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Becoming Oral Historians

This part of the activity will help you introduce the concept of oral history and help students see themselves as important players in the task of collecting history and historical artifacts. Students will learn how to formulate questions for their own oral history interviews and will be given time to write down their ideas.

To prepare for this activity:

Activity Plan

  1. This activity starts with a discussion so decide how you want your classroom to be set up. Will chairs/desks be in a circle? Will you have students sitting at tables?
  2. In order to help students form strong interview questions you may want to write some examples on the board or prepare a handout ahead of time. You can use the Oral History primer (link to PDF) as a basis for instruction.
  3. If you are going to demonstrate an example interview, you will need to write a script or at the very least have a few questions written out to ask. Think about if you will bring in someone from the community to interview in front of the class or if you will just have a student serve as the “narrator.”
    1. What is Oral History?
      1. Introduce the topic of oral history by asking some introductory questions and allowing students to respond:
        1. What is history?
        2. How do we know?
        3. Who writes history? Who should write history?
        4. Are there parts of history we don’t read about in books?
          1. How do we know about that kind of history?
        5. Do we have a responsibility to tell our own stories?
      2. Explain that conducting an oral history interview is like listening to a choose-your-own adventure story about someone else’s life. Every person you know has a unique story to tell, and you probably won’t ever get to hear it—unless you ask. Oral history lets you use questions to get the information you think is most interesting.
      3. Oral history also reminds us that famous people aren’t the only ones whose stories matter—every person is part of history. And when you interview someone whose story is not already well-known or documented in a public place (like in the newspaper), you are doing the important work of contributing to history.
      4. Prepare for the interviews
        1. Using the Family History Tool Kit’s guide for “How to Ask Great Questions,” (see “Teacher Resources” section below) demonstrate the different kinds of questions interviewers need to ask to get a good story. It will help to make a chart of open and closed ended questions and to write out some examples so everyone can see them.
        2. Conduct a short, sample oral history interview in class to demonstrate what questions to ask and what technique to use. You can also show a clip of an example oral history interview.
        3. Give each student a pencil and paper. Leaving the guide on the board, have each student come up with 5-10 questions they might ask the person about their object and the story behind it.
          1. Collect the papers, or walk around the room, and read them over to make sure the students have come up with questions that will help them get the information they need. Students can also share their questions in pairs and give one another feedback.
          2. Alternatively, you may choose to come up with a general list of questions as a group for students to use.
      5. As homework, students should take their questions home and interview their narrator, either over the phone, in person, or via email. Include a note for parents so that adults can assist with the project. Students should bring responses to the next class meeting. *This process may take several weeks, be sure to keep that in mind as you think about how to run this activity in your own classroom or congregation.
        1. Remind students that although an in-person interview is best, they may choose to do a computer interview (using Skype or similar video conferencing software), a phone interview, or send the person questions over email.
        2. Encourage students to record their answers whether they are written down or taped using a video or audio recorder. For more resources on this, consult the Oral History primer.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Becoming Oral Historians." (Viewed on June 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/node/22146>.

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