ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW PROJECT
“In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other
possessions. Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving
some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most
difficult burden to surrender.”
–Bunny McBride, Women of the Dawn, excerpted in Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline1
The inspiration for this project stems from the idea of portaging and the practice of oral history.
- Portaging is defined as the labor of carrying or transporting. Native American groups such as the Wabanakis would carry boats containing all of their belongings between
bodies of water. In preparing for these journeys, they had to decide what essential items
they took with them, and what they left behind.
- Oral history is “the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own
experiences. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor. Oral
historians attempt to verify their findings, analyze them, and place them in an accurate
In completing this project, students will interview a person of their choosing about a “portage”: a
moment in their lives when they’ve had to embark on a journey, literal or metaphorical.3
“Portages” can be moving to a new place, starting a new career, making a major life change, etc.
This project seeks to:
- Investigate, analyze, and develop an understanding of the past through oral history.
- Honor and celebrate the lives of everyday people.
Demonstrate an understanding of the historian’s methods in reconstructing the past using
primary and secondary sources.
Step 1: Pick a person to interview, who you can interview in person. Interviews may NOT be
conducted via email. You can interview any person (no age requirement) in any language
(although please submit a transcript of the interview translated into English).
Step 2: Create 20 – 30 questions that you will ask your interviewee about his/her journey. You
can also include basic biographical information, childhood, education, career, family, significant
memories, changes, lessons learned, challenges, etc. Ask open-ended questions that can’t be
1 Baker Kline, Christina. Orphan Train (New York: Harper Collins, 2013).
3 Baker Kline, 131.
answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” For example, don’t ask, “Did you move to California
from Vietnam?” Ask instead, “Describe the process of how you ended up moving to California
from Vietnam.” Find out not only what the person did on his/her journey, but also what he/she
thought and felt about what he/she did. For help in creating questions, see “Bloom’s Taxonomy
Guide to Writing Questions” http://wwild.coe.uga.edu/pptgames/resources/bloom_questions.pdf
Remember that the central question or issue that should guides your interview questions hinges
on the idea of portaging, so you want to be sure to ask them about a specific journey in their
lives. As such, you must include the following questions:
1) What did you choose to bring with you to the next place?
2) What did you leave behind?
3) What insights did you gain about what’s important?4
Step 3: Conduct and record the interview. An audio recording, which can be done through most
cell phones, is fine.
TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW:
- Interview and record in a quiet place.
- Make sure the interviewee understands the purpose of the interview.
- Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and
smiling to encourage and give the message, “I am interested.”
- Allow silence. Give the interviewee time to think. Silence will work for you.
- Start with less probing questions; then ask more probing questions later in the interview.
- Ask follow-up questions before moving to the next. Ask for specific examples if the
interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, “I
don’t fully understand. Could you explain that in more detail?”
- If necessary, use encouragement: “This is wonderful information!” or “How interesting!”
- Be flexible. Watch for and pick up on promising topics introduced by the interviewee,
even if the topics are not on your interview guide sheet.
- After the interview, make notes right away while the experience is fresh in your mind.
- Write a thank-you note.5
Step 4: Type a complete transcript of the questions you asked and the answers given.
Step 5: Write a brief response (150-200 words) of your feedback on the interview. Explain what
you learned from this experience, what responses surprised you most, what you feel the
interviewee wanted you to take away from his/her experience, etc.
- You must post your assignment to Canvas by the due date unless this is the ONE
assignment you choose to submit late (up to 3 days) without penalty.
4 Ibid, 131.
- All papers will be screened for plagiarism by vericite in Canvas. Per the syllabus and
campus policy, any plagiarized submissions will receive a 0.
- Papers must be in pdf, doc, docx, txt, or rtf format.
-Sample interview assignment-
July 4, 1776
Portgaging Interview Project
PART 1: Interview with my mother on her journey on starting a new life in the United States.
Q1. Describe an experience that made you feel successful in the United States after
immigrating from the Philippines.
A1. One example is getting a job. Coming to the U.S. provided me with the right to work and
make money for myself. Back in the Philippines, finding work is very hard. It was pretty easy
for me to get a job here because of family friends. Having connections helped to get in because
of the recommendations they give to their supervisors. Being able to buy a house with my
husband is definitely another example of success because that is a clear sign that we are living
the American dream….
Q2 – Q20….
A2 – A20….
PART 2: Reflection
In conducting this interview with my mother, I learned….I was most surprised by…What
I took away from this person’s story is …