Tell Me Your Stories
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Do I have to use the curriculum as outlined? What if we don't have enough time to complete the entire curriculum? The curriculum is simply a guide and our suggestions based on our experiences. Be creative and make this work for you and your students! If time is limited, there are places in the curriculum that can be altered. For example, students practice interviewing techniques several times, which is important in really honing their skills, but one of these practice interviews might be eliminated. In addition, the oral reports could be written and handed in, rather than taking up valuable classroom time.

Can the curriculum be used for any class subject? Since the point of an oral history is to gather information about a person's life or a certain time in history, the project can be used in any class that can utilize such material. The area to be focused on in the class might impact class preparation, types of questions to be asked, and the final project. For example, in a social studies class the final project might be a report; in a language arts class the final project would emphasize aspects of writing or gathering information; in a visual or performing arts class the options are endless. The course can also be taught in conjunction with two different classes, such as a social studies class, where student do the research and interviews, and a computer science class, where the students can create a Web site about the material.

Is there a charge for using the curriculum? What about the interview sampler? Living Legacies Historical Foundation is providing the curriculum free of charge to utilize in your classroom as you wish. There is a small fee of $15 for the video, to cover our costs for duplication and shipping. See the Supporting Materials:Video page for order information.

Why is it important for students to examine their perceptions of senior citizens? Empathy and respect are crucial for conducting a good interview, and for creating a positive relationship with the interview subject. In the past, elders were respected and loved in their families and communities, and children grew up knowing and admiring them. Sadly, today this is often not the case. Many families are separated by distance that prevents young people from having contact with family elders. Many young people have grown up not knowing these people, or watching them age; they have not experienced the love and knowledge these people have to give. Even if family elders live nearby, parents and children are often so busy that these older people might not be part of the young person's daily life. Therefore, when students are working in an oral history project, we must first help dispel myths and examine attitudes that might interfere with the positive relationship we want the student to create with the interview subject.

What do you mean by "closed," "open-ended," and "follow-up" questions? A "closed" question is one that can be answered simply with a yes or no or a very brief response. Some of these types of questions are necessary during the interview (i.e. "When were you born?" "What was your name at birth?") but they do not often help to move the interview forward, or encourage detailed responses. For example, "Did you know your grandmother?" might result in a simple yes or no.

An "open-ended" question invites the person to consider the question, recall their memories, and give a detailed answer. A question such as, "Tell me about your grandmother," encourages the person to think about their grandmother and recount their memories and experiences with her.

A "follow-up" question is intended to get additional information. Even if the student asks an open-ended question such as, "Tell me about your grandmother" the response might simply be, "She was a wonderful woman." The student will get more information if they ask a "follow-up" question such as, "In what way was she wonderful?" or "Can you describe her, in terms of how she related to people, or her role in the family?"

Here are some other examples of different types of questions: "Did you like sports as a child?" (closed). The answer could be a yes or no. If, instead, we ask, "What kinds of things did you do for fun as a child?" (open-ended), the answer might be, "Well, I would play baseball with the neighbor kids, or we'd ride our bikes, or go to the movies." A good follow-up question could be, "Can you describe how movies and theaters were different in those days than they are today?"

Ask students to come up with other examples of "open-ended" and "follow-up" questions that begin with Why, How, Where, Describe, Tell me about, and Would you say more about.

Why is it important for students to interview a peer with whom they are not well acquainted? This is important to help students experience what it's like to establish rapport with a stranger, and find ways to engage that person in conversation. Students are thus required to start a relationship from scratch, which is often the case with an interview subject, and create questions that help them get to know the person. It is also practice in empathizing, which is covered in the next question.

Middle School is a tough age for being empathetic. How can I help my students learn empathy? Empathy is, indeed, critical for conducting a successful and satisfying interview. Students need to learn to listen non-critically and with compassion. The project must incorporate practice of good listening skills, which may include basics such as: not interrupting, maintaining eye contact, nodding to encourage the person to go on, staying focused on what the person is saying, and finding something of interest in the stories, even if they are "boring" to the student. The practice interviews offer a chance for student to develop empathy to care about and relate to the person being interviewed. In peer interviews, teachers might ask students to include topics such as fears, regrets in my life, favorite relatives, proudest moments, to help the interviewer to empathize with their interview subject.

Another way to promote empathy is to ask the students, after their interviews, to discuss such questions as:

  • How would you feel if that happened to you?
  • What was especially sad (or exciting or difficult or moving) about the subject's stories?
  • Write an essay in the first person, as your interview subject.

What if students ask very personal questions during the practice interview with me? If you agree to be interviewed, you can anticipate such questions as:

  • Are you married?
  • Why did you become a teacher?
  • Were you close to your parents?
  • Did you ever use drugs?

Decide ahead of time what is off limits, such as your address, your sex life, painful childhood experiences, etc. It is fine to say, "I'm not comfortable talking about that." This will also give students the chance to practice how to respond to a person who wishes not to talk about certain aspects of their life.

How do you suggest using the sample videos that we can purchase from Living Legacies Historical Foundation? In the courses we have taught, we have used these videos to get students to start practicing their listening and observation skills, and to initiate class discussions on a range of topics, such as what follow-up questions they would ask the interview subjects being viewed, how they felt listening to them, etc. We are providing oral history interviews that depict different cultural experiences, as well as demonstrating actual interview questions and responses, excerpts of people's stories and a finished product. Some class discussion suggestions will be included with the tapes.

What type of equipment do you recommend? The microphone is the most important element when recording an interview. Most tape and video recorders have built-in microphones, but these often do not pick up sound more than a few feet away. The best solution is an external microphone. These can be purchased at electronics stores, such as Radio Shack. Most recorders have an input for an external microphone, and the recorder should be taken to the store when purchasing a microphone to make sure the connections fit. We recommend the use of good quality audio tapes to record the interviews. Ideally, 90-minute length tapes, with 45-minutes of uninterrupted recording per side, is the best choice. We do not recommend the 120-minute tapes which often have technical problems.

What if students don't own a tape recorder or video camera? A project that requires students to purchase equipment might be a hardship for some students. Check if any equipment can be provided by the school or see if the school has a budget for students who need help. You might suggest that students borrow equipment, or rent it. Check to see if local rental companies would like to participate in the project by providing access to equipment.

What if the interview is with two people? Some microphones are made to sit on a tabletop, and can pick up the voices of everyone sitting around the table. Some microphones can be held in a stand that either sits on a table, or is suspended over the interview subjects' heads. If the student is going to use the microphone that is part of the recorder, he or she should do a test before the interview, of how far away the microphone can adequately pick up two voices.

What safety precautions do I need to take, if any? If the student is interviewing a stranger, and you feel some concern, you might have the interview conducted in a public (but quiet) place, such as a library or book store, or at the school. Students might go to the interview in pairs, and should let an adult where they are going, providing the specific address for the interview and the estimated time for coming home or back to school. Some interviews are conducted in senior centers or institutions, which might seem safer than a stranger's home.

How should students dress? Most importantly, they should be clean and neat. First impressions do impact the interview and a priority is to make the interview subject feel at ease. You might have a discussion with your students about how older people might perceive a young person with nose rings or wild colored hair. But the students should feel comfortable being who they are, since one primary goal of Tell Me Your Stories is cross-generational outreach, so that elders and young people can learn from and respect one another.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from teaching this class previously? This project has been very well received by students and teachers, as well as by the interview subjects. Here are some of the comments in response to the Tell Me Your Stories course:

"I really enjoyed doing this interview. I thought that I knew about my grandpa and so at the beginning I wasn't all that thrilled about doing this project. I figured it would be a bunch of stuff that I had already heard, but it wasn't. I sat down with my grandpa and from the first word he spoke, it was something new to me. I could tell this was going to be better than I thought. From this interview, I not only learned about my grandfather and his life, but my own history and my mother's life, and also about my grandpa's feelings and opinions on things I didn't really know he cared about. I learned from this interview to be honest. My grandpa said it's the value that his parents taught him and it makes a lot of sense."
8th grade History student

"Students at Palms Middle School come from highly diverse ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The Tell me Your Stories project values all students and helps them to discover their values. In this age of the Internet and its truncated bits of research information, this project brings us back to the root of knowledge transfer-the oral tradition. Students have the chance to sit down and speak with grandparents and parents to learn more of the stories that form their characters. Students are challenged to be aware of the intangibles-the body language, emotions and pacing of their interview subjects. These are skills the students will use throughout their lives as they seek information about subjects they love."
Joe Provisor, Honors English teacher, Palms Middle School, Los Angeles

"This project has had one of the strongest influences on me. Before the interview, I saw my grandmother every day but never actually knew what was inside. From this project I have gained a vast knowledge of the life my grandmother has lived and the times of the past in general."
10th grade Language Arts student

"Before the interview, me and my dad had a distant relationship and spoke only for necessary matters, and even then we would argue. During the interview, he opened up and I realized all the trouble he's gone through to maintain me and my family sheltered and fed. After the interview, I appreciated his presence more and I thank him for doing all he does for us. I learned about myself too. I learned that I never gave my dad the credit he deserves for being a better father than anyone is. He stayed with his family when it would have been easier to walk away."
8th grade English student

"I'd never actually talked before with someone who had survived the Holocaust. Initially, I was concerned that this community service assignment would be too difficult, but my interview subject was anxious to talk about her experiences and to have a young person know about what she and her family had gone through. There were points where I had a hard time listening-it was so painful-but I felt very involved with her by the end of our time together, and that was invaluable. Learning to conduct this kind of interview will be a skill that will be useful in other areas of my life."
11th grade student participating in Community Service project

"I was touched by the fact that this young person was taking the time to hear about my life. Even my own grandchildren have never done that. Maybe now I will suggest they do. This young man wanted to know all about my family being sent to the relocation camps during World War II. I guess they had studied it in his history class. It was a nice experience to sit and talk with him, and he was a very good listener."
75-year-old Japanese American woman, interviewed by 9th grade history student

"My great grandfather died about a month after I interviewed him. If I hadn't done this project, I would never have known much of anything about his life, or my family's history. In fact, most of my relatives didn't know the things that came out from this interview. No one ever spoke very much to him; he always just sat, kind of watching us at family gatherings. But, in turned out he had lots to say. Hearing about his experiences in World War I and the Depression, rather than from a text book, made a world of difference for me. Getting to know him as a person was something I just can't believe I almost missed out on."
9th grade History student


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