Oral history projects engage students and immerse them in the past. The projects also teach critical thinking skills, story development, graphics design and public speaking.
CAROLINE MELIONES RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT SOME adults are actually kind of cool.
Last spring, the 17-year-old junior from Wayland High School interviewed two people who grew up in the 1950s in Wayland, Mass. In those days, most women married young and didn’t go to college, she learned. The hot fashions of the period were poodle skirts, cardigan sweaters and bobby socks. And the local kids used to play at a lake, catch frogs and sell the legs—a delicacy—to a nearby inn and restaurant for about 10 cents apiece.
“Talking with people who were alive in the era we’re studying is different from seeing it in movies or reading about it in history books—it makes it real,” Meliones says. “Life was a lot different. It’s cool to hear the different types of activities that young adults used to do that we don’t do anymore.”
Oral history projects bring history to life for students. They interview grandparents, neighbors and others in the community on a variety of topics ranging from the Great Depression and World War II to the Civil Rights Movement.
After the interviews, some teachers ask their students to write papers or give oral presentations. At other schools, they publish their projects on the Web, including full text, video or audio clips of interviews, and historical and current photos of those interviewed. Some teachers even challenge students to write stories from their interviews and publish them as a book.
Throughout the process, the students learn interviewing techniques, practice writing and public speaking, and develop new skills in graphics, layout and Web design. They also learn teamwork, gain experience managing projects and develop an appreciation for older generations, says Brian White, a social studies teacher at Allegany High School, in Cumberland, Md.
“Oral history projects are a much more conducive way for students to learn about history,” White explains. “When World War II veterans are talking to my students, they point out that [when they fought] they were 17 or 18—about the students’ age. And the kids realize that these people went through things they cannot imagine they would have to do.”
Educators, particularly those in K-12 schools, have embraced oral history projects in recent years, says Jennifer Abraham, assistant director of Louisiana State University’s (LSU’s) T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, which helps K-12 schools conduct their own oral history projects. These projects record important information that might not have been chronicled before. “It provides an opportunity to explore undocumented or under-documented groups of people and aspects of history,” she points out.
Scope of a Project
Projects need not be wide-reaching. Particularly for younger students, projects that are smaller in scope—such as interviewing older family members and producing an oral presentation or even a short paper—are good learning experiences and are well worth doing, educators say.
In Fallon, Nev., social studies teacher Gary Jamieson assigns his seventh graders simple oral history projects, in which they interview their oldest relative. As part of the project, his Churchill County Junior High School students create a family tree, a timeline of the family member’s life and a four-page biography about that person.
Interviewing an older family member personalizes history for students in a way that doesn’t happen by simply going to the library or surfing the Net to write a research paper, Jamieson points out.
“Students come to class and say, ‘Hey, in the Great Depression, they didn’t have much money,’” Jamieson says. “If they read that in textbooks, they might not remember, but if grandma and grandpa talk about not having shoes, or putting cardboard in their shoes to hide the holes, it means something.”
Teachers who have the time, energy and resources can provide an even richer educational experience by having their students pursue a semester-long—or even a yearlong—oral history project and publishing the results or using the material to create Web sites.
At Wayland High School, students in previous years interviewed about 50 World War II veterans and posted the interviews in a Q&A format on a Web site. This past year, Kevin Delaney, Wayland’s social studies chair, asked students to take their oral history projects a step further.
Forty of Delaney’s students recently finished the first year of a two-year project that looks at the Wayland community in the years between 1946 and 1960. The project documents how small-town life in Wayland during that period was a microcosm of national trends—from McCarthyism and baseball as America’s favorite sport to a population explosion that spawned the baby boomer generation.
After interviewing a dozen Wayland residents, the students transcribed the interviews and analyzed them. Then they wrote 10 stories and posted them, along with audio clips and partial transcriptions of the interviews, on their Web site at www.whshistoryproject.org.
Working together as a team and dividing up the work on an oral history project gives students the opportunity to learn important communication and leadership skills, say teachers who are involved in such projects.
“I wanted to teach kids to collaborate in a classroom to achieve a common goal,” Delaney says. “Some kids have taken leadership positions. They are teaching each other and making decisions on the most interesting anecdotes, which they digitize into audio clips. They’re making choices that are requiring a certain amount of analytical decision-making.”
The projects also help teachers meet state curriculum requirements, such as conducting background research and practicing writing, Allegany’s White points out.
Recently, Allegany High School published a 136-page book on life in Allegany County in the 1950s. White’s 34 students spent a year interviewing 75 men and women who grew up in the 1950s. In the process, they gained the following insights into the lives of those long-ago teenagers: Kids in those days didn’t play video games, they competed in soapbox derby races and their families shopped at small mom-and-pop neighborhood grocery stores, not at large supermarket chains.
Students transcribed the interviews, analyzed and edited them, and wrote about 30 chapters on different aspects of the community’s life in the 1950s. The chapters covered areas ranging from fashion and movie theaters to men from the area who fought in the Korean War.
The school has published an oral history project book each year for the past six years—and each year the books get bigger. On White’s chalkboard in the classroom is a list of his students, and next to each name are the tasks that student is working on, as well as the tasks that are completed.
As a teacher, White feels that his role is to oversee the project and answer students’ questions, but the students must do the work themselves.
“It’s a very hands-off experience for the teacher,” he says. “I tell them right from the start that it’s not just their parents or teachers who will see the project. Thousands will look at it. They know it has to be done at a much higher level than anything they’ve ever done before. They’re self-motivated.”
White’s school printed 1,200 copies of the latest book and is selling it for $18.95 a copy. Typically, the school earns from $6,000 to $10,000 a year in revenue by selling the books, White says. Since the cost to publish a book is about $6,000, any revenue over that is profit, which is used to pay for new technology for the class.
An oral history project should start with planning and with getting the commitment of teachers who have the range of expertise needed to help ensure the project’s success, educators say.
“Work collaboratively with other teachers as much as possible,” advises Wayland’s Delaney. “Without our tech specialist, we would have a cool oral history project, but it would not be online for other people to see.”
This summer, several teachers and an outside consultant gave up part of their summer vacation to work with several Gaithersburg High School students on an oral history project that was created to commemorate the school’s 100th anniversary in September.
Candace Wolf, an oral historian and professional storyteller, helped the students conduct the interviews and is helping them produce a book. The school’s drama teacher is developing a theatrical performance, which the students will perform several times for the local community, while a media teacher is assisting them in filming a documentary.
It’s a weighty agenda, Wayland’s Delaney acknowledges. But it’s important to devote a good chunk of class time to the oral history project, he says.
“It may interrupt your ability to cover a certain amount of content, but you have to be willing to make sacrifices in the classroom,” he advises. Teachers sometimes have to stay after school to guide students as they do research and use the school’s computers to transcribe interviews and design Web pages for the project, he adds.
Finding the right people for students to interview is a crucial task. The best way to do that, Delaney says, is to ask local newspapers to publish blurbs on the school’s oral history project. Other avenues include students’ relatives, senior centers and veterans’ groups. As the project gets rolling, interviewees will tell their friends, and word of mouth will bring other interview subjects, he notes.
After identifying candidates, students must schedule interviews. Sometimes subjects come to the school for the interviews; sometimes students go to the subjects.
Whatever the setting, it’s crucial to explain to potential subjects that only a few students will conduct the oral history interviews, and they won’t have to speak in front of a classroom of students, cautions Wolf, who was hired by Gaithersburg High School to help students and teachers with their oral history project. “You have to make clear that it’s more like sitting around the kitchen table and sharing memories with friends and relatives,” she advises.
Teachers say it’s vital to record the interviews—either with a tape recorder or video camcorder. Students can later transcribe the interviews, as well as use the audio and video clips for a Web site or documentary.
Teachers can guide the learning process by helping students brainstorm questions for their interviews and by teaching them good interviewing techniques, says Allegany High’s White, whose colleague, social studies teacher Dan Whetzel, also works with students on the projects. First, they sit down with students, and then they devise a general list of questions the students will ask every interview subject. When students call to set up an interview, they also get some background information on the individual. They use that to do research and to come up with additional questions that are tailored to that person’s life.
Listening is the most difficult interviewing skill for students to learn, White points out. Often, students are so concerned about their next question that they don’t pay close enough attention to subjects’ answers and potentially miss out on good follow-up questions.
The first interviews she conducted were “stressful,” recalls former Allegany student Dara Witt, now a 19-year-old student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But doing interviews got easier with experience, she says. “It’s more interesting to hear from a person who was actually there than reading words on a page,” Witt points out.
When an oral history project is completed and the work is published—on the Web, in a book or in a report—all of the people interviewed should be invited to a school event to unveil the students’ work.
Such an event commemorates the students’ work, but it also demonstrates another benefit: positive relationships between the generations. Each group gains a newfound appreciation for the other, educators say.
“You would be surprised at how open-minded and hardworking kids can be,” says LSU’s Abraham, who believes that students make good researchers. “A lot of people don’t think of kids in that capacity, but when history jumps out of a boring black-and-white textbook and becomes real life, dynamic and in three dimensions, their eyes just light up.”
Wylie Wong is a Phoenix-based freelance writer who covers technology.
Oral History Project Costs
To make an audio recording of an oral history project:
Tape recorder—$27 to $30.
Microcassettes for tape recorder—3-pack for $23
Digital voice recorder—$54 to $340.
To videotape an oral history project:
DV camcorder—$290 to $3,840.
Mini-DV camcorder videocassette—5-pack for $27
To publish a book from an oral history project (price based on Allegany High School's last book):
$6,000 to publish 1,250 copies of a 136-page book.
To publish a Web site about an oral history project:
Costs are minimal. Most schools already have computers, Web design software and server space.
TEACHING THEN AND NOW
“Be nice to the secretaries and custodial staff because they can make your teaching life easier.” That’s the advice my grandmother, Wilma Mae Groseclose Rector, gave me when she learned of my decision to become a teacher. She should know, since her career spanned 42 years as a full-time educator, followed by another 10 years teaching adult education.
In 1936, 18-year-old Wilma started teaching at the Kelly School in Schuyler County, one of the last single-room school houses in Missouri. This multi-age classroom had 12 students, and the school year ran from August to April, which gave students time to help plant crops and raise farm animals. During the winter months, some students would wrap burlap sacks around their feet when it snowed. Others went barefoot.
Teachers’ pay wasn’t much in those days. The first year, my grandmother earned $25 a month, but had to pay $12 for room and board. By her third year, she was earning $100 a month, making her the highest-paid teacher in the county.
Discipline wasn’t a problem in those days, according to my grandmother. Parental involvement in the education process was very strong, and the school served as a central part of the community where families attended holiday programs, dinners and end-of-school celebrations. She feels that families view school very differently today. Children have many choices in activities, and school is only one choice.
Teaching methods also have changed. In her early career, silent reading, memorization and repetition were key teaching methods. Older students would sit next to younger children to help them with lessons. For slow learners, the basics were repeated over and over. However, if students didn’t understand or didn’t care about learning, they just stopped coming to school after a certain age. Grandma Rector believes that the teaching requirements today help teachers be better prepared for all types of learners.
After World War II and marriage, my grandmother moved to Poplar Bluff, Mo., where she continued to teach, incorporating innovations such as film, which she first used in 1947. She taught second grade for many years and at the age of 50, pursued a master’s degree to become a remedial reading teacher. When she retired from elementary education, she continued to teach adult basic education.
In her long teaching career, Grandma Rector never lost sight of the fact that all students, no matter the age or skill level, can learn. She witnessed and participated in many changes of teaching techniques over the years, but feels the main focus has stayed the same: helping others learn.
Jenn Novello, a granddaughter and an aspiring writer based in Wauconda, Ill., is pursuing her Master of Arts in Teaching in Secondary Education Biological Sciences.
Six Tips for a Successful Oral History Project
1. Make class time. Teachers must devote sufficient classroom time to do the work. That can require trade-offs, such as trimming the amount of other material covered in a semester.
2. Make your contribution. Instructors must also devote their own time and energy to the project. That can mean staying after school to let students do interviews or get needed computer time.
3. Invite everyone. To get those first few interview subjects, ask for help from everyone—local newspapers, senior centers, and students’ parents and grandparents.
4. Teach interviewing skills. Students need help developing good questions and interviewing techniques. They should ask open-ended questions and concentrate fully on each answer.
5. Keep subjects calm. Let potential interview subjects know they won’t have to deliver a speech. Instead, they will work with a small group of students who will conduct the interviews.
6. Make a record. Use a tape recorder or video camera to record the interviews so students can later transcribe the interviews or even make a documentary film.