Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 4Topic 8
Focusing On Entertainment Of Yesteryear
Good Old DaysThe Good Old Days
1Before there was internet, before TV, radio and movies, there was Coney Island. A great amusement park on Atlantic beaches of New York City, Coney entertained millions of working class New Yorkers at the turn of the century. It had rides and dance halls and, at night, it shone with thousands of electric lights. It offered a place for families to escape the city's summertime heat and a place for young women and men to meet. But Coney Island eventually faded. TV, movies and airconditioning kept people at home. And when New Yorkers wanted to getaway from it all, they could get in cars or take planes and go to more distant destinations. (To learn more about Coney Island yesterday and today, click on www.coneyislandusa.com.)

Have you ever wondered what people in your community--maybe your grandparents--did for fun long ago? Now's your chance to find out, through the practice of oral history.

Conducting An Oral History Interview

2 Oral history is history told through the spoken word. It involves finding out people who lived through something you want to study. For example, you could study the life of soldiers in World War II by interviewing veterans of that war. In this activity, you will want to interview older persons about what they did for fun when they were young. For some examples of oral interviews, see the Library of Congress website at www.lcweb2loc.gov/ammem/wpaintro/wpahome.html

Finding Interviewees: First, of course, you have to find some old people to interview. The most obvious place to start is your own family. Are your grandparents alive? Do they live nearby or can you reach them by phone. If not, try a local nursing home. Ask the people who run a nursing home in your neighborhood if you can interview some of the senior citizens who live there.

Arranging Interviews: Before you begin, there are several things to do first. Talk to the person you want to interview--the interviewee--in advance. Tell them what you want to talk about. That will get them thinking about the old days. Also, ask them if they have any old pictures or other things from that time. Nothing jogs the memory like artifacts. If they don't have anything, you might want to bring a few copies of photos you found in old books too. These can help spark memories.

Prepare For The Interview: Next, read up as much as you can about the subject. This will help you think of questions to ask. Second, make a list of questions in advance. You don't have to stick to them. The person you are interviewing may have interesting things to say about questions you don't ask. But they will help you cover the subject and keep the interview focused. Remember, to keep the questions focused on personal memories. Oral history is best at capturing the mood and feel of times past; its less useful for factual information. After all, people's memory can play tricks on them. We tend to remember feelings and experiences more than facts.

Things To Bring: A tape recorder, tapes and batteries. You might also want to bring a camera to take pictures.

Doing The Interview: Once you arrive, make the interviewee comfortable. Find a nice quiet place and make sure you both have plenty of time to talk. Don't go right into the interview. Chat a little first without turning on the tape recorder. Then begin with a general question. Let the person answer your question fully before asking the next. Don't forget to get basic information about your interviewee: name, age, where they were born, what they did for a living then or where they went to school, etc...

Now, it's time to ask them questions. Here are some you might try: what did you do for fun? in the day? at night? in the winter? in the summer? with your parents? with your friends? did you have much money for entertainment? if not, what ways did you have fun for free? did you do things you weren't supposed to? what were they? did you get caught?

Finally, be sure to thank the person when you are through.

Writing Up Your Oral History

3 Once you have conducted your interview, it's time to put it on paper. This is known as transcribing. As you listen to the tape, you write down what you hear. Some transcriptions are exact copies of what is said. Sometimes, transcriptions leave out the "uhs" and "ers" of spoken speech.

Now that you have a transcription, you might want to put it into a folder or booklet, with photocopies of things from the olden days your interviewee talked about. You might also might also want to include photos of the person now.

With your oral interview presentation complete, you can show it to your classmates, your family and, of course, the interviewee.