How do I engage students in oral history projects?

Oral history can be a useful and engaging pedagogical tool in diverse courses; it does not have to occur solely in an “oral history” course. Students are more apt to enjoy and understand history if they are actively creating and interpreting it.

Introduce students to various aspects of oral history over several weeks. Topics may range from introducing what “oral history” is, to discussing the best ethical and methodological practices.

Brainstorm interview question types, topics, and interviewing strategies. As a class, generate ideas about topics they could ask a peer about if they wanted to learn more about that individual in general. Next, have them narrow the focus of the interview by creating questions around a particular topic.

Practice interviewing and listening in class. Working with a partner, students conduct a 3-5 minute interview with a classmate and then switch. In the first round of interviews, begin with a general life history approach. Do a second set of interviews narrowing the focus of the interview to a particular topic. Debrief as a class at the end, discussing challenges, opportunities, strategies, etc.

Draft an interview guide. Select what type of interview you would like students to conduct, a life history or topic-driven interview. Students identify the person they plan to interview, determine roughly, how old the person is and what historical events he or she may have lived through. Based on this information, students can begin creating an applicable interview guide.

Conduct a life history interview with a senior family member, friend, or community member. Students use available technologies to record the interview. This may mean checking out a digital recorder from school or using his/her personal cell phone. If students are conducting the interview over the phone or internet, they should test their recording method prior to the interview to ensure a high quality audio/video feed. Students should try to conduct at least a 20-30 minutes interview so they have enough material to use in the final project.

Identify a theme from the interview. Students should reflect on their interviewee’s testimony and select an aspect that resonated with them and relates to an idea or topic discussed in class. Students can use that theme to create a final project.

Create a final project. Oral histories used in final projects are a great tool to assess student learning. Encourage your students to use their imaginations to determine how they will use the content they have collected for a final paper, presentation, or art piece.

Share student work in and beyond the classroom. Encourage students to share their work with classmates and the public. Hold a community event in which students talk about the process of creating and interpreting oral history, and where they can share their work with participants or other community members.

Evaluate oral history as a historical tool. Discuss how the interview and projects enable us, as historians, to engage more people in the history-making process, and how they allow us to tell more diverse and interesting stories.

Additional Resources:

Audacity® is free, open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing sounds.

Video Editing

Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPHOP) at the University of Florida

Center for Children and Technology

Classroom Resources

Next Section: How Can I Use Oral History Myself as an Educator? 

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