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TeacherLore

Preparing Students to Interview Veterans

When referring to the Ask component of the ALERT process, Montana Heritage Project Michael Umphrey wrote, “It’s hard to learn anything before you have a question. The first step in learning is to become engaged in a real question.” I found this apt when preparing for Bigfork High School’s now annual Veterans Assembly. Because all work in my English classroom is literature based, students first read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and then develop questions to ask war veterans. These interviews are transformed into brief oral histories read at the assembly honoring veterans.

I give students examples of possible questions to ask a veteran about a specific war, and we then begin brainstorming. One student records the new questions. I encourage students to think of questions that may have come up when reading The Things They Carried or studying U.S. History. Other questions are stimulated by the war in Iraq or just from thinking about the glory and/or horrors of war. In developing these questions, I ask students why broad based questions are best and we discuss the problems inherent with questions that can be answered with yes or no or a single word.

We also discuss why it is important to give the interviewee time to think about a question and not to rush through a list of prepared questions. Silence can be uncomfortable for the interviewer, but it can be very productive as the veteran thinks about his or her answer and confronts the feelings that are often engendered. Students are trained to follow up on answers to some prepared questions by saying such things as, “Why was that?” or “How did that happen?” Open ended questions that allow veterans to follow their own train of thought are often very productive. On the one hand, the student interviewer is shaping the interview by the prepared questions he/she asks. On the other hand, the student must be prepared to allow the veteran to lead the interview in ways that capture that veteran’s unique experiences with war.

We always talk about questions that should not be asked and why. Each student who introduces a veteran for a “fishbowl” interview in our classroom ends the introduction with, “Please feel free to let us know if we ask a question that you would rather not answer.” After participating in this “fishbowl” interview in the classroom, students, alone or in pairs, are prepared to interview family members or neighbors about their military experiences.

On the morning following our first Veterans Assembly, a student wondered why his WWII veteran grandfather had never shared these stories with him prior to the interview. I encouraged him to go home and talk to his grandfather about it. The next day we had our answer: “My grandpa said he never told me these stories because I never asked.”

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