Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oral History Project

Last semester, several teachers at my school were approached by an English professor at our local university to collaborate on a project with her and her students. Her class teaches students to write oral histories and contains a service learning component, so she proposed that we work in weekly sessions to teach our kids what oral histories are, how to research in preparation for them, how to develop sound interview questions, and how to write truthful and compelling pieces as a final product.

Here's how the project worked:

My class was reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, so it made sense to pair the reading of that book with the research and writing required for developing oral histories.

We began by researching the context of the war - looking at different aspects from causes of the war and the anti-war movement to the Vietnamese perspective and the lives of soldiers - to give the students a foundation for developing questions for interview subjects. They used Glogster to create online presentations to showcase the knowledge they gleaned from their research. As an assessment of their understanding of the context, they wrote short essays (with access to their classmates' glogs and Twitter for info sharing).

Next, we scheduled interviews. Our interview subjects included a veteran who now works as an English professor; two class dads who served in Vietnam; and my own dad, who gave insight into the homefront point of view as a college student during the 1960s and 70s.

Our collaborating professor and her students met with us weekly, providing sessions on developing interview questions, writing an oral history, and workshopping papers to develop polished final drafts. To reflect and prepare for the exhibition, the students also created Animoto video shorts focusing on the most important things they learned over the course of the project.

On Thursday, April 29, our kids got to show off their work at a community exhibition, and I am immensely proud of the work that they put into it and appreciative of the community members who helped make the project happen.

My students now look at history in a much more personal way, and it was awesome to see their reactions in the interviews when certain pieces of interview subjects' stories matched up.

I've posted below some of their reflections on the process:

"Through this project, I learned a side of the war that goes untaught in our schools. I learned to see past the propaganda to examine the true face of war. The truth is that all wars are ugly and the civilians are the ones who suffer for the mistakes of the government." - C.B.

"I learned that the Vietnam War is not faceless. What I mean by that is I've always been completely disconnected on a personal level from any past wars, including the ones we are in now. I did not see the soldiers as people, but as robots. They fought and won and that's it. Now that I have met real veterans, I see the damage that war has done to them. I now can relate to their suffering. I have serious respect towards the military and it's all thanks to this project." - L.P.

"From our project on pop culture and the Vietnam War I learned that I don't nearly pay enough attention to what our nation is involved in...I felt privileged to have [the interviewees'] time and to hear what they had to say. Hearing their personal stories was mind-opening. Their accounts not only retold history with immeasurable depth, but also presented untold stories that remain unpublished in newspapers and history books. From this, I hope that everything I learned will help me be a better American citizen, and that the knowledge that they shared will influence all of us to strive for better understanding in our global actions." - J.J.

"I learned that it's hard to take your own research on a subject and take an interview from a personal experience and make them mesh in a way that stays true to the interview subject's belief. It's hard to make someone else understand what your trying to say through an oral history and still have it be a story." - L. T.

"From this project I learned how to listen to someone else and learn from their wisdom and experiences. Talking to people with incredible pasts and just randomly asking questions doesn't produce much result. But well thought out questions and a ear geared towards what you want to learn really helps. It has been a challenge to properly represent these people and their opinions, but it is an experience that has better helped me think through the speaker's goal." - C.P.


  1. Hi Laren,

    What an amazing project! My students are in the middle of The Things They Carried and I would love to do a similar project. The amount of time to do this kind of research makes me think that I may need to wait until next year. Thanks for sharing!

    - Michelle

  2. Hi Laren

    What a great project! If you're interested, the British Library has a set of interview and transcription guidelines on its website - I put them together when I was running a project with undergraduates on postwar British Theatre. You can download them as word docs here: http://www.bl.uk/projects/theatrearchive/teachingtalk.html