Oral History in the Classroom

Conducting interviews is a powerful educational experience

Oral history interviews provide students with a personal connection to a specific era or event and promote professional interactions with community members of a different age and cultural background.

Most students show up to high school history classes with a knowledge of the basics: the pilgrims, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and how the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to U.S. involvement in WWII. Some students are interested in a particular topic like the Salem Witch Trials, the Vietnam War, or 9/11. Many dread the idea of wasting time learning about boring topics that don’t seem to matter in their 21st-century lives.

The role of a history teacher is to instill curiosity and excitement for all aspects of the past. Engaging students in a first-hand historical encounter by having them conduct an oral history interview can be a game changer. It promotes a deep understanding of how events affected individuals of that era and how those events influence modern times. Students make the connection and it becomes personal.

Setting up oral history interviews: simple vs. professional


For regular education classes, I had the students recruit an individual to interview based around a specific historical topic like the Korean War, the Civil Rights Movement, life in the 1960s, etc. The students found a suitable volunteer to interview, researched the topic, created a list of interview questions, conducted the interview, and composed a summary to present to the class.


For my Advanced Placement (AP) students, I utilized a more sophisticated approach. In 2011, I was selected to be part of the Civic Voices Project – a global endeavor to gather stories involving localized conflicts around the world. In the United States, the focus was on the Civil Rights Movement. I recruited community members who had been involved in the Las Vegas Civil Rights Movement, along with politicians (our mayor, a former governor, and members of the state legislature), and Holocaust survivors. I had the director of the University of Nevada – Las Vegas Oral History Project speak to the students to give them directions on how to conduct a proper interview. I secured a few vacant rooms (office spaces) to hold the hour-long interviews. Two or three students were assigned to each interviewee. I purposefully matched students to interviewees of a different ethnic background. 


  • Recruit people to interview. Ask students to volunteer a grandparent or neighbor. Send a letter home to parents explaining the project and asking for candidates to interview. Call local groups: veterans, social clubs, senior citizen centers, etc.
  • Assign students – individually or in groups of two or three – to the selected interviewees. Students should not interview someone they already know.
  • Have students research the era or event that relates to the interviewee and compose 20-30 open-ended questions. It is important that the focus of the interview remains tied to a historical experience and does not take the form of a life history of the individual being interviewed.
  • Arrange the time and place for the meeting between students and interviewees. If the interviews are occurring off-campus, a parent chaperone will be needed.
  • Review with students the proper decorum for conducting the interview: arrive early, dress professionally, introduce yourselves, and shake hands. Always use polite language, and take notes during the interview so that meaningful follow-up questions can be asked. 
  • Interviews should be videotaped or audio recorded. 
  • Afterwards, students should write a thank-you card to their interviewee and send them a copy of the video or audio recording. 
  • The interview should be transcribed or at least summarized with attention given to time frame in minutes and seconds; 0:00 – 1:45: introduction, 1:46 – 7:00: early years and major influences, 7:01 – 15:30: initial involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, 15:31 – 33:05: organizing the march up the Las Vegas Strip, etc.
  • Students will complete the assignment by writing a debrief of the experience wherein they discuss what they learned, what went well, and what could have been done differently. This is a real-life exercise that many students will do later in their professional careers. The students should also explain how the event or era shared by their interviewee relates to other historical events that occurred before and after.
  • Finally, students present the highlights of their interview to their classmates.

For my AP classes, we held an evening potluck reception for students, parents, and interviewees in the library. The students provided the food and formally presented their interviewees with a DVD of the interview. 

Most students remarked that their oral history interview was among the most significant experiences in their academic career. In addition, when it came time for them to complete college applications or for me to write recommendation letters, their oral history interview became an integral part. 

In today’s world where texts and emails have replaced telephone calls, many young people are not skilled or comfortable engaging in a direct conversation with someone who is not a peer, especially someone from a different generation and ethnic group. The oral history experience provides students with an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and gain confidence in this important life skill. 

In my classroom, oral history interviews were a quarter project. The introduction and procedural instructions occurred during class time, but the actual interviews were conducted after school.

Does this take a lot of teacher preparation?

Yes, but the end results are worth it. At the school level, the interviews enhanced parent involvement and community relations. On a personal level, the interviews were a profound experience for students. Ultimately, oral history interviews combine the acquisition of historical knowledge with the invaluable skill of professionally interacting with an older adult who is eager to share their unique life experience.

(c) Joyce O’Day 2023. All Rights Reserved.

No AI was used in the creation of this article.

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