Students Interview Elders for StoryCorps Holiday Campaign

By Education Week Staff — December 11, 2015 3 min read
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By guest blogger Leo Traub

Thousands of students across the United States took up the oral-history challenge launched by StoryCorps this holiday season, recording interviews with grandparents, or other elder family members and friends, and uploading them to the Library of Congress, the Associated Press reports.

The campaign, called the Great Thanksgiving Listen, worked with teachers to encourage high school students and others to record interviews with elders using the StoryCorps smartphone app. Between Nov. 23 and Dec. 4, StoryCorps collected more than 50,000 new recordings in a public Library of Congress archive, according to the nonprofit organization.

StoryCorps provided teachers with a toolkit, which has been downloaded 23,000 times, complete with background information, follow-up activities, and worksheets to help incorporate the interviews into classroom lesson plans. While the toolkit suggests introducing the project as part of a social studies or American history class—introducing personal histories as primary documents—it also focuses on raising students’ social awareness of the diverse experiences and backgrounds of people around them. The lessons in the toolkit also provide opportunities for students to develop skills in research, speaking, and listening.

Victoria James, a Maryland high school teacher, organized what she called a “StoryCorps Café" for her 9th grade students to share and listen to one another’s interviews with elder family or community members. After listening to all of the recordings, students discussed the most powerful moments and reflected on additional questions they could have asked their interviewees.

Schools and districts nationwide participated in the campaign, including Chicago, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

Google for Education also got involved in the Great Thanksgiving Listen, creating custom lesson plans by and for Google certified educators. A link to the campaign was also featured on the Google homepage.

StoryCorps has been collecting personal interviews and stories since opening a StoryBooth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 2003. The new app, however, allows such recordings anywhere, using a mobile phone or tablet. Before the start of the Great Thanksgiving Listen, the nonprofit had archived a total of 65,000 audio recordings, a number that StoryCorps President Dave Isay had hoped to double with this campaign, he told the Associated Press. They may not have reached that goal yet, he said, but he’s pleased with the results, nevertheless.

“We are enormously grateful to teachers for embracing the assignment, to students for their extraordinary recordings, and to grandparents and other interviewees for bringing this historic undertaking life,” Isay said in a press release.

The StoryCorps interviews run the gamut thematically—recollections from the Great Depression, the experiences of immigrants, and struggles with alcoholism among them—all framed around personal anecdotes and memories to more weighty tales of love, loss, sacrifice, and perseverance.

Jared O’Neal, a 16-year-old from Chesapeake, Va., spoke with family friend, Butch Land, about how historical events influenced his experience growing up, including the Cold War and the civil rights movement.

Listeners young and old can draw life lessons from many of the interviews, providing social and emotional learning opportunities for students. Here are some especially poignant recordings of personal reflections of historical events and the human experience:


“My spirits are a reflection of my attitude towards life and living and dying. ... I believe this is a natural course of events, and that I should maintain the same good spirits toward this that I’ve tried to maintain towards life in general.”


“Growing up in America has been such a blessing. And although in some ways I do stand out--such as the hijab, the head covering--there are still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture, and here we’re all one.”


“It’s hard to always be the leader.”

Photo: Teacher Carol Mowen, right, works with student Kirsten Delauney as she prepares to participate in the oral history project StoryCorps at Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown, Md. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.