"When I was in school, I didn't like history. Now I wish I had paid more attention, because l find it absolutely fascinating." -- Overheard at a New Year's Eve party
For many young people, change over time is an abstraction that is hard to grasp. As they grow older, history happens to them. As students live through each decade, with its popular fads as well as important events, change and its causes and consequences becomes personal and compelling. History comes alive not from the reading, but from the doing.
Is there any way to make the personal connection to history sooner? How can we help students view history as relevant? I believe that oral histories are one answer. The Internet has made these personal records, this social history, more easily available to all teachers and students through numerous online archives. It is increasingly easy for students to publish their work on the web, which creates a new purpose for students to "do the discipline" through oral history projects.
The People's Library
The American Memory Project of the Library of Congress aims to be the premier site on the World Wide Web that makes oral history available to students, young and old, as a tool to learn from and to use.(1) The collection begins with materials from the Federal Writers Project, which was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program from 1936-1940. This website has grown to mega proportions, with rare records, interviews, and other primary documents of all kinds available for free viewing. There are now 70 collections (and many more are under development), which students can access through a key word search or by selecting from broad themes in the Collection Hnder. Three other collections that are (to date) well developed are "Working Women in the 1930s," "Dancing as a Form of Recreation: 1890s to 1930s," and "Americans and Their Automobiles." A special section has been developed to teach oral history methods.(2)
Oral history records can be used in a number of ways to increase student engagement in the study of history and social science. The teacher can start off the class with a quotation, picture, or letter and have students create a hypothesis on what it might mean. Then after direct instruction or reading on the topic, students can begin to put the picture or document in context and test their hypothesis. Alternately, the class can begin With direct instruction, reading, or a film on a historical event such as the Great Depression or World War II. Then, in small groups, students can read and discuss an interview that was recorded by an oral historian. Such interviews often reveal how the lives of individual people were affected by a a large event.
The critical purpose of the exercise is to establish a relationship between a large political, economic, or cultural event and the consequences that it had for real people. Students might then be ready to take on the roles of the people they read about in assignments that involve writing or dramatization. Not only will students begin to view reality from multiple perspectives, but they will gain some understanding of cause and effect, growing in human empathy and insight.
Planning a Research Project
After several lessons that use oral history transcriptions, students may be eager to develop their own oral history project. Until my recent experience in creating an online memoir to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day, I thought that doing oral history was too difficult and time-consuming. In doing such a project for Schools of California Online Resources for Education (SCORE), I learned that it is not only possible to create a project in reasonable time, but it is fun and very rewarding.(3) A few preparations can help a project run smoothly:
First, make a plan for your project. Read up on oral history methods and study other interview projects (see the Resources list). Select those studies that seem to connect with your interests and needs and use them as models. …