Lesson Plans

Using Oral History in Reporting

An archival photo from the early to mid-1930s of Allison Herrera's family near Toro Creek, an ancestral village of their Salinan Tribe. From left: Felista Rosas, her great-grandmother; Anna Herrera, her grandmother; Andy Rosas, Anna's brother; and Ramon Rosas, Andy and Anna's uncle. Image courtesy Allison Herrera.

An archival photo from the early to mid-1930s of Allison Herrera's family near Toro Creek, an ancestral village of their Salinan Tribe. From left: Felista Rosas, her great-grandmother; Anna Herrera, her grandmother; Andy Rosas, Anna's brother; and Ramon Rosas, Andy and Anna's uncle. Image courtesy Allison Herrera.


Students will be able to…

  1. Explore examples of Pulitzer Center-supported reporting in which the reporter used family history to frame or complement a story.
  2. Define oral history and learn about the techniques and value of oral history by looking at examples used in reporting.
  3. Connect historical events to events in their family or community history, and use oral history skills to carry out their own interviews at home or in their community.


1. As a class, pick a historical event of your choice from the past 50 years, and discuss the following:

  • How have you learned about this event? 
  • Did you learn about it in class or at home? 
  • What kinds of materials did you use (books, movies, photographs)?

2. Imagine you are writing a textbook chapter about this event. Discuss the following…

  • If you could choose any person to interview about what happened during this event, who would it be and why?
  • If you had to interview somebody you know to learn about the event, like a neighbor or a parent,who would you talk to?
  • How would interviewing someone from your community differ from interviewing someone who is already often cited in stories about that event? What information might you get from them that would add to your textbook chapter?

Introducing Oral History:

Whether they are reporting on current events or examining how events in history connect to current issues, journalists often use primary source documents in their research.

Primary sources come in different forms: many are written, but some are oral, which means that they are spoken.

For example, if a textbook author is writing a chapter about a new law, they might include the text from that law. Or they might look at letters exchanged between lawmakers to observe how their opinion changed over time. These are examples of written sources.

A face-to-face interview that you see on TV is an example of an oral source. There is also information that you don’t read in the news, but know because it was passed down by word of mouth. This might be a story you heard from a family member, neighbor, or friend. Can you think of an example of a well-known story or anecdote that has been passed down in your school, or in your family?

Oral history, as defined by the Oral History Association, is “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” An oral history interview is usually in-depth and recorded in audio or video format, then preserved in an archive. Since this was only possible with technological developments beginning in the 1940s, preserved oral history is a relatively new method, even though it is one of the oldest kinds of ways of passing down knowledge. But oral history has always existed since people have passed on stories and information to one another. For example, a family recipe or community legend that is passed down through conversations, but is not necessarily written down, could be considered an oral source. An oral historian would document this by recording interviews with people who belong to that family or community.

Discuss the following questions as a class:

  1. What can we learn from oral sources that we can’t learn from written sources, and vice versa?
  2. What is the news? What elements do you expect to find in a news story?
  3. How can oral history add new information to a news story?

Introducing the Resource:

1. Alison Herrera’s reported project for NPR, “In California, Salinan Indians Are Trying to Reclaim Their Culture and Land,” uses oral history to explore the reporter’s family history in connection with the history of the Salinan Indians. To contextualize the resource, discuss the following questions as a class:

  • What does it mean to be Indigenous? 
  • What do you know about Indigenous people in U.S. history?
  • What do you know about the Salinan Indians? What about Indigenous groups in your state or county?
  • What do you think it means to reclaim culture? What do you think it means to reclaim land?

2. Based on the title,“In California, Salinan Indians Are Trying to Reclaim Their Culture and Land,” come up with a list of themes or key words that you predict may come up in the piece.

Exploring the Resource:

1. Read the transcript of the piece first, without listening to it. After reading, answer the following questions on your own, then share and discuss with the class:

  • How many tribes did the federal government fail to recognize in California? What were the effects of this?
  • Which tribe does the journalist Allison Herrera belong to?
  • When was this interview recorded?
  • How many of Alison Herrera’s ancestors are buried in Toro Creek? 
  • Why did Herrera’s great-great-grandparents have to leave their home in 1934?
  • Why do some Salinan Indians believe they should not apply for federal recognition?
  • What is the Herrera’s opinion on whether or not the Salinan Indians should seek formal recognition from the U.S. government?

2. After answering the questions,  listen to the audio story, without taking any notes. In small groups, discuss the following:

  • What is different about listening to the piece instead of reading it?
  • Is there anything you didn’t notice while you were reading the piece that you noticed while you were listening to it?
  • What details do we get about Alison Herrera’s grandmother? How would you describe her?
  • In your own words, explain how the stories you hear relate to the key words and themes you wrote down before listening to it.

Discussion: History and Family

Journalists can use family history in different ways, and this often informs and frames their reporting. While Herrera chose to include a primary source (an interview with her grandmother) in the piece you looked at, the rest of her project, “Inter(Nation)al,” focused on the history of treaties with Indian nations and current court cases.

Individually, look through this Meet the Journalist video about Adaowi Tricia Nwaubani’s project on slavery in Nigeria, inspired by stories passed on through her family about her grandfather.

Discuss the following with a small group:

  1. How do these journalists’ family histories connect to their reporting? How direct, or indirect, is this connection? 
  2. How did something that happened in their families’ lives lead them to a news story?
  3. Can you think of ways that your own family or neighborhood history might relate to these themes? 

Oral history is a powerful tool to help understand our world. For journalists, family and community stories can act as anchors for important stories that affect a wider population. One way to begin accessing these stories is by conducting oral histories in your community. Read on to find out how to get started!

Extension Activity: Planning Your Oral History Project

There are several ways to plan an oral history project as a class. You can choose a subject together and try to build an archive of interviews, or you can pursue projects individually. The Oral History Association has a guide for educators that includes step-by-step instructions.

Pick a research topic:

1. Formulate a central question or issue and brainstorm ideas for who you might want to interview. Start by thinking of some subject ideas:

  • Topic 1: Like Allison, pick someone in your family or community who has lived in their neighborhood for a long time. Research the changes that this area has seen.
  • Topic 2: Like Tricia, pick a person in your family or community. Research this person’s story: how did they grow up? What historical periods did they live through and how did that influence them?

2. Prepare for your interview by doing research. Read books, talk to librarians, and get as many notes as you can. You can use these to form the basis of an interview map to guide you when you meet the person you will be talking to. For example, if you picked topic 1, you might try to answer some of the following:

  • What is the oldest building in the neighborhood?
  • What are some major national events or controversies that have impacted your community?
  • How did the local papers cover that event?
  • Who lived in your neighborhood ten years ago? Twenty years ago?

Plan your interview:

3. Make a plan for your life history interview. Read more tips on how to do strong interviews here

4. Reach out to the person you have decided you want to talk to and ask them if they would like to sit down for an interview. Remember to provide them with a way to reach out to you in case they have any questions.

5. Find the materials you need to record the interview and practice using them at least twice before you have a scheduled interview. You will at least need an audio recorder (available now on most smartphones) and a camera if you want to film the interview.

6. Practice recording a “lead,” in which you say your name and the interviewee’s name, the full date, the location, and the subject of the recording. Read more about best practices and principles here to make sure that you are conducting your interview in a fair and ethical way.

Record and preserve your interview:

7. Record the interview. Remember to pick a quiet place, and don’t be afraid to ask if you can move things around or turn machines off so that you can get the best quality recording.

8. After the interview, make notes about what stuck out to you and back up the files on a hard drive. Follow up with your interviewee and thank them for their time.

9. Analyze the interview and come up with a final project to showcase your work. Here are some tools for uploading your stories:

  • Stories Matter, a free software to build an oral history database on a local computer
  • Free audio uploading tools, like Soundcloud, can be a place to upload final edited projects.
  • Click here for a list of free audio recording and editing apps.
Educator Notes: 

This lesson includes some recommended steps for planning and carrying out oral history projects, with more detailed links included. If your students are interested in archiving their interviews for long-term preservation, contact a local university or library, or look up archives online (you may want to do this ahead of time or early in the planning process!). Each archive will have their own process for accepting materials and giving release forms. Students should not archive the material without explicit permission from the interviewee.

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