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Preserving your family stories

A family gathering during the holidays is an ideal time to record your family's stories.

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

During the holiday season as families gather for celebrations, children experience a heightened curiosity about their families. Parents can harness this curiosity by enlisting their children's help in creating an archive of family stories.

After all, knowing your family tree is one thing, but fleshing it out with real-life stories makes it all the more interesting. It's a way to show your child that history is made up of fascinating memories and anecdotes. Add to that the compelling reason that if your don't gather your stories now, they could be lost forever.

Recording family stories is relatively easy to do and you'll always be glad that you did it. Children can assist with all aspects of the project. In fact, many middle- and high-schoolers will gladly tackle the whole thing by themselves.

Interviewing Tips

Make a list of questions. Try to get everything in one interview, as the first interview is often the best, and you never know when you'll be able to get your interviewee back again.

In addition to asking "who, what, where and when" questions, be sure to ask some open-ended questions.

For example, you might ask:

  • What do you know about your ancestry that you would like to preserve for future generations?
  • Who among these ancestors did you know personally and what were they like?
  • Where was your childhood home? Is it still there? Has the neighborhood changed?
  • What was your favorite job? Least favorite?
  • Where did you travel? What places were the most interesting to you?
  • Who were the most influential people in you life? Describe what they did that influenced you.
  • Was there a family tradition that you loved that isn't practiced anymore?
  • Was there an epidemic or health scare when you were younger that made a lasting impression upon you? A natural disaster?
  • What were some of your mother's (and father's) good characteristics?
  • What is your favorite memory of your father (and mother)?
  • How do you remember your mother and father looking?
  • Tell a story about your parents.
  • What was your favorite food, game or toy?
  • Who was your best friend?
  • What did you do on Saturday afternoons?
  • What do you remember about school?

Good interviewers refrain from interrupting. Ask the question and then let the person respond without your interjections or comments. Sometimes the temptation to jump in and start a conversation is great, but keep in mind that this is a recording of someone's memories, not a family free-for-all. Never stop the interviewee's remembering. Memory is fragile and a flow of thoughts can lead someone to uncover something that they haven't thought of in years.

The Set-up

If at all possible be sure to let your subjects know in advance that you'd like to interview them. It's only polite! Some people won't need advance notice and will gladly participate on a moment's notice, but others may need time to mentally prepare. You can help prime the pump by having a few old photographs on hand to help bring back the memories.

Place the microphone near the interviewee. Test the recording levels first by recording a snippet of conversation and then playing it back.

Some people become nervous at the sight of a microphone. If you find this to be the case, place the microphone somewhere where it is inconspicuous, but close enough to get a good recording level.

Have extra tapes and batteries available. It can be very disappointing to run out of tape or batteries in the middle of a good story! Recording stories on video has become easier with new technologies. Many cell phones and digital cameras now have video-recording capacity, and regular video cameras have become smaller, inexpensive and easier to operate. After filming your interview, you can even share it with others by uploading it to YouTube.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

11/15/2007:
"As an ESL teacher in Taiwan, I found this program extremely helpful in classroom teaching. It helps motivate students' interest in writing as well as speaking when they present the selective parts of their final products in public."
11/12/2007:
"I just turned 11 and I enjoy getting new family history information by email too. I can ask more detailed questions two or three at a time and my relatives are free to add anything they want to add each time. Then I can ask the follow up question in the next email."
11/21/2006:
"I made a type of memory book for my mom 2 years before she passed away. It was the best thing I ever did because she was able to enjoy it. What I did was have everyone share a memory that a food/a recipe brought to mind. Boy was it a fun to do. From the 1/2 of a Cockroach in Waynes cornflakes to the making of Spudnut Donuts in an assembly line. I added family photos here and there. One page I added simply had all our school pictures on it with our nicknames under each picture. One memory was from the 60's and 70's of my mom's ability to feed us warm dinner as we drove across the country moving from state to state(as was done every other year it seemed in the Air Force). Mom had Dad rig up something to hold a can of 'beans, soup,etc. . .' and while we drove it heated it up. We would pull over and have a warm meal. Also, we were able to compile our Mom's favorite recipes that only she had known. I simply asked her to tell me a recipe here and there and wrote them down. If we had waited to do something like this as a MEMORY book after she had passed away--we would not have gotten a lot of the recipes that she had in her head. It is a beautiful book full of pictures of the events or people that shared the recipe--most pictures are black and white with a few colored Xeroxed pages to add punch. It was fun to see the recipes that each of my brothers and sisters came up with. We included Aunties, Uncles and cousins in this 'Mother's Day Gift' we made for her. The front cover has the title, 'The Stokes Family Recipes of Life' above my mom's favorite picture of herself and then her name across the bottom of it. This book sits on a little eisle on my piano. I see it everyday and love it! "
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