Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat:
Studs Terkel for English
Shandong University of Science and Technology
After years of studying academic English, many students are
ready to move beyond language designed for the classroom, or
what Yoshida (2001) calls ‘‘fishbowl’’ English, to the language of
the ‘‘open sea.’’ As students develop beyond the beginner level,
they are ready to read and discuss appropriate authentic texts.
Even students who are unsure of themselves can make it in the
‘‘open sea’’ and navigate quite well with help from teachers and
peers. Studs Terkel’s work is appropriate material that captures
U.S. culture in all its vitality, complexity, and variety. With some
scaffolding, teachers can use Terkel’s work to help students
understand authentic English and gain insight into U.S. culture.
To sharpen the focus of students’ study, I have created reading,
writing, and discussion activities based on Terkel’s writing and
oral history interviews with Americans with distinct perspectives
and backgrounds, from factory workers to CEOs. Studying these
individuals gives students living examples of the principles
discussed in our text.
In Korea, the college-level students in my classes have studied
English for at least 6 years. As I plan my course and consider
students’ needs, I reflect on Krashen’s (2004) assertion regarding
The Comprehension Hypothesis does not require delayed
gratification. It claims that we can enjoy real language use right
away: we can listen to stories, read books, and engage in
interesting conversations as soon as they are comprehensible.
The Comprehension Hypothesis, in fact, insists on pleasure from
the beginning, on acquirers obtaining interesting, comprehensible
TESOL Journal 1.2, June 2010 247
input right from the start. The path of pleasure is the only path.
Students should not think that they must wait until their English
is perfect until they enjoy the ‘‘real language’’ offered to native
speakers. For this reason, and because I agree with Lightbown and
Spada (2006), who assert that unless students use authentic
materials, first with a teacher’s guidance and then on their own,
they will remain dependent as English communicators, I include
authentic materials in my intermediate university courses.
Moreover, I find support from Berardo (2006), whose contention
applies to listening as well as reading:
One of the main reason[s] for using authentic materials in the
classroom is once outside the ‘‘safe,’’ controlled language
learning environment, the learner will not encounter the artificial
language of the classroom but the real world and language how
it is really used. The role of the teacher is not to delude the
language learner but to prepare him, giving the awareness and
necessary skills so as to understand how the language is actually
used. (p. 60)
Similarly, Nuttall (1996) notes that ‘‘authentic texts can be
motivating because they are proof that the language is used for real-
life purposes by real people’’ (p. 172). After years of reading texts in
both Korean and English that are designed for young students and
edited to ensure that they do not encounter any stylistic
irregularities or controversial thoughts, students in my classes are
eager to explore writing and conversation aimed directly at the real
world as opposed to the classroom. Terkel’s work contains the
slang, debate, inquiry, and energy found in the bar room,
newsroom, and boardroom. The college students I teach are ready
for a taste of such English, and I strive to meet this need with low-
anxiety activities using authentic materials, as Krashen (1982)
Studs Terkel was not just an oral historian, music critic, radio
personality, and writer. He was a national treasure. This vital,
inquisitive, trenchant, down-to-earth man, dressed in his signature
248 TESOL Journal
red-checked shirt and red socks, represented the American spirit.
When I started teaching a content-based U.S. culture EFL class in a
South Korean university, I wove Terkel’s work into the curriculum
to bring to life various U.S. traits, such as self-reliance, diversity,
Born in New York in 1912, Terkel grew up in the men’s hotel his
family owned in Chicago. He described himself as a pet among the
colorful residents (Gross, 2008). His life spanned two world wars,
the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement,
and the Internet age. He studied liberal arts and law at the
University of Chicago, but never practiced law because he ‘‘couldn’t
take the legalisms’’ (Gross, 2008). He worked for Works Progress
Administration projects, wrote music reviews, and hosted radio and
television programs before his first book was published in 1966. He
lived out the themes of self-reliance, can-do spirit, creativity, social
criticism, and bravery that students in my class read about in their
textbook and discuss in class. Comments from listeners of radio
station WFMT (available at www.wfmt.com/main.
taf?p51,1,41,31,2) about Terkel’s impact demonstrate his legacy:
After all the years I’ve been fortunate to have listened to and read
Studs, I’ve received a priceless education on what it means to be
Human. Something I could not have gotten anywhere at any
price. Studs spirit lives on. (Jeff Wojnicki)
I found Hard Times on the shelf of one of the families I babysat
for. Thank you, Studs, for finally revealing why my father stores
food and the source of so many aspects of our culture I hadn’t
understood before. I wish I had such a talent for eliciting people’s
stories because I want to know how people think, what makes
our culture tick. Since I don’t, I thank goodness he did. (Anna
I use Terkel’s writing and interviews in a semester-long English
Through Culture course at university in Seoul. Intermediate- and
advanced-level students take this 15-week content-based culture
course that focuses on U.S. culture and explores topics such as
family life, national values, business, government, and
multicultural issues. In addition to reading Terkel’s work, students
Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 249
listen to and give ‘‘This I Believe’’ speeches, perform Internet
research, conduct oral history interviews, and complete research
and writing assignments, or a combination of these activities. I
cannot include all of these activities in a single semester due to time
constraints, but I always include a few as a means of adding
challenge and variety to the course. Teachers can use many of these
activities in adult ESL/EFL conversation or reading classes.
Terkel’s ability to ask hard questions in a respectful, sometimes
comic way is a useful model for interview technique. Moreover, the
written and spoken interviews are an appropriate length for
students who are ready to move beyond the sheltered English of
graded readers and the CDs that accompany them to more
Terkel’s work covers a wide range of themes, including work,
service, democracy, politics, education, economics, media trends,
and race. I have found that many adult English language learners
are often eager to exchange their opinions and question each other
about these relevant topics. With sincerity and passion, Terkel
interviews men and women from all fields in a way that makes
readers and listeners feel part of the conversation. Moreover,
Terkel’s writing and interviews fulfill Peters’ (1991) guidelines for
authentic content because they
N reflect important themes and ideas,
N are consistent with curricular goals,
N are rooted in real-world experience,
N are sensitive to students’ development
N allow students to engage in higher order thinking.
Consequently, students of many ages find Terkel’s work
compelling and feel a sense of accomplishment because, in reading
and listening to them, they have succeeded in interacting with
English designed for the wider English-speaking community.
STARTING WITH A SEARCH
In countries with widespread and readily available Internet access,
having students conduct a web search is an effective way to
promote learner autonomy and encourage habits for lifelong
learning. I don’t provide a lecture on Studs Terkel’s background;
rather, I have students find this information themselves. Because
250 TESOL Journal
these students have easy access to the Internet and thoroughly enjoy
using it, I begin by asking them to search for information about
Terkel, whose work we will listen to and discuss. Via e-mail, I ask
students these questions and instruct them to provide me with their
N When did Studs Terkel live?
N What was his name at birth?
N Where did he live?
N What was his educational background?
N What jobs did he do?
N Where is Bughouse Square?
N Did he win any awards?
N What did he look like? (Write a two- to three-sentence description.)
N What web site(s) did you use?
N Explain how you know the information is reliable.
Although the Internet is an amazing source of information,
students can easily access inaccurate and biased information.
Consequently, I teach them not to blindly accept all they find on the
web. I want students to develop good ‘‘habits of the mind’’ and
often ask them, ‘‘How do you know what you know?’’ (Kohn, 2003).
Because I teach students how to evaluate web sites and they expect
to be asked about the source of the information that influenced their
opinions, they are not surprised that I will ask them about the
reliability of their sources when we discuss what they have learned
Students bring their answers to class and we discuss the
information that everyone has found, noting the different sources
and comparing their findings. By having students investigate
Terkel’s background rather than supplying it for them, I encourage
students to develop their sense of agency and autonomy as learners.
Terkel’s life and career is in itself an example of the complexity
and richness of U.S. culture. His abandoning the practice of law to
work in radio and his eventual career as an oral historian would be
uncommon in Korean society, whereas so many people in the
United States switch careers frequently. Such differences can make
for vibrant discussion.
I have the students save the information they have found, and
their citation, for their final paper. Students find it interesting to
compare sources with each other, thus discovering new web sites. I
Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 251
encourage them to move beyond Google and Wikipedia and try ipl2
(Drexel University, 2009) because this search engine is designed for
educational research. In addition, if their college subscribes to an
academic database, students may use that to search, thereby
learning about their university’s resources. Many students do not
even know about these resources and how they differ from more
well-known and widely available search engines.
DEEPLY HELD BELIEFS
After discussing Terkel’s background, I introduce National Public
Radio’s ‘‘This I Believe,’’ which revives Edward R. Murrow’s series
of personal essays, which he introduced as such:
The personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all
walks of life. In this brief space, a banker or a butcher, a painter
or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing
more in common than integrity, a real honesty, will write about
the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic
values in their lives. (Murrow, 2008)
I distribute a sheet with vocabulary and a cloze version of
Terkel’s essay ‘‘Community in Action.’’ Before we listen, I want to
make sure students understand words such as evict and species and
know who Thomas Paine was.
I play the taped essay twice so that students can listen for the
missing words and get Terkel’s main ideas. Afterward, in small
groups students discuss their opinion of the importance of
community and share any experiences or observations they have
had with a community in action.
After the discussion, I explain that each student will sign up for
a day to share a brief ‘‘This I Believe’’ speech. They will prepare a
two- to three-minute speech describing one of their deeply held
beliefs and the experiences that helped them form that belief. To
reinforce their understanding of Western rhetoric, I explain that the
belief in this assignment is the thesis statement and the experience
supports it by describing why they hold that belief.
My objective is to provide each student with an opportunity to
share with the class a belief that influences them. I see this as an
activity that helps us get acquainted and builds community in the
252 TESOL Journal
classroom. To encourage students, I tell them that I did this activity
for a writing class and. I also tell them that they don’t need to share
their most intimate belief, but rather one that they feel is important
and safe to discuss. I explain that in new settings, like a college
course, one is not obligated to bare one’s soul. These students have
learned that people in Western countries are often very direct, and I
want to let them know that Westerners do not always pour out their
emotions. I want students to choose safe topics and not mistakenly
assume that I expect or require them to take bold emotional risks.
Rather, they should carefully decide what is most appropriate to
share. I have not had any problems with students choosing
inappropriate or offensive topics. In other settings, teachers may
have to set guidelines to ensure that appropriate topics are chosen.
Reticent students will feel nervous. To alleviate their fears, I
share my own feelings of shyness. I am intimately aware of what it
is like to have butterflies in my stomach, and I have had to give
speeches in Latin as well as do a ‘‘This I Believe’’ speech for a large
group of writers. I find that this revelation is the most authentic,
effective assistance I can provide to reluctant students.
Each class starts with a student sharing a significant belief of his
or her own choosing, and these can be quite powerful. Students
have shared stories of discovering an unexpected friendship,
overcoming a serious illness, reconciling with a sibling, or coming
to terms with a great disappointment. By listening to these essays,
our knowledge of each other grows. I use this activity to build
community at the beginning of the semester, so I do not assess these
speeches for a grade. Students receive authentic feedback from their
peers through attention and applause. However, other instructors
could choose criteria and formally assess the content and delivery of
Terkel is best known as an oral historian. His interviews are
available from a variety of sources, including the Chicago History
Museum’s (2002) web site and the Historical Voices web site (see
Using Primary Sources to Learn of the Life of Studs Terkel, n.d.).
Teachers can play segments of these interviews for students and ask
students to summarize the interviews and discuss their impressions
Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 253
or opinions. (When in a classroom without Internet access, I use a
CD of Terkel’s interviews.)
Terkel sought out people from all walks of life—inner-city high
school students, CEOs, atheists, priests, opera singers, folk singers,
artists, authors, social workers, politicians. Even simply reading a
list of the people Terkel has interviewed and listening to a few
interviews expands students’ views of U.S. culture.
Like Cauldwell (1998), I realize that a diet consisting purely of
language recordings with slow, steady speech limits students’
listening development and may be ‘‘misdirected charity’’ because
they fail to help students cross over from the controlled language
designed for the classroom to the livelier language aimed at the
public square. Thus I choose to use Terkel’s recordings for their
authenticity and challenge. I can help students cross this bridge
with repeated listening and cloze handouts, helping them attain
independence with their English.
After listening, students can discuss how Terkel conducted his
interviews. I ask them to consider the following questions:
N Who talks more, Terkel or his subject?
N How does Terkel show that he’s listening?
N How does he show his subject respect?
N How does he encourage the guest to expound or clarify?
I list Terkel’s techniques after students finish their small-group
After gaining a better understanding of these techniques,
students can conduct their own interviews. In an EFL setting they
might interview older relatives or neighbors in English (or if that
isn’t possible, in their first language) and then summarize the
interviews to share in class. In the Korean context, I ask students to
interview an older relative about how he or she overcame a
hardship or what life was like when the relative was the students’
age. In another context, for example, a skills course with a unit on
business, I could have students conduct interviews about different
jobs, like those in Terkel’s (1974) Working. Because Terkel was a
generalist, interview topics may vary greatly.
In an ESL setting, students are likely to have access to native
English speakers and they can interview friends, teachers, school
administrators, or people in the community whose work or
254 TESOL Journal
experience intrigues them. Although I would prefer that all
students conduct their interviews in English, I realize that in an EFL
setting that is difficult for some students. Besides, bilingual
professionals use one language for interviews and then translate
their subject’s words into English, so translation is an authentic task
of a nonnative English speaker. I would rather a student tell me that
he or she interviewed a person in Korean and translated the
responses than have the student mislead me. I realize that each
setting differs and other teachers can require that students conduct
their interviews in English.
Before they conduct their interviews, I show students a video of
Jon Stewart’s (2006) interview with Terkel in which Terkel admits
that one of the reasons people open up to him with ease is that they
see him as imperfect. He admits that he bumbles with his own tape
recorder and his subjects must help him with it. I include this video
to make Terkel real to the students and to reinforce the idea that
mistakes are natural and that we should not feel shame when we
make them. Terkel’s open admission of imperfection provides a
good example for them.
With a partner, students brainstorm questions and discuss
whom they will interview. I start by suggesting that they consider
what their relative has a passion for and then prepare thoroughly as
Terkel did by collecting information on their relative’s career,
hobbies, hometown, and friendships. I give the example of my
interviewing my father’s aunt, my oldest relative. I list questions
I would ask her about life during the Depression, being one of
eight children with no father, her interest in football, and some
general questions that might elicit interesting stories about, for
example, what dating was like when she was a girl or how she
got her first job. I show them the following list of questions that
I might ask her:
N What was your neighborhood like compared to what it’s like today? Can you
tell me about the families near you?
N I know your father left when you were young. How did your mother take
care of all the children by herself? Did anyone help her?
N I remember that Grandpa had a paper route. Did all the children have jobs?
What were they? How much did they pay you? Did you like working?
N What was school like for you? How many students were in your class?
N How did your life change during World War I?
Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 255
Students can record these interview responses and later
summarize them in a worksheet, paragraph, or essay, which will be
shared in small groups during class. Because not all of the students in
my class conduct their interviews in English, and some may do so
over the phone, I assess them via Oral History Interview worksheets
(Appendix A) and their own Oral History Self-Assessments
(Appendix B). I evaluate both of these assignments based on idea
development, word choice, sentence fluency, and grammar.
If all the interviews are conducted in English, teachers can assess
them based on preparation, research, the questions’ effectiveness
and logical sequencing, and the interviewer’s ability to elicit
information. For large classes, I suggest having students work with
a partner on an interview because listening and assessing
recordings is time-consuming.
READING AND WRITING
As a supplement to the chapter on ethnic and racial assimilation in
their textbook, American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture
(Datesman, Crandall, & Kearny, 2005), we read and discuss Terkel’s
interview with C. P. Ellis, a man who went from being a member of
the Ku Klux Klan to acknowledging and shedding his prejudices.
Eventually, Ellis became an activist and union leader, who learned
to respect and collaborate with African Americans. Ellis’s story of
poverty and struggle, told with openness and humility, fascinates
students. It is a portrait of a powerful and rare transformation. First,
he responded to his hardship by blaming African Americans, but
later, through his epiphany of shared hardship and the need to
cooperate for better schools and work conditions, he realized that
his prejudices were wrong and that he had to step up to join a
community task force to improve the local schools. He had to put
aside his prejudice and work with people whom the Ku Klux Klan
had encouraged him to hate, which furthered his transformation.
Although this reading includes a great deal of new vocabulary
and is longer than the textbook assignments students had before
this course, they complete it because it is so compelling. They enjoy
discussing this challenging, powerful interview.
By the last month of this semester-long course, students are ready to
read more interviews. In South Korea, unless students have a high level
256 TESOL Journal
of learner autonomy and read English books on their own, they are
typically not required to read a book written for native speakers. They
have read passages in textbooks and possibly newspaper articles, but
high school and freshman English readings are designed for EFL
readers, and all students read what the teacher chooses. In Asia, outside
major cities there are few bookstores with English language books. It
can be daunting to move from reading one- or two-page passages with
sheltered vocabulary to reading a work of fiction or nonfiction that is
more than 100 pages long, as most books for adults are.
However, students can read several pages of a nonfiction book
such as Terkel’s Race (1992) or Working (1974). I feel it is important
to give them choice in their reading, and this assignment provides
that choice. Moreover, this choice encourages them to spend time
skimming through Terkel’s work, noting the variety of cultural
topics and viewpoints. The assignment also requires that they
‘‘conquer’’ an authentic text (Shepard, 2004).
For their final paper students must read one interview from one
of Terkel’s books, which I put on reserve at the university library
N Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About
What They Do (1974). Terkel interviews a CEO, movie stars, business owners,
factory workers, a waitress, a social worker, allowing his subjects to reveal
and examine their attitudes about work and U.S. society.
N American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980). These interviews examine the idea of
the American Dream. Subjects include a former beauty queen, Arnold
Schwarzenegger before he became governor of California, Ted Turner, Jesse
Helms, politicians, and many ‘‘regular’’ Americans. More than 100 people try
to define the American Dream and explain how they pursue it—and how it
N Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992).
This book features stories about racial attitudes and experiences in which
race was a factor. Again, Terkel speaks with people from all segments of U.S.
N Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (2001). Terkel offers an affirmative and uplifting
collection of interviews with doctors, nurses, patients, undertakers, clergy,
atheists, and survivors on death and life.
To prepare students for complex vocabulary, I remind them that
they should not look up each new word in the dictionary (Shepard,
2004) and that native speakers would not. Rather, they should use
their ability to determine a word’s meaning from context, as they
Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 257
learned previously. I remind them that they will build vocabulary
naturally by reading widely (Krashen, 2004).
After reading a selection from one of Terkel’s books, students write
a short paper that explains what struck them and made them choose a
particular interview, summarizes it, and offers their reaction to it.
Students also must include and cite at least two sources that
explain who Terkel was or illuminate the content of the interview.
For example, a student writing about Terkel’s interview with gospel
singer Mahalia Jackson might decide to research more information
on her achievements and the history of gospel music and include
them in his or her paper. By teaching students to cite and paraphrase
in this assignment, I am trying to prepare them for longer research
projects. Two or three sources are a manageable number and give
students a chance to practice appropriate citation. Moreover, this
research is authentic. Good readers and thinkers frequently want to
learn about a person or idea mentioned in an article. With access to
the Internet or a nearby library, this task is simple to complete and
encourages students to satisfy their curiosity through research. And
this sort of project work, as Hutchinson (1996) maintains, is extremely
motivating because it is personal, active work that allows for choice
and creativity, in this case within the framework of an assignment
similar to one that native-English-speaking students might perform.
These projects not only require language skill, but call upon higher
order thinking ability while challenging and adding to students’
understanding of U.S. culture.
Because Studs Terkel embodies a vital curiosity, students find him
compelling. By reading and listening to his work, students not only
improve their English conversation and literacy skills, but they see
how they can better question and analyze their own culture and
other cultures. Through Terkel’s interviews, students can uncover
some of the rich, thoughtful conversations in and about the United
States and its people’s ruminations on its history and its hopes.
Susan Kelly is currently a visiting professor at Shandong University
of Science and Technology, in China, and has also taught English
258 TESOL Journal
language in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia.
Her research interests include content-based instruction, literacy,
and curriculum design.
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of reading. The Reading Matrix, 6(2), 60–69.
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ways: An introduction to American culture. White Plains, NY:
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histories [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/
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Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 259
Shepard, S. (2004). Using authentic materials. Retrieved from http://www.
Stewart, J. (2006, April 4). Studs Terkel [Television series clip].
Retrieved from http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-
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ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
Transcribe or summarize two of the questions and responses from
ORAL HISTORY SELF-ASSESSMENT
Answer the following in complete sentences.
Who did you choose to interview and why?
What did you learn from the interview subject that was most
Did you experience any difficulties conducting the interview? Were
you able to overcome them?
What would you do next time to improve as an interviewer?
260 TESOL Journal