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Lesson One: An Examination of Interviews from the American Slave Narratives and the American Folklore Collection

Students will examine and interpret interviews obtained by authors working for the Federal Writer's Project during the 1930s. A close study of the narratives provided here and at the Library of Congress's American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project will enable students to:

  • Understand the specific tasks undertaken by men and women employed by one of the work relief programs of the New Deal.
  • Obtain a more personal sense of the past by examining the lives and careers of ordinary men and women interviewed during the period of the Federal Writer's Project.
  • Learn about the process and issues involved in doing oral history.


Informational Content:

Students will investigate texts of oral history narratives taken from ordinary Americans and collected by interviewers employed by the Federal Writer's Project during the 1930s. As a result of their investigation students will learn:

  • How unemployed journalists and writers were employed by the Federal government during the era of the Great Depression.
  • How our nation's history is the compilation of the many stories that evolved from the lives of ordinary individuals.
  • How historians use primary resources in their investigation of the past.


  • New Deal programs experimented with a variety of methods for encouraging employment as a means of stimulating economic recovery.
  • The stories of individual lives make up the stuff of historical investigation, but their use raises important issues and considerations for historians.


  • To read and analyze oral interviews for specific content.
  • To describe and summarize the content of individual texts for the benefit of other students.
  • To understand that the process of selecting and synthesizing primary documents inveitably involves individual point of view and bias.


Students will work with the Slave Narratives collected by the New Deal Network as well as additional sources found at Bruce Fort's American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology and at the Library of Congress's American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project

Any of the individual documents may be downloaded and photocopied for individual student or classroom use.

To prepare for this lesson, teachers may wish to preview and download one or more of the narratives found in the collections listed above. Lead students through the selected interview and prepare them for the uneven nature of the stories they will be reading and the language which they may encounter.

The Jigsaw Activity:

Select four to six of the individual narratives from any of the three collections listed above. Download and photocopy enough so that each student will read one of the selected narratives. Teachers may wish to base their selection of the narratives on some common theme or thread. For example:

  • First-hand accounts of slavery:
    the slave narratives in both the New Deal Network site and the Univ. of Virginia site offer students a unique opportunity to read about slavery firsthand.
  • Life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:
    many of the elderly subjects in each of the Life Histories provide interesting insights into every day life in the late 19th century and early 20th century: occupations, education, religion, entertainment, etc.
  • After providing a photocopied manuscript for each student, ask them to use a highlighter or pen to underscore phrases or selections from the reading which they find to be particularly compelling. (Teachers may wish to focus this aspect of the activity around a particular topic or investigation depending upon the course of study and the interests of their individual students.)

    Jigsaw #1

    Students who have read the same narrative should come together to discuss the main points of their reading with one another. Teachers might direct this segment of the jigsaw activity by requiring students to engage particular questions: What was the most interesting thing you discovered about this subject's life? In what ways was life for this subject both similar and different from your life or your parent's life?

    Jigsaw #2

    After students have had a chance to share their points of view, ask them to move to another configuration in which students who have read about different individuals will share their subject's stories with one another. Teachers may wish to ask students to propose generalizations drawn from a synthesis of their individual investigations. For example: What aspects of slavery were shared in common by these men and women? What was working life like for them? What forms of entertainment occupied their leisure lives?

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