Poster: dawn is our classroom Dawn Poster
                                       ". . .What we have loved
Others will love, and we will show them how."

                                                          William Wordsworth

Three Ways to misuse essential questions

1. Use the phrase “essential question” carelessly

“Are frog populations increasing or descreasing in Mission Creek?” is not an essential question, though it may be a perfectly good research question. “Why are people moving into Yoknapatawpha County?” is not an essential question. “What is the best fly to catch brown trout in the Musselshell River?” is not an essential question.

Education is notoriously trendy, and each new trend is heralded by a new vocabulary. Many experienced teachers defend themselves by developing the habit of changing their jargon without changing their practice. As one veteran teacher told me, “You can call it whatever you want. I know what I’m going to do.”

The downside, of course, is that we can become quite resistant to the benefits that might follow from reflecting on the value of new approaches. Even worse, we might develop habits of sloppy language. Sloppy language can never be separated from sloppy thought. Such habits are antithetical to sound education.

Years ago I was reviewing a handout a teacher had given her students, laying out her disciplinary plan. She had received training in Rudolf Dreikurs’ “natural and logical consequences.” Dreikurs’ main point was that rewards and punishments are ineffective, and that they should be replaced with consequences that flow naturally or logically from a child’s behavior.  Dreikurs specifically warned that adults who “use logical consequences as punishment. . .thereby forfeit the effectiveness of this method.” (Children: the Challenge, Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D., 1987, Penguin)

The teacher’s handout consisted of a list of prohibited behaviors followed by a list of “rewards” and a list of “consequences.” The apparent effect of her training in Dreikurs’ methods was that she began to use “consequences” as a euphemism for “punishments,” though this was precisely what Dreikurs had warned against.

And, of course, she was not the only one. I’m not sure what effect Rudolf Dreikurs has had on teachers’ actual practices, but he has succeeded in reducing honest talk of punishment in schools. Kids who are punished are not fooled by being told detention is a consequence, but they do learn that school is sometimes an Orwellian sort of place.

Teachers who use jargon in a willy nilly way, without attention to what the words actually mean risk corrupting rather than educating young minds. The best teachers say what they mean and mean what they say. I think any educaton that isn’t committed to truth and honesty is corrupting.

This is worth thinking about in the way we discuss “essential” questions.

The term “essential question” was introduced into the conversation about schooling to address real concerns. You may agree or disagree with whether the concerns were important or whether organizing instruction around essential questions is the best way to address them. But if you decide to use the term, you should try to use it meaningfully.

Essential questions were introduced into the Heritage Project as a tool to help link local research projects to larger national and global concerns, as well as to the state and national standards. We hoped linking student research and writing to big ideas and enduring concerns would help lead students to reflect on how timeless dilemmas are present in the most ordinary of circumstances. This remains our goal.

Essential questions are a useful to guide teaching aimed at increasing students’ understanding of enduring quetions, but all teaching does not have that aim. Sometimes, the objective of teaching is to pass on established facts or to teach students particular skills, such as how to plan a scientific experiment or how to assess the credibility of information sources. It is not necessary to link every teaching move to an essential question.

Use essential questions when they are appropriate and then use them thoughtfully.

Wiggins and McTighe (Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, 2001, Prentice Hall Inc) suggest the following ‘filters’ for deciding what questions are essential. Essential questions:

2. Ask big, essential questions but then don’t provide significant readings or experiences that shed light on them

It’s easy to toss out some lofty sounding questions, allow students to say whatever comes to mind, and then to call it good. But if that’s how essential questions are used, it’s probably not very good. Such discussions probably have little educational value.

Good essential questions, because they go to the heart of academic disciplines and because they are enduring, have had a lot said about them by very good minds. Students shold read some of seminal texts that deal with the question.

When essential questions have been formed, part of a teacher’s preparation should be locating appropriate readings that examine various aspects of those questions. If at some point in the process, students do not read such texts their misconceptions, ignorances, biases, and superstititions are likely to remain intact. They may even be fortifiied by the student having had a chance to declare them publicly.

Using the topic of Civil Disobedience as an example, University of Montana professors James Lopach and Jean Luckowski point out that leaving students to synthesize their own answers can leave them with serious misunderstandings intact:

. . . by emphasizing that children are their own measure of things, teachers shirk their responsibility as subject-matter experts. Students with a faulty moral compass and nothing but half-baked opinions come away from the classroom thinking that laws are simply inconvenient obstacles to achieving personal goals.

“When is it right to engage in Civil Disobedience?” This might indeed work as a good essential question. But too often students are left to their own wisdom to answer such questions. Critiquing a PBS lesson plan, Lopach and Luckowski note that

Missing from the plan is a definition of civil disobedience or mention of the four essential components of civil disobedienceor even the three components that they had identified in the earlier lesson. Nor does the lesson discuss the difference between a fundamental principle and a personal desire or between legal protest, civil disobedience, and purely criminal activity, much less the threats that each poses to a democratic society. In these and other lessons, the teacher is directed to place the burden on the student to דconstruct his or her own understanding of civil disobedienceԗa notion that contradicts the beliefs of the most profound protesters.

3. Suggest that having an opinion about the essential question is what is important

The point of using essential questions in instruction is to develop understandings. Opinions matter far less. Why did Martin Luther King act as he did? What were the risks to him, to his followers, and to society? Why did various people oppose him? A student who can give answers to these questions derived from reason and evidence has gained important understandings.

But a student who simply has an opinion about a question such as “Did Martin Luther King do the right thing?” may not have much. Without a clear teaching strategy to be sure students understand what is at stake in the way we answer essential questions, the opinions students form will probably not be particularly meaningful. If they feel contented with opinions that are not based on understanding, the strategy may have done more harm than good.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 06/02 at 09:10 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Organization Tip for Oral History Work

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.)

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.

Posted by Christa Umphrey
on 02/09 at 01:18 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Checklist for Students Collecting Oral Histories

Before you go

During the interview

After the Interview

Next: writing the story and putting together a presentation

Posted by Christa Umphrey
on 02/09 at 01:12 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Writing and reading as placemaking

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).

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 01/02 at 04:12 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Conversation: thinking together

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.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/28 at 05:27 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Talking habits that jam reflection

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.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/28 at 05:11 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Reflection and critical thinking

We are being reflective when we think about our thinking. Does what we are saying or thinking make sense? Is it reasonable? Do we have enough evidence to support what we think? Are we being logical? Are we being honest? Are we being fair?

In Habits of Thought, Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking says that the basic building blocks of thinking are

(1) Beginning with clearly stated goals and purposes for study and inquiry;
(2) Formulating and framing problems and questions;
(3) Developing a defensible perspective and point of view;
(4) Assessing resource materials and texts for honesty and fairness;
(5) Questioning assumptions and biases;
(6) Making valid inferences; and
(7) Evaluating consequences of judgments and reasoning.

Classroom discussions can prepare the way for critical thinking when students are invited to:

(1) Summarize what others have stated;
(2) Elaborate on concepts and ideas;
(3) Relate topics to their own knowledge and experience;
(4) Give examples to clarify and support ideas; and
(5) Make connections between related concepts.

Often students don’t reason well in the classroom. Sloppy thinking is sometimes accepted or praised by teachers because it although it is poorly reasoned it offers the socially fashionable positions. According to Paul, teachers too often let students get by with “random and undisciplined” thought:

Most people . . .do not have “evidence other than the stuff of their subjective reactions to justify their preferences. They prefer because of the way they feel not because of the way they reason. To choose because of these subjective states of feeling is precisely to lack criteria of evaluation or evidence that bears upon objective assessment. When challenged to support subjective preferences, people usually can do little more than repeat their subjective reactions (I find it boring, amusing, exciting, dull, interesting, etc.) or rationalize them (I find it exciting because it has a lot of action in it.)

The traditional way to teach critical thinking more rigorously is through teaching writing. Students can be invited or assigned to tackle topics that require analysis. In such writing, they should be clear about the purpose of their argument, and then teachers can question whether the evidence and reasoning they put on the page are sufficient to accomplish that purpose:

The fundamental criterion to use in analyzing and evaluating reasoning comes from an analysis of the purpose of the reasoner and the logic of the question or questions raised. For example, if a person raises the question, say, as to whether democracy is failing in the USA (in the light of the dwindling number of people who vote and the growing power of vested interest groups with significant money to expend on campaign contributions), we can establish general criteria for assessing the reasoning by spelling out what in general one would have to do to settle the question.

Heritage Projects provide many chances to help students “reason their way” into school subjects “instead of being spoon-fed information that they memorize and then forget.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/27 at 06:46 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Asking questions in the classroom

____Asks student to support answer with evidence or argument

____Asks student to specify criteria when expressing judgments

____Asks questions that go beyond facts

____Asks questions that stimulate reflection beyond the class itself

____Asks questions which focus on a particular relevant aspect of the matter at hand

____Asks related questions in a series

____Asks questions which require recall of information

____Asks questions which require processing of information:

____Grouping and classification

____Compare and contrast

____Specify cause and effect or other relationship


____Asks questions with more than one right answer

____Asks student to apply information from reading or lecture

____Asks questions which require students to generalize

____To make inferences

____To evaluate

____Asks questions on matters of opinion, where any answer is right

____Asks questions which encourage hypotheses about the unknown or untested

____Asks questions that relate to the experience of the student

____Asks a variety of questions for different pedagogical purposes:


____Practice (drill)

____Self-awareness (student to realize he isn’t getting it)


____Variety, change of pace in classroom


From “Looking for Good Teaching:  A Guide to Peer Observation,” by B. B. Helling, 1976, Danforth Faculty Fellowship Project Report, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN.  (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 186 380).

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/26 at 09:59 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Evaluating books, primary documents, photographs, movies, websites, songs

As we examine various cultural artifacts--books, primary documents, photographs, videos-- we should continue to ask questions.

Principle: All cultural artifacts are constructed by someone. It’s easy to think of a newspaper clipping as something natural and to accept its message uncritically. But the more we know about how it was constructed, and by whom, and for what purpose, the more we know how to think about it. The same is true for books, television programs, songs, and movies.

Questions: Who created this cultural artifact?
What other people were involved?
What are the various parts that make up the whole?
Is anything missing?

Principle: Every communication medium has its own rules. Newspapers signal a story is important by using large headlines. Movies make a scene feel scary by using dissonance, atonality, and percussive notes to jar the nervous system. A moving camera conveys disorientation or excitement. A cluster of footnotes establishes an air of authority. The more we learn the syntax, grammar and metaphorical systems of the communication medium we are examining, the more we can enjoy them (as well as defend ourselves from manipulation).

Questions: What techniques are used to communicate emotions as well as facts?
What techniques from the arts (visual arts, dance, music, theater) are used.
What emotion does the artifact arouse? How?
What makes the artifact seem to be “real” rather than a work of fiction or imagination?

Principle: Most cultural artifacts are created for some purpose, which means there is some audience the creator intends to influence. Thinking about various audiences and how they interpret various messages can further our understanding.

Questions: How well did this message fit with your view of the world?
What other interpretations are possible or likely?
Who was the intended audience?
What can you learn from how other people interpret this message?

Principle: All messages have embedded assumptions and values.

Questions: What is the cultural context of the creator?
What judgments are made or assumed?
What political or economic views are communicated in the message?
What ideas or values are being “sold.”
What type of person is the recipient of the message invited to admire?
What kinds consequences of conduct are implied, stated, or depicted?

Principle: There is no necessary relationship between who created a cultural artifact and how true it is. Though it is often useful to think about the purposes for which an artifact was created, it is sometimes important not to stop there. Otherwise, critical thought tends to wither away, and people simply take sides based on their perceptions of which group the artifact supports or opposes. Since truth-seeking rather than side-taking is the main point of critical thinking, people who want to think more clearly will also evaluate the accuracy, precision, and truthfulness of cultural artifacts.

What principles are being asserted, either implicitly or explictly.
What evidence is provided in support of those principles?
What reasons are provided or suggested for believing those principles are true?
Is the evidence sufficient for the claims that are made?
Are the reasons logical?

Note: This worksheet heavily revises the five key questions proposed by the Center for Media Literacy. The rationale for this revision is provided in Thinking critically about critical thinking

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/24 at 05:01 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Reflection: learning to ask essential questions

Though an expedition will normally focus on questions that can be answered--Why did people move to Montana during the 1960s? How has the use of the land changed in this valley over the past 100 years? What adventuresome journeys did our grandparents make, and what do they think they meant?--good expeditions continually discuss and reflect on a set of essential questions.

In Corvallis, Phil Leonardi’s classes inquire into how and why the physical and cultural landscape has changed through time. In Ronan, Christa Umphrey’s classes are organized around these questions: How did our community and society change in the 1960s? How was the Mission Valley influenced by social forces in the 1960s? Why do people rebel? And in Simms, various strands of the project led by teacher Dorothea Susag are held together by this overarching question: How do popular myths obstruct our understanding of underlying realities?

Such questions meet the criteria for essential questions that Grant Wiggins described In Understanding by Design:

1. They point to the heart of a discipline such as history or science. They are the “big ideas” framed as questions. They are essential because they point toward core issues in the different disciplines and lead toward enduring understandings. The big ideas at the heart of literary studies, for example, include the belief that our opinions should be based on reason and evidence and that through vicarious experience we can expand our knowledge and understanding.

2. They are arguable. They have no obvious right answers. They can be pondered, explored, discussed, and lived with.

3. They recur in professional work and in life, because they grow out of important conceptual and philosophical issues.

4. They engage student interest and can function as a doorway to inquiry.

Teachers often begin unit planning by listing the activities that will be done. If these activities aren’t at some point selected and shaped by three or four overarching questions, the unit will inevitably lack focus. The key questions frame the sequence of activities and they provide structure to the lessons, the field work and note taking, and the culminating scholarly products through which students exhibit their answers.

Project-based teaching easily degenerates into a series of disconnected activities. When students experience a unit as a smorgasbord, they often have trouble understanding the big ideas the unit should have uncovered. “Why are we doing this?” they wonder. Faced with a series of activities, they may not be particularly interested in learning what records are kept in courthouses or government archives. But when they can be engaged in a few key questions, the use of such resources becomes easier to see.

Organizing instruction around returning at key points to a set of essential questions makes the unit’s intellectual challenge more clear, more coherent, and more engaging for students. The essential questions for the expedition should be posted in the room, they should recur in class discussions, and they should appear at the top of handouts.

Though most teachers pose lots of questions, many are leading questions rather than essential questions. Leading questions can be answered by finding the facts. They are intended to uncover content, or to prompt recall, or to get facts on the table. “Who started this town and when?” Often, they are merely rhetorical or thinly disguised statements. Though such questions can be useful, a steady stream of them stifles thoughtfulness and engaged inquiry.

Just as good stories raise questions in the listener’s mind but delay providing answers, good teaching often introduces important questions that will not be answered right away. To create a sense of anticipation and to help them make sense out of the sequence of activities, students should encounter the big ideas and the overarching questions as early in the unit as possible. Event can follow event, as naturally as a story unfolds.

It’s true that the essential questions are sometimes too abstract and inaccessible to “hook” students at the beginning, so more specific unit questions can be used to organize particular content and inquiry. The essential question, “Who is a friend?” might lead to a unit question, “In A Separate Peace, is Gene a true friend of Phineaus’?”

Of course, the overarching questions won’t work well as research questions for individual writing projects. They are far too big for that. Rather, they provide the organizing motive for the entire class, driving the readings and discussions. When students begin forming their own research questions, the essential and unit questions serve as the background and context for their narrower inquiries. While the class may think together about the essential question, “Why do people rebel?” an individual student might interview one person who protested the Vietnam War, not attempting to provide a comprehensive answer to the big question but shedding light on one aspect of it.

The main reason all this matters is that students need to wrestle with big ideas, but big ideas are seldom learned through lectures. Instead, they come to be understood by being explored, questioned, taken apart and put back together, used, reorganized, and confirmed. To reach understanding, students need to personalize the questions, sharing examples and experiences that bring the questions to life.

Without engaging big ideas through such active inquiry, most students will end up with a hodgpodge of opinions and cliches rather than knowledge and understanding. Teachers need to do more than state what is known. They need to design inquiries that allow students to see how knowledge is developed and upon what evidence it is based.

Questions and questioning are the tools that lead to insight and understanding.

Here are suggestions for essential questions:

Whose story is it? From what point of view is this document or textbook written?

What principles are in conflict? Which is most fundamental?

Whose decision should it be?

What is friendship? Who are your true friends?

What is the relationship between popularity and greatness in literature?

Is there such a thing as a typical “American character?” A typical “Montana character?”

Why did (do) people come to the New World? To Montana?

What is the American Dream (is it fact or fiction)?

How has changing technology changed society?

What is a hero?

What is the role of government?

What is the role of leadership during times of great change?

What is freedom? Who is most free?

Can societies survive without enemies?

How do needs of the individual conflict with the needs of society?

How do I find beauty? What is beautiful? Why is beauty important?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/23 at 05:48 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Getting ready to be interviewed

Thank you for helping the Heritage Project save our history. The Heritage Project allows young people to help research and write community, family and individual histories. The materials created in the Project are preserved in local libraries and museums as well as in the Montana Historical Society Library-Archives .

To prepare for the interview, you might spark your memory by reviewing any photographs, letters or newspaper clippings you have saved. You might look at any souvenirs or objects you’ve kept. Please consider bringing photos, medals, uniforms, news clippings, or other souvenirs from the time period.

We are interested in your memories and thoughts about your life experiences, so we would like to hear any stories or details that are important to you. The “official” history of the time period with dates and facts and figures is readily available in many published sources, but your interview will help us to go beyond the official record to get a sense of how things felt and seemed to people such as yourself, who were there.

Of course, you do not have to answer any questions that you do not want to answer. Once the interview is completed, you will be offered a chance to review the transcript to make any corrections or revisions you feel are needed. Once you have reviewed the transcript and signed a release form, a copy of the transcript and tape will be made available to the public for research purposes. You can place restrictions on the material if you choose, such requiring your permission before it is used or specifying that it may not be used for a certain number of years. Such restrictions reduce the value of your story for researchers, so we prefer to avoid them, but this is up to you.

Unless otherwise requested all materials will be made available to the public and covered under standard copyright law. More information about copyrights and restrictions are available upon request from your library or the Montana Historical Society. Most interviews last about an hour.

We are grateful for your willingness to help.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/23 at 05:04 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

A student’s guide to doing oral history

by Michael L. Umphrey

An illustrated version of this article

You have important work to do. The Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society are collecting oral histories of America’s veterans, and they want your help. You are invited to work as a partner with them to interview veterans and those who served on the home front and then to write up what you learn.

The tapes, transcripts and histories you create may be stored in the archives of the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society for future researchers. An archives is a collection of materials like a library, but a library usually stores published materials and an archives usually stores materials that are not published, such as letters, business records, and photographs.

Over the past nine years, the Montana Heritage Project has shown that high school students can do first-rate oral histories. Although doing oral histories well takes a lot of work, it is rewarding. If you will commit the time and effort needed, you can create historical records of permanent value.

This article can serve as an introduction to doing oral histories, and there are many more resources available that you may want to explore, including books and internet guides.

Decide on a Purpose

The first thing to do is to decide on a purpose for your oral history project. There are many reasons someone might want to do an oral history project. Projects come in all sizes and shapes so to plan a project, begin at the end: what do you want to end up with? What do you want to learn?

Maybe you’re doing a service project, and you want to give elders at a local retirement home a chance to tell their life stories so you can create biographies to give back to the families. If people just suffered a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or bad storm, you might want to find out how people in the past handled similar challenges. Or maybe the disaster happened years ago, and you want to create a detailed history to commemorate the anniversary of the event. You might want to gather the viewpoints of officials who organized responses, victims whose homes were flooded, emergency workers who helped at the scene, or people who were children at the time and saw things from that perspective. You could create audio tapes and transcripts for the local museum as well as articles based on the interviews for the local newspaper.

Or maybe you wonder who pushed to get the town’s library built, or how the local ambulance service got started. You might want to write a history of an organization—a gardening club or the women’s club—mixing oral history with information from documents and photographs to create a pamphlet that records the significant dates and developments and the perspectives of people involved.

Maybe you want to nominate a local building for the National Register of Historic Places and you want to find out as much as possible about how the building was used during different periods of its history. If so, you will interview people who were familiar with the life of the building during different years.

Perhaps you’re interested in women’s history, and you want to know how the lives of women in your community have changed over the decades. In that case, you will interview older women, focusing on their perceptions of social events and situations in town. You want a permanent record of their stories as well as an essay summarizing what you found out.

Or maybe people in town are arguing about whether to build a new school, and you want to investigate a similar controversy in the past to see how such things tend to unfold.

Part of living is constantly re-examining the past, looking for inspiration, guidance, illustrations, and ideas that might clarify today’s issues. History is not the past but what people say about the past. It changes constantly as people develop new questions or new ideas.

A good way to start is to ask what dilemmas the community is facing today, what stories are in danger of being lost, and what questions people disagree about most strongly. Of course, sailing directly into controversies with our notebooks and tape recorders can be risky. But the more we stick to the role of questioner and avoid the role of advocate or activist, the more likely we are to help rather than hinder. The scholar’s role is to understand and as scholars, we will be more successful with people who question what we are doing if we add their viewpoints and concerns to the record in a spirit of inclusion.

Asking the hard questions can help you to think about the things that you most need to understand. Asking questions is the heart of oral history projects. Every community has people who have unique insights into past events or aspects of culture whose voices are not yet on the historical record. Future historians will not have a chance to ask them questions. The better we can anticipate what those scholars will want to know, ask those questions, and create a record of their answers, the more important our work becomes.

For the most part, people in the future will be more interested in how people felt about events and about the details of their daily experience than they will be about dates and facts. Dates and names are often found more reliably in written records than in people’s memories. But personal memories capture best the perceptions, the nuances, and images that historians will find most important.

We often organize oral history interviews around questions about specific events. But hovering in the background are the larger questions that we ultimately want to understand. What is the purpose of life? What is a good person? What is the right relationship between individuals and community? What is beauty and why does it matter? What can we know and how can we know it?

The Essential Question

Of course, if you are joining the Veterans History Project, some of the purpose will be decided for you. We start with an essential question, which is a big and important question that can’t be answered with a brief set of facts. The essential question that high school students across Montana will tackle this year is "How did the Vietnam War change America and Montana?" To answer this, you will need to learn something about what America was like before the war, and what happened to the country during the war, and, most important, what people who lived through it say about how it changed them.

We know that something profound happened in the sixties. It was an unsettling time. In 1968 alone, President Lyndon Johnson bowed to protestors and announced he would not run for re-election; student protestors at Columbia University shut down the campus with a sit-in; presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King were assassinated; the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese triggered doubts that the United States was winning in Vietnam; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was besieged by unruly mobs that led to open violence between citizens and the Chicago police force.

Of course, thousands of other things were going on as well. Apollo 7 succeeded as the first manned orbit of the earth, and Yale announced that it would begin allowing women to attend school. "Hey Jude," "Harper Valley PTA," and "Midnight Confessions" were hit songs.

Significant evidence demonstrates that beginning around 1960, several new trends emerged in America, many of which continue today. Here are a few bits of information gathered by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: In 1960, 55 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "Most people can be trusted." Today, fewer than 35 percent agree. In 1960, America employed about eight police officers per thousand citizens. Today, the number is nearly 15. In 1960, about 47 percent of parents of school age children belonged to a Parent Teacher Association or PTA. Today, about 13 percent do. In 1960, two Americans per thousand belonged to an environmental organization. Today, about 37 persons per thousand belong.

You can’t explore these issues without exploring yourself and thinking about what you desire and what you believe and why. To think about such things as fully and deeply as you can may be life’s greatest adventure. Nothing is more fun or more important than thinking.

People you interview will want to know what you are after, what you hope to learn, what you plan to do with the information once you get it. The better you can answer such questions, the better your interview will tend to go. You will need to tell them that you are trying to find out how they were changed as individuals by events in the sixties, to help us all understand how Montana and America changed. You will also need to tell them that the tapes and transcripts of the interview will be placed in the archives of the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society where future researchers can find them. You will even need to have them sign an official release so that others can use their stories.

Look at Models

To get an idea of how much is possible with oral history, you might want to read Studs Terkel’s book The Good War about World War II, or the more recent books Citizen Soldiers and D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose. You’ll see how a medley of different voices, each describing a small part of the big picture, can become stunningly powerful when they are put together.

Terkel shows us what World War II looked like to an American citizen of Japanese descent living in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor, to a physician doing field surgeries during the Normandy invasion, to an ordinary soldier in the confusion of combat, to a woman working at home during the War, to an admiral facing critical decisions, to a guy making money from all the war business. Dozens of voices give testimony about what they experienced where they were. It becomes impossible to sum up their experiences in a slogan. No one person can see or understand all of what happens, and so the truth emerges in more of its complexity when many points of view are included.

Trust the Stories of Ordinary People

Whoever you interview, be confident that his or her part of the story is important. History is not made just by famous people. It’s made by the millions of ordinary people whose lives intersect in time. Ordinary people are actors in history, and every person has some power to change the story. As you help tell your community’s stories in its own voices, you will bring to life the past in a way no outsider ever could ever accomplish. You will put real people into history who would otherwise remain invisible to the record. You will accomplish work of enduring value.

The more people you talk with about your project the better. This is especially true if part of your goal is to help the community have a conversation with itself about itself. Few things are more powerful than oral history projects for that.

If a local historical society or museum discovers that high school students are available to do interviews, they may want to get involved. Such support could make a huge difference. Local museums could provide training, background research to prepare for interviews, equipment, assistance with planning which areas to explore, and suggestions for interview subjects who might be especially valuable. They might also provide an important place to put copies of your finished project, so it will be available to other people in town now and in the future.

Do Preliminary Research

It’s often been said that the past is a foreign country, and it is full of surprises. Without some basic research, you won’t know which topics may be most fruitful to explore, and you won’t be a good judge of what is new and interesting information as opposed to what are commonplace observations.

Inadequate preliminary research is the most common weakness of classroom oral history projects. Professionals use a rule of thumb that it takes eight hours of research to prepare for each one-hour interview. Of course, if you interview several subjects on the same topic, most of the research you do for one will work for the others too.

Reading a couple books while making a list of possible questions will be a great help. You should be asking yourself what was on people’s minds, what they did for fun, what their work was like, and so on. You can read fiction, watch movies, listen to music from the time period, and read contemporary magazine articles. A visit to the local archives to read newspapers from the time period would be time well spent. It’s an excellent way to start t feeling at home in that time period. Everything is informative--not only the headlines but also the advertisements, the letters to the editor, and the comics.

Consider creating a time line. Especially when working on a group project where many researchers are contributing, a large time line posted on a wall can become increasingly useful as the project moves forward. You can place every event or pattern that you read or talk about into the historical context that develops.

Getting organized at the beginning will save enormous trouble later. You should start a file folder for each important topic. You will also want a file folder for each person who is interviewed. This will give you a ready place to put transcripts, correspondence with your interviewees, documents or photographs acquired from them, and permission forms. Knowledge that is not organized may not be knowledge at all—at least not for long.

Identify Subjects

A good interview subject is a person who will try honestly to answer the questions that are asked. Some "natural storytellers" that come to mind readily may turn out not to be great subjects, because they keep returning to a repertoire of "set pieces"—stories they have rehearsed over the years— rather than trying to present accurate answers to your questions.

You’ll need to get the word out that you are looking for interview subjects. Students in Townsend invited members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to an Appreciation Program on Veterans Day. The newspapers and television coverage helped to encourage a good turnout. At the event, students gave talks, read poems, and performed music. Each veteran was called to the front of the room and awarded a pin. A guest sign up sheet allowed students to write down the names of all veterans who were willing to be interviewed.

Prepare for the Interview

You will want to have more questions than you have time to ask. The questions you want to ask will depend on the purposes of your project.

Good questions are open-ended, which means they are "essay" questions rather than "yes or no," "true or false" questions. "When did you leave for Vietnam?" will either get a brief answer or will confuse the subject, as he or she tries to remember dates and times. But "Tell me about your first day in Vietnam," will tend to get you a story. You want stories.

During the interview, you might sometimes ask "yes or no" questions to clarify details so the tape is a better record for future researchers. For example, you might ask, "When you say ‘they’ do you mean your military commanders?" But when you are preparing questions, concentrate on those most likely to get the subject talking about the topics you are investigating.

You can practice interviewing friends or other members of your research team. You might use questions such as, "What do you remember about your first day of school? What is your favorite possession, how did you get it, and why is it important to you?" This will allow you to practice with the recording equipment. It also helps you learn how to get good information and how important it is to listen and think carefully during answers. Also, when you play back samples, if your recording is muffled because the microphone is too far from the subject or full of pops and booms because the microphone was laid on the table instead of placed on foam or a stand, those problems will remind you how important it is to be careful during the next interview.

After some practice, your class might participate in "fish bowl" interviews in which a guest comes to the classroom and is interviewed in front of everyone. Such guest speakers can provide basic information on topics that you are going to pursue in other interviews. For an oral history project focused on the Vietnam War, for example, a guest could talk about what life was like at home during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fish bowl interview is a wonderful technique that should be used more—and not just for practice. Turning on a tape recorder gives people an excuse to tell their stories, and we would be a happier and wiser people if we spent more time learning to tell our stories well and listening to others.

After such interviews, you can make copies of the interview tape to transcribe in small groups, allowing each member to transcribe a portion of the interview. This is a good time to think through the issues that arise during transcriptions: how to punctuate oral speech, the importance of recording nonverbal information in brackets [laughs][sobs], and the need to have the person who did the interview decipher hard-to-understand sections of the recording.

You should use a watch to create an index of the tape, recording when topics started and when significant things were said. You will usually also want to do verbatim (every word) transcripts, preserving the phrasing of the speaker. Dialect and colloquialisms should usually be transcribed with standard spelling, to avoid making the speaker sound ignorant. Important gestures or body language should be described in brackets: [puts head down in hands] [makes boxing motions].

During the Interview

Begin each tape by recording who you are, who you are talking to, where you are, and the date: "This is Mike Umphrey. I’m interviewing Vietnam veteran Rick Jones in the kitchen of his house in Ronan, Montana, on December 13, 2003." Repeat this each time you turn a tape over or start a new one, but adding "part one," "part two," and so on. As soon as possible, label each tape with this same information.

With any luck at all, your subject will surprise you and you will find yourself listening to stories you didn’t expect. Follow the interviewer when they begin interesting or richly detailed stories. The secret to doing a good interview is simply attentive listening. Listening well can be learned and it pays dividends throughout life. Oral interviews provide ideal situations to learn and practice it.

Don’t be afraid of silence. Give people enough "wait time" to form their thoughts. Your job is listening—not correcting or arguing or competing. If something seems questionable to you, try to get the teller to clarify it: "Why do you think that happened? Can you say more about that?" If what your interviewee’s information contradicts the written historical record, you may want to point this out, by way of getting a fuller story: "According to the local newspaper accounts, that’s not what happened. Why is that?"

But the interview is not the place for you to argue. It’s also not the place for you to tell your stories or develop your points of view. At the end of the interview, you may want to "give back" something by sharing a story or two of your own that relates to what your subject has been talking about, but in general the less you talk the better the interview will go.

You will want to give silent reassurance as the speaker talks by nodding and using eye contact. You will also want to ask followup questions. If an interview subject tells you about an emotional episode, and then you just move on to the next question on your list, you are demonstrating to the speaker that you’re not really interested in what he or she is saying. You are also losing your chance to explore interesting issues that come up that you couldn’t have anticipated when you made your list of questions. Followup questions such as "Could you tell me more about that?" can trigger wonderful reflections.

Stay alert. What questions naturally arise as you listen? Ask those questions. The questions on your list are a guide not a script. Don’t move through them mechanically in the order they are written. Keep them as reminders of areas you want to explore.

Stop the interview before you or your subject becomes too tired. An hour is usually long enough, though some ninety minute interviews have turned out very well.

After the Interview

Students in Chester found a box of audio cassettes in the courthouse that had been recorded a couple of decades earlier. They were unlabeled. When students began listening to them, making indexes of who was on the tapes and what topics were discussed, one of the students was startled. "That’s my grandpa!" he finally called out. His grandfather had died before he was born, and he had never before heard his voice.

Lucky accidents happens all the time for people who begin community history projects. But don’t count on luck. Tapes that are not labeled and indexed probably won’t fall into the hands of the right researchers. They will probably disappear. At some point, someone wonders what the dusty old things are and why they’re in the way, and the tapes get tossed.

Senate historian Donald Ritchie said, "An interview becomes an oral history only when it has been recorded, processed in some way, made available in an archives, library, or other repository, or reproduced in relatively verbatim form as a publication."

First, make a duplicate of the tape (or several if you may need them) then put the original away until it is placed in an archives. Except for making a copy, you should avoid playing the tape once it’s recorded, since every playing wears the tape some. Never loan the original. Wait until you or an archives has made a duplicate and loan the duplicate. Avoid hot or humid storage.

Whenever possible, make full transcripts. This is the most time-consuming of the tasks involved with oral histories. Plan on four hours of transcribing work for each hour of tape. The transcript should be reviewed and approved by the interview subject, and this transcript, like the tape itself, should be preserved and treated as an important historic document.

Sometimes, we don’t have enough time to make full transcripts. In these cases, make an index to the tape, recording key topics and either the counter number on the tape recorder or the number of minutes and seconds from the start of the tape. This helps researchers find information about the topics they are pursuing. Audio recordings that lack any indication of what they contain are not very useful, because it takes so much time to find out whether they include helpful information.

Before transcripts are published or made available to the public, have the interview subject review them and make any needed corrections. Especially if you did not secure permissions before you began interviewing, this is a good time to get signed permissions which cover both the tape and the transcript.

Sometimes, this stage will raise interesting issues. A subject might want to change or delete information on the tape. Sometimes people want to fix bad grammar or awkward phrases. Sometimes they’ve had second thoughts and want things removed. Remember, as a basic premise, that the tape holds the subject’s story and he or she has all the rights to it.

Some grammar corrections are probably okay. But if the person wants so many changes that the transcript begins to sound like written prose rather than the spoken word, try to get him or her to understand that the character of spoken language is different from written language and that the document is more useful if it preserves that character.

You may ask a subject who wants information removed to consider writing a time limit restriction on the permission form so that the information can’t be used for ten years—or twenty or fifty—but making it ultimately available.

Tape recordings take more care than paper documents, such as periodic rewindings to keep the tapes from sticking together. From the beginning your project should have had selected a final repository, preferably a place with staff and equipment to provide long-term care for the important primary documents you’ve created, such as the Montana Historical Society or the Library of Congress.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Keep in mind that people automatically have copyrights to their interviews: the words, the tapes, the transcripts, any photographs that were taken. You cannot do anything with these materials without the subject’s permission. Also keep in mind that if you publish something untrue about another person, both you and the interview subject could be sued.

Be sure to give the interviewer credit, both verbally on the recording and written on the cassette.

A Note About Families

Some of the best student research is family history research. When teenagers spend time interviewing parents or grandparents, all sorts of wonderful things happen: family relationships are strengthened, key historical understandings are passed along, young people’s historical consciousness is developed, older people are prompted to reflect on their own lives, and valuable voices are added to the record.

Nonetheless, it is your family’s decision whether to share its history in a public forum. Some things are sacred and are better not discussed in public. Older people in your family will be your best guide as to what can or should be shared.

All sorts of other issues also come into play: divorce, immigration status, adoption, unpleasant or illegal activities, concerns about unconventional lifestyles, and varying cultural norms. We all have skeletons in our closets.

As we get more mature, we tend to see each other’s foibles and weaknesses and mistakes in a different light that leads not to judgment but to understanding. But we’re not all there yet, and people have good reasons for wanting to keep some things private. We need to respect their desire to do so.

You should always have the option of interviewing someone other than family members if you have personal reasons for wanting to keep family matters private.

How Reliable is the Information?

Whenever oral histories are mentioned, someone questions their reliability. After all, memory is unreliable and people have many motives for "improving upon" the past.

But the truth is that oral histories are probably as reliable or unreliable as other sources. Every source needs to be evaluated and compared with other sources. Anyone who has been involved in a public controversy and then read about it in a newspaper knows that newspaper stories are full of inaccurate statements. People who have been to controversial board meetings and then read officially prepared minutes know how far the documentary record sometimes strays from what was "really" going on.

It’s true that people giving oral histories often "doctor" the past or portray themselves in the most favorable light, but this is not unique to oral histories. A knowledgeable and skilled interviewer can probe areas that seem questionable, politely, with such questions as "What leads you to believe that? Are you aware of any evidence that supports that?"

But in the end, the person will report his or her own version of events, and the rest of us will be left thinking about what to make of it. Why should oral histories be that much different from the rest of our relationships?

A Gift of Scholarship

Doing oral histories gives you a chance to get to know other people and to explore other lives. Nothing is more interesting than that. Creating an oral history record allows you to make real contributions to your community. The students in Ronan published a book about local veterans experiences entitled A Nation and Community Divided: Reflections on the Vietnam War. Students in Bigfork collected historic photos of their veterans, took contemporary pictures at the time of the interview, and combined these with quotations from the interviews to create multimedia presentations. A standing-room-only audience, including the veterans and family members and friends, filled a local theater to see this program.

Every town can benefit from having more of its history gathered and written. Giving the gift of scholarship is an important way you can serve others while you learn important things about the past and present.

A Guide for interview subjects that you can provide before the interview to answer questions and help the subject prepare

Release Form

Here are more tools for doing oral history

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/23 at 04:51 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Publishing a classroom book with on-demand printers

by Christa Umphrey

Growing up surrounded by words and stories, I have always thought there was something magical about books. Friends and family members who know me well never let me run into a bookstore to pick something up while they wait. Trips into bookstores are never quick, and I’m always collecting books faster than I can actually read them.

Many of my students are particularly baffled by this strange obsession with books. They can’t see why people are so taken with these bound stacks of paper. But they see others like me and the way we look at books, the way we handle and speak of them. They don’t get it, but they know the obsession is real.

This is why it works to have students publish a book. Even those who have never valued books themselves know that other people are impressed with writers, and they wouldn’t mind people talking about them the way they talk about other authors.

For many reasons, publishing a book is one of the most rewarding projects my students and I have undertaken. When students know they have a real audience, it improves the quality of their work. Taking a project to a published final product makes students think a little more about the words they’re putting down, and keeping the best student work around and visible helps raise the standards of quality from year to year. This helps students learn to think and write more clearly, which is one of the most important things I’m trying to accomplish in the classroom.

At the beginning, most students are only mildly interested in what I think of their work, and even then it’s less what I think than what grade I’ll give them. I’m not a very important audience.

But when they see newspaper clippings on the walls of work other students have done, they become curious and ask, “How do we get our stuff in the paper?? When they see magazines or brochures from past years around my classroom, they get a little competitive and think they may do something better. With a bigger project, like a book, students are even more likely to buy in.

A while ago, as students looked through last year’s book—a collection of essays based on oral interviews with World War II veterans—I asked them to critique it and then to decide our direction for this year.

Their reaction came in two stages. First they were impressed: “Someone from Ronan published a book?? “Freshmen did this?? “Why didn’t we get to do this when we were freshmen?? But they quickly turned competitive and critical. These students, with whom I hadn’t yet had much of any discussion about writing, created a list of things their book would do better. It would be more focused and detailed, it would use stronger verbs, it would have more variety in sentence length, it would include more of the veterans’ thoughts about events, it would give clearer descriptions of the settings. I was pleasantly surprised.

Though the book project required more work than anything else I had students do, it was the work that they found most worth doing. As the project progressed, students went from apathy, to annoyance, to excitement.

I think choosing a rich topic is vital. Students got to know the veterans whose stories they were telling, and the topic was important enough that they wanted to get it right for them. If you are going to spend a lot of time on something, it needs to be something worth your time. After spending hours with veterans and listening to their stories, students believed their time was well spent.

The publication process was simpler than I’d expected. We decided to use an on-demand publisher because this new technology makes short-run books much more affordable than it would have been a few years ago. Most of the on-demand publishing companies I looked into will take manuscripts at any point, from a Word or WordPerfect document to finished PageMaker or QuarkXpress files. We decided to use Trafford (, which offered the best combination of service and costs. We retained full control of the copyright, and we can order as many books at a special author’s rate as we want. (The author’s price is based on the number of pages. For a 100-page book with a glossy, laminated cover, this is about $5 per copy.)

The printer can assist with editing or layout or cover design. Of course, the more assistance you need, the more it will cost. And their time is expensive.

We were able to send them finished PageMaker files for the text and a graphic we did in Photoshop for the cover, so we only had to pay the base rate for setting up the print file. Through Trafford this varies from around $500 to a little under $1,000, depending on how much help you want with publicity and distribution. They will do order fulfillment and take credit card orders on the internet. Visit their web site for details:

All options include assigning an ISBN number and creating the print file, so the book will never go out of print. Because books are printed as they are ordered, there is no extensive inventory. Twenty years from now, a descendent of one of our veterans should be able to order a fresh new copy of the book.

Trafford also sent out press releases, which led to a story in the Missoulian.

After we’d done all the research and writing and revising, we really did have the most difficult work behind us. Once we had the book assembled and the layout complete, it was just a matter of waiting, phone tag, and some e-mail exchanges over a few weeks to clear up small details as the publisher worked on the production of the book.

I didn’t involve students to a great extent in the technical processes of publishing our first classroom book. This was mainly because I didn’t know what it involved, and I didn’t feel I could give up any of my already limited classroom time to have them figure it out with me. For our next project though, I think students can do much of the work dealing with the publisher as well. Doing real work in the real world is powerfully educative.

This project worked well, despite wide variances in students’ writing abilities. Though a small honors class helped, most of the work was done by a typical cross-section of the ninth grade students at Ronan High School. This included quite a few whose skill levels were below ninth grade. Many of these students claimed to hate writing. They hadn’t often produced school work they were pleased with, and most of their writing assignments got returned with a poor grade and were quickly forgotten. Instead of learning to write, they had learned they weren’t writers.

So it was important to allow enough time for revision and editing.

On the other end of the spectrum were students who wrote fairly well. Because of this, they were accustomed to getting good grades and moving on. They weren’t used to getting suggestions, revising, or having to work on their writing.

Both groups were very resistant to spending so much time on one piece of work in the beginning, but as they spent more time on it, most began to develop something that pleased them.

And other people were pleased as well. Community response has been wonderful. People who haven’t been involved with the school for years gave students positive feedback. We received thank you notes from veterans, a typewritten letter from the local librarian asking to be kept on a mailing list for new publications (along with suggestions for new topics), and inquiries from other communities about how to get copies. I took requested copies to the senior center every day for a week and a half.

But of course, the most important benefit of this project was that some of my students find books a little more interesting. Not only are they starting to glimpse the magic behind books, they understand that it’s a magic they can create.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/23 at 04:41 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

To-do list for public heritage programs

Set a date
Book a space
Form your committee
Create a set of deadlines
Establish assignments
Keep excellent track of all those who help you through the year
Decide on all the event components: sequence, content, presenters, introducers, food, music, greeters, decorating crew, clean-up crew
Prepare a “script? for the event indicating where everyone should be at what time, from greeters to emcees
Invite any outside presenters
Create invitations, press releases, announcements
Write newspaper stories
Participate in radio shows
Do follow-up invitations
Remember your teachers
Make programs and name tags and signs
Make a list of all the supplies you’ll need
Know exactly who is bringing food and how much there should be
Time the rehearsal
Designate a photographer
Create a set-up and clean-up crew

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/23 at 04:25 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Ideas for public programs

Round-table discussions
Guided walks
Historic building tours
Dedication ceremonies
Recognition dinners
Historic-menu meals
Fashion shows
Re-created historic events and games
Exhibits and fairs
Fish-bowl interviews for the community to see
PowerPoint presentations of student work
Book signings for your essays of place
Readers’ theaters
Book discussions
Individual programs for civic groups and senior centers
Plays and musicals
Community quizzes/history bees/history game shows
How-to workshops on doing oral history, researching local newspapers, documenting historic buildings

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/23 at 04:22 PM
(0) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalinkPrinter-FriendlyE-mail this page
2004 Montana Heritage Project
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