Activity: Conduct Your Own Oral History

Overview and Objectives

This activity is designed to guide students in planning and conducting a remote oral history interview. Students have the opportunity to connect with a family member or family friend and learn about their personal history. Students will practice research methods, interview techniques, and active listening. They will engage in dialogue with an older generation. Possible products include a reflection paper, a research paper on family history, a transcript, or a presentation with clips from the interview. Students are encouraged to analyze how their interviewee’s personal history connects to their overall family history. Here is a mock example of a student oral history (PDF) for guidance.

Introduction

Lead a brief discussion about oral history using the questions below:

  • What is oral history?
  • What are the potential benefits of conducting oral histories?
  • What are some of the possible limitations of oral histories?
  • How might oral histories help people learn more about their family history?

Background Research

Connecticut Representative Nancy Johnson being interviewed during her first term in Congress (1983–1985)./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_njohnson_camera.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Connecticut Representative Nancy Johnson being interviewed during her first term in Congress (1983–1985).

After the students choose an interviewee, have them select a focus. The interview could cover the interviewee’s job, their childhood, the reason they moved to the state they live in now, or their time in the military, for example. Ask the students to contact their chosen interviewee and get their consent for an interview.

Next, the students will conduct background research. Instruct the students to come up with areas to look into: e.g., the history of the company the interviewee works for, information on their childhood town, background on the state they used to live in, or details of their military branch. Sources can include newspapers and books, as well as any relevant photos or artifacts from the interviewee. Ask the students to take notes and start a list of topics they want to cover in the interview.

Discussion Questions

  • How can background research help an interviewer create topics and questions? How can it help them in the interview?
  • How are photos and artifacts helpful sources for oral histories? Explain.

Expert Tip

Have a notecard with important dates, names, and places you found in your research with you during the interview. This could help your interviewee remember details.

Topics and Questions

Ask the students to narrow the list of topics they created during background research. After review, have the students send the topics to their interviewee.

Now the students can start creating questions to ask the interviewee. Have them finalize a list of at least ten questions. The students should not share the questions with the interviewee. Students can find examples of interview questions in our oral history transcripts.

Discussion questions

  • What makes a good question?
  • What is the benefit of sending a list of topics rather than prepared questions?

Expert Tip

When you send your list of topics to your interviewee, ask them if there is an additional topic they want to add to the list. They probably have a story in mind!

Conduct the Interview

Hawaii Representative Patricia Saiki talking on the phone in her office in 1987./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_saiki_phone.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Hawaii Representative Patricia Saiki talking on the phone in her office in 1987.

Ask students to schedule a 30 to 60-minute interview. Discuss methods of conducting remote interviews and recording options: e.g., over the phone or computer; video or no video; handheld recorder or smart device recording app.

Remind the students they don’t have to stick to the order of their questions and to ask follow-up questions when appropriate. Tell them to ask their interviewee if they want a break at the half-way point to stretch or get a glass of water. Students should take notes during the interview to keep track of the questions they asked and jot down ideas for follow up questions.

Discussion questions

  • What are effective interviewing techniques?
  • What does it mean to actively listen?
  • What makes a good follow-up question?

Expert Tip

Be patient! When it seems like your interviewee is done answering a question, wait a couple seconds before asking the next one. They might think of more to say.

Members listening to tapes of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal investigations./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_watergate_listening.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Members listening to tapes of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal investigations.

Deed of Gift

A standard oral history practice is to have a written agreement between the interviewer and the interviewee known as a deed of gift. Take a look one of at ours (under Abstract and Transcript). A deed of gift between the student and their family member doesn’t need to be complicated, but it shows that both parties agreed to the interview. Ask your students to have their interviewee sign a deed of gift and to sign it themselves.

Example: I, [interviewee name], agree to do an interview with [interviewer name] on [date], consisting of an audio recording. I [interview name] accept the interview on [date] for inclusion to my family history oral history project.

Reflection

After the interview, lead a discussion using these questions:

  • What was the most surprising thing you learned from your interviewee?
  • What was challenging about the interview process?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • Would an in-person interview have been different?
  • What can your whole family learn from this interview?
  • How does this individual’s history contribute to the overall history of your family?
  • If you had to opportunity would you conduct another oral history interview? Why or why not?

Looking for more oral history activities? Check out our Oral History Lesson Plan.

Looking for examples of oral history projects? Check out our Oral History page.