African American Lives 2 -- Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In Search of Our Roots -- Buy the companion book now from ShopPBS

"Gift to the Future"
by Christopher W. Czajka

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While creating the PBS series African American Lives 2, teams of historians, librarians, and genealogical researchers examined thousands of legal documents, land records, photographs, and letters. The evidence of the past, left behind by those who lived it, can be a valuable tool for understanding the lives and stories of our ancestors and the world in which they lived. The passage of time, however, can prove challenging and destructive to the preservation of items of material culture.

In this lesson, students will develop an understanding of the conditions and circumstances that contribute to successful preservation of documents and artifacts over time. In the Introductory Activity, students will brainstorm ideas for a hypothetical time capsule reflecting the life of a student in your school during the current school year. During the Learning Activity, students will utilize an online interactive and critically view video segments to examine surviving documents and artifacts from the past, and hypothesize on why these items have survived or been preserved. In the Culminating Activity, students will investigate the challenges and obstacles to successful preservation of material culture, and synthesize information gathered throughout the lesson. As an extended culmination, students will create documents describing their lives today for future generations.

This lesson can be used as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series African American Lives 2, or as an independent lesson for the social studies or language arts classroom.

Grade Level: 6-8

Time Allotment: Three 45-minute class periods (excluding out-of-class work time for the Culminating Activity/Assessment)

Subject Matter: History/Social Studies, Language Arts

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:
  • Define and describe "material culture," as it applies to both the past and the present;
  • Utilize visual and textual cues to develop an understanding of primary source documents and photographs;
  • Discuss the role of photographs, documents, and artifacts in preserving history;
  • Describe reasons why some elements of material culture survive for long periods of time, while others do not;
  • Articulate the challenges and obstacles inherent in preserving material culture for future generations;
  • Utilize class discussions and activities, as well as interactions with video and Web sites, to develop a plan for a durable record of contemporary life for future generations and descendents.
From the National Standards for History for grades 5-12, available online at

Standard 1. The student thinks chronologically. Therefore, the student is able to appreciate historical perspectives describing the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, diaries, letters, debates, arts, artifacts, and the like.

Standard 3. The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the student is able to consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.

Standard 4. The student conducts historical research. Therefore, the student is able to obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.

From the National Council of Teachers of English standards, available online at

Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Media Components:

African American Lives 2 (2008), selected clips

Clip 1: "It's Still There"

Sorry, you need the latest version of the free flash player in order to watch the video clips.

Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Clip 2: "A Rare, First Hand Account"

Sorry, you need the latest version of the free flash player in order to watch the video clips.

Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Clip 3: "A Mean Old Guy"

Sorry, you need the latest version of the free flash player in order to watch the video clips.

Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Web sites:

African American Lives 2: Analyzing the Evidence Interactivity
In this interactivity, users are presented with a gallery of documents instrumental in researching the ancestry of the featured guests in the PBS series African American Lives 2. By carefully examining these documents, and using online tips and hints, users can unlock important clues about the past.

International Time Capsule Society: Eight Tips on How to Organize a Time Capsule
This site, from the International Time Capsule Society on the campus of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, provides advice and insight on managing a time capsule project.

Time Capsules: Archival Protection This .pdf file, created by the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, provides detailed information and precautions to take when creating time capsules. Requires the Acrobat Reader plug-in, available for free download at

How Do I Make a Time Capsule?
This site, from the National Preservation Office at the British Library, provides advice and instructions on building time capsules.


For the class:

Computers with Internet access
Chalkboard or whiteboard
A selection of obsolete/outdated media. Check with your school librarian for some possibilities. These items can include:
  • A vinyl record album or 45
  • A filmstrip
  • A "floppy" computer disc
  • Microfiche
  • An 8-track tape
  • A cassette tape
  • A reel-to-reel tape
For each student:

"Time Capsule Inventory" Student Organizer (download here- MS Word format)

"What They Left Behind" Student Organizer (download here - MS Word format)

"Gift to the Future" Student Organizer (download here - MS Word format)

Prep for Teachers:

Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites and video segments used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students. Click through the "Analyzing the Evidence" interactivity at to familiarize yourself with the primary source documents your students will be examining. Download the Acrobat Reader plug-in from to the computers in your classroom, so that students can examine the .pdf file from the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.

Download the video clips used in this lesson onto your computer, or prepare to stream the clips from your classroom.

Make enough copies of the "Time Capsule Inventory" student organizer, the "What They Left Behind" student organizer, and the "Gift to the Future" student organizer for each student in your classroom.

Procure an assortment of obsolete media (described above) for display during the Culminating Activity.

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

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Major corporate funding for African American Lives 2 and its outreach initiatives is provided by The Coca-Cola Company and Johnson & Johnson. Additional corporate funding is provided by Buick.
The Coca-Cola Company Johnson & Johnson Buick
KUNHARDT Thirteen/WNET New York