Combining Intergenerational Interviews with Creative Drama in U.S. History
Jane McDowell and Monica Gorman, November 2010
Engaging high school students and retirees in oral interviews about U.S. history, and then using those interviews as the basis for creative dramas, can be an informative and rewarding experience for both groups. As social historian Katherine Scott Sturdevant explains, “For the parties involved, an oral history interview is often an intense memorable moment of bonding and coming to greater mutual empathy and respect…[it] can be a life-changing event for all concerned.”1 High school teacher Monica Gorman and adult community administrator Jane McDowell designed a project for students and seniors that used collected oral histories as the basis for student dramas. As her school district’s coordinator for the Portland State University (PSU)’s Teaching American History program, Gorman was inspired by the ideas of Karin Migaldi, a PSU dramaturge, who stressed the power of engaging students in collecting and then enacting oral histories. Gorman wanted to test this idea with her students, high school juniors studying U.S. history. The students were to work in groups to interview one senior adult, discuss what they heard, explore its meanings, and together create a drama to convey their understanding of the history lessons they had learned.
A ready and willing group of senior participants was found at Claremont, a nearby golf community. The residents of Claremont were old enough to remember both the Great Depression and World War II. The first set of student interviews, held at Claremont, asked seniors about their Great Depression experiences. The hour began with a panel of seniors answering questions from students. After 20 minutes of panel questions, the student study groups then interviewed seniors individually for the remainder of the time.
During a second visit, students conducted individual interviews about the 1940s for a full hour. They selected their interviewees based on whether they wanted to learn about the military or the “home front” experience.
Dramas and Scrapbooks
Following their interviews, the student teams created plays based on the personal histories they’d heard. Background research on the internet and from other sources provided historical context to the events that the seniors described. Much of the student work took place outside of class. Gorman avoided supervising her students too closely, although she worried that the project—the most sophisticated she had ever attempted—might prove too stressful for students. When the students presented their dramas, the seniors were invited to attend.
One student group presented the seniors with a scrapbook instead of preparing a drama. They intermingled interview photos with quotes from student essays and from interviewees—a lovely and meaningful memento. The scrapbook demonstrated the profound influence the interviews had on students’ historical thinking. These students showcased the stories they heard and their fellow classmates’ reactions to them in a lasting and artful way.
From this experience, students learned about the complexity of history. They realized that there is no one correct perspective or answer to the big questions of history. They loved comparing notes about the varied perspectives they’d heard, and working on products—essays, dramas, and a scrapbook. They learned respect for multiple ways of seeing the past and that multiple perspectives provide wisdom about the human struggle.
Educational psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote that the narrative story is essential to good history teaching, and helps students make meaning of the world, both past and present.2 Local stories are particularly meaningful. Because students do not reach the same levels of reasoning about history at the same time, interviews allow students of all levels to explore history on both a personal and an analytical level. In groups, students learned from and supported each other as they pieced together powerful personal stories and applied them to our collective national story.
The two classes that participated in the project were very different in their academic abilities. One class seemed at ease with reading textbooks, writing, and other academic tasks. Many in the other class struggled with school, but were intrigued by the interviews and dramas. The first class was more anxious about the dramas—they were used to excelling, and this project challenged them. The second class, normally disengaged by traditional educational methods, shone in their participation in the interviews and dramas. They were introduced to a way of learning that was meaningful to them and encouraged teamwork.
Students appreciated hearing stories of people who otherwise are absent from the history taught in school. History involves everyone’s stories, yet students tend to think of it as something “out there,” involving big players and important people, not something that impacts individuals. Hearing the ways in which people’s lives were shaped by events provided depth and personality to textbook facts.
The ultimate reward of this project was that students formed positive connections with older adults. Even the most reluctant, disengaged learners participated in the interviews with focus and courtesy.
Talking to seniors was profoundly different from their experiences in the regular classroom setting. Many students have little chance for quality time with elders. After the interviews, students were asked to write about their interview experiences. In their essays students linked the stories of the seniors effortlessly to classroom text discussions and videos of the era. They wrote with passion and excitement—and deep personal conviction.
The seniors treated the students courteously and as responsible people. The seniors enjoyed the interviews and expressed interest in participating in future history projects. They felt connected to the students and wanted to know what the students had learned. Many seniors do not have an opportunity to spend educational time with their grandchildren, and they looked forward to working with young adults. They welcomed the intergenerational conversations and were inspired by the opportunity to influence a student’s learning and understanding of the times the seniors had lived through. When they were invited to attend the creative dramas at school, they were enthusiastic. The chance to follow up with the students and see what they had learned—in a creative format—was an important feature of the project from the seniors’ perspective. They were entertained by the creative dramas, and were honest in their evaluations.
McDowell was fascinated by Claremonters’ interactions with students. She saw a kindliness and approachability that was not always evident when they were among their peers. They were genuinely interested in the students’ thoughts about the interviews and their answers. They wanted to see the students again and were pleased to be invited to see the creative dramas. It was heartening to see how ready the seniors were to accept the students and to do whatever they could to encourage an interest in history.
Gorman was impressed her students’ dedication to the interviews and dramas. They were extremely proud of their accomplishments. One student wrote, “This project was inspiring. I really wanted to do my part for my group and for our guests. It made history come alive to me so much more than studying a textbook. I felt much more responsible for getting more work done than I normally do. It really helped me do well in class.” Another student said, “I wanted to tell you how important it is for you to do this project for all your students, every year. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had in a class. It was really amazing.”
Monica Gorman teaches high school history at Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon. Jane McDowell is an administrator at the Claremont golf community.