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Students Teachers


How do I select my interview subject? The student should determine first what they want to learn about or discover. Then list all the people who might be good resources for this information. If the student is doing a family interview, ask parents or relatives who is the best storyteller in the family, or the person who knows the most about the family. If the interview is with someone in the community who is from a different culture, students might ask at a local church or synagogue for suggestions for possible interview subjects, or ask local shopkeepers, service people, mail carriers, school teachers, or neighbors to suggest local people who might make an interesting interview.

What if my relative doesn't want to be interviewed? Sometimes people say "no" because they don't think they are interesting enough to be interviewed. Maybe another adult in their family can help to encourage them, and can remind this person that they are the best (and perhaps only) source of information about the family's history. The subject can be reassured that this is not a test, that whatever they recall will be perfect. If the person doesn't want to talk about him or herself, the student needs to accept this reluctance, and can ask about other family members, or the times the person lived through. Once most people start talking, they find it rather enjoyable to recall their life, and to have someone interested in what they have to say.

Where can I get sample interview questions? See Supporting Materials: Handouts page in this Web site.

What if I can't find any information about the town they lived in? Make sure the student has tried a variety of search engines on the Internet, and that they have asked a librarian to assist them in their search. If there is no information available about their subject's town, the student can come up with general questions about a town the same size, similar geographical location, and in the same era.

What if we don't speak the same language? The only solution to this problem is to find a translator – one who will definitely stick to the student's interview questions and not add his or her own agenda! This is an excellent opportunity to get to know someone the student otherwise could not communicate with.

What should I do when I first get to the interviewer's home? It's a good idea to have some casual conversation first, perhaps about something in their home that the student admires, or about the weather, just to allow both the student and subject to get comfortable. The student should find a location for the interview where both people will be physically comfortable, and where the student can use the tape recorder and take notes easily. The location should be quiet, with phones unplugged if possible. The student should have checked the equipment before arriving, but should double check once at the location. If the interview subject has any questions about the process, this is a good time to cover those. The interview should start with easy questions that are unlikely to "stump" the person or cause them discomfort.

What if the interview subject feels shy? The student should reassure them that this is not a test, that whatever they say is perfect, that most people do not recall everything about their life, and that what they do recall will be just fine.

What if the interview subject cries during the interview? It is common for elderly people to cry when they reminisce, particularly about loved ones who are gone. Both men and women often cry when talking about their deceased parents. Usually, such emotional expression does not last long, and the individual will be ready to continue after a few minutes. The student needs to be reassured that he or she has not caused the person to cry, and has not upset them. The student should just sit and wait, maybe offer a tissue. If the subject apologizes, the student can reassure the subject that it's normal that they might have these feelings. The student should not rush the person to go on; wait until they are ready.

What if the person doesn't know anything about what is asked? The student might ask the question in a different way, or just move on.

What if I can't think of another question to ask? The student can ask the interview subject if there is something else that they would like to add about their life. Then listen for opportunities for follow up questions or new topics.

What if I disagree with something the person says? The interviewer's job is just to listen, and to facilitate the interview subject's telling of his or her stories. It is not appropriate to disagree with them, correct them, or argue with them. This is true even if they are saying something disparaging about the student's race, gender, generation, religion, or ethnic origin. One way to get beyond such moments is to be curious. Why do they feel this way? What can the student learn about being in this person's shoes, rather than challenging them or being defensive?

What if they ask my opinion? Again, it is best for the interviewer to keep him or herself out of the interview. The student can warmly turn the question back to the interview subject by saying "I'd like to know what you think."

What if they just stop talking in the middle of a topic? Reassure the student that it's ok. They can just sit with the silence for a while. Sometimes wonderful comments and revelations occur in such periods of silence.

What if they use a word I don't understand, or can't spell? Make a note to clarify the word, expression or spelling when there is a pause in the interview.

What if they get lost and take a tangent? The student should let them go on their tangent. It might lead to something important. The student should take notes as a reminder to go back later and fill in where the interview took a different direction. If the student finds the tangent is totally unrelated to the person's life or times, they can gently interrupt and say, "I'm sorry for interrupting. Let's go back to --------- " (remind the subject of the topic being discussed.)

What if they repeat themselves? If it's for a brief time, just let them go. If the story goes on too long, the student can gently interrupt and redirect them saying, "I'm sorry for interrupting, but could we talk about..."

What if they ask me about myself? The student can answer briefly and politely, but should also reiterate that the subject is the focus of the interview. The student can suggest (if comfortable) that, if there's time at the end of the interview, the person can interview him or her!

What if there is a specific topic they do not want to talk about? The student should respect this. The student might ask if there's anything related to that topic that they would be willing to discuss, or if the subject could say why they don't want to discuss the topic. Remind the student that it's best to back off if the person seems uneasy.

What happens if the tape recorder or video camera stops working? The student should be sure to have many extra batteries, and that they have tested the equipment beforehand. If it stops, the student can reschedule the interview, if possible. If not, they might ask if the interview subject has a tape recorder or video camera the student may use. If none of the above are possible, the student will need to take good notes. Remind students not to hesitate to ask their subject to wait while they write something down. This is not the ideal way to conduct the interview, however, as it interrupts the flow. If the student and interview subject can agree to reschedule the interview, that is also an option.

How long should I allow for an interview? Oral Histories can take many hours and days to record. For the sake of this curriculum, we recommend the student spend at least two to four hours with the subject. When scheduling the interview, the student should ask the subject if they are available for the time the student wishes to spend with them. The student should also explain the process of the interview. Students should leave time at the conclusion to chat a bit, make the next appointment if necessary and to answer questions.

How do I know when to stop the interview, or if it is going to be more than one session? The student needs to be alert for the signs of the person fatiguing. These signs could be confusion, slow down of speech, or a loss of concentration. Let the subject take breaks during the interview to get a drink or stretch. Some people can talk on and on comfortably; in this case, 15 minutes before the designated end time, the student might alert the subject that they are coming to the end of their pre-determined time. They can discuss the possibility of extending the interview, or of setting up an additional time to meet.


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