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An Oral History Project

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This assignment asks students to review the history and existing information about their town in order to conduct an interview with an older local resident who has witnessed change over time in their community. The state standards focus on the history of citizenship in the United States; as a result, this oral history should focus on the subject’s participation in community activities, voting behavior, participation in the military and other forms of public service as they pertain to local history. This assignment literally brings history to life through the discussion of it with someone who experienced it.


Intake interview


You will need:
Lesson plan length: 4 - 6 weeks.
A list of potential interviewees.
Social Science textbook.
An almanac (suggested).
An atlas (suggested).
Information on local history events.
Audio recording devices.

Pre-Assessment: Instructors should gather individuals suitable for student interviews in case the students are unable to find interviewees. If schools have multimedia capabilities, instructors should employ technologies that may assist students in conducting the interview, and, if necessary provide students with tape recorders.

Lesson Hypothesis: Oral histories are powerful ways of teaching the process of history. In addition to grappling with the fallibility of human memory, students see first hand how re-calling the past, sharing it with another person and then the process of presenting this information to outsiders.

goals & objectives

In completing this lesson, successful students will:

• Define and understand the glossary terms included.
• Learn the elements that make up a successful oral history.
• Explore American history via both a formal study of the country’s political system as well as informal accounts of and incidents from the past, contemplating the relevance and importance of both approaches.
• Engage in active history-making as the student nears legal adulthood and begins to examine his or her capacity as a United States’ citizen and role as a member of a particular generation of the American people.
• Incorporate interdisciplinary learning to fashion, budget, execute, and sustain public memory projects that document the past and are accessible to the community at large.
• Compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.
• Analyze how change happens at different rates at different times; understand that some aspects can change while others remain the same; and understand that change is complicated and affects not only technology and politics but also values and beliefs.
• Use a variety of maps and documents to interpret human movement, including major patterns of domestic and international migration, changing environmental preferences and settlement patterns, the frictions that develop between population groups, and the diffusion of ideas, technological innovations, and goods.
• Relate current events to the physical and human characteristics of places and regions.
• Distinguish valid arguments from fallacious arguments in historical interpretations.
• Identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations.
• Evaluate major debates among historians concerning alternative interpretations of the past, including an analysis of authors’ use of evidence and the distinctions between sound generalizations and misleading oversimplifications.
• Construct and test hypotheses; collect, evaluate, and employ information from multiple primary and secondary sources; and apply it in oral and written presentations.
• Show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
• Recognize the complexity of historical causes and effects, including the limitations on determining cause and effect. • Interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
• Understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions.
• Analyze human modifications of landscapes and examine the resulting environmental policy issues.
• Conduct cost-benefit analyses and apply basic economic indicators to analyze the aggregate economic behavior of the U.S. economy.
• Conduct an intake interview to begin research in preparation for the actual oral history interview.
• Undertake research based on the intake interview and connect the individual’s life to local, regional, national and global events across their life span.
• Develop questions that relate to their interview subject and history covered in class.
• Conduct an oral history.
• Review the oral history and create an introduction, index and keyword listing of subjects covered in the interview to serve as a finding aid for future researchers.
• Present what they learned from the oral history experience in an in class presentation with the interviewee invited, if possible.

the lesson

Exercise 1: Pre-interview Research
Instructors should introduce the assignment and go over glossary terms with the class as a group. After establishing an interviewee, students should look at and selectively read a variety of secondary sources (textbooks, encyclopedias, newspapers, etc) that pertain to interesting topics for discussion during the interview.

Instructors should go over the topics students may consider exploring during the interview including concepts of what it means to be an American, Californian, Southern Californian (or other relevant geographically specific designation)? If the interviewee is an immigrant, what concepts of the United States, the state and local region or community did they have prior to arrival? Did they change? Students should cover civil rights movements that fall under the interviewee’s life and explore any political activity (like voting or volunteering for a campaign) he or she may have done. How has local history influenced their lives? What are the major issues facing the region?

Outline the topics for the pre-interview, taking into consideration how students may follow up in the actual interview. If a student is nervous about conducting an interview, or would like to prepare more in-depth, he or she should read basic “how to” books or articles on oral history. The Oral History Association has many online resources and links to books at

Exercise 2: “Intake Interview
The intake interview is a short interview the student will do with their interviewee prior to the longer interview session. Explain to the interviewee that the purpose of the intake interview is to plan the actual interview, to construct an outline, to discuss taping session mechanics, explain the legal agreement form, and to get acquainted by establishing a rapport.

Before the pre-interview session, read over the information on the interviewee, create a brief biographical sketch, and prepare a list of general topics to be discussed. The intake interview session should not last much longer than fifteen minutes. Do not tape record this session. This is the opportunity to find out the parameters of the interviewee’s life, so that when preparing the interview questions the student will be better informed as to the interview direction. Conduct an intake interview, or a short interview to assess the basic parameters of the interviewee’s life, in order to gather more relevant questions for the actual interview.

During the intake interview session create an interview outline. Establish the basic facts. “I have your birth year as 1924, is that correct?” and “How do you spell the name?” Prepare the outline along chronological lines, establish the length of activity periods in the person’s life (their childhood, college years, retirement, etc.) Ask about the possible environments for the actual interview to identify a noise-free place for taping and an environment in which the interviewee will feel comfortable. Suggest the general areas of question at the taping session in the near future. Decide on a possible date and time for the taped interview. From this outline, develop your interview questions. Ask the interviewee to bring in photographs or personal documents (yearbooks, family albums) to go over with during the interview and to digitally scan after the interview in order to augment the oral history. Be sure to have the interviewee describe each photograph or scanned document on camera.

Exercise 3: “Interview Mechanics”
For the interview itself students should be sure the technical elements of the interview are sound and should verify supplies.
• Tape recorder and microphone with appropriate power source (batteries, if applicable).
• Adequate supply of tapes.
• Extension cord.
• Note pad/Pen/Pencil.
• Interview outline and questions.
• Release form—two copies (one for student and one for interviewee).

Step-by-step instructions for to the interviewer:
Try to get the interview environment as free of outside noise as possible. Encourage the interview to be conducted in privacy.

Label tape with interviewer’s name, interviewee’s name, the locale of the interview, and date.

Before the interview, test recorder to make sure it is working properly. While setting up and testing the machine, explain to the interviewee that during the taping you will take notes and check occasionally with the earphone. Place recorder near enough to see the tape counter and be able to monitor any technical difficulties. If using a cassette recorder, play a bit of tape to ensure there is no recording on the cassette’s leader before hitting 'record.'.

Begin the interview by stating your name, who you are interviewing, where you are interviewing, and the date. Do this directly into the microphone. Then turn the microphone to the interviewee and begin your questions. Most interviewees get tired after 1 ½ to 2 hours. Reschedule an additional interview if you have not finished covering the material in 2 hours.

Interviewer and interviewee must sign and date legal agreement forms. Those who participate in the interview own property and use rights to the sound recordings and the finding aids. To vest those rights in a sponsoring project, both interviewee and interviewer must sign and date legal agreement forms. The sponsor keeps the signed, original legal forms on file if any questions arise over interview rights. After the project is completed, students must write a thank you note to the interviewee, sending back any loaned material (such as photographs or yearbooks). Make sure to get the interview release form signed. If possible, avoid use of restrictions but when necessary, always include a termination date. Provide a copy of the agreement to your interviewee. Consider bringing a camera to take a picture of the interviewee.

Exercise 4: “Post-interview Wrap-Up”
After completing the interview students should summarize the interview while it is fresh in their own recollection. Students should write a brief introduction describing the interview and include the names of the interviewer and interviewee, date and place of the interview sessions, purpose of the interview, the interview environment, the characteristics of the interview, important aspects of the discussion, a brief biographical sketch of the interviewee (based on the intake interview), and other pertinent observations made during the taping.

Students will next produce an index of the interview. Listen to the interview and write down specific topics covered and the counter numbers (if applicable) at which those topics are discussed. Also write down the correct spelling of specific names and locations associated with the topic (which you acquired at the end of your interview.) Students then create a keyword listing of the interview based on names, places, and events. Break down the interview by question and list what keywords are applicable per question; be general and specific in creating your list.

Exercise 5: Presenting the interviews
If possible, students should invite the interviewee to class presentations. In presenting the interview, students should use the introduction they have written as part of the “Post-Interview Wrap-Up” and answer the following questions: What expectations, if any, did you have about the interview? What surprised you about the interview? What were the major milestones or experiences in this person’s life? How does it contribute to your understanding of local history?

Wrap-Up: Ask class what they learned about process. Did they enjoy it? Suggestions for the future? Depending upon the class’ scope, the instructor should consider employing a peer review evaluation form for the interview presentation that is established by the class as a group.

case studies



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