This Thanksgiving, Try StoryCorps' Oral History Project

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 19, 2017 12:07 am

With enough divisive topics to go around the Thanksgiving table this year, dinner debates can easily steal our attention away from loved ones. StoryCorps suggests using its app to have a meaningful, one-on-one conversation, as part of its Great Thanksgiving Listen project, where kids interview their elders about their lives. But anyone with a smartphone can participate.

"The microphone can give you the license to ask questions that you might otherwise shy away from asking," StoryCorps founder Dave Isay recently told NPR's Scott Simon. "People are learning about their family's personal stories and also helping to capture and share the wisdom of humanity."

StoryCorps created a toolkit for the project for teachers to help students prepare for their interviews. Here are some interview tips.

In recordings uploaded for last year's Great Thanksgiving Listen, young people ask brave questions. Corey Chun, then 13 years old, used the opportunity to ask her grandmother about her grandfather's death. Lauren Bonner, also 13 at the time, interviews her grandfather, who tells her about a regret that almost was.

You can hear excerpts from Lauren Bonner's and Corey Chun's Great Thanksgiving Listen interviews by clicking the audio button above.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by NPR's Samantha Balaban.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at

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The Great Thanksgiving Listen is a project of StoryCorps, a nonprofit that puts a couple of people in a booth and records their conversation. Those conversations become part of the archive at the Library of Congress. There's also a StoryCorps app, so the conversation can take place over a dinner table, which is what Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, hopes people will do this Thanksgiving holiday. Dave, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVE ISAY: Scott, it's great to be here.

SIMON: Now, it's been almost three years since StoryCorps launched the app. Who typically talks to each other?

ISAY: It's very much like the typical StoryCorps interview. It's often intergenerational. And, you know, that's why this Great Thanksgiving Listen idea we started exactly two years ago - the idea was to pick a day where we could get as many people as possible recording together. So the idea was to have high school social studies and history teachers assign their students to record a relative - usually, a grandparent, a parent - over Thanksgiving weekend.

SIMON: Dave, we'd like to listen to a few people. What about a young woman named Lauren Bonner (ph)?

ISAY: Sure. This is a piece of tape from last year's Great Thanksgiving Listen. Lauren's interviewing her grandfather Claude (ph) in upstate New York.

LAUREN BONNER: Is there anything you regret having not told somebody?

CLAUDE: I don't know if you would call this a regret because, actually, it was prevented.

ISAY: And Claude goes on to tell his granddaughter a story of paying a quick visit to his mother at her apartment in Brooklyn one day to pick up a package.

CLAUDE: I was really in a rush. And I took whatever package my mother had ready, and I headed for the door. And my mother called back to me. And she said you're not even going to kiss me goodbye? And I stopped immediately, and I went back, and I kissed my mother. And I said, I'm sorry, mom. Well, that following Monday morning, my mother was struck and killed by a car. So it was the last time I ever saw my mother. I mean, I could have very easily gone out the door and never told her I love her. And those words would've been really lost forever. And it's not quite the answer to your question. But that's what came to my mind in any case.

BONNER: It definitely answers the question.

SIMON: You know, and that's the kind of thing that we need to hear from each other. And, sometimes, hearing it from someone we don't know (laughter) makes more of an impression.

ISAY: Do you want to hear another one?

SIMON: Please.

ISAY: This is an interview of a young woman named Corey interviewing her grandmother last year during Thanksgiving. And she uses the opportunity to ask questions about the death of her grandfather.

COREY: No one ever told me this. Like, my mom won't tell me - where did he die? And, like, how did he die?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He died in my bedroom. And the night before he died, for some reason, he couldn't sleep, and I didn't sleep. And we were just talking about our lives. We talked until 4 o'clock in the morning. And he never woke up.

COREY: Think that was fate?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it was fate because we shared our whole life that night. And why would we have chosen that night to do it?

COREY: Yeah.

ISAY: And think of this happening tens of thousands of times over Thanksgiving weekend. It is a beautiful thing. And it feels like now is the time. You know, every day, Scott, people come up to me and say, you know, I wish I had interviewed my grandfather, my father, my brother - but I waited too long. So we use Thanksgiving as an excuse not to wait too long. Someone said to me recently, procrastination has an expiration date. And that's something to think about.

SIMON: Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps. And the Great Thanksgiving Listen happens in classrooms across the country next week. But anyone can take part in recording a family member over the holiday weekend. Just have to go to to get started. Dave, thanks so much for brightening our holidays to come.

ISAY: Thank you, Scott. Great to talk to you, as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.