available on the Web, so they will be available to your students. There are plenty of other primary sources on the Web, but I’ve focused on southern resources out of a belief that students will more effectively learn history if they relate it to their own community and personal experience.
Select the collection that best suits the topic you’re teaching and your students’ grade level. My notes on the collections should provide some guidance, but you’ll also want to browse some of the materials yourself.
Divide the students into groups of two or three. Assign each group a single interview, life history, or manuscript.
Give students the guiding questions (see below) for research or a similar set of questions you’ve designed or adapted. The questions should remind them of the sort of information they’re looking for in the sources and prompt them to think about the subject’s character and background as well as potential sources of bias and misunderstanding.
Each student will read the source material on his or her own and respond in writing to the guiding questions. (This can be done during class time in a computer lab; students can read the sources on their own time on the Web; or if the sources are fairly short, you can print them out for students to read at home.)
Small group discussion
Once the students have completed their research, have them convene in their small groups and discuss what they learned. Each student will (one hopes!) have answered the questions differently, and they should discuss why they answered as they did.
Remind the students that this is a dialogue: the goal of the small-group discussion is for the students to learn from one another, not for someone to “win.” If they can come to a consensus, that’s fine; if not, that’s fine too. Students can “agree to disagree” and explain both sides of the argument in their report (see below).
Each group should then prepare an oral report about the person they studied. The “Big Question” for this report will be whether the “atom” (the individual subject) or the “hurricane” (the historical events of the time) was more important in the subject’s life, and why. If students can’t agree on this within their group, guide them toward a more complex argument that takes both sides into account. Disagreement, if managed well, will actually produce a better report!
If the necessary materials are available, the report can include a PowerPoint presentation with images. You can also ask for a written version of the report, although I’ve suggested a separate written assignment below. Regardless of the format, all students should participate in the presentation.
Students should be assessed on the following:
- understanding of the major events and issues of the time period (20%)
- information gathered from the primary source material (20%)
- connections made between the individual’s life and broader events and issues (20%)
- representation of each student’s viewpoint (20%)
- quality and coherence of presentation (20%)
During the presentations, remind students to pay close attention and take notes if necessary, because they will be asked to use what they learn from their classmates later on!
Large group discussion
You’ll probably need to set aside 1-2 days for the oral reports, depending on how long you choose to make them and whether you’re on a block schedule. The day after the students make their presentations, discuss as a class the “big picture” issues raised in the oral reports. Here are some questions to ask:
- Which was more important in this time period, the influences of individuals or “big” influences like the economy, government, and society?
- Why do you think this was true at that time? Do you think it is true generally in history? Why or why not?
- How fair is it to generalize about a time period from the experiences of a few people? Are there issues that we may have missed in looking at these sources?
Have each student write a short (two to three page) essay answering the first question above: Which was more important in this time period, the influences of individuals or “big” influences like the economy, government, and society, and why? Students should refer to their own research, and also to what they learned from other students’ oral reports.
Students should be assessed on the following:
- Coherent thesis statement and argument (20%)
- Understanding of the events and issues of the time period (20%)
- Substantiates argument with evidence from his/her own primary source research (20%)
- Substantiates argument with evidence from material from fellow students’ reports (20%)
- Clear and coherent writing (20%)
On the Web: primary sources on not-so-famous persons
Provided by Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this collection “documents the American South from the viewpoint of Southerners. It focuses on the diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives of relatively inaccessible populations: women, African Americans, enlisted men, laborers, and Native Americans.” The sources cover the years from first white settlement to 1920.
This collection is a wonderful source for student research, provided that you provide some guidance. Remember that the perspective of a single person on a big event can be misleading. You’ll need to discuss with students the role of perspective in autobiography (link to my guide). Also be aware that some of these writings contain words, phrases, or ideas that you or your students may find offensive — they were, after all, written a hundred or more years ago. If you’re uncomfortable discussing those issues openly in class, you may want to pick one or a few memoirs or autobiographies to assign so that you can read them yourself first.
This collection from the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress “contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.” The collection is organized by state and can be searched by keyword.
Although these interviews provide a fascinating first-person look at life in the antebellum South, because of the time and manner in which they were conducted, they often show some bias and can be misleading. In some cases, the interviewer was a relative of the interviewee’s former owner — and as you can imagine, the interviewee was not always especially candid! Ask your students to consider whether the interviewer was white or black and what his or her prejudices were (do they show in the questions? the transcript?). On the other side of the interview, consider to what extent the interviewee’s answers may have been shaped to fit the interviewer’s expectations.
Another collection of the American Memory Project. “These life histories were written by the staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936-1940. The Library of Congress collection includes 2,900 documents representing the work of over 300 writers from 24 states. Typically 2,000-15,000 words in length, the documents consist of drafts and revisions, varying in form from narrative to dialogue to report to case history. The histories describe the informant’s family education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores, medical needs, diet and miscellaneous observations. Pseudonyms are often substituted for individuals and places named in the narrative texts.”
The collection is organized by state, so it could be used in teaching 8th-grade North Carolina history as well as high school U.S. history courses.
These interviews are quite valuable, but watch for bias. Most of the writers employed by the WPA to develop these “life histories” seem to have been interested primarily in folklore, social conditions, and “local color.” As a result, and because of the context of the Great Depression, many of the interviewees come off as (if the interviewer was inclined to see suffering as noble) helpless victims of circumstance or (if not) ignorant but amusing rubes. You’ll see this especially in interviews with rural southerners. Guiding questions and class discussion will help students see potential sources of bias and misunderstanding and give them an opportunity to see what they learn in context.
Guiding questions for primary source research on not-so-famous persons
These guiding questions for student research in primary sources are designed to help them examine both the subject’s character and his or her historical context. Students should refer to these questions (or questions like them) when they read an interview with, diary of, or memoir by a not-so-famous person.
You can use them in different ways depending on the nature of your research project. If you’re discussing the primary sources in class, ask the students these questions directly and discuss the answers as a group. If the students are reading the sources on their own, have them respond in writing, to provide the basis of the next day’s class discussion or of a written or oral report.
- Where did this person live?
- What was his/her occupation?
- How does this person live? Was this typical of the time and place in which he/she lived? How or how not?
- What was his/her religion? How important was religion in this person’s life?
- What is this person’s family background? Was this typical of the time and place in which he/she lived? How or how not?
- What social and economic factors shaped this person’s life?
- To what extent were those social and economic factors unique to this person’s experience, and to what extent were they shared by others?
- What were his/her political beliefs? (If they are not stated explicitly, can you infer what they might have been?) Why, based on his/her background and life experience, might he/she have held those beliefs?
- Given his or her background, social/economic conditions, etc., how do you think this person might have “turned out” differently (or acted differently in the major event you’re researching)?
- What impact did this person have on the events of his or her time?
If the primary source is an interview
- Are there questions you would have asked the subject that the interviewer didn’t ask?
- Why do you think the interviewer asked the questions he/she did? What was the interviewer primarily interested in?
- Do you think the interviewer was biased in any way? What makes you think so?
- Do you think the interviewee was honest in his or her answers? What makes you think so?
If the primary source was a memoir or autobiography
- What was the author’s reason for writing this memoir?
- Are there topics he/she left out that you wanted to know more about?
- Are there topics or issues on which you think the author might not have been entirely honest? Why or why not?
If the primary source was a diary
- Was this intended as a private diary, or did the author expect it to be read? If you think it was intended to be read, what makes you think so?
- Are there topics or issues the author left out that you wanted to know more about? Why do you think he/she didn’t address them?
You may need to supplement, edit, or alter these questions to suit the specific needs of your students. They are written for a high school audience, but could be simplified a bit for eighth-grade students. And, obviously, the topic and time period your students are researching will determine the questions they ask of their sources. Some of these questions may not apply to particular research projects, and you’ll need to supplement them with questions specific to your project.
In addition, certain sources may not provide answers to all of these questions; if you’re using life history interviews, for example, the interviewer may not have asked the questions to which you want the answers. In that case, you could tell your students to skip the question, or you could have them speculate on an answer, with an explanation of why they answered as they did.