Our Inspiration: Voice of Witness

An organization at the root of ethical storytelling

Emily Breunig, one of our co-founders, taught community college composition for years, often using a text called the Voice of Witness Reader. So of course Voice of Witness was on her mind when she created Small Stones. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when our other co-founder, Eva Kaye-Zwiebel, attended Voice of Witness’s four-day oral history workshop in San Francisco.

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Dragon in front of San Francisco Asian Art Museum, which kindly hosted the VOW workshop

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of people who have experienced injustice but are largely unheard in the public square. In fact, VOW’s tag line is “amplifying unheard voices.” They describe their mission like this:

“Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand. Through our oral history book series and education program, we amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice, teach ethics-driven storytelling, and partner with human rights advocates.”

If you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, about Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, you might recognize it as part of VOW’s origin story. Eggers’s experience of working with Deng was instrumental to his inspiration to found Voice of Witness, along with Lola Vollen and Mimi Lok. VOW now publishes oral history collections and creates resources to help teachers, activists, and youth create oral history, too.

At this year’s training, Eva and 25 or so classmates participated in discussions, brainstorms, and role-playing with oral history teacher-practitioners. Then, everyone buddied-up to go through the process of telling a personal story and recording a partner’s story. (You can read part of Eva’s story here. VOW’s blog about this year’s workshop is here.) It was a very intimate and emotional experience: there’s a feeling of “nakedness” to sharing a private experience with another person, but also a feeling of strength in seeing that story written down, as well as its impact on others when it’s read aloud.

Our interview process is directly inspired by VOW’s work. If you think you might want to speak to us—or introduce us to someone who might—please do get in touch at smallstonesedu@gmail.com.

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Last day of class: Group photo at the Voice of Witness 2017 “Amplifying Unheard Voices” workshop

The Voices Behind Studs Terkel’s “Working”

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If you’re like we are and you find oral histories fascinating, you’ve probably encountered Studs Terkel’s WorkingIf not, you have a major treat in store. Terkel went around the country in the early 1970s, interviewing people about what they did all day. The result was an incredible collection, one that gave insight into the lives of a wide range of ordinary people. We can attest that it’s excellent for high school or college classroom use, whether in full or as excerpts.

Radio Diaries, in partnership with Project&, has now done one better and made some of Terkel’s audio tapes (via  available for online listening. Check them out if you’ve ever been interested in hearing the voices that Terkel preserved so well.

You can find the feature, Working: Then & Now, at Radio Diaries.

ICYMI: Oral History Resources

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Here’s a quick catch-up post for anyone who’s been following our series on Oral History and how to use these powerful tools with students. More to come soon!

Oral History: An Introduction:

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….

Oral History: Students are Historians, Too!:

Here at Small Stones, we LOVE hearing about students collecting oral histories from people in their communities. For this second installment in our Oral Histories Series, here’s a quick who/what/where/when/why/how explainer to help students understand to how powerful oral history can be–and to see themselves as historians….

Oral History: A Community College Assignment:

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….

And deeper dives into two of our favorite resources:

Oral History Resources: Voice of Witness:

First up: a webinar series on conducting oral history projects with students. Registration is required, but resources are available to check out now. We particularly like the resource guide “Listen Up: How to Plan Your Oral History Project.” At the top of the PDF is a list of excellent examples of other projects, notably some from high school students….

Oral History Resources: Story Corps:

For educators, the site is a treasure trove of materials. From a community college perspective, when Emily was helping students conduct oral history projects, a few resources in particular were invaluable.

  1. Great Questions. There are pages upon pages of questions here, organized by general subject area, that you might want to ask as you conduct an interview. Categories include “Growing Up,” “School,” “Family Heritage,” “War,” and “Great Questions for Anyone.” Not doing an oral history project with your own students? These may very well be useful in the classroom in a lot of different contexts, whether in ice breaker games or as a way to “interview” a fictional character….

 

Oral History Resources: StoryCorps

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Maybe you’ve heard their snippets that pop up from time to time on NPR shows. Maybe you’ve seen the booth somewhere and wondered. Maybe you’ve even spent some time in there, in conversation with a loved one.

If none of these hypotheticals are true for you, you’ve got a major treat in store.

StoryCorps mission is, in their own words:

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.

For educators, the site is a treasure trove of materials. From a community college perspective, when Emily was helping students conduct oral history projects, a few resources in particular were invaluable.

  1. Great Questions. There are pages upon pages of questions here, organized by general subject area, that you might want to ask as you conduct an interview. Categories include “Growing Up,” “School,” “Family Heritage,” “War,” and “Great Questions for Anyone.” Not doing an oral history project with your own students? These may very well be useful in the classroom in a lot of different contexts, whether in ice breaker games or as a way to “interview” a fictional character.
  2. The Stories tab is an excellent place to begin if you’re introducing students to the whole concept of oral history or interviewing. Here you’ll find a curated sample of oral histories recorded in the StoryCorps booths. At the time of posting, there are stories up about garbage men, Japanese internment camps, adoption, and trans children. One that caught our eye this time around is titled “I Never Planned on Being a Leprechaun.” In Emily’s experience, nothing else helped students begin to understand the value of taking oral histories–and the responsibilities that go with it–better than hearing others doing just that.
  3. The StoryCorps app. Maybe one of the best ways for non-professionals to interview others, you can use the StoryCorps app to plan, record, and archive your interview to the Library of Congress. Yes, archive–they are collecting stories, and yours can be one of them. Find the app here.

And there’s no need to have an immediate classroom use for any of this. We can testify that it’s completely possible to spend hours just listening to the material that’s here, free for all to access.

 

Oral History Resources: Voice of Witness

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Over here at Small Stones, we are busy with our own oral history project (come talk to us!), and one place we love to go for resources is Voice of Witness. Today, here’s a look at what they offer for educators.

First up: a webinar series on conducting oral history projects with students. Registration is required, but resources are available to check out now. We particularly like the resource guide “Listen Up: How to Plan Your Oral History Project.” At the top of the PDF is a list of excellent examples of other projects, notably some from high school students.

Also available, as a free download (or for purchase as a physical book): a teacher’s guide, The Power of the Story. You’ll find curricular material that can be used with Voice of Witness’s oral history collections, material that stands alone, and guides to creating your own oral history project.

From the foreword, written by William Ayers and Richard Ayers:

Oral history can be a truly revolutionary pedagogy. Because the work is propelled by questions instead of answers, it liberates students from the dull routines of passively receiving predigested in- formation. Instead, they become actors in constructing history and contributing substantively to the trajectory of the curriculum. They invent and experience the method of science, proposing explana- tions of the world, and then investigate to test the truth or to modify their explanations.

Students can approach the work as artists, filled with creativity and inventiveness, generative mistakes and sparkling epiphanies. Teachers can learn to take an attentive and supportive backseat, after sufficient preparation, and watch democratic education emerge from projects that the students themselves have learned to own. Through these projects, the stories that have been hidden, sup- pressed, and ignored begin to take center stage, and the real dimensions of one’s community and its struggles burst forth and grab the mic. This is why oral history, in form and content, can become a central project of social justice in our classrooms.

Finally, if you’d like your training in person, and you are able to be in San Francisco, consider VOW’s Annual Summer Oral History Training. We certainly are.

 

Series Catch-Up!

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We’ve been working on a couple of series lately, and since we editors are slammed in our ordinary lives, it seems like a good day to collect both of those in one giant in-case-you-missed-it post. Enjoy!

Oral History:

The Music of Social Movements:

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.