Oral History: A Community College Assignment

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Next up in our Oral History series, an example of a project assignment for community college students working in groups to conduct oral histories. This is student-facing content; we’ll address teacher-specific content and tips soon!

This assignment was used in a community college setting, but with tweaks, it could easily be used with high school students or other adult learners.

Next up: strategies for helping students conduct respectful interviews and act as responsible historians.

Oral History Project

We often think of history as big events—think battles, coronations, explorations—that’s observed impartially, recorded, and carefully preserved in libraries and universities for later generations. But history is as much about the lives of every day people as so-called great events, and we all can play an important part in preserving our own, and our community’s, history.

During the second half of the quarter, you and your group will be completing an oral history project. Since we’ve begun this quarter by reading, writing, and discussing issues of immigration, you’ll continue with this theme and interview an immigrant to California. You’ll choose a subject, conduct background research, conduct the interview, preserve the interview, and get it in shape to share with the world.

Your group will be responsible for the following portions of the project:

  1. Create and submit a group Oral Histories Project plan.
    • Meet with your group, review the project requirements, and assign the work to individuals. Be sure to divide work as equally as possible and keep in mind each group member’s strengths and weaknesses. You are required to turn this in to Emily. Use this list to help you anticipate the work that you’ll be responsible for doing.
    • This plan can, and probably will, change over the course of the project. You’ll note that in your final self/group project evaluation.
  2. Identifying an interview subject and coordinating the interview. YOUR SUBJECT CANNOT BE A MEMBER OF THIS CLASS. Beyond that, anyone with an immigration story to tell is qualified.
    • Approaching the subject to request an interview
    • Setting up meeting times and places that work for everyone
    • Getting the basic facts about the interviewee’s story in order to conduct background research (ie where they immigrated from, when, etc.)
    • Having a backup plan!
  3. Preparing and submitting a formal group work distribution plan.
  4. Conducting background research both before and after the interview
    • Before the interview: use research to help formulate questions. You should know a little bit about the interviewee’s homeland and immigration situation. Were many other people making the same journey at the same time? Was immigration driven by world events?
    • Before the presentation and essay portion: Follow up on anything the interviewee mentioned that you don’t know much about. This will help you put this particular story in context.
  5. Generating interview questions
    • Create a list, longer than you think you need, of potential questions to ask. Storycorps is a great place to begin.
    • Prioritize and prepare your potential questions for easy access during the interview
  6. The interview! THIS MUST TAKE PLACE IN PERSON!
    • Coordinate the interview! Choose an appropriate and comfortable time and place for the interviewee. Be sure to consider the needs of the interviewers for recording purposes.
    • Know everyone’s roles.
      1. Who will make sure that the interviewee and interviewers know when and where to meet?
      2. Who will ask questions?
      3. Who will manage the recording (audio required; video optional)
      4. Who will provide any other necessary support?
  • Find out whether interviewee is open to follow up questions after the official interview, whether via phone, email, or any other method.
  • Be sure to have a backup plan and contact information for everyone.
  1. After the interview
    • Send the interviewee prompt thank yous and an invitation to presentations.
    • Group review and recap ASAP to be sure you’re on track with all the project work and requirements.
    • Identify further areas to research.
    • Any follow up questions for the interviewee? Ask!
  2. Presentations, location TBA
    • Your audience: classmates, community members, and your interviewees, if they can make it.
    • Five-ten minutes to present background, summary of interview, and why/how this story is important. You are required to incorporate both audio and visual elements (ie voice recordings, photos or maps, props, and any other material that can help the audience appreciate the history that you’ve taken).
    • Sharing more broadly: preservation techniques. We’ll discuss options in class.
  3. Written requirement: Oral History Essay
    • Each group member is responsible for his/her own final essay on the interview
    • Your essay will incorporate some of your background research and the interview material and will make an argument about why this story is important to preserve. We’ll discuss how this will work more as we get closer to the deadline.
  4. Self and Group Evaluation
    • You’ll complete an evaluation for both your own role and that of your group in completing this project.

 

 

History (and Fiction) in Context

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Reading has been shown, over and over, to help readers of all ages develop empathy. Here are a couple of things we’ve been reading lately that may help students face the current situation.

As reported by The Atlantic, teachers are using historical fiction to help students put the current moment, and its impacts on various groups of people, in context. “Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present” is worth a read, if only for the titles sprinkled throughout that may come in handy. There’s also a nice take on how teachers can help students make comparisons even if politics is a touchy subject in their classrooms.

And while teachers must obviously be wary of making false equivalencies or grand generalizations, understanding history more thoroughly than what’s offered in, for example, a textbook leads students to an educated examination of current events. For example, referring to possible comparisons with the treatment of Japanese Americans during the internment, Levstik explains the need for teachers to ask: “When somebody says they’re going to lock up people on the basis of their religion, their ethnic background, their point of origin, what does that look like in our history?”

And from New York Magazine, a curated list of books about immigration and refugees. Go check it out.

Soon after Donald Trump enacted his travel ban, the Upper West Side’s Bank Street Book Store posted a photo of front-facing titles to its Facebook page. “Don’t be at a loss for words when explaining to children that the heart and soul of America is to welcome others to our country who need a safe place to make a home,” the caption read. “Books like these help.”

 

The Remains of Great Zimbabwe

Highlighting a lesser-known civilization

Some time around 2000, one of us took a college class about the history of southern Africa. It was eye-opening in many ways, including for being a first introduction — at age 19 — to Great Zimbabwe, an imposing ruin in present-day Zimbabwe. Yesterday, The New York Times published an article on the modern political uses of the site, which sparked the memory.

What is Great Zimbabwe? It’s a ruined city and fortress built by the Shona civilization between approximately 1000-1400 CE. It has also formed the basis of legends for and against European colonization.

There’s a body of scholarship about the smaller number of, and (in general) lesser cultural importance given to, enduring physical monuments in Africa as compared to Europe. But what struck us, as American adults looking back on our adolescence, is that it can be helpful to learn about new regions and cultures through the lens of what’s valued in our own. In other words: Americans tend to value imposing historical monuments, so why not use a giant monument in Zimbabwe as an entry point to southern African history?

Here goes:

NOVA features the ruins on a multimedia platform that introduces them as follows:

The first whispered reports of a fabulous stone palace in the heart of southern Africa began dribbling into the coastal trading ports of Mozambique in the 16th century. In his 1552 Da Asia, the most complete chronicle of the Portuguese conquests, João de Barros wrote of “a square fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them.”

De Barros thought the edifice, which he never saw, was Axuma, one of the cities of the Queen of Sheba. Other Portuguese chroniclers of the day linked the rumored fortress with the region’s gold trade and decided it must be the biblical Ophir, from which the Queen of Sheba procured gold for the Temple of Solomon.

There’s also a UNESCO page dedicated to Great Zimbabwe. And here, you can link to a long pamphlet about the site’s history. The above-mentioned New York Times article also has a lot of great embedded links, including a brief about historical preservation of ruins in Zimbabwe.

Maybe your students will enjoy virtually exploring a remnant of southern Africa’s built environment, and be reminded that important civilizational history exists in more places than we often realize.

(Featured photo by João Silva for NYT, taken from the cited NYT article published on 21 Feb 2017)

Resources for Black History Month…and All Year Long

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Allan Rohan Crite, School’s Out, 1936. Via Smithsonian Education.

Here are a few things that we’ve encountered lately that would be great additions to the classroom, whether during Black History Month or at any other time of the year.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture has an interactive online feature, Collection Stories,  curated by NMAAHC staff. Staff members choose an area of focus based on items in the museum’s collection. The resulting stories include images of the items, historical discussion, and thoughts from the curator on why these stories are so important to African American history and culture.

We especially enjoyed “Dress for the Occasion,” a story centered around the dress that Carlotta Walls wore when she integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 as one of the Little Rock Nine. Check it out get a glimpse of the school, her diploma, and the process behind choosing the dress that she wore for that first day of school.

From Smithsonian Education, we’d like to highlight two sets of lesson plans. Both include material appropriate for kindergarteners all the way through high school, available for download as zip files.

The Art and Life of William H. Johnson includes detailed information on how the curriculum meets Visual Art, History, and Language Arts standards. Younger students analyze color choices, subject matter, and older students conduct comparative analysis with works from other artists (including this post’s header image, by Allan Rohan Crite).

Finally, The Blues and Langston Hughes does just what you’d think: compares the poetry of Langston Hughes with blues rhythms, structures, and lyrics that most students are probably already familiar with, whether they know it or not. Younger students write their own simple poems; older students dig into the Smithsonian Folkways’ collection of blues recordings from The Great Migration.

And speaking of Smithsonian Folkways…we have one more recommendation after all. Check out Say It Loud for hours from their collection of African American Spoken Word recordings, whether from Langston Hughes himself, an interview with W.E.B. Du Bois, or a recording of Angela Davis.

Oral History: An Introduction

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We often think of history as big events—think battles, coronations, explorations—that’s observed impartially, recorded faithfully, and carefully preserved in libraries and universities for later generations. But history is as much about the lives of every day people as so-called great events, and we all can play an important part in preserving our own, and our community’s, history.

And these days, it’s hard not to feel as though we are all in the process of making our own contributions to history.

Over several posts, we’re going to present materials for learning about oral history, great examples of oral history that students can easily access, and methods for incorporating oral histories into the classroom. We’ll even focus in on how students can take their own oral histories and preserve their communities’ stories.

To begin, two organizations doing incredible work in this field.

Storycorps, frequently featured on various NPR programs, has been helping people interview each other since the first story booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 2003.

Their mission is simple:

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.

The site is beautifully organized, making it easy to find educational materials, locate a story booth and make a reservation to conduct your own interview, or simply listen to a curated selection of stories for the week. Right now the front page is filled with stories about love, and you can take your pick: two immigrant New Yorkers, one from the Dominican Republic, one from Pakistan, discussing how they first met twenty-five years ago while working together at a hotel; a woman who grew up in Georgia in the 1940s telling the story of her love for another woman that she could never fully experience; and two sets of identical twins reminiscing about how they met and fell in love, with each other.

There are also several thematic collections.

One of the things we love most about using Storycorps material in the classroom is the way students react to hearing people describing their own history, in their own voices. Since there are no visuals, listeners can focus in on the language people use and the way they describe their lives. There are few other ways we’ve found to make recent history so vivid.

Voice of Witness is another wonderful place to begin with oral histories. They seek out, record, and “amplify unheard voices” in a series of books that range from stories from a Chicago housing project to undocumented immigrants living in the United States to incarcerated women to survivors of Burma’s military regime.

OUR MISSION

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a non-profit that promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice. Through our oral history book series and education program, we foster a more nuanced, empathy-based understanding of human rights crises.

Our work is driven by a strong belief in the transformative power of the story, for both teller and listener.

OUR HISTORY

Voice of Witness was cofounded by author Dave Eggers, writer & educator Mimi Lok, and physician Lola Vollen. Eggers originated the VOW book series with Vollen in 2005. In 2008, Lok transitioned Voice of Witness to a 501(c)(3) organization and established its education program.

For over ten years, VOW has illuminated human rights crises in the U.S. and globally. Our oral history book series has amplified hundreds of seldom-heard voices, including those of wrongfully convicted Americans, undocumented immigrants, and people in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Colombia.

Our education program serves over 20,000 people annually. Our oral history pedagogy has been used to train a broad range of advocates for human rights and dignity, including educators, writers, journalists, attorneys, and medical doctors.

Take it from an educator; I’ve used VOW material in the community college classroom myself, and I can’t speak too highly of how students respond. And if you’re going to be at AWP this year, check out their panel (and then tell me how it was!):

PANEL: AMPLIFYING UNHEARD VOICES

When/Where: Thursday, February 9th, 2017 from 4:30-5:45 pm in Room 202B, Level Two
Moderator: Dave Eggers
Speakers: Mimi Lok (Executive Director, Voice of Witness), Jennifer Lentfer (Director of Communications, Thousand Currents), Lorena (VOW narrator, Underground America)