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Fish Bowls and Bloopers:

Oral History in the Classroom

  The interview is the highlight of an oral history project for many students.  To strengthen their ability to conduct an interview in the field successfully, students should have multiple opportunities to explore the interview process.  Students afforded a chance to practice, discuss, observe, and model interviews bring confidence and sensitivity to the actual interview. The following sample activities are just a few ways that the classroom can provide a forum for developing good interviewing techniques.

Fish Bowl Interviews

Fish bowl interviews take place when the teacher interviews a guest on the topic under investigation in front of the entire class as a way to model the process.  This allows students to observe an interview in progress and give feedback. The teacher and guest should sit either in front of the class or in the middle of a circle of students, facing each other while being tape recorded. The teacher should use this opportunity to model the kind of interview she/he expects from students.

Prior to the interview, the teacher should explain what he/she wants the students to observe; the teacher could also brainstorm with them and uncover what they would like to learn from the interview. After the interview, the teacher should allow ample time for a discussion and review of the interview. The issues and questions raised in this forum provide teachers with an opportunity to address the concerns students as they envision themselves as the interviewers.  Many teachers incorporate additional writing assignments; after the interview students could write about one of the following:

1.        Describe examples from the interview that did or did not meet the guidelines you have been learning for good interviewing.

2.        What did you learn about your topic from this interview that you probably would not have learned from a newspaper or textbook?

3.        Now that you have seen one, describe how you imagine you would feel conducting an oral history interview.

4.        Write about something the interviewee said that stood out for you.

5.        Write one or several questions that you would have asked the guest if you had been the interviewer.

6.        Write a list of suggestions to the teacher about how to improve her/his interview techniques.

7.        Describe what would have been the hardest part for you if you had been the interviewer.

8.        List questions you have about conducting an interview.

9.        Write a thank you note to your guest describing what you learned from the interview and asking any questions you still have.

10.    What are three questions used in this interview that you would like to use in yours. Why?

Role Playing

Role playing a variety of interview scenarios is also helpful. One can do this over time as part of a series of classes (e.g., ten minutes of role playing per class) or as an entire class. A couple of examples are:

l) Students role play the first two minutes of the interview process (arriving, greetings, finding a place to set up equipment, warm up, first questions).

2) Students role play a 2-3 minute series of interview questions and answers focusing on a particular characteristic of good interviewing, e.g. active listening, ability to ask follow-up questions, sensitivity.

After each role play, the class gives the performers feedback about what went well, what they might improve, what was missing, etc.


This is another form of role playing that students enjoy. Pairs of students receive an index card identifying one rule for or characteristic of a good interview.  Students, in pairs, get five to seven minutes to create a scenario that will demonstrate a violation of the assigned rule. The student pairs take turns enacting their scenarios in front of the class. One student plays the role of interviewer and the other, the narrator. The class guesses which interview rule has been violated and the enactors tell them if they are correct. In these engaging performances, students observe or enact both "bloopers" and consequences including: beginning the interview abruptly, asking questions out of sequence, being rude, forgetting batteries, and making an awkward closing. Students "see" the implications of being or failing to be thoughtful interviewers.

Paired Interviewing

Interviewing each other in class as part of a paired activity before they go out to do their taped interview is quite helpful to many students. The practice interview can be short; ten minute activities in class in which each member of the pair has five minutes to practice with the other, followed by a brief discussion in class of how it felt, what was hard, and what was easy. Even short practices can begin to build familiarity with the process. In addition, these short interviews stimulate a lot of discussion; students with reluctance or concerns often are willing to share their experiences as they "debrief" after these classroom sessions.

Invented Transcripts

Reading invented transcripts of interviews is an activity that works well after students have been introduced to the characteristics of a good interview.  Students can identify what good or bad interview characteristics the transcripts contain. This works as a whole class or small group activity. A few sample assignments used with invented transcripts are:

1) All students receive copies of the invented transcripts. Two students, one as narrator and one as interviewer, read the interview out loud. As they watch, students check off each instance of bad interview practice. At the end of the reading, teacher facilitates a discussion of student choices.

2) Class reads one or two interviews and inserts follow-up questions wherever students feel they are missing. A discussion of individual choices could further clarify the need for, and the characteristics of, follow-up questions.

3) Class reads an interview silently checking off each place where it feels the interviewer failed to follow good interview strategies. Class then discusses its choices and identifies which interview guidelines it felt were overlooked.

4) Class reads an interview making a list of which interview strategies are used in the interview, citing examples.


OAH Magazine of History • Volume 11, number 3, Spring, 1997 • ISSN 0882-228X. Copyright (c) 1997 Organization of American Historians • <http://www.oah.org/>, 112 North Bryan Avenue, Bloomington IN 47408. tel (812) 855-7311• fax: (812) 855-0696 • email: <oah@oah.org> This is an Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) from the original publication. Paper copies may be made, free of charge, for an individual's classroom use, but must include a notice acknowledging the source.



Oral History Unit Overview

Information for the Development of an Oral History Project

Oral History Project: Guidelines For Recording an Interview

Fish Bowls and Bloopers: Oral History in the Classroom

One Minute Guide to Oral Histories

Oral History Questions

Specific Oral History Questions

Oral History Lesson Plans

Oral History Websites

Oral History Activities

Teacher's Guide to the Teen Reporter Handbook

Oral History Topics, Skills and Methods

Download Oral History in the Classroom in Word Document format.




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