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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

The Carter Family The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken offers insights into American history topics including the Great Depression, Appalachian life and culture, and the birth of the American tradition of country music. The site has biographies of the Carters and Ralph Peers, the man who first recorded them. It introduces topics such as the rise of the recording industry, the rise of celebrity culture, entertainment in America, popular images of poor and rural communities, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, economics, culture, and society. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


History | Economics | Culture | Society

  1. Imagining life during the Great Depression.
    Vivid images of the Great Depression can be found in places such as the classic novel of the Dust Bowl, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and the 1940 film based on that book. There are collections of oral histories of the period in the book Hard Times by Studs Terkel and at the Library of Congress. The songs of the legendary Woody Guthrie and the the photographs of Dorothea Lange and others tell the stories of people struggling to survive during this time.

    Review these sources to get a "feel" of what life during the Depression was like. Then, using that information and your own imagination, write a story, poem, or song set in the Depression and share it with the class.

  2. Examining Appalachia.
    Learn more about Appalachia and its many attractions. Then, working in small groups, find out more about some specific topic related to the region and report your findings to the class. Possible topics include: (a) the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, which crosses more than a dozen states; (b) Great Britain's attempt after 1763 to keep American colonists from moving west of the Appalachians, which contributed to the tensions that led ultimately to the American Revolution; (c) coal mining and its effects on Appalachia; (d) the description of poverty in the Appalachians in Michael Harrington's famous 1962 book The Other America, which drew wide public attention to the problem of poverty; (e) the different ways popular culture has depicted Appalachia and its people, such as the comic strip "Li'l Abner," the television series The Beverly Hillbillies and The Waltons, and the movies Coal Miner's Daughter and Matewan.


History | Economics | Culture | Society

  1. The effects of the Depression.
    The Great Depression was the most serious economic crisis in U.S. history. As a class, prepare a graphics-based presentation of some of the Depression's main economic, social, and demographic effects. Assign different groups of students to find information on specific topics and to present this information in the form of a chart, graph, or list of text bullets. Topics might include unemployment, the size of the nation's economy, the number of business failures, birth/death rates, and migration (i.e., people leaving Dust Bowl states).

    When the groups have done, write the text of a narrative to tie the graphics together to form a single story. Make the presentation to another group of students: did it give them a basic understanding of how the Depression changed the United States?

  2. Poverty -- a forgotten problem?
    In 1928, as the Carter family's singing career was just taking off, Herbert Hoover, who was elected president that year, predicted that poverty would soon be eliminated in the United States. Nearly four decades later in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson called for an "all-out war" on poverty. Today, though the United States is a much wealthier nation than in previous decades, millions of Americans still live in poverty, yet poverty receives much less public attention than it once did.

    Test your own knowledge of poverty in the United States today by preparing an informal poll for the class to take. Possible questions include: How high must a family's income be for them not to be considered "poor" by the federal government? How many Americans are poor? What percentage of Americans are poor? What share of poor people have jobs? Which group is most (or least) likely to be poor: whites, African Americans, Hispanics, or Asians? Which group is most (or least) likely to be poor: young people, non-elderly adults, or elderly persons? Is poverty more common within metropolitan areas, or outside of them? In which region of the nation is poverty most (or least) common?

    Then find out how accurate your answers were by checking government statistics on poverty. Use this information to refine the questions in your poll and ask other students, friends, and family members to take the poll. How well informed are people about poverty?


History | Economics | Culture | Society

  1. Songs of hard lives and hard times.
    Listen to four songs of the Carters as performed by present-day artists, reading the lyrics as you do. Then read the lyrics of other songs by the Carter family, such as Will the Circle Be Unbroken? and The Poor Orphan Child.

    Working with a partner, jot down ideas about the attitudes and beliefs contained in these songs. For example, what do the songs say about love, God, hope, and fate? What things are important to the people described in the songs? Cite specific passages to support your conclusions. Share your views with your classmates.

  2. Songs that make memories.
    The Carter family became commercially popular because their songs were so memorable. Think of a piece of music that has special importance for you, either because of something about the song itself (such as its lyrics) or because it reminds you of some important event or part of your life. Write down the name of the piece of music and why it is meaningful for you. Then ask two other people -- at least one of them an adult -- to name a piece of music that is important in their life and explain its importance.

    Compare your results with those of your classmates. What kinds of music were most commonly chosen: pop songs, instrumental tunes, or something else? What makes certain pieces of music meaningful? Did adults select different kinds of music than students did? Did males select different kinds of music than females did?


History | Economics | Culture | Society

  1. Tomorrow's classics?
    Just as the Carter family's songs were shaped by the issues of the day, more recent popular songs have reflected the times in which they were written, sung, and heard. Select a popular song from the past five years that reflects some important aspect of life today and create a poster that presents the lyrics; illustrate the poster with photos or drawings of relevant events. Then give a brief presentation to the class in which you explain what this song says about the present-day United States: what might future historians learn from this song about the way we live today?

  2. The "culture of celebrity."
    The Carter family was eager to avoid publicity concerning A.P. and Sara's divorce because they feared it would hurt their career. The so-called "culture of celebrity," or the public's fascination with the private lives of prominent entertainers (athletes, musicians, models, and so on), was only starting to take shape in the 1920s, when the Carters began their career. Today, the public knows much more than it did in past decades about the private lives of celebrities and other public figures -- whether they had a happy childhood, whom they are dating, even their eating habits and their weekly exercise routine.

    Bring to class the silliest or most trivial headline you can find concerning a celebrity's private life from a recent newspaper, magazine, website, or other news source. Post the headlines around the room and vote on which of these stories is least worth the public's attention.

    Then discuss as a class the reasons why many people are interested in celebrities' personal lives and whether students would be willing to give up their privacy in return for fame.

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