Communication Skills

How Living History Projects Build Wisdom, Understanding, and Listening Skills

StoryCorps interviews with grandparents and community elders can bridge divides and build the kinds of listening and communication skills our students need to thrive.

January 2, 2024
FG Trade / Getty Images

In these times of rapid technological change and deepening societal divisions, I often find myself staring at the ceiling at night, pondering the world my children and students are inheriting.

I’m not qualified to weigh in on those topics that splinter us so much, but I’m confident we can all use a bigger serving of wisdom as we figure out where we want to take our civilization. The fact that I’m a teacher who can play a small role in creating the conditions for such wisdom to grow helps me sleep at night. That wisdom most definitely doesn’t come from me passing it down to my students, though it does happen once a year during a program I facilitate with my students inspired by the StoryCorps organization. 

You may have come across their site or heard them on NPR on Friday mornings. The StoryCorps mission is simple: to “help us believe in each other by illuminating the humanity and possibility in us all—one story at a time.” The organization encourages friends, family, loved ones, even adversaries to get together for thoughtful conversations, to share stories, and to develop a deeper understanding of each other. 

StoryCorps provides instructions on how to record and archive these conversations so they might be passed down for others to learn from. More important, they provide a beautiful set of questions that help establish a surprisingly deep conversation, bringing participants closer together, often by the end through tears of joy and love. It’s an oral history project that might just be a big part of the solution to all those wicked problems we read about every day.

At my school, we organize the StoryCorps program around our Grandparents and Special Friends Day, where about half of our students bring a grandma or grandpa or another close family friend to campus with them to visit classes, share lunch, and witness what happens at our little school. 

It started over 15 years ago when I was teaching history to 10th graders during Grandparents Day. I felt ridiculous teaching names, dates, and ideas I had read about in books in front of a classroom full of guests who had lived through some of the history I wanted my students to internalize. So I turned the tables and used the StoryCorps model to get my students to interview their guests so we could learn from their experiences. 

The results have been incredible, and this activity can be accomplished in three steps. 

Prepare your students

About two weeks prior to the event, provide your students with the list of powerful questions provided by StoryCorps and ask them to select about a dozen of them they would like to ask. The questions start easy and get deeper and more challenging as you move down the list. It goes from “What was my dad like when he was a kid?” to “How would you like to be remembered?” Coach your students in the seemingly lost art of truly listening. Teach them about the value of eye contact and other body language that not only conveys that they’re listening, but also helps them listen more deeply. Have them practice with their peers, and teach them how to ask follow-up questions that encourage guests to go deeper into their stories. This is much more than just reading a list of questions and waiting for the answers. It’s about listening and engaging with an open heart. 

Record the conversations like a historian

This is going to be a historic record, so make sure you get all of the right information and record it effectively. As the facilitator, I usually record the conversations with an iPad, and I encourage my students and guests to pull out their phones to record the conversations as well. Make sure you know how to use the recording software on your phone or tablet ahead of time. If you have access to a Chromebook or other laptop, you can use a free online voice recorder. Begin each recording by documenting the date, location, and full names of the participants:

Today is [Day of the week], [Month, Day, Year].

We are at [School Name], in [City], [State or Country].

My name is [First Name, Last Name], and I am with my [relationship to student, e.g., Grandparent, Family Friend], [First Name, Last Name], and [First name, Last Name].

Determine how long each recording should last based on the number of participants and the time you have. At least 10 minutes is fine, but longer is better. Before the last minute is up, the students should “turn the tables” and share on the recording how they feel about getting to spend time with their guests. This is very important. Then stop the recording. I like to take photos of the interviews to share with the students. I prefer photos over videos to reduce the camera-shyness factor. 

Archive the recording

When you’re finished, you want to teach your students how to preserve these recordings for a long time. I encourage students to consult with their families about the best way to keep track of these recordings. I suggest multiple methods, including cloud-based storage such as Google Drive or iCloud, and I also recommend putting the recordings on USB drives to be stored in a fire safe or safety deposit box. I store all of the recordings on our school’s Google Drive, but I tell students that I can’t promise those recordings will be around forever, so I ask them to take responsibility for protecting and sharing the files with their families. 

While students interview and record their guests, the rest of us in the classroom get to witness relationships deepen as humans divided by a couple of generations make eye contact and open their hearts to each other through storytelling. There are always a few surprising revelations. One student learned his grandfather was a federal agent who once chased down Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in Mexico. We heard from a grandmother who was a little girl in Germany during World War II living on a single slice of bread each day. And in an amazing coincidence, one guest turned out to be my father’s PhD adviser at Berkeley; the two hadn’t connected in 40 years, and now they’re reunited from across the continent. 

A Learning Experience

These conversations often lead to laughter, joy, love, and pretty much every positive experience you can imagine, and the kicker is that this truly special experience can be passed down to future generations. How much would you cherish a recording of your great-great-grandmother talking about her childhood? With this experience, you could provide that gift to hundreds of future great-great-grandchildren. 

And yet, this is not just about sharing family stories; it’s the academic work of a historian, creating primary sources for future scholars as we piece together our past. This is real-world, authentic, project-based learning with the opportunity for rigorous academic outcomes. 

If you have an event similar to our Grandparents Day, I highly encourage you to consider using that opportunity. If you don’t, consider starting one or connecting with a local senior community. All of the resources you need are at, which features an app you can use to get questions and record the conversations. Check out Ashley Cronin’s Edutopia article for more classroom resources and ideas. You’re also welcome to look at the site I built for our school’s program. Feel free to modify for your own needs. 

While the rapid acceleration of technology forces us to reevaluate our humanity, and while we all seem to be more divided than ever, there is an infinite hunger within our communities’ older generations to share their wisdom and experiences. Perhaps the answers to so many of our problems and conflicts are waiting there. We just need to ask… emphasis on the need.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Technology Integration
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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