Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Art of the Interview

When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher decided to assign how-to speeches. Now, I went to a small Catholic K-8 grade school, so my class had only 20 or so kids in it, all people I'd known for years. Still, I slaved over my speech, which to this day I can only remember as being traumatic. It didn't help that other students did such things as bring in oversized toaster ovens, mix up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and then place the cookie sheet in the oven, only to then whip out the cookie sheet already inside with the already-baked cookies. Compared to them, my speech bombed.

It wasn't until I was in high school, though, when I became a reporter for the Kirkwood High School Call, that I began to lose my fear of public speaking. Rather than having to make presentations to my peers who pretended to feign interest, I was instead applying the same skills, only in a smaller, more personalized way. I was interviewing, and through interviewing, I learned to talk to anyone. Now, years later, I can present to hundreds without feeling sick to my stomach.

One of the key components in the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards Initiative is speaking and listening. These standards, which are designed to prepare students for college and career, are becoming a major focus across the country. The Speaking and Listening section reads as follows: "An important focus of the speaking and listening standards is academic discussion in one-on-one, small-group, and whole-class settings. Formal presentations are one important way such talk occurs, but so is the more informal discussion that takes place as students collaborate to answer questions, build understanding, and solve problems."

Interviewing is an integral part of this process, and one we English teachers often miss. We often use one-on-one discussion or small group discussion, but we miss the idea that students need to question each other. Journalism teachers, however, teach this on a daily basis. Interviewing is a way for students to start small in building up their public speaking repertoire.

I set the stage for interviewing early in the classroom when in the first week I have the students find out three unique things about the person seated next to them and then introduce that person to the class. I allow them to interview me. This breaks the ice and builds positive class climate.

I also incorporate interviewing into many of my lessons. Instead of a student presenting his own book and selling it to the class, I have my students instead interview one another. They must come up with their own questions and after the interview, the student writes up a review of the classmate's book based on the interview, and then this is the information presented to the class.

Through interviewing, students learn how to write questions. They begin to learn that yes or no questions do not provide enough information. Things like "did you like it?" don't fly. Neither do the questions that give one or two word answers. Students need to delve into the who, what, where, why, when and how questions, known in journalism as 5Ws and 1H. These types of questions lend themselves to longer answers. I teach my students that, when interviewing, they need a minimum of five questions, and that it's better to have at least ten.

By the way, I hate the clich√© "there are no dumb questions." I teach my students there are plenty of dumb questions — especially those you should know if you've done some research. So another area I focus on is research. My students shouldn't be asking "What is the book about?" They should instead be asking questions like "How did you relate to (fill in name), the main character?"

In addition, my junior-level English students do interviewing during our Civil War unit, when my students compile an oral history of one of their relatives. We do this activity as a companion to "Unchained Memories," a 2002 HBO documentary showcasing reading the "slave narratives." These 1930s interviews with former slaves are quite powerful. The interviews my students do with family members are also quite powerful and an activity my students love. 

Another way to incorporate interviewing is to require your students to use primary sources in their research projects. Rather than just researching skin cancer using online or printed sources, require them to interview people like tanning salon owners or dermatologists. If they are writing on school budgets, have them send questions to the district's financial officer. Students will research and then draft a list of solid questions, which can then be asked via email, phone or in person. This is much more powerful than simply citing something they read out of an article. Now, instead of simply being compilers of information, they are originators of information. They are actively involved in the acquisition of the information, rather than just passive consumers. They learn to read body cues. They also learn when to speak formally and when to speak informally. Tone becomes second nature, not an obscure term.

Interviewing is something students will be doing the rest of their lives, whether it is to get that first job or to get into college. Interviewing teaches students that they can talk to anyone, because one of the things they learn through interviewing is how to listen. People love to talk about themselves, and by knowing how to ask questions and when to listen, students learn how to communicate successfully. So be sure to go beyond just some class discussion by incorporating interviewing skills. The results are worth it.

(PS — for a great resource on interviewing lessons and handouts, visit www.hsj.org and click on lesson plans.)

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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