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Valuing Your History

By Christy Crawford on November 4, 2010
  • Grades: 3–5

What will your students be talking about during Thanksgiving? Will they avoid Great-Aunt Hazel or will they tap into her knowledge of family history?  Do some students feel that they have nothing noteworthy to investigate with family? Do they discard what makes their loved ones different? Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to tap into undervalued family resources. In fact, the day after Thanksgiving, November 26th, is the National Day of Listening. This holiday season, arm your students with the tools to become proud reporters and competent historians.


From kindergarten to college, we ask kids to investigate and memorize facts about distant cultures and periods of time. So the two most popular questions in social studies classes are "What does this have to do with me?" and "Why do we have to know this?" We can't expect anyone to care about or think critically about history when they haven't had the chance to explore their OWN stories — their personal histories. For great insight on creating your class of historians throughout the year, read Monica Edinger and Stephanie Fins' Far Away and Long Ago, Young Historians in the Classroom. To sprout historians this month, start an ancestor study with your students.

In our Ancestor Project, my students interviewed family members, collected artifacts for a personal history museum and photographed their families. But this year, thanks to a nonprofit organization called StoryCorps, students will take part in a national effort to record and preserve interviews with loved ones. 

Screen shot 2010-11-02 at 8.31.11 PM StoryCorps touts itself as "one of the largest oral history projects of its kind." If you haven't heard of StoryCorps, check out their weekly broadcasts on NPR's Morning Edition. At StoryCorps.org students can upload their interviews to share with family and friends worldwide. And with several recording locations around the country, StoryCorps allows participants to record their stories on a free CD. All conversations are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. This season your kids could create a piece of audio that will be treasured for generations!


Tools and Tips for Making History:

1. A pre-made packet of questions created by you and your students. See our Ancestor Project list below and use the StoryCorps question generator. Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford's To Our Children's Children is also an excellent resource.

2. Recording equipment. In the past we've used just a pen and paper to document family history. Now students may use a tape recorder OR cell phone OR computer OR whatever is available in their homes.  

Easiest route? Demonstrate for your students the use of the recording equipment on a standard PC or Mac and of flash drives. Designate one or two laptops and flash drives to be signed out by school families for recording purposes. Or assign times over the next month when families can use the school's computer lab for recording. 

3. Disposable cameras.  Ask students to bring in two photos of their holiday interview on a flash drive. For families without access to a digital camera, offer disposables. A camera with 15 exposures can be ordered for under two dollars, including shipping. Spend $10, and you can give 25 kids without cameras three wonderful chances to take a family picture. 

4. StoryCorp's customizable letter to participating families. Print it out and send it home with them.

5.National Day of Listening video. Watch this video with your kids for great tips on setting up your interview space, getting the best sound quality, and more.


6. Model recordings. Listen to the subject-based stories suggested in the StoryCorps' Education Toolkit

To show off their family culture or history, students don't need to bring in the stereotypical food items or over-the-top traditional costumes typical of many "diversity" assignments. StoryCorps audio samples show kids that incredible family audio can come from a simple moment — a joke, a short song, or the response to a direct question.   

Too often fourth and fifth generation immigrants who have assimilated into American life think they are devoid of culture. This assignment and the questions that follow ensure that all families have something unique and important to share. I also allow families to substitute other questions for particularly difficult ones, or to opt out of some questions altogether. For example, many African-American families have no knowledge of their ancestors' country of origin, and a few of these families prefer to answer questions about their migration from the South to the northern region of the United States or to other hometown settlements.  

7. Interview questions. The questions in bold afforded great details or insights during my students' interviews. 

P1030382 A. What was your childhood like?  How was it different from mine?

B. Tell me about my relatives/ancestors. Where is our family from? What country/countries did we come from and when? Did you or our ancestors want to come to the United States, and why or why not?

C. Have you ever been to any of the countries or places we are from? If you have, what is that place or country like?  Make a mental movie for me.  What would you often see, smell, and hear there? 

D. How did our family get to the United States or our hometown?  How did they travel? Was it difficult? Was the journey long?

E. What did you (or Mom, Dad, etc.) think America or our hometown would be like? What has your experience really been like? Was it everything you hoped for?

F. Did you or any of our ancestors who came to the United States speak another language?  What languages did they speak? If they did not speak English, how did they learn? 

P1030381 G. What things did you or our ancestors bring with them to the U.S. or our hometown?  What was your or our ancestors' most valued item and did they bring it with them? Did you or our ancestors leave anything special behind? 

H. What did you or our ancestors miss from the country or town they came from? 

I. What traditions have been passed down in our family?  (For example, if I were being interviewed, I would talk about the ancient tradition of "jumping the broom." In the United States, the "official" marriage ceremony commonly experienced today was not afforded to slaves. Marriage was acknowledged in the slave quarters by an exchange of vows sealed with a united jump over a straw broom. So at my wedding, our united jump over an elaborate straw broom symbolized the traditional 18th century wedding of my great-great-grandparents!)

J. What were the lives of your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents like?  How did they live? What do you remember them saying over and over again?

K. Do you know what their schools were like?  Can you tell me? Can you tell me how they got to school?

L. Do you remember any of the stories anyone in the family used to tell?  Tell me one . . . please!

M. Do you remember any of the songs sung or jokes told by family members? Sing me a song. Tell me a joke.

N. What is your first memory of leaving your homeland or coming to America? Or what is your first childhood memory?

O. Make up one more question to ask. The question should help you gain additional information about your family's cultural background.



P. What artifact could I bring in that represents our family? (If I were doing the project, I would show off the doorknob to the room where my mother was born in my great-great-grandparents' house.) What thing is really important to our family that I could use for our ancestor museum? Please tell me about that treasured item.



Before the Ancestor Project, I often heard this comment, reiterated several ways by parents: "I try to help him with his homework but he says, 'No.' He thinks I'm stupid because I don't speak English." After the project, the children of these parents returned to school with a new sense of pride and a much better appreciation and understanding of their own history.  Use the National Day of Listening to spark powerful cultural conversations with your class historians or to share something special with your own family!      






Comments (6)


Yes! I love the PhotoStory idea!!! My kids have been using PhotoStory since they were in 3rd grade. (They are now in 5th grade.) PhotoStory allows them to work QUICKLY and INDEPENDENTLY! We would finish in time to present their PhotoStory gift to family during Chanukah. Thanks so much, Linda! So nice to hear from you! :) Love, CC

I LOVE these ideas. They are all so valuable and will help students learn to listen for and value the stories in all the lives around them.

Oh, I wonder if it would be exciting for the students to write a narrative account of the stories their grandparents or others tell them and then scan some photos to help tell the story. They could then record the narration in a program like PhotoStory, make it into a movie and send it to those they have interviewed.



Wow! Now I want to know your grandparents story. Where are they from????

And I love that you said the story should be made into a movie! As a follow up, I was going to offer students a chance to illustrate one of the stories, answers, etc. from their interviews. But now I realize it is so fitting to have them complete a simple storyboard and reenact a small moment from a loved one's story in front of the FLIP camera. (Movie time!!) I think families (especially) the interviewee would love to see positive, heartfelt reenactments. Megan, Thank you! Now my kids' oral histories can become visual histories!

If your little ones decide to do something similar let me know... we could have an amazing heritage film festival!

Love, CC


LOTS of practice is right! Being a good investigative reporter is not easy. I love to find a relevant personality for kids to interview in class. (FInd someone who has a similar background to a child in class who may be embarrassed or nervous about exploring their history OR just a person in the building who the children have never spent much time with.

Children skip by our building's security guard everyday without saying much to him. He allowed us to interview him for 40 minutes as a class. In our fishbowl interview we learned what types of questions illicit YES or NO answers and how to phrase questions that keep the subject talking. We learned when to follow up a question and when to gracefully back off. We had a great time and learned of the rich background of our favorite guard. Interviewing is a skill ALL adults and children should master. Thanks for your focus on the art of the interview!

Thanks for this post! It wasn't until college that I was given an assignment to interview my grandparents. They lived 2 houses away from me my whole life and I never knew the amazing story that I found out one Thanksgiving about how my grandparents met and came to America. It really should be made into a movie. I wish I was given this assignment sooner and was able to hear more stories. Megan

Having students explore history starting with their own place in it is a great idea. All of us have connections to the events that populate textbooks and social studies lessons. We and the children in our classes have, or have family members who have migrated from other places, been in hurricanes, fought in or lived through wars, visited landmarks and more. How rich our holiday experiences would be if we gave each other opportunities to share our lives.

As educators, we can help children make their probing interesting and exciting for everyone. But we must help them learn how to be respectful and to ask questions that will get the kind of information they seek. This is especially true when they move beyond the family in their research. The interview questions you’ve provided and LOTS of practice in class should really produce some exciting results.

I’ll be checking here for reports from teachers on their experiences with this.

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