K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Oral history in the classroom
Oral history lets students learn about history from the people who lived it. This series of articles will show you how to bring oral history into your classroom, whatever grade you teach.
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Oral history not only enriches our understanding of the past, but it also holds the potential to dramatically enrich the classroom experience. Oral history projects can help students from early primary grades through the college level learn an amazing range of content knowledge and skills.

Oral history can help students learn new historical content.

Through oral history, students can reinforce their knowledge of the historical content presented in the Standard Course of Study by hearing about historical events from people who remember them and can make a personal connection for them. But they can also extend their knowledge of history beyond what’s in their textbooks. Through oral history, students can learn about the everyday people who don’t appear in history books, uncover the ways in which major historical events reshaped their own communities, and document history that is too new to appear in books, recording events that are still unfolding.

Oral history can help students learn research skills.

Oral history is a valuable historical research tool, one that students could use in research projects for classes in junior high, high school, college, and beyond. Done well, oral history also involves a substantial amount of background research prior to each interview, enabling students to gain familiarity with more traditional written sources and the use of library resources.

Oral history can support good writing skills.

When students write up their projects, whether in a formal research paper, an informal reaction paper, or a journal entry, they can develop writing skills that will serve them well in the future. I have found that while students often put little effort or creative energy into standard historical term papers, they do some of their best writing on oral history assignments. In part, I think this is because they have another person’s words to inspire them — when they interweave the interviewee’s comments with their own words, their own writing seems to rise to the level of their interviewee’s narrative. But they also seem to write about these projects with a greater sense of commitment because they come to care about the subject of their paper through the interview process. While it’s easy to dismiss the importance of a paper about the causes of the War of 1812, for example, it’s much harder to write a thoroughly disinterested and sloppy essay based on riveting stories your much-loved grandfather told you about his Korean War experience (especially when that grandfather has asked if he can read the paper when you’re done with it!).

Oral history can teach students valuable critical thinking skills.

By its very nature, oral history raises important questions about what matters about the past. By focusing on everyday people, oral history fundamentally challenges the historical canon which, too often, assumes that the only important stories about the past are those that are told by or happened to powerful and "important" people like presidents, generals, business leaders, and activists.

Oral history also introduces contradiction into the historical record. If you ask twenty people of various races and economic classes what it was like to live in the South under segregation in the 1950s, they will invariably tell you twenty different stories, many of which conflict with one another. Despite their differences, however, each of these stories may be thoroughly true from the perspective of the teller. Oral history, then, questions the idea that there is a single monolithic truth about the past and, instead, posits that there are multiple truths that bear consideration, each of which can tell us only a piece of the whole story. Students may have to grapple with a contradiction between what their book says about an event and what their interviewee reports, finding ways of explaining the differences and deciding which account they find more credible or persuasive. Learning how to interrogate sources, compare varied accounts of the same event, and consider the biases and perspectives inherent in any research source can help students not only understand their interviews, but also think more critically in a broader sense.

Oral history can help all students feel included.

Oral history can allow students with less well-developed reading and writing skills to learn a great deal about the past and produce successful, motivating projects. Often, students who do poorly on library research-based assignments in my classes have outshone their peers as interviewers, in part because interviewing relies on a substantially different skill set than meticulous library research. Creative options for final projects, like performances, websites, documentary films, museum-like exhibits, or slide-shows with audio clips from interviews, can help students with learning differences or other reading and writing limitations to demonstrate their historical understanding and their analytical skills without feeling discouraged by their academic weaknesses. Oral history projects that allow students to interview family members or people in their own communities can also help international students and recent immigrants share their community’s story and educate their classmates about their culture, perhaps easing the transition to American schools.

Oral history can help students feel a personal connection to the past and to the life of their community.

When students sit down to talk to an older person in their community about the past, history ceases to be that anonymous sequence of meaningless names and dates and starts being something that happened to (and because of!) real people like themselves — people with feelings, hopes, and aspirations much like their own. Oral history allows students to understand the past in a first-person way and to gain a palpable sense of the joy, pain, sorrow, fear, and hope that others experienced as history unfolded. Far more often than I ever would have expected, my students tell me that after finishing an oral history assignment for my class, they decided to go back and interview other people about the same event, or to conduct further interviews with their interviewee to get "the whole story." Others remark that they never knew that their grandmother was such a fascinating person, or that their hometown had such an interesting past. Building these kinds of connections between students and older people in their hometowns not only creates a better understanding of history in our students, it also creates stronger communities, a goal far more worthwhile than a score on any standardized test.

Oral history can help students develop valuable interpersonal skills.

Oral history forces students away from the Internet, video games, and television and into the presence of living, breathing human beings. Good interviewers have to be outstanding listeners and careful observers in order to ask thoughtful follow-up questions and constantly evaluate their interviewee’s responses, emotional state, and stamina. They must also be carefully attuned to the messages they are sending with their own body language, tone of voice, phrasing, and vocabulary. They need to be able to put another person at ease and to develop a relationship of trust and honesty with the person their interview. Becoming a skilled interviewer not only helps students succeed on an oral history assignment, it also helps them become better conversationalists, more mature listeners, and more poised speakers under pressure, skills that will serve them well in college or job interviews as well as daily interactions with others.

In short, oral history is both a critical methodology for the historian and a valuable pedagogical tool for the social studies teacher. Through oral history projects, students can reap tremendous rewards both educationally and personally, and teachers can enjoy watching students come to care about a subject that was previously dismissed as boring and irrelevant. These kinds of projects require careful planning, instruction in not only history but also interviewing technique, and patience, but they are well worth the time and effort.