As students head back to school, here comes a big homework assignment: StoryCorps wants tens of thousands of teenagers across America to interview a grandparent or elder this Thanksgiving and upload their recordings to the Library of Congress.
The nonprofit oral history organization is asking high school history teachers to have their students record the interviews with StoryCorps' free smartphone application. Recordings sent to the library will become part of a publicly accessible archive at the American Folklife Center.
"The Great Thanksgiving Listen" is an assignment that will last for generations, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay said.
"When young people do these interviews and they hit 'send' at end of the interview to the library, they know that their great-great-great-great-great-grandkids are going to get to eavesdrop on this conversation someday and get to understand where they come from, who their ancestors were," Isay said in a telephone interview.
He hopes it becomes an annual tradition that brings families closer together by using modern technology to preserve the wisdom of elders.
The students could tap into memories of events dating back to the 1920s, but Isay said the stories are less important than the fact that two people are talking.
"The purpose of StoryCorps is to have the two people who have this conversation feel more connected with each other and give the person who is being interviewed the chance to be heard," he said. "It's not so much what's in the stories as what the experience is like for the people who are recording."
Brandon Clarke, an administrator at the private Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York, is enthusiastic about the project. He said StoryCorps, which is headquartered near the school, interviewed some of his teachers while developing an instructional guide for the Thanksgiving project.
A couple weeks before the holiday, Berkeley Carroll students may get some classroom exercises aimed at sharpening their interview skills, Clarke said.
"How do you develop good questions? How do you go about conducting an interview? How do you build off of a really interesting response?"
But Isay said interviewing isn't hard. He said he has learned from listening to some of the 60,000 conversations StoryCorps has collected since 2003 that people are naturally good at it.
"It's just a matter of concentrating, being present, making sure you're in a quiet place," he said. "I think people understand the importance of the moment and they treat it very seriously."
About 13 million radio listeners hear edited versions of StoryCorps interviews every Friday on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." StoryCorps also shares excerpts of recordings through animated videos, podcasts and through its website. Those stories are largely selected from the 5,000 interviews done annually by visitors to StoryCorps' mobile recording booth or its permanent booths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta.
Users of the StoryCorps app, released in March, have recorded and uploaded 10,000 interviews. The app was funded by a $1 million TED prize and a $600,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Isay said the Thanksgiving project will help spread the notion — championed by the late Chicago writer, historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel — that history comes from the bottom up.
"This is a really great example of how oral history is really history," Clarke said. "For it to be legitimate history, it doesn't have to appear in print in a carefully edited book. Individual stories, individual perspectives are also part of history."