Doing Oral History in a Spanish
Immersion Social Studies Classroom

The ACIE Newsletter, November 1998, Vol. 2, No. 1

By Martha Johnson, Spanish Immersion Social Studies Teacher,
Highland Park Junior High School, St. Paul, Minnesota


In an immersion program, students need meaningful reasons to communicate in the target language for many different purposes - both inside and outside the classroom. To become fully proficient in the immersion language students need to develop a deep understanding of both the language and the culture they are studying. This is sometimes difficult to do in an immersion classroom where the focus is on integrating language into subject matter content instruction. Immersion teachers can overcome the shortcomings of classroom-based language learning by "designing tasks and using authentic texts that have a real communicative purpose for a real audience. Teachers can discover ways for immersion students to use their Spanish skills in the community and beyond" (Fortune 1998, p.72).

As a Spanish immersion social studies teacher of 7th and 8th grade students, I have found that one way to increase the authenticity of learning is to use oral history - the gathering and presenting of historical information in spoken form (Sitton 1983; Stokes Brown 1988). Doing oral history has the potential to bring history, culture and language to a new level in an immersion classroom. Oral history invites inquiry, stimulates discussion, and transforms abstract concepts into real terms, all necessary components of critical thinking skills. It supports an interactive communicative learning process that is based on building intergenerational relationships between immersion students and native speakers of the target language. Students are capable of doing incredible things when we succeed in constructing ways to actively engage them in the learning process instead of allowing them to be passive recipients. This approach to teaching and learning embodies what I consider to be an ideal learning experience for immersion students.

Oral historians at Highland Park, with the woman they interviewed


Before beginning a unit on oral history, students will need a basic understanding about what oral history is. If possible, the teacher should share a sample taped interview. It may be necessary to make one for this very purpose. Also, s/he should share a finished project with the class. Students can read about doing oral history (see references) and find actual projects on the Internet , although I have not found any sites that have information available in Spanish. This web site gives students a good pace to start and they can continue exploring from there. If there is a local historical society or museum in the community, teachers can consider taking students to "see" the oral history archives or to hear someone present their own oral testimony - a refugee from El Salvador, a holocaust survivor, etc.


Planning for meaningful projects
The oral interview process should be set up in such a way so that it culminates in a final project for class. It is important for students to decide ahead of time what the final project will be so that they can plan for the interview with that final project in mind. Students could create a life story booklet, display, short story or children's book. They could create a play or a skit. They could write an article for a local newspaper; maybe the newspaper could publish different sections of an oral history project over a period of several editions of the newspaper. The students could create their own newspaper or magazine to exhibit their work. The tapes and final projects could be shelved in the school library for future immersion students to use. The teacher may want to have pairs of students decide on a joint project and conduct the interviews together.

Addressing ethical issues
The teacher needs to discuss and develop plans to address ethical issues such as privacy, obtaining informed consent, and other legal forms that interviewees may need to sign. (My students and I found samples of these types of forms, which students modified and translated, at http:// Students must understand that pseudonyms need to be created for interviewees who prefer that their real names not be used.

Developing skills as interviewers
Students need to learn basic interview techniques, how to ask open-ended questions, and how to work with senior citizens. This can happen in a variety of ways. The teacher can model the process in class. Students should make contacts with potential interviewees and conduct practice interviews in class (where they can analyze their techniques and develop their own interviewing style). Role play activities can be very helpful for getting students to practice their interview techniques. A prepared guest could come to the class to be interviewed by the entire class. The interview could be stopped and started to give students a chance to analyze what kinds of questions elicited the most in-depth responses.

Identifying people to interview
Some sources for finding potential interviewees include organizations and centers where native speakers get together in their community. If there aren't large numbers of Spanish-speaking people who could do interviews, the whole class might collaborate to conduct an interview collectively. Spending a few days before the interview doing research and organizing questions makes students much more involved with (and knowledgeable about) the guest speaker. If possible the interviewer and interviewee should get together to talk informally before the actual interviewing begins. They could talk about the process, sign the informed consent forms, etc. My students had a bag lunch get-to-know-you event before the first interview.

Preparing for the first interview
Students also need to decide how many and what kind of interviews will be conducted. My students did two 90-minute interviews. Students may choose to organize their questions around specific themes (a particular historical event, holiday celebrations, etc.) which will lead to the final project they have in mind. Students may need to do research in the library to find out more information about a particular historical event so they can ask informed questions. Life story interviews are also valuable. Once the seniors have been identified, students can ask them to complete a short questionnaire that will help the students organize their pre-interview research. This also helps the students to get to know the interviewee before the interview. The teacher will want to review the students' lists for possible interview topics and questions prior to the interview and make any necessary changes or recommendations.

Students will need to become familiar with the equipment they will be using. Before the actual interview begins students should label all the tapes and record an introduction with the date, place, time, names of participants and the topic of the interview. Chairs should be arranged in order to maintain good eye contact and in a quiet place. The equipment should be tested to check for sound quality.


Conducting successful and respectful interviews is no easy task. Many issues need to be considered and should be discussed at length with students in the context of developing interview skills (prior to scheduling the interviews). The students should start out the interview with a few pleasantries, explain what they are doing and why. The interviewer should explain the consent form again at this time and what they will be doing with the tapes. After the interview has begun, the tape recorder should be checked once to make sure it is working and then left alone so it doesn't distract the interviewee. Another strategy to get the interviews started is to ask the interviewees to bring a picture to loan to the students or simply to talk about at the interview. Some students may even find something appropriate that they could bring to the interview that could serve as a "memory trigger."

The interviewer should ask questions to guide the interview along. It is best to start with easy-to-answer, non-controversial questions. Students should always leave the most difficult questions for the end when there is more rapport. It is important to ask only one question at a time. The interviewer should not worry about silence on the tape. The interviewee may need time to think. Interviewers must remember never to interrupt a good story to ask for details. The interviewer can always ask follow-up questions afterwards to clarify something. The interviewer should take notes- one never knows when a tape recorder might malfunction. Keeping the important points on paper may also help to create new questions that the students hadn't considered prior to the interview. The interviewer should watch for opportunities to expand on topics.

The students must also watch body language for signs of fatigue or discomfort. Are the questions being asked too personal or too painful for the interviewee to answer? Is the interviewee too exhausted to continue? Sometimes it is wise to stop for a break or make arrangements to continue on another day. If the interviewee uses gestures, the student should verify them verbally. The interviewer should take care not to sound judgmental, impatient or disrespectful at any time during the interview.

Students may want to take pictures of the interviewee at the end of the interview. This could be used in the final project and as a gift for the interviewee. The interviewer should always keep an eye on the time. I have found ninety minutes to be the ideal length for an interview (see also Lanman & Mehaffy 1989, p. 27). The interviewer should stop the formal interview a few minutes early to allow for some informal closure and if needed to schedule the next interview.


Students need time to review the information and decide what is important. It is most helpful if the teacher can give them clear, specific guidelines about what needs to be done and when. The teacher becomes the facilitator of the learning process instead of the giver of information. Students need time to reflect on the process and their own learning. The teacher should design some reflection/debriefing activities.

Students need to consider the final project they have chosen and begin to work with the content of the interview with that project in mind. They need to consider the audience they are creating the project for; for example, if they are going to create a book for young children, they should have a limited text and use lots of pictures and illustrations.

Students should begin transcribing and editing the tapes. Summarizing the tapes in 5- or 10-minute intervals is another possibility. If needed, they may want to organize follow-up questions for a second interview or to clarify any questions they may have. There may be a need for some follow-up research to clarify a particular historical event. A discussion and/or an activity about written versus spoken language would be very helpful for students who are working to transcribe and edit the tapes. A discussion about first and third person narratives might also be valuable.

Students should write a thank you note to the interviewee and also invite them to a celebration event. A heritage fair or special event where parents, community members, and the interviewees could celebrate together and see all the projects on display is a fantastic idea!


There are many logistical problems to be considered when deciding to take on this kind of project in the immersion classroom. Doing oral history requires a lot of teacher preparation and class time. The projects take on a life of their own, and the teacher has to be prepared for anything. Getting equipment that works can be a challenge. Finding interviewees (senior citizens or others who speak the target language) can be a challenge depending on where the immersion program is located. There are many questions that will need to be addressed during the course of unit. For example, do the students have to find their own interviewees or do you help set this up for them? Where do they hold the interviews? What about liability concerns? Arranging for transportation for students to get to and from the interviews is another difficulty.

How can a teacher justify taking time away from traditional curriculum to teach a unit on oral history? There are many, seemingly overwhelming obstacles to doing an oral history project. However, with proper planning and organization, I have found they can all be worked out. In the end students may have the most valuable learning experience ever. It is something they will never forget! Here's what one of my students had to say about the oral history project we did in my 7th & 8th grade Spanish Immersion U.S. History class last year:

"El proyecto que hicimos de la historia oral fue muy divertido. Me gustó aprender de una persona mucho mejor que tener que leer del libro de texto. Tuvimos que trabajar mucho, pero era divertido también. Aprendí como hablar con personas mayores, como hacer una entrevista oral y como organizar la información después. También aprendí mucho de la Segunda Guerra Mundial en Europa. Debemos seguir haciendo más proyectos como el de la historia oral en el futuro. Fue una experiencia que nunca olvidaré."
- (from final reflection piece, May 1998)

[The oral history project we did was a lot of fun. I liked learning from a person much better than having to read from the textbook. We had to work hard, but it was fun too. I learned how to talk with older people, how to do an oral interview and how to organize the information afterwards. I also learned a lot about World War II in Europe. We should do more projects like this one in the future. It was an experience I will never forget.]

Doing an oral history project is a great learning tool. Students realize history is made every day by real people. All people are actors in history. Oral history gives a voice to people who are not often heard in the history textbooks. Oral history projects give meaning and substance to history class and break down stereotypes between generations. They teach kids to look for inconsistencies and bias. Oral history is learning by doing. Doing oral history in an immersion setting uses a valuable resource - the community - as its classroom.

*You can contact the author, Martha Johnson, at Highland Park Junior High School, 975 South Snelling Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55116, (651) 293-8950 or by email at


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