Ken Burns Classroom

Family Road Trips

Ken Burns Film: Horatio’s Drive

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: History

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period


Students explore family road trips by conducting oral histories.


In this lesson, students investigate the impact of the automobile on the family and geographic mobility of people through an “oral history” exercise, that is, interviewing a parent, grandparent, or other older relative regarding traveling to a far destination via automobile, perhaps recalling a family vacation or family gathering when the interview subject was younger.

Activity I

Ask students to recall family trips they have taken. Where did they go? Did they go on vacation? Visit other family members for an event, such as a reunion, holiday gathering, or wedding? How did they arrive at these destinations? Is this an annual outing? What do they most remember? What did they like and least like about this journey? If they went by car, how was the trip? Might they have taken another form of transportation? Ask students to discuss how they feel about family trips. Do they enjoy taking them? Why or why not? Do they enjoy family gatherings? Why or why not? Point out that such trips often bond families, giving them time to enjoy each other’s company in places other than home.

Explain that family outings and vacations are some of the best memories of a person’s childhood. Some families even return several times to the same vacation location because they enjoy it so much. Adults often take their go or take their families to the vacation place of their youth because of the fun they had when they were children. Have students discuss whether this might the case for them when they grow up. Invite students to read Ken Burns’ personal reflections of family road trips he has taken. Do any of his memories relate to their traveling experiences?


An unforgettable trip along the Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my usually distracted father when I was five (and its equally memorable complement forty-two years later with my then fourteen-year-old youngest daughter) comes to mind, as does the slightly sad image of my family, including my desperately sick mother, packed into a huge rented station wagon, groaning under the weight of everything we could not bear to entrust to movers, moving our worries and hopes from Newark, Delaware to Ann Arbor, Michigan when I was nearly ten.

I have an almost perfect memory of every route and approach we have taken over the last thirteen straight summers as my daughters and I headed to the Telluride Film Festival in the majestic and breathtaking San Juan Mountains of Colorado. I can remember as if it were yesterday a trip we took back from Massachusetts at age nine when I looked out the window and counted under my breath to eight thousand or something equally ridiculous, and the time after my mother died when we survivors drove to the biological station at Mountain Lake, Virginia, where my brother and I would be parked with relatives, and my father made up, on the spot, what seemed like dozens of hilarious, nonsensical verses to a blues tune he titled “Twenty Miles From Athens” (Ohio).

(From preface, Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan)

Activity II

Ask students to identify what they believe an oral history is. Brief them on its value as a tool for gathering historic data, and provide examples. Tell students they will conduct oral histories of adult family members or friends to learn about road and/or other trips they have taken.

Instruct students to identify an adult to interview, pointing out that it would be interesting to speak to someone older for whom changes in transportation (newer, faster cars, shifting gasoline prices, more highways, etc.) over the years have had a great impact on travel options and geographic mobility. In fact, much like Horatio, who loved to tell his story to anyone who would listen, it is likely students will find people receptive to telling their stories.

The teacher should next discuss the impact of oral history on the overall study of history, and may wish to lead the class in a review of similar oral history projects, such as Alex Haley’s Roots, or the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project (1936-1938), which are now housed in the Library of Congress. The Web site for the Slave Narratives collection is
Have the class brainstorm information they seek from their interviewees and then pose a few sample questions such as,

  • what were some of your favorite recollections about this trip or journey?
  • why did you (or your family) select that particular destination for the journey?
  • would you return to this destination”?

Or, provide a list of questions for students to use and modify as they desire. Then, instruct each student to write a customized list of questions they will ask their interviewee.

Brief students on interviewing strategies and/or provide a list of tips. Students may record responses in writing or via an audio-visual means. Invite students to share their completed oral interviews with the class and then publish a compilation of their collected pieces in your school’s newspaper or on your school Web site.

Extended activities

Students can:

  • Assume the roles of Horatio Jackson’s granddaughters who conduct an oral interview with their grandfather about his legendary road trip.
  • Create a tourist’s pamphlet that highlights key places to visit based on a personal family road trip.
  • Research and compare and contrast 2003 automobiles to determine which model(s) would be the best for extended family road trips (gas usage, durability, etc.).


Indiana University Oral History Research Center:

The University of California (Berkley) “One Minute” Oral History checklist:

Holt, Rinehart and Winston:

The Learning Page section of the American Memory, Library of Congress:


This activity addresses the following national content standards established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL):

Historical Understanding

  • Understands that specific individuals and the values those individuals held had an impact on history
  • Knows different types of primary and secondary sources and the motives, interests, and bias expressed in them (e.g., eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos; magazine articles, newspaper accounts, hearsay)
  • Understands that change and continuity are equally probable and natural

Language Arts

  • Generates questions about topics of personal interest
  • Gathers data for research topics from interviews (e.g., prepares and asks relevant questions, makes notes of responses, compiles responses)

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.