Oral history in the classroom

By Kathryn Walbert and Jean Sweeney Shawver

Because oral history projects can require a major commitment of time from teachers and students, it’s important to take the time in advance to consider issues that can arise and how you will deal with them. A little planning will avoid a lot of frustration later and help to ensure that your students get as much as possible out of the project. (Some of these issues are more important for more complicated projects at the middle school and high school level; for simpler K-5 projects, you may find that some of these issues can be avoided.)

What are your goals?

Thinking about the goals for the project early on can help you choose an appropriate scope for your project, set a timeframe for its completion, and select the readings, guest speakers, and in-class activities that will make it a success. For example, if the main goal is to help students learn new content information, you may not want spend a lot of time debating big questions about objectivity in research, but if the main goal is introduction to a research methodology, you might very well include those sorts of conversations in your lesson plans. By thinking about what you want students to get out of the project in the early planning stages, you can make sure that you spend your time and energy achieving those goals instead of trying to "do everything."

How will you manage the time involved?

Oral history projects can be very time-consuming. In addition to your planning time, your class may need to learn about the topics or time periods at hand, conduct background research, find interviewees, learn oral history techniques, practice interview skills, conduct interviews, transcribe or index parts of their tapes, discuss their findings, and produce some sort of final project. You will probably want to create a time line to help you fit all of these steps into the year’s curriculum.

How will you teach your students about interviewing?

Students will get the most out of an oral history project when they approach it professionally. In order to do so, they will need some training. Is there an experienced oral historian or an oral history program in your community that might be able to assist you? Contact local colleges and universities, libraries, museums, and historical or genealogical societies for good contacts. If you can’t find a professional to assist you, can you do the training yourself based on books, articles, the Internet? However you choose to conduct training, try to anticipate students’ concerns. Even the most confident teenagers can become nervous wrecks when they start thinking about sitting down with someone twice their age for an hour or more. Students often worry that the interviewee will dislike them, that they won’t think of good questions, or that the interview will be plagued with awkward silences. Training can go a long way toward alleviating those concerns and giving students the confidence and skills that they will need to produce high-quality interviews.

Will your students work alone or in groups?

Since an oral history project is a long-term undertaking, sometimes it makes sense to allow students to work together and share the burdens of research, question-writing, and interviewing. If you decide on a group project, you’ll want to consider whether you want each student in the group to interview someone individually or whether you will allow students to conduct their interviews as a group. Will you permit any students to opt out of conducting their own interviews and, instead, read an interview or take on added responsibilities for their group’s final paper? By thinking about what parts of the oral history experience you want everyone to have and what parts you want students to do in collaboration with others, you’ll be able to set fair and consistent group work policies right from the start.

Will students choose their own interviewees, or will you handpick them?

There are pros and cons to each approach. Students tend to get more excited about interviewees they choose, but some students will invariably have trouble finding someone to interview, particularly if they procrastinate. Left to their own devices, most students will choose someone they know well, like a relative or family friend. These can be incredibly rich and rewarding interviews. (You’ll be surprised to learn how many historically interesting people are related to the students in your class!) But if you want students to experience interviewing someone they don’t know, or if you want to make sure that students all cover a particular topic, relying on their personal connections can prove problematic. In some cases, it can save time for the instructor to create a list of interviewees who have interesting stories to tell, who have already agreed to participate in the project, and who should provide positive experiences for interviewees. The instructor could even arrange for those people to come to the school so that students could conduct interviews during school hours. Whether you or the students choose the interviewees, you’ll want to clearly define the criteria for interviewees in the project: Does the person need to be over a certain age? Does s/he need to remember particular events? Can s/he be related to the student?

What will happen to the tapes after they are collected?

Too often, students record wonderful oral histories and then wind up throwing the tapes in a dresser drawer or taping the latest CD over them accidentally. You might consider ways of preserving your students’ work by creating an archive in your school library or donating the recordings to an organization that can preserve them and make them available to future researchers. If you plan to make the tapes available to outside researchers, you will need to be sure to have students and their interviewees sign a legal release form, giving you permission to make the recordings available to others. If you are donating the recordings to a local archive, its staff can assist you in creating a simple release form. Alternatively, copies of sample release forms are available on a number of oral history websites. However you decide to archive the original tapes, you may want to make arrangements to dub "working" copies for students to use in crafting their papers or other projects, as well as copies to give to interviewees as a "thank you" for participating in the class project.

What will you do about equipment?

Will all interviews need to be recorded on tape, or is it okay with you if students just take notes? (Keep in mind that notes will not allow them to quote their interviewee verbatim in later projects, and will not preserve the unique flavor of the spoken word — a critical part of oral history.) If students must tape interviews, will the school provide recorders on loan? Can students use their own tape recording equipment? Typically, the best recording quality will be achieved by using a tape recorder with some form of external microphone and by recording on high quality 90-minute tapes. Particularly if you plan to archive the recordings, you may want to require a specific brand of tapes so that students don’t use the 99-cent bargain tapes, which often produce poor-quality recordings and tend to break upon repeated listening. You may also want to incorporate practice using tape recorders in your training sessions.

What will students do with their raw interviews?

It can be tempting to ask students to transcribe their full interviews, but transcription is an art unto itself and is incredibly time consuming — even experienced transcribers can require 5-6 hours per hour of tape to make a good transcript. An alternative can be to ask students to transcribe one good story from each interview, or to ask them to create a "tape log" in which they listen to their tapes and make lists of topics covered, jotting down a counter number each time the topic changes. Some oral historians experiment with "ethnopoetic transcription," using unorthodox line breaks and changes in their text font, capitalization, size, and color to try to represent the flow of the language in a particularly evocative story. These activities can be fun for students and give them a taste of transcription without requiring hours of transcribing.

What will be the final product?

Will students just produce an interview on tape, or will their be some written component? Will they produce any kind of written transcript or log? Journal entries about the process? A paper? (If they must write a paper, how long will it be? Should they do other research in addition to their interview? Can they work collaboratively?) Oral history projects can result in final products that go well beyond the tapes and written work — be creative in thinking about the possibilities. Students could produce exhibits that incorporate photos, research documents, and excerpts from their interviews. They could write and perform a dramatic performance based on their interviewee’s stories. They could develop a slide show or oral presentation in which they play some excerpts from their interview and discuss them with the class. Artistic students could create a visual art project that incorporates interview themes. Students could create a documentary film or a website to share their research with a broader audience. You might create a long list of possible "end projects" and allow each student or group to choose.

How will your class give something back to the community and the people who participated in their interviews?

Oral historians are acutely aware that our interviewees give us a tremendous gift when they invite us into their lives and share their stories with us. It’s important for us to acknowledge that gift, treat it with respect and, when we can, give something in return. Will your students write thank you notes? Send copies of tapes to their interviewees? Will the class invite interviewees to hear see their final projects, or to attend a class performance or slide show in the community? This is an opportunity for you to model appropriate behavior for researchers while also building good will in the comunity.

Help with answers

As you seek answers to all of these questions, try to connect with oral historians in your community and with other teachers doing similar projects. You may be surprised by how generous the scholars in your community can be with their time and expertise.