The Interview of a Lifetime
Students interview each other, posing as journalists and as survivors of the sinking of the Titanic.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
In this lesson, students will learn the different effects of the disaster, engage in survivor and reporter role play, and learn how to pose open-ended questions in order to conduct an effective interview.
- Write five questions that require critical thinking to answer
- Evaluate and revise these five questions in a peer group, so that they elicit interesting and important answers
- Act as "reporters" and conduct an interview by asking and transcribing answers to their interview questions
- Act as "survivors" and answer interview questions with factual accounts of the disaster
- Dress or use props in accordance with the styles of 1912 while taking part in the interview
- Write a question/answer format interview using their questions and "survivor" answers
- Use a word processing program to publish their interviews
- Note to Students (PDF)
- My Titanic Interview (PDF)
- Passenger Ticket (PDF)
- Paper cutter or scissors
- Chart paper and markers
- Props students bring from home
- Paper and pencils
- Computer and printer
Set Up and Prepare
- Make a class set of the Note to Students (PDF) and My Titanic Interview (PDF) reproducibles.
- Schedule the interview dates and give students notes with their dates.
- Print, copy, and cut out copies of the Passenger Ticket (PDF) for your students. I print the tickets on an ivory cardstock to make them more "authentic." Note: You can add your students' real names before handing the tickets out or ask them to add the name of the survivor they're personifying when they get them.
- Lay out a clean sheet of chart paper for brainstorming. Or you may want to use your chalk or white board.
- For the actual interviews on Day 3, you will need to split the class into equal groups of reporters and survivors. Make a list of each group's members.
- Decide where you'd like students to conduct their interviews and make any necessary arrangements for that space. I've used both my classroom and our school's media center. Although each worked well, the media center gave the students more space to break off into small clusters for their question-and-answer sessions.
Your enthusiasm and excitement are key to any classroom role-playing. I find students eager to participate if I've built up the excitement and importance of what they are doing.
Step 1: Begin this lesson by reinforcing the importance of the Titanic's story around the world. Ask students to imagine that they are a reporter from the year 1912. Say to your class:
"You have just been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Your editor has asked you to be waiting on the docks in New York when the Carpathia arrives on the evening of April 17th. You will be given the chance to interview a Titanic passenger who has survived the disaster. There is one catch: you can only ask five questions. If you ask good questions and get good responses for your interview, your boss will put your interview on the front page and give you a big promotion. If you ask questions that aren't important or have obvious answers, you'll be fired and you'll have no way to support your family."
Step 2: Ask the class to brainstorm questions they might want to ask the survivors. Write all of them on the chart paper or white board. Leave space next to each one in order to record the answers in Step 3. Typically, after learning about all aspects of the ship and its voyage for over a week, my class will come up with a list that includes these kinds of questions:
- Did you feel the ship hit the iceberg?
- Were you scared?
- What did you eat for dinner on the last night?
- How long did it take for the ship to sink?
Step 3: Looking at the list, remind the class that they can only ask five questions and they must be ones the world is eager to have answered. Review the questions one by one and ask students to answer them. Record their answers next to the questions.
Step 4: Discuss whether each would be a good question to ask during "the interview of a lifetime." Point out that people want to read details and the best reporters ask questions that give their readers important information from the survivors' perspective. Tell your class the best types of questions are commands that often begin with words like "explain, describe, tell me everything you can remember about…" Finally, ask your class to write questions that would elicit better answers. These are some examples of how the initial questions could be improved:
- Did you feel the ship hit the iceberg? "Yes." Point out how "boring" that answer would be to a reader. It doesn't really give them much information. A better question might be: "Describe the situation on board when Titanic hit the iceberg." This answer would be longer and would demonstrate how passengers were not concerned at first, but later realized the graveness of the situation.
- Were you scared? "Yes." Tell your class that when they're writing their own questions they want to avoid those with obvious answers. Ask them if they could imagine someone answering, "No it was really a lot of fun," to that question. A good reporter might instead say, "Please tell me everything you can remember from the time you boarded the lifeboat until Carpathia rescued you from the Atlantic."
- What did you eat for dinner on the last night? Many of my students are able to give a list of what the 1st- and 3rd-class passengers ate on Sunday, April 14, because it seems to be an area of interest during our earlier study of Titanic's voyage. Remind students that they can only ask five questions and this is probably not one of the most important ones.
- What lifeboat were you on? "Number 7." Again, questions should be important and elicit detailed information. A better question might be, "Could you please explain why so few people made it onto lifeboats?" Tell students that this question would elicit a response that there weren't enough lifeboats, many of the first lifeboats were lowered half empty, and many third-class passengers were unable to get to the upper decks.
Step 5: Before students begin drafting their questions, tell them they will need to select the name of their newspaper — real or fictional. Write names of possible choices on the board. To help students make an informed decision, I tell them that newspapers all over the world reported on the disaster. Those at the forefront included: The Boston Daily Globe, New York's The Evening Sun, The New York Times and the St. Louis Dispatch. In fact, vacationing reporter Carlos Hurd from the St. Louis Dispatch was a passenger on board Carpathia and had already written the first complete story when the ship docked in New York.
Step 6: Before they begin, give them one freebie question that does not count as one of their five. Write the following introduction on the board and direct students to copy the "free" question onto their papers:
"Excuse me, Madam/Sir. My name is ________ and I work for the ________. May I please ask you a few questions? First of all, could you please tell me your name, what class you boarded under, and how you came to be sailing on Titanic?"
Step 7: Ask students to independently draft their interview questions on paper. I advise my students to come up with seven to ten questions initially so that they can narrow them down to the best five.
Step 8: Distribute copies of the Note to Students (PDF). Discuss how they will have the opportunity to become reporters and survivors in two days when they conduct their interviews "for real." Brainstorm the types of items or outfits they may like to use. Review any photos from the Titanic resources you have been using in the classroom. I always remind students that dressing up is optional so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Step 1: Divide students into small groups of 3-4 to test out the questions they have written.
Step 2: One person should read their five best questions. The other members of the group should answer it. The group should then help the writer decide if his questions elicit the type of answer the reporter needs. Continue around the group until everyone has shared and received feedback.
Step 3: Writers should revise their questions either independently or cooperatively with their groups. Meet with students as needed to aid with editing.
Step 4: Pass out copies of the My Titanic Interview (PDF). Students should use this to write their five final questions.
Step 5: Before the day ends, get your students thinking about the next day's interview. Pass each student a Titanic Ticket (PDF). Allow students time to fill in them out if you haven't done so already. Collect the tickets.
Day 3: Interview Day!
Step 1: Explain that half of the class will be reporters first and the other half will play survivors. Read the names of the two groups.
Step 2: Allow students a few minutes to gather props, put on costumes, and prepare for their role. Reporters will need their My Titanic Interview sheets.
Step 3: Separate the survivors from the reporters so they are out of earshot from each other. I usually have reporters inside the room and the survivors in the hall with the door closed.
Step 4: Speak to one group at a time to build up what they're about to do. I speak to the reporters first to ensure they take on their task with seriousness and empathy. My speech to them goes something like this:
"Reporters, I want to thank you very much for waiting so patiently here on the pier. The Carpathia has just docked and I've been told the Titanic passengers will be disembarking very shortly. I know many of you have traveled many miles and are eager to get the interview that could make you famous. I wish you luck, but please remember one thing; these people have just been through the biggest disaster of their lives. Only two days ago they watched their husbands, sons, daughters and friends perish before their eyes in the icy waters of the Atlantic. Imagine their pain, their heartbreak. I beg you to treat them kindly. Be gentle with your approach and ask their permission to be interviewed after you introduce yourself. Please wait here quietly while I help prepare the survivors."
Step 5: With the door closed, speak to your survivors in order to get the most out of their role-playing. My speech goes something like this:
"Titanic survivors, I know your trip has been long and hard. I understand you are extremely sad and distraught by the events of the past few days. I can tell many of you have been crying and I see no smiles on your faces at all. You have just been through the worst experience of your life. You need to know there are reporters waiting on the other side of this door to talk to you. They will be kind. The whole world is waiting to hear your stories. Please do your best to tell them everything you remember when you are asked a question. Are you ready, survivors?"
Step 6: Now I open the door and call off the survivor names from the ticket they completed the day before. I hand them their ticket and send them towards the reporters.
Step 7: Reporters gently take the survivors one by one until everyone is engaged in the asking and answering of questions. Circulate throughout the room. I encourage my students to interview more than one survivor.
Step 8: Tell the class it's time to switch roles when you observe the interviews have been completed. Allow a few minutes for students to change their props. Repeat Steps 4-6.
Step 1: Explain that most interviews are printed word for word. But tell students that they will be allowed to edit and revise their answers to make them as complete and factual as possible. After editing and revising, students are ready to publish.
Step 2: Have students type their interviews in the computer lab or on classroom computers using a word processing program of your choice. I model the page set-up on my computer before the students begin. Monitor students as they type their interviews, helping as necessary. When the interviews are completed, print them in black and white.
Supporting All Learners
Create a list of "good" questions on hand to use with any students who struggle with writing their own higher-level questions. Sit down with these students and either modify what they've written using your questions as models, or have them choose appropriate questions from your list.
Titanic Theme Day: This past year, my students were so enthusiastic about playing the role of either reporter or survivor that many of them came to school dressed in complete period outfits. When 9-year-old boys willingly and eagerly wear three-piece suits to school, you know they're into the assignment. Although I wasn't planning to conduct the interviews until the afternoon, I asked students if they'd like to wear their props that morning and every single child who wasn't already decked out (no pun intended) took me up on the offer. This year I decided to have a "Titanic Theme Day" where students are encouraged to wear their garb all day, design and write a postcard home describing their trip, and we have a formal afternoon tea with period music.
The Titanic Diaries: If your students enjoy role-playing, do a bit more during their writing time. Ask students to put themselves onboard the Titanic and complete three diary entries. Before each entry, I set the mood by turning off the lights and providing the setting, some imagery, and their writing goal. Here's one way you could proceed:
- Start with the launch date of April 10 and ask students to write about their first few minutes on the ship and to describe their stateroom.
- For April 12th's entry, have students write about the activities, meals, and encounters with other passengers or crew members.
- For April 14th, your students can write about the cold weather and the large number of icebergs they have seen throughout the day. I usually have my students finish their diary when the ship sways slightly and the engines die.
When complete, we cover each diary with water-stained construction paper so that it looks like the books were "rescued."
If you like, write a separate note to parents asking for help in gathering props or costumes for the interviews. Many families may have extras that they would be happy to share. Parents can also be an extremely useful resource in this lesson if your students are not proficient word processors. You may want to ask parent volunteers to help type the interviews.
- Write a list of five to ten possible questions to ask during the interview.
- Participate in a peer group, evaluating each of the five questions.
- Revise and edit interview questions, then record the five best on the My Titanic Interview sheet.
- Record answers to interview questions.
- Publish interview using a word processing program on the computer.
- Did your students have enough information about the disaster to write and answer the interview questions adequately?
- id the students have enough time to gather and bring in props?
- Was enough time provided for the interview?
- Did every child participate in the interview? Did anyone feel uncomfortable because they did/did not have props?
- Were students able to publish on their own in a timely manner? Would parent volunteers be helpful for publishing?
- How were the students interacting?
- Was everyone doing their "best" in order to help classmates write successful interviews?
- Did "reporters" prompt their subjects if they were not getting complete answers?
- Did students answer questions in accordance with the character they chose?
- For example, did the first class passengers act and answer like first class passengers?
Written Outcome: Assess the final interview. Were students able to write higher level thinking questions? Did they edit answers effectively?