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Launch an Oral History Project Cynthia Carbone Ward

Check out Cynthia’s Book,: How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers,
published by Heinemann.

One of the most enriching experiences I have shared with students has been interviewing old-timers in the community. The interviews sometimes involved a trek to a ramshackle house on a local ranch; other times, we arranged for our subject to come to our classroom. Either way, we discovered a special connection between generations. The elders felt relaxed around the kids and opened up with stories that had long lain silent -- stories about pets, fishing holes, favorite Christmas toys, and riding the waves stark naked. We prepared our questions ahead of time, took turns asking them, recorded each session to avoid the distraction of having to write things down, and snapped plenty of good photographs. The results were compiled (along with kids' own poetry and reflections) into a book called Dusty Windows (named by one of our sixth graders) which ended up as a two-year, two-volume labor of love and which actually sold fairly well in our local bookstore.

This is a worthwhile interdisciplinary project which yields important skills and insights. In the sixth grade social studies curriculum, we learn about oral tradition and how the legends and knowledge of a culture are passed along from one generation to the next. Our kids seemed to understand that they had been entrusted with treasured memories that might otherwise be lost; it was a privilege and duty they took very seriously. Other benefits include practice in developing and asking questions; learning to listen; organizing information; expressing feelings and reflections in writing; overcoming one's shyness in order to relate to an older person; gaining a deeper sense of connection to the area called home; and becoming involved in the craft and creation of a book.

Step one is to decide who you want to interview. We chose local old-timers, people who had grown up in the area in which we live. Next year I hope to launch a project in which we interview people (not necessarily senior citizens) more specifically about the interesting work they do. There are any number of themes around which to organize your project. And it isn't difficult to compile a list of interviewees -- have kids come up with ideas, and ask around; you will be amazed at how this snowballs.

Step two is basically an etiquette lesson. Students (in pairs) are assigned lead responsibility for a particular interview. The initial phone call is best done by the teacher, but these students need to compose a letter explaining the project and establishing the date, place, and time. Similarly, these students will send a thank you letter afterwards, and a copy of what has been written. More etiquette: before the interview, have the kids think of a little gift they can bring. Bake a batch of cookies, gather some flowers, bring a photo of the class...it makes a difference. Model graciousness. Remind kids to be kind, courteous, and polite throughout the interview.

Formulate questions ahead of time. It is essential to come prepared. We asked people about what they enjoyed doing as children, whether they had a special place they liked to go, what advice they have for young people, etc. We found that some questions were better than others for triggering interesting memories and images. It helps to be specific, such as "What was Christmas morning like?" or "What was the wettest year you can remember?"

For the interview itself, bring pencils, paper, a tape recorder or VCR, and a camera. Test all equipment before you start out! We chose to conduct most (but not all) of our interviews as a class. Each student chose a question or two that he or she wanted to ask. I had to remind kids many times to listen to the response and build upon it, rather than simply going through their prepared questions like a script. Often a response might elicit additional questions; this is a skill the students had to work on, and it seems a great stepping stone to becoming adept in social discourse.

I did the work of transcribing the group interviews. but kids who set out on their own to interview people did their own write-ups. Sometimes we simply presented the questions and answers; other times we wove it together with narrative and description. Since this is not a technical historical document, we felt free to include our own thoughts, feelings, and subjective experiences. I confess that I did most of the word processing, which I don't mind. We scanned in photos (including some very old ones which our interviewees let us use), made copies, and bound the book with plastic spirals. We gave copies to local historical agencies and libraries, placed some on sale in a neighborhood bookstore, and included portions of it on our school web site.

The comments of our students said it all. Arianna wrote, "I like to talk to the old timers because they have a lot of spirit in their hearts and sould, and they give you good advice." Olive wrote, "It is almost like sitting at a campfire and hearing beautiful tales." Eduardo summed it up like this: "Talking to the elders made history come alive."


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