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A Guide to Using Oral History

by Linda Wood

Creating a Model Portfolio for Yourself
Doing a Classroom Oral History Project
Research Ethics
Preparing the Interview Questions
The Classroom and Beyond
Student Evaluation

older woman showing a photograph to her son older woman looking at a photograph


You may have come to this Web site wondering, "What is oral history?" Oral history is the gathering of personal memories through recorded interviews. The memories related are experienced firsthand. Oral history is not hearsay, it is not folklore; it is the collection of eyewitness recollections about the lifetime of the interviewee, or "narrator."

One of the most important lessons students can learn from oral history is to see that individuals are part of the greater society and that the individual is shaped by society and, in turn, helps to shape society. They get a snapshot of another person's life as he or she interacts with events outside that life, and, in doing so, they learn how the individual reacts to the events, learns from them, and attempts to exert control over them. In every interview in every oral history project, the narrators explain what they saw, what they did, and what they thought about the things they were experiencing. Students listen and learn from these interviews. They learn that history is assembled from these human pieces, that no one piece is any less important than any other piece, and that they have a role in making sure the pieces are not lost.

Oral history is an exciting and multifaceted learning experience with opportunities for public recognition of student accomplishments. Here are several good reasons why you should try a classroom oral history project:

  1. It actively engages students in a classroom activity that is relevant and significant.
  2. Students learn communication skills that are applicable to life situations.
  3. Students interact with persons in the community, and persons in the community are invited into the classroom (becoming part of the educational process).
  4. The final product of the classroom oral history becomes an important resource for the community and, in some cases, for the state, the country, and even the world.
  5. Students are shown how learning in one classroom can relate to learning in another classroom.
  6. Students discover that the process of learning is as important as the content learned.

The bibliography at the end of this article provides good resources to help you learn more about the kinds of training, experience, and resources you might need before engaging your students in a classroom oral history project.


Before you launch your students into a classroom oral history project, you may want to gain some experience yourself. Develop a model research portfolio that you can share with your students by designing a small research project you can do. It can be about your family history, a local individual, or any other topic that interests you.

Keep a journal of your research, including both data and your feelings about the experience. As you research your topic, scan and make overheads of the personal papers, family photographs, newspaper articles, and public documents that you find most useful. Delineate the research process in your journal: discuss the problems and dead ends that you encounter, write up and revise your interview questions, detail your contacts with the narrator before and after the interview, and describe the setting for the interview.

Write up a tape summary and a transcript of your interview. You will become personally familiar with the problems of translating from tape to type as well as with the amount of time that this will require. Select parts of the audio recordings to use in class. Review your portfolio, and integrate examples from the different steps in your personal oral history project with your classroom lesson plans and assignments.


Choose a Topic to Fit Your Local Scene

To learn and teach about oral history, identify a topic related to your classes' subject matter that interests your students—for example, sports teams, music and pop culture, or recent or past events. Think about the history of your community. Read local newspapers with an eye to local concerns and the distinctive characteristics of your community. For example, is there a major industry? Is your community agricultural, suburban, or urban? Are there issues of new housing, highways, or shopping centers? Are there environmental, economic, planning, or zoning problems? Has immigration impacted the community? Are there civil liberties concerns?

Possible topics may focus on:

Nixon on the political campaign trail Kennedy for President pin

an event (for example, a strike, a political campaign, or a natural disaster)

a power plant

an issue (for example, racism or a decision to build a power plant)

a Japanese woman teaching a Japanese girl

an individual (for example, the life stories of individuals over a certain age or the stories of multiple generations in a family)

people in line

an historical era (for example, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War years, the fifties, or even a year like 1968)

National Urban League letter to President Truman

the history of a local organization or neighborhood group (for example, the Urban League or the Grey Panthers)

A Cautionary Note:
Recent discussion on the oral history listserv has focused on subject matter for student classroom projects. Concern was expressed about sending young people (particularly elementary and middle school students) to ask questions about a highly sensitive and emotional topic, such as the Holocaust, Vietnam, or the events of September 11, 2001. People who have lived through these events often have significant, horror-filled memories of a very personal nature. The Oral History Association (OHA) would like to caution teachers that this material is not appropriate for young students, as they do not have the maturity and the necessary sensitivity to handle the often emotion-laden responses. It can be offensive to the narrator and could possibly curtail any further interviews in oral history projects. OHA believes there are many other age-appropriate topics for young students.

Talk about topics that interest you and your students. It is essential to set up an oral history project with a topic that has both a clear focus and relevance to the curriculum. You and the students will want to either agree upon one common research topic for a classroom project or divide into teams, pursuing a few different topics. The first option will produce a more cohesive final project; the latter will allow students to pursue projects of particular interest to them.

The topic should be something that can be researched within your community, keeping in mind the age and mobility of both your students and the narrators. Another consideration is the age, maturity, and sophistication of the students. What is their critical thinking ability? How well do they think and process information? As the students investigate the topic, put a team in charge of creating a database of personal contacts. Invite one or two of the contacts to talk to the class.

You and your students should survey together the historical literature, films, videos, newspaper and magazine articles, Internet resources, and museum exhibits on the subject. At the start, assign students to fact-find with parents, neighbors, and local civic leaders.

Develop a Knowledge Base

Start the classroom research by generating a list of questions with your students. Students will need to understand the context of the topic being researched—politically, culturally, historically, even geographically. Here are some suggestions to help make the research as lively and as rewarding as the interview process:

  1. photo of a library buildingStudents can locate resources from print and from the Internet to provide background and context for the project, but don't overlook "unexplored places" that will have such primary source materials as photographs, maps, city directories, and so on. Send teams of students to the
    • local newspaper
    • historical society archives
    • town hall
    • public library
  2. Invite speakers to the classroom to discuss the topic. Use the local college, public library, or historical society to help find speakers.
  3. Incorporate film, music, and art into the research. See if the local museums have relevant exhibits.


The words spoken in an oral history project become part of the historical documentation. The words are the "property" of both the narrator and the interviewer. Regardless of the use of the classroom oral history, the information gathered must be released in a formal and legal agreement that will protect all participants. The narrator has the right to restrict use of the interview, or to exclude parts of it or to remain anonymous. The issues of rights and consent provide a valuable opportunity to introduce students to ethical issues in research. For more information on this topic, consult Oral History and the Law by John A. Neuenschwander, listed in the bibliography.

You may want to use this sample release form (PDF).


girl student interviewing boy studentA good interviewer is curious. A good interviewer is an active listener. Remember those two things. Most young adults make wonderful interviewers. What they lack in sophistication and maturity, they make up for in their curiosity, spontaneity, and youthful confidence to "just go for it."

Students may miss some follow-up questions in an interview, but most interviewers miss some points. Since the narrator often takes on the role of mentor and feels an obligation to share knowledge with the younger generation, students will often gain information that the narrator might not have shared with an adult.

There are two basic kinds of questions: open and closed. Except to pinpoint a specific date or time, clarify a point, or identify a person or an event, questions should be open-ended. Questions that are too specific, such as those that ask for dates, may make the narrator uncomfortable. What makes oral history so interesting to students are the personal experiences, stories, and anecdotes — things they don't learn in the history books. They get this information only by asking open-ended questions.

You may want to share this resource on types of open-ended questions (PDF) with students.

boy student interviewing female adultSince it can be intimidating for a young adult interviewer to go into a stranger's home to talk about an event the person participated in a long time ago, it is a good idea to have the interviewer go with a "partner." Only the student assigned the interview should ask the questions, but the partner can help set up the equipment, take notes, and be a reminder of such details as signing the legal release form at the conclusion of the interview and asking for photos or memorabilia. Students seem to like this arrangement for the first interview, and it builds confidence. When it is the partner's turn to do an interview, the first interviewer should go along as the assistant.

One of the best techniques a student can learn is to wait patiently for the narrator to respond, asking only one question at a time. Another good skill to learn is not to interrupt a response and not to contradict the narrator during the interview.

You may want to share these tips on how to interview (PDF) with students.

Transcribing the interviews is a somewhat overwhelming task. Consider the difficulties and alternatives before making your decision.

Positives: Transcribing makes a permanent and accessible historical record available to the public; students thoroughly grasp the content of the interview through the process of transcribing, learning proper syntax, grammar, spelling, and patience.

Negatives: Transcribing can be time consuming and costly (if someone else does the transcribing); however, depending on the project, entire transcripts are not necessary—consider partial transcripts and team transcripts.

Student-prepared indexes of the tapes can provide access to the content of the interviews. Using the tape "counter," students write the subject topic every 25 to 50 counter markings.


The oral history project will play an integral role in meeting your curriculum goals, both in terms of the process and the content. Your students will discuss and learn collaboratively during the project as they brainstorm, do background research, write questions, conduct interviews, and assess the results.

At each step, you will want to ask the students to turn in brief written progress reports that identify both problems and solutions. From these progress reports, you can select a few problems and solutions for directed class discussion. Students could also prepare informal reports and class presentations about their work in progress. The report may include a brief summary of the interview, a page-length draft transcript of a revealing or significant portion the interview, and a selected passage from the interview to play in class. The students become the class experts in the subject of their own research.

An alternative method for class involvement might be to allot a portion of the classtime to presentations and discussions about the discrete topics, themes, and patterns that emerge from the interviews. Narrators, outside experts, and even school administrators may be invited to attend and comment on these informal presentations. You might ask the students to write an essay, to expand on the themes raised in class, place their interviews in the wider context of the other interviews, provide background or contextual information, clarify confusing passages, and highlight significant themes or events.

Possible Classroom Assignments

student and teacher talkingWritten report Using the interview, notes from guest speakers, and the research conducted on the context of the topic, the student prepares a written report, quoting and paraphrasing the narrator to support the thesis.
Oral report The student explains and interprets the narrator's story. The student must be ready to defend and support any hypothesis or statement made in the report.
Dramatic performance The student assumes the role of the narrator and, using the narrator's words, relates an eyewitness moment of history in a kind of "You Are There" performance. Alternatively, the student writes a script with dialogue based on the transcript and produces a play.
First person or autobiographical narrative The student takes on the persona of the person interviewed, identifies the historic significance of the interview, and outlines the narrator's story. Although most students like to "begin at the beginning" with the person's birth, they should be encouraged to write the story from the most dramatic aspects of the interview and then flash backward or forward as the story progresses. In other words, tell a good story, using verbatim quotes from the transcript, omitting the questions asked and irrelevant material. Remind the student that the story is not fiction and situations that did not happen should not be invented or created.
Question-and-answer format The student may choose to write the narrator's story in "interview style," with the student as the person asking the questions. The narrator's responses and sometimes the student's analysis of the responses will form the content of the story. The student chooses the significant aspects of the interview to focus on and quotes directly from the interview.

Possible Public Forums

The research is complete, the questions asked and answered, and the interview is indexed and transcribed. What should you do with this "gold mine" of information? Here are a few suggestions:
Audio documentary Technically challenging, a radio documentary can provide one of the most accessible project outcomes. While radio documentaries were made long before digital recordings were available, digital (DAT) recording permits mixing and editing the sound on a computer. A local radio station may be willing to help with this project and may air the documentary. The student can edit the narrator's voice from the recorded interview to focus on the most interesting and dramatic stories told. Students might also want to record an introduction or an audio essay that incorporates interview segments.
students conducting a videotaped interviewVideo documentary Also technically challenging, a video will provide even greater accessibility than radio. Many schools have video production equipment. Preparing a 20- to 30-minute program is an exciting way to present the information to the public. As with the radio script, the student selects the most dramatic stories. In addition to the video of the narrator speaking, the student (or audiovisual specialist) may insert photographs, maps, and video footage depicting some of the events, as well as copyright-free music and voiceover narration.
Computer Presentation This forum uses the recorded voice (or voices) of the narrator(s), with photographs and portraits depicting the events. Music, narration, and dialogue can be combined with archival photographs and amateur snapshots.
Exhibit If they have gathered and duplicated photographs, newspaper articles, and other documents, or if they have taken photographs of the narrators during the project, students can produce an exhibit. Brief excerpts from the interviews make excellent captions for an exhibit in the school, library, or a local building. For an exhibit, consider using the National History Day standard and assigning students—individually or in small teams—their own sections to design and produce.
Tour If students have studied a community or a neighborhood, they can lead or record a tour of a local building, neighborhood, park, or other site, using passages from oral history interviews to enliven local history. They could also design a travel brochure to go along with the tour.
Performance You may be able to work with your students to produce a play based on the many narratives in the interviews. Since the interviews are spoken words, the words and phrases lend themselves to such a production.
World Wide Web In many schools, the technology is available to produce an interactive multimedia program or to create a dedicated site on the World Wide Web, combining sound and text from the tape-recorded interviews, photographs, film and video footage, and print and historical documentation. The Web is a perfect medium to present an oral history project to the public. In addition, links to related Internet resources add to the historical content. See two examples of this at What Did You Do in the War, Grandma? and The Whole World was Watching.

A public program is an appropriate outcome for an oral history project because it has involved the public from the start. It's also an excellent opportunity for students to earn recognition for their hard work. Invite the project narrators, school administrators, parents, and other public figures, as well as the local press, to a reception when you launch your public program.


There are several ways to assess student work, depending on the length and scope of the project. Both the process and the content should be evaluated. Also, students should be told at the beginning of the project how their work will be evaluated.

The process of an oral history project includes preparing the questions, setting up the interview, getting the correct forms filled out and returned, labeling the material, meeting the deadlines, and, finally, the students' conduct and responsibility throughout the oral history project.

The content evaluation of an oral history project includes the research; the interview content; the index and/or transcripts, if required; and any classroom assignments.


painting of a woman telling stories to childrenAn oral history project is not just words but voices. Each human life is a brief historical note, which becomes part of the song of life. If recordings are composed of the voices, the future can listen and learn. Historians and scholars, who include our young students, strive to find answers to the questions Why? Why then and not now? Why here and not there? Why you and not them? These questions are the puzzling pieces of history. A classroom oral history project will suggest answers for the future by preserving the pieces of the past.


For more information about "Oral History Projects in Your Classroom" by Linda Wood, contact the Oral History Association.

The companion video to Oral History Projects In Your Classroom is available from J. Long, Grin Productions, 6 Carey Street, Newport, RI 02804. E-mail:

H-Oralhist (H-ORALHIST@H-NET.MSU.EDU), affiliated with the Oral History Association, is an H-Net network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to oral history.

The Oral History Association promotes the international teaching and practice of oral history through the publication Oral History Review, an annual conference, and a variety of publications. Oral History Association, Dickinson College Box 1773, Carlisle, PA 17013. E-mail:

The South Kingstown High School (Wakefield, Rhode Island) Oral History Projects are excellent resources: What Did You Do in the War, Grandma? and The Whole World was Watching. The projects were done in collaboration with Brown University, Scholarly Technology Group.

For another approach to historical research, see the Prentice Hall eTeach Language Arts Featured Forum for March 2003: Folklife Research: A Real-life Method of Teaching Research and Writing Skills in the Content Areas, by Gaye Ingram.

For connections to your Social Studies standards, check your state's Department of Education.


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Baum, Willa K. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Revised Edition. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1987.

Brown, Cynthia Stokes. Like It Was: A Complete Guide to Writing Oral History. Teachers and Writers Collaborative. (ISBN0-914924-12-9)

Dean, Pamela, Toby Daspit, and Petra Munro. Talking Gumbo: A Teacher's Guide to Using Oral History in the Classroom. (Companion video: "You've Got to Hear This Story") Louisiana State University: T. Harry Williams Center, 1998.

Eff, Elaine. You Should Have Been Here Yesterday. Maryland Historical Trust, 1995. Contact 1-800-756-0119 or

Grele, Ronald J., ed. Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History. Revised Edition. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1990.

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Hickey, M. Gail. Bringing History Home: Local and Family History Projects for Grades K–6. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

History from the Living: The Organization and Craft of Oral History. (A video based on "1968: The Whole World Was Watching" oral history project, South Kingstown High School, Wakefield, RI.) Grin Productions, Newport, RI: 1998; running time: 17 min. 14 sec.

Kuhn, Cliff, and Marjorie L. McLellan, ed. Magazine of History, Oral History special issue, June 1996.

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Mercier, Laurie, and Madeline Buckendorf. Using Oral History in Community History Projects. Los Angeles, CA: Oral History Association, Pamphlet No. 4, 1992.

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Oral History Projects In Your Classroom. (companion video) Available from J. Long, Grin Productions, 6 Carey Street, Newport, RI 02804

Perks, Robert, and Alistair Thomson. The Oral History Reader, Routledge, New York and London, 1998.

Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Somers, Barbara W., and Mary Kay Quinlan. The Oral History Manual. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.

Stearns, Peter Yuen. Meaning Over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Stricklin, David, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. The Past Meets the Present: Essays on Oral History. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

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_____. Transcribing and Editing Oral History. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977.