by Paula Rogovin

Stephan, the father of one of my students, sat in a rocking chair, facing the class. A roomful of first graders, interview journals in hand, stared back at him.

"What's your job?" asked Lilli.

"I drive the L train for the MTA," he replied. A ripple of excitement swept through the children at the news that Stephan drove a New York City subway train. They fired off one question after another: "How did you learn to drive the subway train?" "Where does your train go?" "What happens if your train stops in the tunnel?" "Can we ride on your train someday?"

As part of "People at Work," our yearlong social studies project investigating different kinds of jobs, my students will conduct up to 40 interviews of parents and other community members. The interview is a powerful tool for inquiry-based, multicultural learning that goes far beyond the range of any textbook. For kids of all grade levels, question-and-answer interaction can enrich lessons about different cultures, history, immigration, civics, and many other social studies topics.

The first week of school, my students made a list of the jobs that interested them: drivers of all kinds of vehicles, construction workers, singers, dancers, and athletes. I also sent home a survey asking parents to describe their jobs, to find out whether any matched those on our list. When I found out that one of the fathers was a train operator, I was thrilled. What a great way to do research about people who drive vehicles!

Stephan's job was to answer the children's questions. Mine was to serve as an interpreter, making sure his responses were clear to my first graders, some of whom were just learning English. I also kept on the lookout for "teachable moments." For example, Stephan told us that the name of his job had changed from "motorman" to "train operator" when the MTA began to hire women as drivers. I used this as an opportunity to see if the class understood why his title had to be changed. We then discussed this in relation to other jobs: Firemen had become firefighters; mailmen, letter carriers; policemen, police officers; and so on.

I asked Stephan to bring with him any "tools of the trade" he thought would excite the children. He brought a fluorescent safety vest, protective headphones, and a flashlight. While he talked about the importance of safety to himself and his fellow workers, the kids got to wear the vest and headphones, much to their delight.

Because my students are quite young, periodically I stopped the interview so they could catch up on their note taking (children in the fifth grade and higher can probably take notes continuously). Early in the year, when my students were emergent readers, their "notes" were mostly pictures. Now they are using invented spelling, and some have moved on to complete words and sentences.

Interviews have become the fulcrum of my curriculum. With just a little imagination, there is virtually no subject that cannot be tapped through this technique.

  • Reading and writing. Immediately after the interview, each child drew a picture and wrote about the interview. I "translated" the pages into standard English and organized them into a book. Family volunteers made copies for each child. During shared reading time, we read our homemade book together.

  • Field trip. We took a ride on Stephan's L train. The children screamed with joy when his train came into the station. It was as if a movie star had arrived. Chelsea, Stephan's daughter, beamed!

  • Art. We painted a mural about Stephan in his train.

  • Map reading. We traced the route of the L and the Lexington Avenue trains on subway maps.

  • Literature. We read poems and stories about people who drive different kinds of vehicles, such as buses, trucks, and taxicabs.

  • Science. As a special assignment, a group of students researched and prepared, with my help, a report on how materials used to build vehicles — such as rubber, steel, and glass — are made.

Everyone has stories to tell. You can harness your students'natural inquisitiveness as they discover that asking people about their lives is a marvelous way to learn about the world.