Student Video Activities: Fifty People One Question, Language Challenge & Oral Histories

These are learning activities suitable for high school or even tertiary level students. They could be used classes in language, media. film, communication, social students or liberal studies or with student media production teams or campus television stations.

1. The Fifty People, One Question Approach

The Fifty People, One Question activity would involve having students work in groups to create a video a based on the Fifty People, One Question series of videos. In these videos, people are interviewed in the street and are asked one question. The original video was shot in New Orleans in 2008 by the creative partnership of Crush and Lovely & Deltree; their question was: “By the end of today, what would you wish to happen?”

The team also asked the same question in New York and Brooklyn and in London asked the question “Where do you you wish to wake up tomorrow?”  The videos are quite popular and have inspired a series of similar videos such as PostSecret’s: What’s your Secret? (The video set in Ottawa, however, isn’t suitable for secondary school classwork, however, as the interviewees are asked what their favourite curse word is.). The Fifty People One Question Team is quite happy for others to use their approach and even the same title as long as credit is given with a link back to their website:

The 50 People, One Question approach can also be used as a starting point for students to develop their own formats. A much more visual approach was used by BenHaistFilms, who took the general idea and gave it a new spin by having interviewees write and down and physically show their answers to the question.

In the above video, the 50 People, 1 Question concept served not so much as a model to be copied, but as a starting point and as a source of inspiration.

A group of my own students in Hong Kong adapted the approach (they were the ones who noticed the original series of videos). In addition to the in-the-street-interviews, they also conducted sit-down interviews which allowed the interviewees to really talk a lot more and go into greater depth. In this video, the first part of series of short films entitled Dreamers, the students look at CM (a professional session musician, arranger and producer who also goes by the name of CMgroovy) and Chan Yat-kuen (an artist and retired teacher).They also conducted interviews in the street with passers-by and learned how varied our dreams can be. The video directors decided not to have a long introduction, but to get to the point almost straight away, starting with the interviewees repeating the question (so the viewer knows pretty much what to expect from the very beginning). Here is the main video (the other videos are at the end of the article):

Because the students collected quite a lot of footage, they produced a series of related films:

If students are interested in making a Fifty People, One Question video, they can first think of a suitable question. The questions in the orginal videos are quite good as they are a little unusual and would help avoid pre-thought-out ‘canned’ answers.

2. Language Challenges and Comparisons

This is a good activity for students to do if they know native speakers of different languages and if they are looking for something with a little more humor. The format is very flexible. In this video, we have native speakers of Italian and Cantonese try out each other’s language:

3. The Oral History Approach

The oral history approach was made famous by Studs Terkel, an American historian who interviewed thousands of ordinary people in-depth; he broadcast these interviews over the radio and published them in a collection of books. Often his interviews would have a specific (e.g., Work, Life during the war, etc.). Oral histories help give a voice to people who are often overlooked in textbooks and in media.  A lot of work on oral histories in the US, for example, has focused on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who participated in the the Braceros Program, in which temporary labourers were imported into America between 1947 and 1964.

A student group producing an oral history video would interview one person or a small group of persons get them to talk as much as possible about their experiences. The focus is usually on the interviewee’s personal experiences and their thoughts and feelings on these experiences rather than their thoughts in more general issues or things they were not directly involved with.  This kind of  project is great in helping young people understand what life was really like during a specific period of time and understand how the world has changed.

Youth oral history projects can also help bring different generations together. Your average teen would rarely if ever have a conversation with an elderly person they weren’t related to. In many of the oral histories I’ve viewed, the interviewees seemed to appreciate the chance to tell their stories to the young interviewers. In the following video, Carey Giudici discusses some of the benefits of cross-generational oral history projects:

Here is an interview that is part of the African American Museum of Iowa’s oral history project, Adult Voices, Children’s Eyes.  In the first part of the interview, two woman recount their bitter experiences with discrimination and segregation and then, in the second part, explain how society has changed for the better, why they think it’s changed and how this change makes them feel.

If students are working on oral history projects, they should think of a question and period of time they would like to focus on (e.g., What was life like for you as a labourer in the Braceros Program?, What was life like for you, as a black person, growing up in America? What was life like for you  in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation?).  Another very important consideration is the scope of the study. How many interviews will each student group conduct? Will the whole class focus on a specific theme or will groups be allowed to choose their own area to focus on?  Will the students only present the interviews or will they integrate what they have found with other sources? The students might find that their interviewees have other interesting things to talk about, but it would be good to start with one area to focus on and a clear idea of the scope of the project.

As the oral history approach has been used for a long time, there are a lot of supporting materials describing the whole process of conduction oral history interviews.  The following website describes this process:

A detailed downloadable guide is also available from the Smithsonian Institute (this is very useful and it provides samples of release forms and other kinds of documentation like personal information forms):

The following PowerPoint presentation (in video form) video clip gives a detailed overview of the whole process:

This clip, from the University of Leicester, focuses on the technical aspects of the interview (e.g., seating positions, audio recording techniques, cameras angles, lighting, and getting the interview started etc.) and gives examples of good and bad interview techniques:

4. Educational Benefits

The video activities have several benefits:

  • They encourage students to reach out to the community and come into contact with people from all walks of life and/or from different generations.
  • They help students develop their confidence and communication skills as they approach potential interviewees.
  • They let students listen to different views and challenge students to review preconceptions.
  • They give students the chance to develop their interpersonal skills as they work in groups to plan, prepare, shoot, edit and publicize the video.
  • They can give students inspiration for the further development of their own ideas (The activity could be followed up by written work like writing their own answers to their question and posting it on a class bulletin board or using the video of their oral history interviews as part of a larger research project. It could also be followed up by oral work like presenting their video to the class and reflecting on what they learned by doing the project).

The 50 People 1 Question approach also helps students learn how to analyze and use film techniques. The original 50 People 1 Question videos give students a framework to build on, not just in terms of the overall format, but also in terms of the shooting style. The creators of the original series of videos created them in a specific style. The videos feature:

  • Long introductions (the camera just examines some of the interviewees, creating a feeling of suspense)
  • A structure in which tends to start with shorter responses and with more insightful and deeper responses appearing later on in the video
  • The interviewer never being heard or seen
  • People sometimes being interviewed in pairs, so we can sometimes see reactions to comments
  • Some interviewees having their footage being intercut with others, often with some link between the interviews in the content or language)
  • Use of establishing shots to give the viewer an idea of the general environment
  • The use of background music to set a contemplative mood
  • The use of shots of interviewees getting into position and of the camera being positioned and being put into focus along with unfocused
    shots and shots of people people partly out of the frame. These shots give the video a sort of guerrilla film-making shooting-on-the-fly feel that contrasts with the professional-quality clear sound (quite difficult to achieve in a street interview)  and very still and clear images
  • Extensive use of close-ups
  • The use of specific camera techniques like rack focus (i.e., the focus of the camera gradually changes from foreground to background or vice-versa) and shallow depth of field (e.g., the foreground is clear, while the background is blurry).

5. Questions to Consider

Using video in assignments comes with all kinds of challenges. You will need to consider the following:

  1. Are the educational benefits the students will get from the activity worth the time required by students to produce the video?
    How much do your students know and what skills do they already possess?
  2. What support do the students require in terms of equipment and learning?
  3. If the assignment is assessed and not for a film course, how will you take into consideration the gap between students who have easy access to equipment and software and those who don’t or the gap between those with some video-making experience and those who are working on their first video project?
  4. How will you handle copyright infringement and how can you get students to respect copyright?
    How will you handle privacy issues?

For any kind of video project, students should formally gain the consent of the interviewees by having them sign release forms (an example is here:  ( and personal information forms.

If your students do work on a 50 People 1 Question video or oral history project, let me know. I’d love to see their work.

~ by longzijun


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