4. Understanding and Preserving Oral Histories

(This is the Lesson Plan 4 for Carol Buswells curriculum unit, “Exploring Your Community.)


A page from “Notes from Interview of Mr. & Mrs. William Palmier…” (National Archives: Office of Indian Affairs, Pine Ridge Agency)

Hearing and understanding American Indian history from an Indian perspective provides an important point of view to the discussion of history and cultures in the Americas. The Indian perspective expands the social, political, and economic dialogue.

Native Knowledge 360°: Framework for Essential Understandings about American Indians, National Museum of the American Indian, 2015.



Grades 4 and 5

  • SL.4.1and SL.5.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions.



  • Why and how do Native American oral histories better enable us to understand the history of our country?
  • Where do I find an oral history or someone to help me create an oral history about my own community?
  • What questions should I ask?
  • What is the difference between writing down exactly what they say and writing down what I think they say (direct quotes and paraphrasing)?
  • What is the difference between a first-­person and a third­-person narrative, a primary and a secondary source?



The students will collaborate with their fellow students and their teacher in order to compile a list of questions and conduct oral history interviews of members of their community. They will also discover the difference between first-­person and third-­person narratives using Native American oral history examples.



For a complete listing of all materials necessary for the entire curriculum by episode, see Curriculum Materials and Resources at a Glance.





  • Indicate the Crow (Intermountain and Upper Missouri River Country) and Mandan and Hidatsa (Dakotas) tribal locations on the map at http://lc-triballegacy.org/main.php. The following speakers come from these areas along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
  • Show the students the following oral histories (each is only a couple of minutes long).
  • Tell the students that tribes have been telling their histories verbally for thousands of years and ask:
    • Do you think tribal histories might be very accurate? Why or why not?
    • Is a written story more accurate than a spoken one? Why or why not?
    • Do you think people who tell their story out loud ever change the story according to what they think themselves?
    • Do you think people who write down stories ever change them according to what they think themselves?
  • Explain that when you quote someone directly, you say exactly what they said, word for word, but when you are in a hurry you sometimes will “paraphrase.” This means you would listen to what someone else said and then say or write it down in your own words.
    • Have the students look at the posters that define a primary and a secondary source and ask:
    • When you shorten the statement someone else makes and say it in your own words, is it possible that you might change the meaning of what they said? Why or why not?
    • Is a paraphrased statement a primary or a secondary source?
    • Explain that when recording oral histories by writing them down, it is important to try to quote the speaker as directly as possible.
  • Have the students conduct “practice” oral history interviews.
    • Have the students take out their journals.
    • Divide the students in pairs. Ask them to work with their partner to practice conducting an oral interview.
    • Have them ask their partner to fill out a permission slip for the interview and explain the purpose of the interview.
    • Ask them to question their partner about his/her community or a specific event (such as something that happened in school that day) and try to write down what the other student tells them as accurately as possible.
    • If possible, allow the students to repeat the activity with a tape recorder, tablet, cell phone app or other recording device. Have them explain which method, written or recorded, was more accurate and why.
  • Tell the students you would like them to ask their parents or other caregivers for help in choosing someone to interview who might know special things about the place in which they live. (You will want to send a note home as a reminder, along with permission slips, etc.) Students will be conducting these interviews outside the classroom. In order to prepare them for this activity:
    • They should think about what they want to know about their community first and then decide, with the help of their parents or caregivers, who they should ask.
    • In order to prepare for the interviews, they need to compile a list of questions to ask the people they choose (see Appendix for sample questions).
    • Be sure every student has a copy of a permission slip for the interview.
    • Ask each of the students to conduct the interview, taking careful notes (including direct quotes) and/or recording on audio or video.
  • As an alternative to sending the students out, you might have visitors from the community come into the classroom for them to interview either toward the end of the class period or on a different day.



Review these words briefly with your students and explain further if necessary (see Glossary).

  • Interview
  • oral history
  • paraphrase
  • quote



For emerging learners, questions for interviews might be written on the board for the whole class to copy. You could give them more time to practice with their classroom partners.

Advanced students could put together learning centers consisting of a tape recorder or other recording device, a mirror, and a list of interview questions they develop themselves where the emerging or shy learners in the class could practice interview techniques.

They could also interview several additional community members to round out the data, such as a store owner or manager, a religious leader, or a member of the local historical society.



Use a graphic organizer or organizers (for different types related to interviews, see http://www.learnquebec.ca/en/content/curriculum_elem/personal_development/erc/elem_cycle2/go_list.html#4) to help students organize their thoughts in a meaningful way.