Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

Increasing Language Resources: Taping Oral Histories toTheir Voices
Bill Zimmerman

Everyone has a story to tell
—if only someone would listen,
—if only someone would ask.

As a journalist who has interviewed thousands of people, I have learned so
much by listening to the stories people tell about their lives. Moreover, as a teacher of English to immigrant students, I often use oral history interviewing techniques with them as a way to know my students better. Helping them express their autobiographies, their
memories and family stories is my way of fulfilling the mission I have set for myself
as an ESL teacher: to help my students find their voices as speakers of English and as
full human beings.

Taping oral histories is a good exercise to do at the beginning of a new school term,
both for teachers to learn more about their students and for students to learn about each
other. By sharing their life stories and experiences, students build a stronger class bond.

I ask my students to be journalists for a day and for each to interview a partner about his or her life. In doing so I give my students a set of questions they can use to elicit information about another person. I leave space on the sheet between each question for students to write notes based on what they hear (this is a great technique to encourage good listening skills). I also tell them, if they prefer, that they can use a tape recorder to record the interview and replay it later as a way to review their notes and hear how they sound. I ask them to write up their notes as best they can to refer to when they later introduce the person they interviewed to the rest of the class. You also can record these interviews on audio or videotape, which can then become a class taped library.

At the beginning, I provide students with a list of questions that can be used for such oral history interviews. I then review the questions with my students and
tell them to choose the ones that interest them the most or to add their own. I have
them first practice saying the questions. Then I have them practice interviewing me about my life as a way of gaining confidence before interviewing others; it also helps them get a
better sense of their teacher. Here are some questions I use:

  • Hello, my name is _________ ____________. I am pleased to meet you. What is your full name?
  • Who were you named after? Does your name have a special meaning? Do you have a nickname (note: take time to explain what a nickname is)? How did
    you get that name?
  • When were you born - city and country? Where did you grow up? What was it like there?
  • What was it like when you were a child? Tell me what your life was like when you were young.
  • When did you come to the United States?
  • What kind of work do you do?
  • Why did you choose that type of work?
  • Do you have a favorite hobby or interest? Tell me about it.
  • What is your happiest memory?
  • What do you think is the most important thing that ever happened to you in
    your life? Your greatest adventure?
  • Do you remember any especially funny or sad stories about your life?
  • Are there favorite family stories or sayings or songs that you can tell me?
    What are they? Can you tell me them in your language, and then translate into
    English for me? Are there any family traditions that you want to share?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
  • Other questions (write them in):

Creating oral histories can also be part of a special “Grandparents Day’’ program in which your students can invite family members, including children or older neighbors, to school for the day to share their life stories. Encourage students to bring old family photos and ask them to prepare a special food dish to share and taste. As part of this intergenerational program, students can record on audio or videotape the elders telling their stories.

In addition to taping oral histories, another activity you can do with your students is encourage them to create paper, memory-quilt blankets to tell their life stories. The quilts are made up of individual panels, drawn by students, which represent key moments in their lives. Using white oaktag panels, 7 inches by 7 inches, first write some subject prompts on each to help students get started. Examples: My Happiest Memory, Something Wonderful, A Memory of Someone I Love, Something I Treasure, My Hopes and Dreams, A Sad Time, My Greatest Accomplishment. Students use crayons or Magic Markers to draw the panels; when completed, the panels are taped onto a wall or blackboard. The students then gather around the wall, which now looks like a mosaic quilt, and each is asked to talk about the memory the panel evoked.

I promise that you will learn so much about your students this way and that they will take pleasure in what they have learned about each other.

About the Author

A journalist all his life, Bill Zimmerman is the author of How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies, an oral history guide, and My Paper Memory Quilt: A Family History Pack. Excerpts from these and all of his 15 books, used in literacy and ESL programs, can be seen on his educational Web site at: He teaches a writing course at the College of Mount St. Vincent Institute for Immigrant Concerns in Manhattan and tutors at the Aguilar/Spanish Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. As a newspaper editor, his nationally syndicated Student Briefing Page for Newsday was nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize.

Go to for more award-winning Make Beliefs by Bill Zimmerman and Tom Bloom. All the different pages on Bill’s Web site have activities that educators can use with students in teaching writing skills.