Interviewing a Character from History

Interviewing is a skill that may have been developed in a language context but it can be put to good use in a history setting. The idea is that characters from our past are interviewed about events surrounding their lives.
The skills of interviewing only come with preparation and with practice, and pupils will need support, encouragement and direction to develop the techniques.

This activity might come at the completion of a topic in the history curriculum, for example, after completing a study of changing land ownership in the 19th century Ireland where the teacher has put a particular emphasis on land ownership in the locality.

The children need training in compiling a range of questions or topics that they wish to cover in the interview. They should be encouraged to listen to the answers given and to follow these answers with consequential questions so that they learn to probe another’s ideas ever deeper when necessary.

Help the children to see that the character can be multi-dimensional. In looking at the character of an evicting landlord that it is recognised that in evicting tenants the landlord might have had a reason or reasons that from her/his point of view is positive such to increase profits, to improve the land, to prevent bankruptcy.

Guard against a superiority attitude towards people from the past There can be a view of people from the past being less intelligent, less civilised, less competent, etc. While these traits or lack of them can be levelled at some people past and present it is not because they lived in a particular era that they lacked these traits.

Preparing for the interview.
The details of the questions to be asked should be worked out in advance. The teacher can assist the children in the process. "I am asking this question because I want to know if… If I get this answer …I will follow with this question…If I get this answer… instead I will ask this question…"
The teacher might take the role of the historic character or one of the children might do so. This child should also be given the chance to prepare. As in drama the child should be encouraged’ to get into character’.

The interview.
A short interview session of not more than a couple of minutes will be enough at the early stages but as the children gain experience in this type of exercise longer sessions will be needed.
In the topic changing ‘land ownership in the 19th century’ quite a number of interviews can be carried out such with the evicted tenant and members of the family, with the landlord or the agent, with neighbours or friends of both sides.

The benefits of such an exercise are clear. It gives the teacher the opportunity of evaluating the children’s grasp of the particular period, it can help to check the range and depth of their skills as historians and it can inform one’s own teaching in an effective manner. From the children’s perspective it gives them further opportunities to clarify the judgements and analysis they had made of the topic.