The WPA Slave Narratives: Teaching with Oral Histories

By Horton, Paul | Social Education, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

The WPA Slave Narratives: Teaching with Oral Histories


Horton, Paul, Social Education


Standardized test questions for each social studies discipline are being debated and instituted in many states. Teachers who have developed successful lessons that delve deeply into a topic fear that teaching to "benchmarks" will force such lessons to the margins of the curricula. In order to successfully defend the centrality of "inquiry" within our courses, we need to stake out ground now and dig in when we adopt assessment strategies. History teachers need look no farther than the National History Standards for rationales to justify units of study based on careful inquiry. "Historical analysis and interpretation skills," are not practiced by speed readers, but by students of history. (1)

Students do not learn to become historians by reading textbooks. The authors of any history textbook select evidence to construct their own interpretations. Historians often disagree about analysis and interpretation based on similar sets of documents. In the language of the National History Standards, students must learn to "compare competing narratives" in order to begin to think critically as historians should. The pedagogical problem posed by this objective is: How will students be able to assess competing narratives? Fortunately, the problem of access to documents has been lessened somewhat by thier availability on the Internet. As a result, many teachers are now constructing units of study that allow students to become historians by reading (for themselves) and interpreting (with the help of a teacher) primary documents. (2)

Effective middle school teachers know that they must do everything that they can to enliven their subject matter with compelling stories that connect students to the experiences of people in other times and places. Primary documents can invite students to enter the emotional and intellectual experience of real people. Middle school students want to learn about struggles for justice because they are developing their own moral compasses. A topic that middle school students tend to immerse themselves in is the tragedy of slavery in America.

Uncovering the Story

The U.S. Library of Congress has made available online the Works Progress Administration's (WPA's) Slave Narratives, which were compiled between 1936 and 1938 to recover and document the memory of the ex-slaves still living at that time. (3) Over 2,300 former slaves from every Southern state were interviewed by journalists employed by the WPA (see sidebar, p.4). These interviews were transcribed and form much of the base of primary documents upon which historians have based their understanding of the institution of slavery in the Southern states.

Before students dive into reading the narratives, contexts for understanding and analysis must be created by the teacher. In order to measure initial student understanding, ask students to make a list of facts they "know to be true" about American slavery along with the written sources of those facts. Then ask them to list the visual images that come to mind when they think about American slavery and to couple those images with their sources as much as possible. Ask them to compare the two lists. My students have typically listed many more images and television sources than facts and written sources. When written sources are mentioned, they usually refer to textbooks or general reference works used for reports. Most of the visual sources discussed are movies like Amistad, with an occasional reference to the television series Roots (also on video) or a PBS documentary. What I try to stress to my students at the end of our discussion is that they each have, as potential historians, predetermined biases about the subject of American slavery before they begin their research. I then ask them to write a paragraph about how they would try to remain objective when given an opportunity to examine a significant number of documents.

At this juncture the WPA Slave Narratives are introduced. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The WPA Slave Narratives: Teaching with Oral Histories
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.