To Teachers

You are an elementary school teacher, about to embark on a family history unit during which you want your students to interview family members. Or you are a middle school teacher trying to get your students to see that neighborhood history fits into a larger understanding of history. You are a high school history teacher hoping to get your students involved in original research to investigate issues that affect their community or to use primary source material for a research paper. Or a high school English or drama teacher who wants to help your students create material for a performance or a project about a social issue that they care about.  Or you are a teacher in an after-school program wanting to engage students in an innovative way, to get them out and get to know and use the people of their community as resources. 

All of these educators have come to see that oral history can be an important way for students to get excited about subject matter, do original research, learn about the lives of people around them, delve deeper into history and social issues and discover regular people’s stories.  There are a multitude of resources to help you create a project in your classroom using oral history, there are oral history project websites that can give you ideas, there are archives of oral histories that can become material for teaching. You have a rich trove at your fingertips.

But first a question: what is oral history? The Oral History Association (the professional organization for oral historians) defines it as “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities and past events.” While you can have your students do oral histories of your local city or town council person or the mayor or a local celebrity, the best oral histories are conducted with people who are not celebrities, whose voices, until the last century were not collected by historians, whose experiences were often overlooked.  Sometimes your students, when they approach someone to suggest doing an interview, will be told, “Why do you want to interview me? I’ve never done anything important.” And it will be up to your students to cajole, persuade and encourage them that their stories matter; that what they have experienced will have an impact on what people know about a neighborhood or an issue; that their experiences, their stories will add a lot to common understanding. Or as the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program puts it “You don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.”

In the U.S., oral history first became widely recognized and practiced during the 1930’s when the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent out writers to interview diverse groups of Americans: immigrants, workers, former slaves and others, in order to get their stories down. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, for example, contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.

By the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the rise of social history and “history from the bottom up” . . .and the availability of inexpensive tape recorders, oral history became an accepted part of the way many historians do history. Studs Terkel, a radio journalist and oral historian added to his listeners’ exposure to deep interviews, and in his case, real conversations. The Studs Terkel Radio Archive drawn from his 45 years on the radio, captures more than 5,000 voices and stories. He wrote over 20 books using those interviews. Story Corps, a 14-year-old oral history organization started in New York City that also travels the country with a recording booth and a facilitator to help pairs of people—parents and children, friends, husbands and wives, co-workers, veterans, teachers and students, etc.—to tell their stories. They have a rich website of podcasts, and many public radio stations play excerpts from these oral histories weekly.

So how do you go about integrating oral history into what you do? How do you create an oral history project for your students?  As in all matters of planning to try something in your classroom, you should read up as much as you can on what other people have done and then figure out what fits for your students, in your class in your school or after-school program. Get inspired by what other people have done or suggest and mold it, adapt it to your needs. What project would excite your students? How can oral history enrich what you are teaching already or how can oral history be used for a new approach or project, or a new class? Think about the ways oral history can enable you to collaborate with another teacher in your school or with another organization like a senior center or social service agency serving immigrants, for example. How can oral history be used to help students understand their own histories by interviewing a relative or neighbor?

Below are some resources to help you plan an oral history project in your class, after-school program or neighborhood organization. We will be running a series of “How-to’s” on how to teach your students to do oral history. Come back and visit the Brooklyn College Listening Project website often. Stay tuned!

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