The folks at StoryCorps weren’t sure whether their grand experiment was going to work.
Long known for collecting oral history interviews in mobile recording booths around the country, StoryCorps recently unveiled a new app that let anyone record a conversation at any time. Founder Dave Isay was hoping that teachers would use it in their classrooms, nudging tens of thousands of kids to interview their elders over the Thanksgiving holiday.
By Thursday of that week, just 6,000 interviews had been uploaded. But then Sunday night rolled around, and an avalanche of young procrastinators filed their homework, using the app to send their interviews to StoryCorps and to an archive at the Library of Congress.
“We got tens of thousands in a matter of hours. It was really wild and beautiful to see,” Isay said in an interview. “I’m thrilled, and totally blown away.”
Listen to a 78-year-old grandfather tell a story about the time he found a set of dentures in the street:
Within just a few days of the first annual Great Thanksgiving Listen, StoryCorps had gathered more than 50,000 interviews, most of them conducted by young people speaking with their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors.
Marie Graham, a middle school social studies teacher in Atlanta, turned the Great Thanksgiving Listen into a class project.
She taught lessons in asking good questions, and she brought in a psychologist to talk to students about how to listen actively and how to handle emotional conversations. She set her students loose for the long Thanksgiving weekend, and afterwards they listened to each other’s interviews. It was a powerful exercise in empathy for an age group that is not always empathetic, she said.
“What blew me away was how compassionate the kids were for each other, and how vulnerable they were willing to make themselves,” said Graham, who teaches at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. “It’s a big deal when you see 13 year old boys crying. They were really emotional.”
One girl interviewed her grandmother about growing up in poverty in the 1940s.
Another student’s grandfather thanked him for the interview, saying he’d always wanted to tell his story. Another girl interviewed her parents about her adoption.
“She said to me later, ‘I feel like I now know part of my history that I didn’t know before,'” Graham said. She said she’ll use the app in the future because her students got so much from the experience. “They learned how to interview someone. They learned how to handle strong emotions when you’re talking to someone. They learned how you can cull history from people’s stories.”
Isay said this is really the point of StoryCorps — the experience. Even though it’s best known for (often tear-jerking) excerpts broadcast on NPR, StoryCorps is about giving people a way to have meaningful conversations and connections that they might otherwise not have, Isay said.
“It’s not the final product that’s important — it’s the interviews themselves. We think of ourselves as a social service or a public service,” Isay said. “What you hear on the radio is just a wonderful corollary.”
StoryCorps employees have dug into just a fraction of the Great Thanksgiving Listen recordings. And they’re not quite sure what they’re going to do with those many hours of audio. But so far, they’re impressed.
“We have people working around the clock listening to these things, and what they’re hearing is just completely in the spirit of how a StoryCorps interview is supposed to be done,” Isay said, adding that there had been uncertainty that young people would be able to pull off the intimate conversations for which StoryCorps is known.
“Are they going to be able to do this? Can teenagers do this?” Isay recalled some people wondering. “And they’ve just done it beautifully.”