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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Writing Workbooks  >  Multiple Skill Levels
How to Interview an Elder

All around us are older people who have wisdom, knowledge, and life stories to share. And you won't believe how interesting they are. All you have to do is ask a few questions to get them started.

Maybe you or your class might like to make a project out of interviewing an elder and sending it to LitSite. We'll post your interview online. You may choose someone in your own family, a neighbor, or perhaps someone you will be meeting for the first time.

How to start?

Well, if you are a curious person, you have the number-one qualification covered. Everybody has a story, and most elders would love to tell theirs. Talk to your parents about your plans to interview an elder, because you may want an adult along with you, then get started. Here's how to conduct an interview:

1. Decide who you want to interview. Some kids in Alaska have no living grandparents, or else they may be living Outside. That doesn't mean you can't choose another person. Have you ever wondered about that elderly neighbor? Was he born here or did he move to Alaska from somewhere else? From where? And what did he do before he retired? How about the nice Native lady who sells crafts at the Alaska Native Hospital? What's her story? Look around you and choose your subject, then ask permission. "Would it be okay if we sat down together sometime and I asked you some questions about your life?" You can bet they'll say, "Yes, I'd like that!" Also ask permission if you plan to take a picture of them to go with your interview.

2. Set up an appointment for a day, time, and place. Pick a place that will be comfortable and safe for them and you. If you don't want to do it alone, invite your mom or dad to come along. You'll want a place that doesn't have a lot of distractions, such as a noisy restaurant or outside near a road.

3. Bring along a digital recorder or tape recorder. (And make sure the batteries are working.) Test everything ahead of time to be sure it won't stop working halfway through the interview. You won't be able to write fast enough when your elder is talking, so later on you can play it back as you type up the interview.

4. Prepare a list of questions. It's always best to plan ahead and have a list of good questions written down. Then, as you're talking, new questions may come up from the answers you are getting. For instance, if you said, "What was your favorite job?" and the man you are interviewing says, "I loved working on airplanes back during World War II." Well, now you are really curious: "Where were you stationed? What was your rank?"

To begin, your list of questions should include the basics.
Name (ask them to spell it), birthday (if they don't mind sharing), where they were born, family, job, favorite things and places and memories. From that framework, you can ask the questions that will help you know them better as a person and not just as a list of facts. Remember to ask questions such as, "What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you?" (Or the funniest, most embarrassing, etc.) Also ask, "Who is the one person that helped make you the person you are today?" or "Tell me about one day in your life that you wish you could live all over again."

See the trend? Start shallow, then go deeper with your questions.

Ask questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. The best, most revealing answers will come when the question is open-ended. So instead of asking, "Did they have Big Macs when you were a kid?" (which would be answered simply "No, they didn't.") Try this way: "What was the favorite thing your mom used to make for you?" or "What kind of junk food did kids eat when you were little?"

Take a picture before you go. (That's if you have permission!) A digital photo of your elder is a perfect addition to your finished interview on

5. Say thanks. Say it out loud before and after your interview. But to show your appreciation, you may also want to bring a small gift. It doesn't have to be an expensive thing from the store. Maybe a handful of flowers, or a small jar of jelly, or a sincere thank-you note that you've written. But be sure to show that elder that you do appreciate his or her gift to you-sharing the special details of a life.

6. Go home and get to work.
With the recorder nearby to play back the interview, type up the best parts. Remember, not everything will need to go into your typed document-sometimes we all ramble a bit when we're talking-so it's okay to jump around and include the best stuff. At the top include your name and the date that you interviewed your elder. Include your grade and school, too. Then, for the interview portion, type the question first, and the answer afterward. Look at two sample interviews that we've already posted here for a guide.

7. Show it to your parents and/or your teacher, and get their help to send it in!  Click here to submit your materials.

Related Articles
Elder Interview with Walter Austin
Elder Interview with Alberta Stephan

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