Sharing the Story of Your Own Community

In this companion lesson to the PBS series "America by the Numbers," students analyze their own community and consider how it and its priorities fit into a larger nation. They use their findings to help predict the choice voters will make in November.
Grade Level


Students will:

  • Understand the role of an ethnographer
  • Know how to research and analyze U.S. Census information
  • Prepare for and conduct an interview
  • Collect various forms of information into one project
  • Share information with a wider audience
  • Make a prediction about November’s elections
Essential Questions
  • What are the advantages and tradeoffs of a changing community?
  • How might demographic changes affect local and state politics?
  • How might local demographic changes affect the national electoral map?

Discussion Questions

  • What is an ethnography? What does it include?
  • What do we know about our community’s citizens?
  • How might we find that information?
  • What form do we want our research to take?
  • How can we use our research to make predictions about the fall elections?


Exploring Census Data

1. You’ve seen the Need to Know election special, “America by the Numbers,” which focuses on the small Georgia town of Clarkston. Like many communities across the nation, Clarkston is changing. As little as three decades ago, its residents were nearly all white. Now, they include immigrants from 40 different nations. In fact, says host Maria Hinojosa, we’re living during the largest demographic change in history. That change has already begun to affect the electoral map, and political parties are now courting people of all different cultures, faiths and family structures.The filmmakers have developed an ethnography of Clarkston—a field study that includes research into its history and demographic data, as well as interviews with people who make up its leadership, business community and various cultures.

Much of the film’s demographic data for Clarkston likely came from the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition to counting the nation’s residents every 10 years, the government agency also gathers data that tell a story about our economy and its people. Data about each community can be found at the bureau’s online American FactFinder. In small groups, use the search terms on the site to locate the data for Clarkston. What data confirms what you saw in “America by the Numbers”? What additional data do you find? As a class, share any information you found that helps round out your knowledge about Clarkston and its residents.

2. You will now use to begin an ethnography of your own community. (Note: Assign each of the small groups one of the following topics to research: age, sex, household relationships, households and housing, race and ethnic groups, language, employment, income and earnings, poverty and population change. Pair or group the students evenly to cover each topic.) Within your group, use the home page to choose your community, define your terms and narrow your search results for the topic you’ve been assigned. After studying your findings, download the tables or record the findings on paper or in a separate Word document.

3. As a class, share your findings and have one student—or your teacher—record them on a white board or chart paper for discussion. With these statistics, you’ve begun to form a narrative about your community and its residents. Discuss:

  • Do any of these statistics surprise you? What are they? Why are they surprising?
  • How are these statistics reflected in your neighborhoods? Your school?
  • What data would you still like to find? How would you find it?

4. Back in your groups, use American FactFinder to find the same statistics for the year 2000 (define “Year” and then choose the year 2000). Again, share your findings with the class. What changes do you discover between 2000 and 2010? Are you surprised by them? How have these changes been reflected in the community? Record these statistical changes as part of your ethnography.


The Voices of the Community

In “America by the Numbers,” we heard from both old and new residents of Clarkston: the mayor, who grew up as a disenfranchised member of the town; a longtime resident who longs to return to the Clarkston of earlier years; business owners who are adjusting to the changing population; and refugees anxious to participate in the economic growth and political voice of the community. All of these voices help flesh out the demographic data and give us a fuller picture of Clarkston, its history and its potential future.

1. As a class, brainstorm which voices might provide you with both historical and present-day descriptions of your own community’s demographics. Consider people who could provide various points of view. Some ideas: The mayor or City Council chairman, a city librarian, a bus driver, a mail-delivery worker, a longtime business owner or a Chamber of Commerce member, the curator of a city museum, a factory worker, a person studying to become a U.S. citizen, a teenager, a retiree, a restaurant worker, a local college professor of sociology. Narrow down your list and divide into groups—with each group choosing a person it wants to interview.

2. Within your group, write a letter or e-mail to your potential interview subject. Describe the ethnography project and its purpose, explain how your subject will fit into the project, and ask for his or her participation. Offer to explain further or answer any questions your subject might have. Organize a date to interview your subject in person.

3. Before you interview your subject, plan and write a series of questions you will ask. Your questions may jump off from the demographic data you’ve already collected. You also will want to ask for comparisons between past and present, anecdotes that help flesh out the data and the subject’s own personal stories. Here are some ideas:

  • How long have you lived here?
  • Describe what the community was like when you arrived.
  • Is it different now? How is it different?
  • How are you the same as other residents? How are you different?
  • What is your profession? Have your customers changed over time? How?
  • How have you changed the way you do business for your customers?
  • What do you think are the most important issues for our community?
  • What do you think are the most important issues for our nation?

4. Conduct your interview. If your subject is willing, record the interview with a video camera. Supplement the recording with written notes and a still photo.

5. Back in the classroom, share what you’ve gathered and discuss the interviews as a class. Do they back up the statistical data you’ve found? What new information did your subjects provide? Collect your statistical data and interviews in an electronic portfolio, in a research paper, or in a computer-generated video.

6. Share your ethnography with a wider audience. You might write a story for the school newspaper or share the information at a Family Night gathering or even a City Council meeting.


Presidential Election 2012

“America by the Numbers” makes the point that we can’t “pigeonhole” diverse communities; concerns about the economy, jobs, foreign affairs and social issues aren’t necessarily determined by skin color, economic level, profession or age. What example of this diversity of opinion is seen in the film?

Based on the demographic data and interviews your classroom has gathered, predict your community’s voting trends and the local outcome of the 2012 presidential election. (Note: An accompanying handout leads students through this process.) On what did you base your prediction? Was it correct? Share your prediction process and its outcomes in a school newspaper editorial or on an ongoing blog.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS: R.1, R.10, W.1, W.2, W.9, SL.1, SL.2, SL.3, SL.4, L.1, L.2

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