Engaging Students and Meeting Standards through Oral History
Whitman, Glenn, Social Studies Review
When Thomas Jefferson responded to Daniel Shays' Rebellion in 1786 by declaring, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing," he might as well have been speaking about some of the current thinking among K-12 Social Studies educators across the country. Like Shays, these educators are challenging the restrictive nature of national and state standards driven by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB ) in order to provide students with more authentic opportunities to be and think like historians. Creative and imaginative educators realize that academic standards, whether they are for state mandated tests or AP exams, can be met through well-developed projects that become more enduring, and teach far more, than any standardized test. One of the most effective educational and interdisciplinary methods utilized by educators to achieve the duel goals of ( 1 ) meeting academic standards, and (2) providing students with real opportunities to function as a historian, is an oral history project that empowers students to become producers of historical records rather than passive absorbers of historical information.
Oral history is a historical method that uses recorded interviews to preserve firsthand memories, accounts, and interpretations of a person's life, an event, a place, a way of life, or a period. Interviews and supporting materials are then preserved and made available to researchers through archives, libraries, and state/local historical societies. Few educational methods require such a wide range of skills and are better able to meet each of the eight multiple intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. Table 1 demonstrates how Gardner's work fits into each of the possible phases of an oral history project.
Through each phase of the oral history process, students develop and refine valuable primary and secondary source research skills as well as their writing, editing, interviewing, active listening, questioning, plus their ability to analyze, interpret, and evaluate information. Moreover, an oral history project is an opportunity for students to converse with adults. Such interaction helps build intergenerational bridges and foster respect, empathy, and understanding. These are all essential skills not only for an individual's academic success but also for life.
Growth of Oral History as a Pedagogical Tool
The pioneering use of oral history as an educational methodology is often associated with Foxfire (www.foxfire.org) which began in 1966 at the Rabun GapNacoochee High School, an Appalachian community in Georgia. This project continues to serve as a model for educators seeking to enhance students' language and writing skills by combining oral history and folklore. With the popularity of Studs Terkel's work (www.studsterkel.org). and the growing acceptance of oral history as a historical methodology, has also come the expansion of oral history projects into K-12 classrooms and programs.
There is an important place for an oral history project in every type of classroom regardless of geographic location or student ability. The growing popularity of oral history is best evidenced by the recent National History Day (www.nationalhistoryday.org) contest in which it is estimated that at least 60% of the finalists integrated some form of oral history into their projects. Furthermore, across the country, and especially in California, the number of projects keeps growing. This is aided by national efforts to collect oral history interviews such as the Veteran's History Project (www.loc.gov/vets/). The goal of this project is "To collect the memories, accounts, and documents of war veterans and of those who served in support of them during World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars, and to preserve their stories of experience and service for future generations. The only possible means for preserving the experiences of 19 million American war veterans, of which approximately 1,500 die each day, is to enlist the service of students who can help collect the memories of America's servicemen and women or individuals who served in support of the war effort. …