Organization Tip for Oral History Work
   Keeping track of information and processes

Make a checklist of all the steps students will be completing within the oral history project (interview arranged, tape & release form collected, transcript typed, story written, slides gathered for presentation, story posted on web, thank you sent, etc.)

  • At the top put the veterans name and contact information and the names of the students working with him/her.
  • Attach the checklist to the front of a manila envelope.
  • Put all the envelops in a central crate or file cabinet in the classroom. Have students keep their tape, drafts of projects, and a disk with back up files of everything they are working on in the folder.

This works especially well if students are working in pairs or groups. Even if one student is absent, the others still have access to all the work. This also allows students to work during different periods of the day and not have to find one another to get materials out of lockers or off a computer. In the classroom, you also have easy access to what students are working with throughout the process.

The checklist also helps students track their personal progress through the project and helps with organization

I also post a spreadsheet with all the interview subjects (and students working with them) listed vertically and all the steps of the project listed horizontally. We mark off each piece as we finish. This allows the whole class to see our collective progress and keeps us organized.


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Checklist for Students Collecting Oral Histories
   List of things to remember when interviewing

Before you go

  • Call and introduce yourself, explain why you’d like to meet with him/her, and set up your appointment
  • Get your subject a copy of your questions and an explanation of the project (Some people like to know what they’ll be asked ahead of time)
  • Make sure you have everything you need: questions, paper, writing utensil, tape recorder (with working batteries), tape and camera
  • Okay your questions with the teacher
  • Read through questions to make sure all are clear and you can understand and pronounce everything

During the interview

  • Thank the subject for agreeing to do the interview
  • Explain the release form and ask him/her to sign it

  • (This gives you and the school permission to use and share what they tell you in the interview)
  • Make sure you get the subject’s name (spelled correctly—make sure you can read it on the release form), address, and phone number in case you need to contact him/her again
  • Test the recorder by recording your introduction. Include: First & last name of person being interviewed, first & last name of person doing the interview (YOU!), topic of interview, date and location of interview
  • Rewind and listen to the introduction. Make sure the recorder is picking up both the questions and the answers. If okay, begin. . .
  • Ask your questions
  • Don’t rush. Speak loudly and clearly. Give your interview subject time to think. (Some are remembering back three, four, or even six decades.)
  • Listen closely so you can ask follow-up questions, if necessary
  • After interview, be sure to ask if there is anything you didn’t ask that he or she would like to add
  • Thank him/her again for talking with you!

After the Interview

  • Type the transcript
  • Send a thank you!  Enclose your transcript with any questions you have highlighted (dates, locations, unclear parts of the tape)
  • In your thank you include why you appreciate their time, what you learned, the most interesting part of the interview
  • If you choose to handwrite your thank you, check all spelling and write very neatly

Next: writing the story and putting together a presentation


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Writing and reading as placemaking
   Getting to the real stuff

Each of us is reponsible for what we say—the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content—and each of us is also responsible for what we pay attention to. We shape the world both by what we say and what we listen to.

Each of us is responsible for what we say—the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content—and each of us is also responsible for what we listen to. The internet makes vivid the complex interplay between decisions individual persons make about their voices and the decisions others make about what to pay attention to, and the sort of places that result. On the internet, sites that get traffic grow and are imitated, while those that get no traffic dwindle away.

The world has always worked that way. Different communities practice different virtues, have different characters, and move toward different destinies. These differences are created by the things people think and say, and the actions that follow. At the same time, the things people think and say are influenced by what the community around them seems to approve or disapprove.

What we pay attention to grows. What we ignore dwindles. It’s how we make worlds.

I think it would be good if writing teachers kept pointing out to young people that through what we write about (and talk about and think about) we are constantly participating in a process of self-creation, that the outcome of this process is not predetermined (we are free), and that the outcome matters a lot (things could turn out very good, but they could also turn out very, very bad).

These are practices that lead to the sorts of places I prefer:

1. Be honest (rather than merely fashionable).
2. Be accurate (reality is fabulous).
3. Be nice (most people are tender and many mistakes they make can safely be ignored).
4. Be cautious about revealing intimate details (there are bad people out there).


Permalink | Printer Friendly | ©2005 Michael L Umphrey

Conversation: thinking together
   Good talk makes for a good class—or a good community

Reflection is a fundamental skill, both for education and for building community. Fortunately, it comes readily to people who are exposed to it. 

When the Nez Perce fought the U.S. army in a weeks-long war across Montana, they met regularly around council fires to reflect on what had happened, what they faced, what might happen and where wisdom might lie. Day by day the community moved forward, and evening by evening they discussed where they might be.

Along the way, they humiliated the army. Traveling with their families and without pack trains to supply them, they won battle after battle. For me, the council fires of the Nez Perce are powerful model of reflection—thinking together to find the best way forward. Though the Nez Perce faced extreme trouble, their plight is not completely alien to any neighborhood or town. Every community is surrounded by change, every community is threatened by something, and every community is moving toward something.  Every community needs reflective forums.

When our lives mean something, we pause and reflect.

Reflection is not only a fundamental skill for living in community, it is also the fundamental technique of learning. Fortunately, it comes to us readily, if we are exposed to it. It amounts to no more than deliberative conversation. The art of conversation is the art of thinking together, of using each other for reflective thought.

Of course, not all talk is conversation. Unfortunately, very little of it is. Serial monologues are more common—speakers take turns making speeches without really responding to what others have said. They compete, wanting to talk but not really wanting to listen.

Conversations are different. Conversations are mostly listening and thinking. Why did she say that? How can I draw her out so it’s more clear? Conversation involves questioning something that doesn’t seem right, adding a fact that supports a point, or pointing out a connection with something else.

Individual members of a conversation have insights and facts that the others may not share. As they pool what they have to make a bigger picture, a more accurate and nuanced version of reality comes into view for everyone.

Some young people find real conversations to be the most sublime educational experiences of their lives—the memorable moments they will carry forever. And not just kids. Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed he wouldn’t cross the Atlantic to see the sights, but that he would be glad to travel so far to have a good conversation. For some young people, taking part in conversations is a new experience—something they haven’t experienced at home or witnessed on television. For them, doors are opened. Sometimes lives are changed.

Young people learn to converse readily when they are surrounded by conversations. Though the organization of our schools—a solitary adult and a throng of young people—is fine for transmitting information, it’s quite poor as a way to teach reflection and conversation. Whenever possible, schools should arrange forums where community members discuss, in front of and with young people, questions that touch on topics students have been researching.

Creating opportunities for adults who do cultural work in collaborative teams to converse with students and with each other is a powerful way to teach reflection. This is part of the reason heritage teachers work to reduce the unnatural separation of young people from their communities caused by our practices of schooling. That separation has isolated youth from the real conversations of real communities that have important work to do. This has been bad for education and it has been catastrophic for many communities. When a community’s young do not join the community’s work, or when the community no longer understands that it has work, the community dies. In such deaths are depths of sadness, for old and young alike. But that’s a story for a different time.

For now, think about inviting experts three or four at a time rather than one at a time. Or take students to them, at the places where conversations normally happen. Most communities have many forums where reflective conversation is practiced, though that might not be readily evident because these are not usually public forums. One example might be a museum staff planning new exhibits by talking about what topics are worthy of an exhibit, what things a community should be thinking about, what resources are available, what should be included and what should left out.

Students who have never observed the way professionals with differing expertise use each other to create a project that none of them could do alone might learn volumes from an afternoon spent with a curator, a museum educator, an archivist and a historian talking about what exhibit students could make of their own researches. This would be valuable even if the exhibit were not going to be actually built.

Finding good conversationalists to converse with youngsters is not only good education, it’s fun for everyone involved.  Students are more interested in conversations than lectures, even though good conversations are laced with information.

A good class is good because the talk is good, and the talk is good because reflection is going on. Reflection is to the mental life what digestion is to the bodily life—it’s how we draw nutrition out of the raw materials of living. It’s how we incorporate new information into existing knowledge.

Unreflective experience by itself teaches nothing. Event follows event in an endless stream. We react and react and react, without pausing to think. Before we know what something was we are busy with the next something.

But as we reflect we turn our experience into meaning. We see how parts relate wholes and how wholes are made of parts. We see how different things are similar and how similar things are different. We see how bad stories go wrong and how they can be made better.

When the Nez Perce gathered at their council fires the younger children were off playing, but older children hung around, drawn by their sense that something was happening that mattered. Young people who grow up hearing the adults in their community converse about important things move nearer and nearer to those conversations.

Eventually and quite naturally, they take their place in the circle. They keep the fire burning.


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Talking habits that jam reflection
   Recognizing conversational habits that interfere with thinking and learning

Our conversational habits sometimes interfere with our ability to think.

Bellyaching: This is the habit of finding what’s wrong in every situation, not to improve but to be justified in not attempting much.

Few habits interfere more with learning than the habit of complaining. Bellyaching is highly addictive and many people accomplish only a fraction of what they could if their time and attention were not taken by whining. It becomes easier to whine than to plan and act, but it’s planners and actors who win the prize.

Bellyaching allows people to feel superior without much effort. 

One way way to deal with bellyaching is to acknowledge the problem briefly and then to direct attention back to more important questions: What would you like to be different? What can you do to move things in that direction? What did we learn from this? What can we do differently next time?

Gossip: When something like bellyaching is aimed at another person’s failings, it’s important to nudge the complainer away from judging and toward understanding. We have deep instincts that drive us to try to make sense of other people. Unfortunately this instinct leads some people to focus on the weakness or peculiarities of other people.

Most malicious gossip, after all, is not true. Rather it is a fiction: a theory about another person. Gossips report that a person did or said this or that and then weave the facts seamlessly into statements of what the person intended or was “really up to.” But seldom does the gossiper know what someone else intended.

Because making meaning of other people’s behavior comes to us so naturally and so readily, gossips are often not aware when they leap from fact to theory. They even love to bolster wild theories with shrill assertions: “And that’s a fact!”

When we pass on unconfirmed theories about other people’s motives we are gossiping. This is not a minor problem. Serious gossips are attracted to one another, but other people tend to avoid them because it’s not possible to be a gossip without others knowing it.

Since community-centered teaching involves young people in interactions with community members and since the work has a public dimension, it provides lots of opportunities for gossip. Which means it provides lots of opportunities to contemplate the harm done by gossip.

First, it’s unfair to pass judgment on others when they can’t give their side or defend themselves.

Second, it tends to escalate problems. As destructive information about people moves through human communities, distrust and dislike are spread, making the community less able to do the work it needs to do.

And finally, gossip wastes time and energy that could be better spent on other things.

Gossip is best handled by ignoring it, but if it persists a direct approach might be needed: Let’s not say bad things about him. Please don’t tell me bad things about him. There is probably another explanation. You don’t know.

Alternative explanations for behaviors can be suggested. Questions such as “Why do you think he behaved that way?” Or “How can we help her?” can prompt gossipers to move toward a better story, one that might moves things closer to what ought to be.

Record Playing: We all have little scripts that we run from time to time—previously formulated thoughts or stories that we’ve told dozens of times before. Many people perk up when they hear cues to replay these old recordings. Often such tales are amusing or interesting, but just as often they’re a way of avoiding thought.

We like to say things that win approval from our audience, so it’s easy to rely on tried and trusted scripts. But too much reliance is laziness—trying to force new situations into old molds. Instead, we should try to see what new light today’s experiences bring.

Again, such gambits can be met by asking questions that point the speaker toward the new territory at hand. Avoid getting caught up in swapping old tales and re-focus on the details of the current situation.

Skipping: A particularly difficult pattern to break is the habit of jumping to new topics or interrupting to point out trivial or insignificant details. Some people need to report that their pen quits writing or that someone’s eyelash has a speck on it. Skipping around is a common strategy for people who are getting bored or insecure with the direction a conversation is going. It is sometimes an intentional distraction.

Give persons who are skipping the attention and at the same time encourage them to be more serious. “Is this conversation boring you? Are we discussing the wrong questions?” Such responses make the person aware that his disruption is noted at the same time they invite them to reflect on why they are disrupting.


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