Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Spark Student Interest with Eyewitness-to-History Interviews

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Last night, I had the opportunity to listen to a Holocaust survivor tell his story at a local library. Oral histories are fascinating to me so I was thrilled when I found out that he was coming to speak, and I called first thing in the morning to register for the event! As expected, I hung on every word he said, imagining him during the war seeing and doing the unimaginable in an effort to survive.

Honored to be standing next to Holocaust survivor Mr. Leo Silberman 
This is not the first time I've heard Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences. When I was in high school, a married couple, who were part of the 1,200 Jews saved by Oskar Schindler, came to a local college to talk about their experiences. I made my parents sit in the front row with me, and I listened to their testimonies, simply captivated. I wanted more. I ended up writing to the couple telling them how much I enjoyed their lecture. I also asked if we could correspond more so that I could ask more questions. To my excitement, I received a reply from them...with a phone number. (These were pre-email days.) And that's where it stopped. I was young. I was shy. I also wasn't confident enough to pick up a telephone to ask them what I wanted to know. I regret that decision to this day. 

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act 
Since that time, I have made an effort to ask questions of people who have been through historical events that I'm interested in. (In fact, just last week, I asked my mom about the reaction of our community here in Ohio in 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. She was 15 at that time and experienced it first hand.) I do these interviews informally and out of my own curiosity mostly. However, through these conversations, I feel connected to history. I can say, "I know someone who was there, and now I know what it was really like." That feeling is exciting and empowering. I am actively learning by asking questions. Imagine students making those connections igniting that spark for history!

Textbooks can only tell us so much. They're written so dryly and succinctly that there just isn't room to learn more than the facts. We often stop at identifying the differences between source types when we could be creating our own primary sources through interviews with those who were there.

Oral histories are simply the stories of people who were "there." They are treasure chests of valuable information and experiences for those willing to open them. In addition to collecting first-hand accounts, interviewers become active participants in history. As teachers, we have an amazing and important responsibility to create opportunities for students to seek out these treasures. Through oral history interviews, students gain skills in areas such as speaking and listening; interpersonal relationships; data collection; and organization and planning. Not to mention that students also gain special memories of their time with the subjects of their interviews.

With some planning and guidance on our part, oral history interview projects can be easily implemented in any classroom, in any grade level, and about many different historical periods.

Here are some examples of interview topics based on the possibility of survivors/participants being alive:

  • Great Depression
  • World War II 
  • Holocaust
  • Korean Conflict
  • Vietnam War
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Cultural changes in 1960s
  • Gulf War
  • 9/11
  • War on Terror
  • Cultural events (ex. concerts, movies)
  • Presidencies
  • Famous construction projects (ex. landmarks, highways, railroads, buildings, monuments)
  • International events (ex. end of apartheid, fall of Berlin Wall, end of communism in Eastern Europe, changing from one government type to another, coronations of kings and queens)
  • Scientific achievements (ex. vaccines, discoveries)
  • New inventions (ex. television, computers, cell phones)
  • Births and deaths of famous figures
  • City or town history
  • Family history (ex. comparing parents or grandparents at student's age with the student today)
The pool of possible interview subjects can actually be quite large depending on the topic:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Cousins
  • Siblings
  • Family friends
  • People in the news
  • Historical societies
  • Churches
  • Survivor groups
  • Clubs, organizations
  • Senior centers
  • VFW posts
  • Guest speakers at local events
So what can students do with their oral history interviews? Here are some ideas:

  • Create paper or digital scrapbooks.
  • Prepare and give a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Write & present a dramatization of the oral history.
  • Create a poster about the person interviewed.
  • Write & illustrate a short book (maybe even for younger readers).
  • Compare/contrast oral histories collected by students about the same topic.
  • Create a class anthology of oral histories. 

Consider the following elements of an oral history interview as your plan your project:

1. Goals of the project
  • What do you want students to accomplish through this project?
  • Will the interview topic be content-related?
  • What skills and standards do you want students to demonstrate? 
  • What choices will students have in deciding whom they will interview and what they will interview about?
  • What is the final product to be assessed?
2. Student materials
  • How do you want students to conduct interviews (ex. digital recorders, video cameras, pen & paper)?
  • What tools do students need to conduct interviews (ex. recording devices, cameras)
  • Do you need to teach students how to use the tools? 
3. Interview logistics
  • Where will you suggest students find people to interview? 
  • Have you established relationships with organizations or individuals who will partner with students?
  • Where should the interviews take place to ensure safety and comfortability for all parties
  • When should interviews take place?
  • How long should they last?
  • Will you provide a standardized form or letter to students to give to their interviewees that explains the purpose of the interviews?
4. Student preparation

  • What resources can you share with students to show them how to conduct effective oral history interviews (examples of video or audio recordings and trade books with first-person accounts)?
  • Have you provided students time to research the topic and/or the interviewees ahead of the interviews?
  • Are there mandatory questions that every student must ask?
  • Have you covered appropriate/inappropriate questions to ask? 
  • Have you encouraged students to ask open-ended questions as opposed to yes/no questions?
  • How will you demonstrate appropriate behavior during interviews (ex. eye contact, not interrupting speaker, staying focused, putting away all possible distractions)?
  • Will you provide opportunities for students to conduct practice interviews?
  • How will students thank participants (ex. a letter or note)?

There are many resources available to help you plan your oral history project. The Smithsonian Institute offers a very helpful guide to preparing for and conducting oral history interviews. You can find it here. Reading Rockets also provides some practical uses for oral histories in the classroom, which you can find here

Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever conducted oral history interviews with your classroom? What makes them successful? What were some unexpected snags in the project? Leave a comment!

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