Picturing Family History

Sharon Bishop, Heartland Community Schools, Henderson, Nebraska


“History is the story of them ­ heritage is the story of ‘us’; the part of history we must know best is the stories of ourselves and our families.”

-- Dr. Robert Manley, Nebraska historian

I teach a sophomore English class called Nebraska Literature/Composition: A Sense of Place.  The class uses literature by Nebraska authors to learn the traditional skills of reading and writing of an English class.  The theme of “A Sense of Place,” however, takes the work of this class into the communities of our consolidated district.  One of the ways that this is done is through stories of the students, their families, and their communities; these stories are collected through oral heritage interviews conducted by the students.  My students use the material derived from these interviews in their writing assignments, displays, and in their classroom and community presentations.

Past assignments have been varied, but I had never asked students to interview their parents about when they met, dated, and married.  The idea for this came from a lesson by KCAC teacher Patsy Hamby: “Weaving Heritage Through the Strands of Mountain Windsong” (which can be accessed at the KCAC Project website, http://kcac.kennesaw.edu). 

I thought that this assignment would be a nice first assignment before other interviews would be done.  It would be comfortable for students to interview parents first, the topic could be interesting to teenagers, and the importance of family stories would hopefully be discovered.  Students would become familiar with the process of conducting interviews and later crafting writing based on them.

Over the course of the assignment, students meet the following objectives:

1. Construct interview questions

2. Set up an interview

3. Conduct an interview

4. Use the material from that interview to write a poem

5. Read poetry by Nebraska authors

6. Identify the characteristics of the poetry of place

7. Write a reflective/evaluation essay about this assignment

I often include student work in a class anthology published and distributed at the end of the school year.

Instructional sequence

1. Through class discussion, students …

a. review the novel My Antonia by Nebraska author Willa Cather.
b. recall the personal stories of a place that made the book a classic.
c. recall the “Where I’m From” poems written first semester by students to reinforce the idea that our personal and family memories can become literature.
d. identify the kinds of questions to be asked in an interview (open-ended and follow-up questions).
e. brainstorm examples of the above types of questions.

2. The teacher defines the etiquette of an interview.

3. Each student …

a. sets up and conducts the interview.
b. types the questions asked, the answers received, also including the interview setting.
c. chooses some aspects from the interview material that could be used to write a poem.
d. writes a rough draft of the poem with an author’s note included.

4. Students share their poem drafts in a writer’s workshop during class.

5. Each student …

a. revises the poem based on peer feedback.
b. conferences with the teacher then revises the poem a second time.
c. adds some artwork to the poem—a photograph or sketch.
d. shares the poem with his or her interview subject (parent).
e. writes a reflection on the assignment.
f. submits questions, answers, evaluation, poem and reflection to teacher.

6. The teacher may …

a. include students’ poems in class anthology at the end of the year.
b. encourage students to incorporate poems into community presentation. 

Student artifact

“The Illegal Marriage”

1942, Westside Cafe, Randolph, Nebraska.

Irene’s usual shift, farmers in and out,

like worker bees buzzing.

“Well, if we’re going to do this, we better do it now.”

Jimmie Dean’s words surprised her like

she had just won the lottery.

She pressed Jimmie’s army uniform as he searched for witnesses.

From the farm tractor and the schoolhouse he found family

to participate in the joyous day.

To the courthouse, their last stop.

Irene only 19, the legal age 21.  No one to sign for Irene.

Cousin Eddy, an employee, affirms: “She is 21.”

“I do.”

The next day, Jimmie shipped to Lebanon, Pennsylvania,

in the army uniform his bride pressed the day before.

A letter every week.

Most censored, to keep secret his location.

Then the letters stopped coming.

1944, Westide Café, Randolph, Nebraska.

Irene receives the telegram:

“Missing in action in the Battle of the Bulge.”

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,

Played in the background over and over,

Making Irene sick to her stomach.

A letter arrives ­ Jimmie is safe!

He returns from war,

A new family begins in Sholes, Nebraska.

-- Matthew


Student reflections

Interviewing my parents has taught me a great deal about my sense of place.  I learned more about where I came from, and how my parents met each other and how they fell in love.  By interviewing them, I learned there is another side of them.  To me they’re my parents.  It’s hard to think of them as loving each other.  But I have a better understanding of it now by doing this interview.  I learned that my parents aren’t just parents.  They actually love each other, and my brothers and I are the result of that love, and I try my best to make them proud.

-- Jeff

I feel very good about the interview itself and how it went.  It was hard for me to imagine my parents as young people.  Hearing those stories made me think about what it will be like someday when I get married.  I think making a book with memories from our parents’ dating years is a good idea because it puts together memories from a time period that was very special to them.

From this interview, I learned how to avoid some of the mistakes my parents made while dating and preparing for their wedding.  My parents taught me how easy it is to look past potential problems in a relationship or personality flaws when you are dating someone and have feelings for him/her.  I also learned how much effort went into raising me as their child after they were married.

The community that my parents were raised in and dated in was much different from the one I live in today.  I think that living in Texas affected my parents’ relationship quite a bit.  Being in a larger city than Henderson meant more activities for them and larger groups of people to meet.  My parents were also very broke, so they were limited to the activities within their town.  College life then was also different.  They had to carefully choose their dates, because their parents know most of their friends and their parents as well.  The community offered many opportunities for them as a college couple.  Some of these included free concerts on campus, root beer floats at the A&W for fifteen cents, and quarter movies!

I also learned that my parents came from two different yet similar backgrounds.  My mom was a foster child until she was adopted at the age of six; she was the only child in her family.  Her adoptive parents lived in Fort Worth, Texas, where she attended a large high school and was involved in many activities there.  My dad was the oldest of five boys, and he moved across the country a few times before ending up in Houston, Texas, where he also attended a large high school.  Both of my parents graduated from Stephen F. Austin University and worked in Dallas Theological Seminary for awhile.  My family is a mix of southern culture, Mexican food, and anything cheap (including dates); we are all Nebraska Cornhusker addicts.  My parents achieved this through mixing their family backgrounds into one.

I learned some new facts about my parents through this interview.  Both of my parents were almost engaged to other people before they met each other.  I was also able to read, for the first time, some of the letters they wrote to each other while dating.  It was interesting to read their thoughts and what they did on a day-to-day basis.

I plan to compile pictures and their memories in a book for them.  None of the family albums that we own have their dating days in them.

This interview process was a useful tool for learning my sense of place within my family.  If not for this phase of my parent’s life, I would not be here.  The most interesting part was prodding them to find out why they were interested in each other when they were younger as well as discovering other details that would have been left out in a simple “I remember when…” story.  Hearing about this time of their lives, told to me through their words, and seeing the emotions that the memories brought to their faces was irreplaceable.

-- Claire

Teacher reflection

This assignment was bittersweet.  I have had students conduct oral heritage interviews for years in this class, as well as in others.  Of the 29 students, nine are from homes with divorced parents.  Most spouses have remarried; several students live in blended families.  Because of this fact, from the beginning I told students they could choose grandparents or other family members to interview.  If they and the adults involved were comfortable, then divorced or remarried parents could participate.  One student and her mother were very unhappy with this assignment; we made other arrangements for her, but it did cause some controversy. 

If I repeat this specific assignment, I will make some changes.  This specific interview will be an option next time (as it was in Patsy Hamby’s unit).  Some years this class reads the novel A Lantern in Her Hand by Nebraska author Bess Streeter Aldrich.  There are several weddings in this novel over a 50-year period, and the author clearly shows the historical and cultural changes in Nebraska through these weddings.  This assignment would fit nicely with a reading and study of Aldrich’s novel.

I believe wholeheartedly that using stories of place in a classroom is invaluable.  Stories entertain, but they also instruct.  In a small book, “Did I Ever Tell You About When Your Grandparents Were Young?” the authors state the purpose of the book:

Storytelling is one means by which older people weave together the events of their lives into a tapestry that integrates past and present.  This pulling together the events of memories gives their lives meaning and validation. … When the stories are about our families, they reinforce our sense of family identity, bolster the self-esteem of both listener and teller, and define our personal and family values (8,9).

Cynthia Stokes Brown, author of Like It Was: A Complete Guide to Writing Oral History, agrees:

One of the most important goals of any project in oral history is for students to learn the values and traditions of their families, to feel connected with those values as they make life choices, and to see where those values fit in among the diverse values of the world. Interviewing their families becomes one of the richest and most significant sources that students can tap for their oral history projects (91).

All of my experiences confirm that the people interviewed are delighted by this assignment.  Several parents told me that they really enjoyed the interviews.  Many of the students admitted to being somewhat embarrassed at first about asking their parents questions about dating, falling in love, and weddings.  The girls really enjoyed details about the weddings; some were appalled by the choices of wedding apparel in the 1970s.  Most students felt pretty positive about the assignment.

We use two quotes in this class: Dr. Manley’s quote and Wendell Berry’s words: “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”  This assignment, as do all oral heritage projects, helps students discover these truths and learn a sense of place.

Curricular Crossing

Suggestions on how you might adapt this lesson for a different classroom setting

This lesson is transportable into several different contexts. 

-- Teachers of seniors or spring-semester juniors would be wise to direct this approach to students’ college-application essays. The daunting task of writing personal narratives for college admissions is often frustrating and produces weak, general responses that do little to distinguish the student.  Rich, specific, personal detail is at the very heart of this assignment. 

-- In response to the classic college essay prompt, “If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?” one student opted to write of an imagined dinner with her mother twenty years before as she was determining to marry the student’s eventual father. 

-- This assignment is also valuable in the history classroom.  A teacher could change the focus to a particular historical event or to a particular cultural tradition (say the history of a family’s name, its cultural or religious heritage).  Diane Shearer’s similar assignment focusing on a family member’s immigration experience suggests one possible adaptation of this pedagogy for a history classroom.

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