Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Doing Oral History with Vietnam War Veterans

Created October 11, 2017


The Lesson


Jack Power, Doing Oral History with Vietnam veterans

Jack Power, a Vietnam veteran, interviewed by Maryland high school students for the Vietnam Oral History Project.

Credit: Screenshot from video: Vietnam Oral History Project: Jack Power

I believe the way we are now had its beginnings in Vietnam. If we can unpack Vietnam, we may be able to unpack the kind of divisions we have now."Ken Burns, in Julie Hinds, “Ken Burns Coming to Ann Arbor to Preview Epic Vietnam Series”, Detroit Free Press online Published 11:01 p.m. ET April 15, 2017

“The generation who passed through the war are only ready now to have this kind of conversation,” Lynn Novick co-director of The Vietnam War, in Fiachra Gibbons, “Ken Burns Tackles Vietnam War in 'Visceral' 18-Hour TV History,” L’Agence France Press (AFP) online. Published April 2, 2017 AFP

When students shrug their shoulders and don’t seem to care about a topic of study, it’s likely they lack historical empathy. When students empathize with persons or historical figures from the past, they come to understand the past in a personally meaningful and memorable way.

Bringing in primary sources, such as oral histories, to supplement the textbook is essential, and oral histories are a particularly valuable tool for cultivating historical empathy and nurturing a sense of caring among students. Oral history makes history personal!

The purpose of this lesson is to bring the Vietnam War to life through student-led interviews with Vietnam veterans. Students will practice research, critical thinking, and inquiry and interpretation skills while producing their own primary sources. In this lesson, the oral history process has been broken down into a series of steps, each with links to an oral history toolkit, teacher notes, and student worksheets. By following these steps, students will interact with a historical figure in an engaging and exciting way, making history come alive for them and their classmates. 

Throughout the lesson, there are links to sections of the Oral History Toolkit, prepared by Dr. Barry Lanham.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the Vietnam War affect the soldiers who fought in it?
  • How can oral history be used to learn about the past?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to

  • Describe in detail the steps in the oral history process
  • Give an account of their research for the oral history interview
  • Describe the oral history interview
  • Explain and evaluate a student developed oral history interview

College and Career Readiness Standards

RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

C3 Framework Standards:

 D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.

D4.3.9-12. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations that feature evocative ideas and perspectives on issues and topics to reach a range of audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).

D4.4.9-12. Critique the use of claims and evidence in arguments for credibility.


Over fifty years ago the United States became embroiled in a civil war in the small southeast Asian nation of Vietnam, which was divided between a Communist regime led by Ho Chi Minh in the North and a pro-American regime in the South. The story of America’s long involvement in this war has been told many times, most recently by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak in their epic television series The Vietnam War. This lesson focuses on the stories of the veterans who fought in the war.

The Vietnam War became the backdrop against which hundreds of thousands of American military personnel made the transition from youth to adult. Whether these men and women went voluntarily or were drafted, many say they are proud of their service and would not give up the experiences they had had in Vietnam. Living in stifling temperatures that ranged from 90 to120 degrees, these men and women learned to appreciate the simple beauty of a cold glass of water, a set of dry socks, and the very gift that is another day. They left for war taking many of these simple luxuries for granted and returned home with a greater appreciation for the life we have in the United States. The war forced them to take responsibility for others and to trust their fellow service members as they worked for something that was far bigger than themselves. They ate, fought, slept, celebrated, and wept with other men and women in service, and many cannot describe the bond that formed as a result of those experiences. Many have said that the only people they really can connect with are others who have served in Vietnam. As time passes, we are losing the opportunity to collect the stories of these men and women. We should preserve many of their stories as possible so that future generations can truly understand the service member’s perspective in Vietnam.

Oral History

The oral history process is an evolving series of steps that an educator can take to teach students fundamental skills in the development of pertinent questions, the interview process and the background research that must be done to give validity to the source (in this case the veteran interviewee). These are life skills that students can use outside of the classroom. They give students a chance to make real world connections within their communities. To better understand oral history as an educational experience, teachers should begin with Barry Lanman’s video introduction to this process.

Preparation and Resources

TOOL KIT©: Oral History as an Educational Experience

Screenshot of Tool Kt title and index

A set of protocols to guide students in preparing an effective oral history interview. This tool kit is referenced throughout the Lesson Activities.

List of Potential Equipment for an oral history experience

  • Digital video recorder (A backup recorder is suggested.)
  • It is recommended that the video recorder should be of 4K digital quality or better with the appropriate memory cards. However, smart phones, tablets, or other forms of digital recording may be used if a 4K digital video recorder is not available.
  • Tripod for the recorder
  • Two external microphones and splitter (to connect to recorder): one for the interviewee and one for the interviewer. Mikes can be lavalier, table top, or boom style (above the interviewee and interviewer).
  • Headphones
  • Cables and connectors
  • Power cords
  • Extension cords
  • Batteries
  • Manual for the recorder and other technical equipment
  • A list of all equipment
  • Prepared question outline(s) and research notes
  • A pad to take notes and pens
  • Legal agreement(s) for the interviewee to sign after the interview
  • A blank list for any documents, photographs, or artifacts you borrow for reproduction
  • Transcription equipment/software
  • Editing software and/or a “movie-maker” program 

Activity 1. Vietnam War History Lesson

Activity 2. Oral History and Vietnam Veterans

Activity 3. Preliminary Interview

Activity 4. Research

 Activity 5. Interview Questions

Activity 6. The Interview

Activity 7. The Transcript

Summative Assessment

Extending the Lesson


Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Vietnam War History Lesson

Teach students a brief unit on the Vietnam War using suggested sources below:

Activity 2. Oral History and Vietnam Veterans

Begin the Oral History lesson by reviewing these sections of the toolkit Defining Oral History, Oral History as an Educational Methodology, and Benefits of Using Oral History in the Classroom. With this background, teachers should show the student-produced videos Vietnam Oral History: Jack Power and Vietnam Oral History: Gene Feher so their students will have an idea of what they will be creating. See Activity 2: Before You Begin. Next, give students a list of job positions associated with an oral history video. Organize students into groups of four or five and have them choose jobs based on their interests. See Activity 2: Choosing Group Positions for help with this step. Next, assign each group to a veteran volunteer.

Activity 3. Preliminary Interview

Review Selected Instructional Techniques to Prepare Student Oral Historians. Have student groups conduct preliminary phone interviews to gather the background research for their veterans. See Activity 3, Teacher Notes 1: Preparing and Conducting the Preliminary Interview and Activity 3, Student Worksheet 1: The Preliminary Interview Questions to help students identify the kinds of background information they will need to collect during their preliminary interviews.

Activity 4. Research

Give research time for students to conduct the background research on the time period relating to their veteran’s service dates. See Activity 4, Teacher Notes: Preparing for Research  and Activity 4, Student Worksheet 2: Research Notes for a notes page the students can use to guide them through their research.

Activity 5: Interview Questions

Review Specialized Issues and Considerations for an Oral History Experience Interviewing Vietnam Veterans. Then, design the interview questions. See Activity 5, Teacher Notes 3: Designing Interview Questions and Activity 5, Student Worksheet 3: Interview Questions Development. Teachers should also be sure to take a look at the Activity 5, Teacher Notes 4: The Deed of Gift. A Deed of Gift is a legal document that will be signed by the interviewees gifting the rights to the interview to the school/school system. Some school systems may already have a Deed of Gift teachers can use. If necessary, it is very easy to write one up for your school or school system. Be sure to get appropriate guidance from school administrators. 

Activity 6. The Interview

On interview day, teachers should review Activity 6, Teacher Notes 5: Interview Day and may want to use the Activity 6, Sample: Veteran Contact Information Sheet to collect veterans’ details for use later when writing thank you notes. Conduct and record the interviews. Students should hand-write thank-you notes, and the notes should be sent to the veterans the week following the interview. 

Activity 7. The Transcript

After the interview has been completed, it is time to produce the transcripts. See Activity 7, Teacher Notes 6: The Time-Stamped Transcript. All students should have access to an electronic version of Activity 7, Student Worksheet 4: The Time-Stamped Transcript Matrix, so that they can use the expandable chart to produce their transcripts. To see a sample time-stamped transcript, see Activity 7, Sample: Student-Produced, Time-Stamped Transcript.


The Digital Story

Review Student Oral History Projects and Evaluation of the Oral History Process and Oral History Products. The Summative Assessment will provide your students with the opportunity to analyze their interview in its entirety and narrow the focus to one or two main ideas. This part of the process takes some time. Once your students have identified the story line they want to follow, they should begin construction of the digital history. See Teacher Notes: the Digital Story Assessment and Student Worksheet 5: The Perfect Video Checklist. For samples of student produced Digital Stories see Vietnam Oral History: Jack Power  and Vietnam Oral History: Gene Feher.

Extending The Lesson

The culmination of the Oral History Experience can be celebrated as a community event. Send invitations to the veteran participant and their families and to the students and their families so that they can view the completed digital stories together. It is a good idea to invite local politicians, businesses, media, and school personnel and administrators to see the hard work your students have been doing. You may also want to ask local businesses to donate funds for refreshments and have a student or two volunteer to act as the emcee(s) of the event. Contact a local JROTC and ask if they might bring a color guard unit. You can involve your school’s band, which might play a military medley during the ceremony. The community event can be an exciting opportunity for the teacher, the veterans, the students, and the community to share the important contribution to history that your students have made.

A note on preservation: Of all the steps in an oral history experience, preservation of the oral history interviews is usually the least developed component. This is often attributed to cost, lack of archival expertise, and the inability to find an organization willing to catalogue and preserve the oral history materials. It is imperative to consider this important element in order to safeguard and disseminate the oral history interviews produced. Teachers should consult the section of the toolkit devoted to the Preservation of Student Oral History Interviews with Veterans to determine what student components are to be preserved, decide what organizations will be considered for preservation, and review the various preservation suggestions.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Contemporary United States (1968 To The Present)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Logical reasoning
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Jennifer Davidson, Southern High School (Harwood, MD)