I have been teaching high school English Language Arts for over fourteen years now. Throughout those years, I have assigned hundreds, maybe even a thousand, homework assignments to bright-eyed students who have stuffed the work into backpacks and recorded due dates in tattered planners. I never thought to keep an ongoing record of how much work I have assigned over the years. But I do have a fairly accurate idea of how many students have thanked me for giving them homework in high school. That number is somewhere around, oh, I don’t know . . . Let’s just say it is a very, VERY low number.
And I get it. Nobody likes homework, especially when the skills that are being practiced may not always seem relevant to a teenager’s life in the present. Most sixteen-year-olds, even the most diligent and scholarly, would rather be sleeping, eating, or dating than writing a detailed literary analysis for me, and I understand this. Plus, I live with my own tween/teen boys, and I am fully aware that we are all smarter as teenagers than we will be at any other point in our lives.
But some assignments are different, and I want to tell you about one of them. I receive actual thank you notes from my students for assigning this senior citizen interview project. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It is an incredible way for your child to disconnect from technology, practice face-to-face communication skills, and LEARN really important historical information. It can strengthen family relationships and may even help students retain some academic skills over the summer. Students of all ages can participate. I encourage YOU to assign your own children or grandchildren this project over the summer months.
Now that I’ve gotten you really excited about this project, you may be expecting your kids to feel excited about this, too. Maybe they will cheer and give you warm bear hugs when you tell them that you found this great summer homework idea on a random teacher’s blog on the Internet! This is not going to happen. My teacher experience tells me that your kids may make some unhappy grumbling sounds or mumble something indiscernible under their breath or roll their eyes. Or maybe they will do all three while also shaking their heads as if you are a total disgrace to parents everywhere. This is a perfectly normal reaction. Do not surrender! The “thank you” will come later. I promise.
You won’t regret this. Just trust me. Or trust Adam, one of my amazing students:
Or believe Amarah, another one of my incredible students:
I even completed this project myself after assigning it to my students several years ago. I interviewed my own grandmother using the original assignment, which led me to continue calling her to ask her more questions that had not been on the list. Eventually this morphed into a binder that included my grandmother’s answers, my family’s special personal memories, photos, and recipes compiled as a gift for my grandmother for Christmas. I read through that book this morning while preparing this blog, and it remains one of my favorite gifts and keepsakes ever, especially now that my grandmother has passed.
So let’s get this homework assignment started!
Schedule a time for your children to interview a senior citizen. I encourage my students to choose a family member if possible, but I know that this isn’t possible for everyone. Interviewing an older friend or neighbor will also be very educational. Older generations, like great-grandparents, have even more historical details to share, so do not overlook them when choosing someone to interview.
Your children should ask permission to interview this person, meet when it is convenient, and explain that the person is free to share as much or as little as she feels comfortable. Audio or video recordings are wonderful keepsakes, but only if the senior citizen approves. This year, a student submitted her interview as an audio recording instead of in writing. I was going to ask her to transcribe it for me, but before I knew it I had listened to the full twenty-six minutes! (I had over 100 to grade, so assessing audio recordings was not time efficient.) Listening to her interact with her grandfather was incredibly engaging. You could literally hear their admiration for and understanding of one another growing as they talked.
(Note: If your children see their grandparents often, they are likely to say that they already know their grandparents very well. Ignore this. I knew my grandmother well, but I did not know that she pole vaulted in high school! My grandma did that? NO WAY! My students ALWAYS say they learned new information, even students who live with their grandparents. Think about your normal conversations. We typically don’t dig very deeply into personal details.)
Choose questions. I usually provide a list of questions for my students to pick from based on what they already know about their senior citizen. For example, asking about how weddings and marriage have changed can spark a very interesting conversation with some interviewees, while that question might be too painful for others. Help your children choose appropriate questions. I’m adding extra questions here beyond what I use with my students so that you have plenty to choose from.
Encourage your children to ask follow-up questions or to ask for more explanation. This is a great conversational skill to learn!
This list has been edited and revised multiple times since 2001, so I don’t recall which questions I created, which ones I added from other sources, and which ones were from the original assignment created by a teacher at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis North Carolina where I taught many years ago.
- When and where were you born? How did your parents choose your name?
- What is your definition of a hero? Who is someone you would consider a hero and why?
- What major historical events have occurred in your lifetime? How did they change the world? How did they affect you personally?
- What are the advantages of being a senior citizen? What are the disadvantages?
- What advice for living a good life would you give today’s teenage generation? What would you warn me to stay away from? What would you suggest I spend more time doing?
- How do you feel about teenagers today? What do you like and dislike about them as a group?
- How do you see families changing in today’s society? How do you feel about that?
- Tell me about your own parents. What impressed you about them? How were they similar to and different from parents today?
- If you could change one thing about society today, what would it be? Why?
- What are a few of the most memorable aspects of your childhood?
- What was your favorite toy as a child? Why?
- Share a holiday memory from your childhood.
- What kind of entertainment did you enjoy when you were a teenager?
- What does being an American mean to you? What is the greatest responsibility of being an American? What is the greatest privilege?
- How was your parents’ culture a part of your childhood? Did you have any special traditions or recipes that were tied to your ancestry? Did you share these with your children?
- What are the most significant changes that you have seen in society throughout your lifetime? Do you consider these changes to be positive or negative?
- How has your own perspective on life changed since you were a teenager? Why?
- What was your wedding like? How was it different from weddings today? How long have you been married, and how old were you when you got married?
- What advice would you give a couple that is just starting their marriage?
- What advice would you give a teenager who is starting to date?
- How much have prices changed since you were a teenager? How much did a gallon of gas cost? A new house? A new car? A candy bar? How much did your first job pay?
- What is the one rule of life that you live by and that has guided your actions? Why?
- What is the best gift that you ever received? Why is it memorable?
- Describe any memories of wartime that you have.
- How did you spend your free time when you were a child? Do you think kids today are lucky or unlucky to have their own televisions, computers, and cell phones?
- If you had a chance to do something that you have not yet done in life, what would it be? Why?
- How have schools and education changed since you were a child?
- When you were a kid, who did you look up to? Why?
- What is something that you remember disagreeing with your parents about when you were young? Looking back, who was “right”?
- Tell me about a funny memory from your childhood. Tell me about a happy memory. Tell me about a sad memory. Tell me about a time you were afraid. Tell me about a time you felt proud.
- Finish this sentence. “Looking back, one thing I wish I had known as a young adult was . . . “
- What advice do you have for someone facing a really hard time in life? What has gotten you through your hardest times?
- Are their any special heirlooms that are being passed down in our family?
- Do you have a favorite song, book, meal, color, quotation, or religious verse?
- You know me well. What are your goals and wishes for my future?
Preserve it. Maybe your child could type the interview and share it with someone else who will appreciate it, if the interviewee doesn’t mind sharing. Maybe your child could use the interview to write a special letter to the person who was interviewed. As a teacher, I assign my students to write a reflection essay. I don’t give them a specific topic because each student walks away from each interview with a different takeaway and a different emotional response. However, students could be assigned to write about several lessons they learned or ways society has changed or answers that most surprised them. Some students have also chosen to write beautiful poems inspired by their interviews as part of a creative writing project at the end of the year.
Show gratitude. I require my students to write a thank you note to the person who was interviewed, and I encourage them to share their final essay with that person, as well. They typically walk away with a deeper appreciation for the person who was interviewed, so they are eager to share their thanks. They sometimes write me a thank you note, as well! (No more eye rolls!)
Friends, I am telling you that you will not regret sharing this homework assignment with your kids. This year, one of my students worked so hard on her reflection essay that she revised it over and over again until she felt in her heart that it truly honored her grandmother. Multiple students told me that they thought their grandparents really didn’t like teenagers or that they thought teenagers and senior citizens had little in common, but they discovered that their assumptions were completely wrong. Many had no idea how much adversity the senior citizens they interviewed had overcome.
This assignment always reminds me that English Language Arts is a humanity, and that the humanities are important because they teach us how to be human. Students have left my classroom as better writers and students have left my classroom as better editors and students have left my classroom with better test scores. That is all very good.
But if students leave my classroom as better people, then maybe I have truly done the job that I’m supposed to do.