Crafts & DIY

Family Genealogy: How kids can interview family members about their lives.

At this time of year, we’re approaching some of the biggest family-time holidays on the calendar. A Thanksgiving gathering can include so much more than food and football. Holiday get-togethers can be opportunities for your children to learn family history, and for adults to share their stories.

As a parent, journalist and genealogy buff, I’d like to share some ideas for how you can help your children become family storytellers.

When my son and daughter were younger, their grandparents visited at Halloween each year, to help carve pumpkins, hold their hands as they trick-or-treated in the neighborhood, and share a Snickers bar or two. When son Patrick was in middle school, he was given a Veterans Day writing assignment. He decided to interview his grandfather John Tuohey, a World War II veteran, during the Halloween visit. He then wrote a report for his class based on the interview.

Granddad John and Patrick set aside a time and sat at the kitchen table. Pen and notebook in hand, my son wrote out the answers. Even without a school assignment, you can encourage your young ones to find a good time, a quiet place and interview tools of choice to conduct a meaningful interview with a family member.

The right age

What’s a good age for a child to do a family interview? Informal social media research I did with friends and colleagues indicates that children are most ready to do a family history interview when they are middle-school aged or older.

My friend Karen, a teacher, wrote, “I encouraged my students to use a recording, video, and take pictures. Middle and high school are great ages to do this. Definitely have a prepared list of questions so you don’t forget anything.”

Preparing questions

After your child has asked her family member if he or she would agree to be interviewed, it’s a good idea to plan what she would like to ask. StoryCorps, a nonprofit oral history project and National Public Radio program, has a great list of potential questions for family members on its website: storycorps.org/participate/great-questions/. Some examples for interviewing grandparents are: What was your childhood like? How did you and Grandma/Grandpa meet? What was my mom/dad like growing up?

The focus of the interview may also be on a specific time in the person’s life, as in the case of my father-in-law’s service in the U.S. Navy. “I asked my granddad a few questions about how being a veteran felt like and what it means to him,” Patrick wrote in his report. “First off I asked him how he feels about what he did. In response he said, ‘I’m glad I did what I did because it was the right thing at the time.’”

Susan, one of my former journalism students, said that an interview she did with her grandfather foreshadowed her career choice to be a reporter. “I did this in fourth or fifth grade. My grandpa told me stories about how he collected coal that had fallen off of trains so his family could heat their house during the Depression. Turns out, he had never shared that experience with my mom or my grandma. It was an incredible learning experience and my very first interview!”

Choosing a recording method

Your child may choose a higher-tech approach than pen and paper. For example, there are a few options for recording audio and video on smartphones.

For recording an interview with only audio, the iPhone has a free voice recorder and audio editor app, which allows you to record MP3 files and even transcribe your audio recordings into text using speech recognition. Google offers a free audio recorder app for Android phones that is simple to use and supports the use of two different microphones, if your child would like to use an attached mike instead of the phone’s built-in mike.

You can also find stand-alone digital audio recorders at various outlets including Amazon.com. A good basic recorder runs $20 to $30.

Both smartphone types also come with free video apps. Be sure to check the phone’s storage space, as well as the video file size limit. Some Android phones, for example, have a four-gigabyte file size limit, which comes out to about a half-hour’s worth of video. Your phone’s documentation can help you figure out whether to store the file on the phone’s internal storage or an external storage mode.

If using a smartphone to record video, it’s also a good idea to anchor the phone so that the resulting video isn’t shaky. You can find smartphone tripods for less than $2.50 on equipment sites like GearBest.

If you have access to a video camera for the interview, there are a few basics for your child to consider when videotaping an interview, including position (is the subject seated or standing?), lighting and headroom. You can find how-to videos on the subject by searching “interview framing” on YouTube.

“My youngest son was given this assignment in the sixth grade,” my friend Henry wrote. “Both of my parents had passed so we went to my dad’s brother. At 85, he had some remarkable answers. I videotaped the 15-minute session. I’m not sure which one was the happiest: son, uncle or dad! Years later, I found the tapes, transferred them to CD and sent it to my uncle’s children.”

If your daughter or son uses any type of recording device, he or she should make sure the phone is charged, or that the digital audio recorder has batteries or that there is an outlet available for the device.

Saving the interview

Once the words are down on paper or captured in digital form, making a copy (or copies) will ensure that there is a backup version if something happens to the original. You may want to put a written interview in a scrapbook. You can save digital copies on external flash or hard drives or burn them to CD or DVD using a computer.

Making copies is also a great way to share history with other family members. Your family interview may well become part of the group entertainment at a future holiday gathering.

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